A lot of good people ignored a cold rain last Friday evening to help counter the violent act of a few bad ones the week before. And for a brief time, good people, not gangbangers, held sway over the corner of Central and Fulton. Nearly a hundred folks, including community activists, politicians and members of the 15th District CAPs team, along with District Commander Eugene Williams, gathered on the intersection's northeast corner around 6 p.m. to decry the gang-related killing of 34-year-old Jeffrey Jones.
The gathering wasn't there to mourn Jones, a recent prison parolee with a long rap sheet who was reportedly shot in the head multiple times by members of his own gang for allegedly robbing some of the gang's drug spots. The rally was instead intended as a show of both concern and force by a community weary and indignant in the long wake of years of suffocating gang-related violence and killing.
There was no mournful silence Friday, just quiet resolve. Those gathering for the rally talked quietly in the wet late-winter darkness, their own hearts and minds warmed by the promise of a coming time of healing and a renewed sense of community purpose. Many spoke of hope for an eventual transcendent victory.
Insistent that the rally not focus on the gang lifestyle, CAPs facilitator Sgt. Allison Johnson said police had three times that afternoon taken down memorials dedicated to Jones that included beer or liquor bottles among the flowers and stuffed animals.
Waiting for the rally to begin, Pastor Christopher Murry, whose Kingdom Baptist Church dominates the corner behind a wrought-iron fence, said that he was there simply to bear witness to something other than violence as a coping tactic. Violence, he insisted, "is never the way to go."
"We just have [to find] a better way to settle conflict," said Murry. "The church has to play an extensive role in empowering not just African-American men, but all men."
Murry also marveled at how some people fail to manage their anger, saying, "It takes far more energy to build up anger than it does to think things through."
Rosemary Childers, who has served in Austin as a teacher, assistant principal and principal at Bronson School, said she was just stopping by to support the community.
"These are my children," she said, gesturing to a number of adults she once instructed.
After a blessing by Apostle Abercrombie from Truth and Deliverance Church at Madison and Laramie, Commander Williams took the microphone.
"I'm truly humbled to see you all out here in the rain," Williams told the assemblage. "I'm grateful from the bottom of my heart."
Williams' comments echoed the evening's recurrent theme, that one killing in Austin is too much, and that Austin's many good citizens will no longer tolerate the casual violence committed by the relatively few to burden the community as it has for well over three decades.
"We hope to have more than another six months," Williams said. "We hope to have a year. We richly deserve it here in Austin."
Alderman Ed Smith, whose 28th Ward ends at the corner's curb, also praised the crowd for their commitment.
"It's an honor to be out here with you tonight," he said, looking out over children and adults holding up signs that read 'Don't shoot, I want to grow up.'
"We need to show that we're serious about the misuse of handguns," Smith said. "We have to do something about that corner. We should be able to walk up and down these streets unencumbered."
Average citizens, Smith insisted, hold the key to any meaningful change.
"When you decide it's going to change, that will make the difference,"
State Rep. Deborah Graham, clad in a hooded yellow rain slicker, added.
"Each time something like [the Jones killing] occurs, we're going to have a rally," she said. "We need to take back the community. We need to take back our streets."
Graham also informed the crowd that she was working to get two laws passed in the state legislature that would help limit gun violence. One law, House Bill 524, would stiffen penalties for using a gun unlawfully. The law would remove judicial discretion for granting probation to those illegally using weapons after their first two weapons violations.
The other legislation would require gun dealers to be licensed by the state, as opposed to solely the federal government. Graham bemoaned the fact that there are, she said, just 15 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms inspectors available to monitor 3,000 gun dealers.
"How can 15 people monitor nearly 3,000 dealers?" she asked. The legislation, she said, would create a data base immediately accessible to law enforcement here in Illinois, allowing for quicker reaction by local authorities. Graham said the legislation passed out of committee three weeks ago and should be coming up for a vote on the House floor within the next week or two.
When the speeches were all done, the crowd formed into a rectangle and marched north on Central, chanting "No more violence, no more killing."
Not everyone on the street that night was sympathetic to Austin's travails. Just before 6 o'clock, a tall, lanky gangbanger strolled through, hooded and affecting a cocky, ambling gait. But he didn't challenge the crowd. Mumbling something, he gave the assembled cops blocking off the intersection a slow and defiant once over before swaggering off to live out the remainder of his life, however long or short that might be.
The good people of Austin, Ed Smith insists, must find the courage to take back their community, despite the street thugs. If Austin's street corners and parks are indeed ever to become once again safe for decent people, the courage and resolve apparent last Friday night must become a routine and focused thing. The gangs, he said,
are not invincable.
"Guys who are out on the corner and in the drug business have to show their peers they're tough," said Smith. "But deep down inside, they're really not tough."
For an hour last Friday night, the 200 block of North Central Avenue was one of the safest in Chicago. There were clear indications that those who were there that night won't be satisfied until the same can be said of Central Avenue every day of the year.