Following a tour of the crime-ridden streets of Englewood on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D, IL-1) vowed to work together in a bipartisan effort to invest federal dollars to combat violence and poverty in the South Side neighborhood.
“We have agreed that this isn’t going to be a one-stop tour, or a cameo appearance,” said Rush, who invited Kirk to tour his district’s community following the congressional delegates’ disagreement earlier this year on how to clean up Englewood’s streets. “We need money, we need jobs.”
Kirk agreed, saying Englewood “has potential.”
“If we remove the scourge of gang violence from it, we will unlock its potential and we should do that,” the senator said, following his neighborhood visit.
Kirk and Rush said the three-hour tour, which was closed to the media, allowed them to see first-hand the abundance of abandoned properties and vacant lots that are often breeding grounds for crime in the neighborhood. Kirk said the tour was “pretty shocking” with “a lot of despair.”
To help them devise specific solutions for Englewood — one of the city’s leading neighborhoods for homicides and violent crime — Kirk and Rush said they would establish an advisory committee of local residents, victims and community organizations, many of whom they met during the tour.
They also mentioned pushing a bill in Congress, which Kirk referred to as the Urban Empowerment Act, that aims to encourage investment in blighted communities by providing new businesses in the areas with 10 years of federal tax breaks.
But at least two community members who took part in portions of the tour and forum with the congressmen say they’ve heard such promises before.
“A lot of people have come in and say they’re going to do stuff and help our community, but it never goes anywhere,” said Eric Wilkins, who was shot and paralyzed in 1999 in the Roseland neghborhood. “We hear this all the time, especially around election time. They promise you the world if the cameras are on.”
Wilkins, a former member of the Vice Lords gang who founded Broken Winggz, a non-profit support group for Chicagoans with permanent disabilities and paralysis from gunshot wounds, said the community would be best served if Congress supported local grassroots organizations that can help educate local youth and promote violence prevention initiatives.
“I’m angry,” he said. “We’re talking about kids who never leave their neighborhood, so they don’t know any better. We’ve got to educate our kids to make smarter decisions.”
Only hours before Kirk and Rush visited the community, a 23 year-old man was shot twice, struck in the buttocks and leg, on the 6400 block of South May Street in Englewood. The shooting happened just blocks away from Perkins Bass Elementary School, where a gunman reportedly ran through the school’s playground forcing students to be quickly escorted inside.
According to the Chicago Police Department, the victim is in stable condition and no arrests have been made.
“It’s not a surprise, it’s not a shock. This happens whether or not I’m in the neighborhood, whether or not Sen. Kirk is in the neighborhood,” said Rush. “The only hope that exists for those youngsters is that the federal government — the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives — is committed to drilling down and solving the real problem in this community, which is disinvestment; lack of jobs; lack of social services; idle men and women whose only vocation and activity is to wreak armed havoc on this community.”
In May, Kirk said he would request $30 million in federal funds to initiate the mass arrests of 18,000 Gangster Disciples in Englewood, which drew criticism from Rush, who called the plan an "upper-middle-class, elitist white-boy solution.”
“I would like to crush the Gangster Disciples as an organization,” said Kirk. “I think the federal government should have the capability to do that.”
But Rush said organized crime syndicates are a thing of the past in Englewood, and Congress should instead fund jobs and training programs that would help stimulate the local economy.
“If we try and put resources against a non-existent problem, then we will miss the real problem, which is, we have on the South Side, in the Englewood community, we have armed cliques fighting one another,” said Rush. “There’s no super-structure, mega-gang, Al Capone outfit that exists in Chicago in this day and time.”
Ultimately, the elected officials said they would work together to fight crime, but agreed to disagree about the Gangster Disciples:
Meanwhile, Deanna Woods, whose 10 year-old niece Siretha White was fatally wounded by a stray bullet in 2006, said she thinks Kirk got an authentic view of Englewood, but only time will tell if the senator holds true to his promises.
“You’ve go to walk these streets to see what’s really going on,” she said. “If you don’t know, then you can’t do nothing about it. Hopefully, this time they see how bad we need help and they actually get something done.”
Woods added that when her niece was murdered, she made similar calls for legislative support for the neighborhood.
"I've talked and talked and talked until I couldn't talk no more, but nothing was done,” Woods said. “As soon as the cameras were off, they were gone.”
But this time around, she said, she received a personal assurance that the federal government would invest in the community and try to effect change.
“Kirk promised me, he took my hand and promised me, that he would be there and do something for us and our youth,” Woods said. “I can’t do nothing but take his word for it.”