March champions peace in Evanston, criticizes rise in violence

Susan Du

Evanston residents marched down Dodge Avenue on Saturday to protest the increase of violence and homicide in the city over the past few years.

Protestors chanted “Unity!” and “Peace in our community” while bearing signs reading “I choose life.”

The Evanston-based group Moms Saving Our Sons organized the rally, which started at Twiggs Park and ended at Evanston Township High School, 1600 Dodge Ave. Around 75 residents attended the event, the majority of whom were African-American parents and their young children. All victims of the six homicides in 2010 were young African-American men.

Cathy Key and Wendy Weaver founded MOMs SOS after Key’s son David L. Branch III was stabbed to death last December.

“We hope to inspire those young people who are on the right track to stay on track, and those who have strayed from the right track to get back on it,” Key said. “We are here to prevent future violence and to make people aware of the resources their community provides.”

Culture of violence

Attendees congregated at the ETHS upstairs theater, where speakers Manuel Scott, an original Freedom Writer, Rashard Mendenhall of the Pittsburgh Steelers and his brother Walter Mendenhall, also an NFL player, discussed the socioeconomic preconditions for poverty and violence, as well as the ways individuals can rise above them to succeed in life.

Representatives of organizations such as PeaceAble Cities, the Evanston Community Development Corporation, the Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, the Youth Job Center, Family Focus and the Youth Action Ministries of Evanston ran booths at the event to inform attendees of the various services they provide, including expungement, which is the act of striking a crime off a person’s record.

Most of the attendees knew each other as members of the same church families or as friends and family of the six deceased young men whose portraits were lined up on the stage.

Joey Jenkins, the stepfather of shooting victim Craig R. Smith Jr., said the event’s purpose was to prevent future acts of violence in the community.

“This right here is for the victims’ parents, to help us through what happened with our kids,” said Jenkins, acknowledging the few African-American men aged 18 to 25 – whom the event sought to benefit – in the audience. “But the kids on the streets saw us out there marching.”

Following an opening prayer calling for an end to “this tide of violence sweeping through our community,” Scott took the stage singing for peace and spoke for the majority of the event.

Freedom Writers

Scott is one of the students who contributed to “The Freedom Writers Diary”, the story on which the 2007 movie “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank and Patrick Dempsey, is based. Currently living in Chicago, Scott travels the world as a motivational speaker. At Saturday’s peace rally, he touched on issues of race, poverty, abuse and murder through a series of personal anecdotes interjected with repeated calls to action.

“Success in the final analysis will be measured by how much or how little we have given our lives in service to others,” Scott said. “We need those who have experienced the pain to make change happen.”

Scott asked the audience to stand when his question applied to them but remain seated if it did not. He began by asking, “Who can do the stanky leg?” and ended with asking, “Who has lost 10 or more loved ones to violence?”

Throughout the exercise, Scott asked participants whether they had ever been abandoned by a parent, whether they had ever witnessed their mother beaten by a man or whether they had seriously considered suicide in the past year. When he asked whether anyone had ever lost a loved one to an act of violence, most attendees stood.

Scott emphasized throughout his speech that the men on the streets committing crimes were not criminals by nature but rather underprivileged young people whose life experiences at home, in their neighborhoods and at school drove them to the bottom of society.

Scott said violence appealed to him as a younger man after years of being beaten by his stepfather for defending his mother and being marginalized at school by teachers who told him he was destined for failure.

“Someone’s going to feel this pain. I’m not going to feel this by myself,” Scott said.

The missing demographic

Alex Brown, a student at Northeastern Illinois University who is originally from Evanston, said the event would enlighten many people as to the dangers young African-American men currently face. He said the death of his friend Branch had a deep impact on him.

“It taught me to be mindful of who I hang around, the choices I make in life,” Brown said.

Speakers at the event emphasized the role of education in preventing a culture of violence. Scott highlighted his return to school after dropping out at the age of 14 as one of the turning points of his life. The Mendenhall brothers, who grew up in Skokie and now play in the NFL, stressed the need to have a college foundation even for careers in sports or entertainment.

Walter Mendenhall pointed out the dearth of African-American men aged 18 to 25 in attendance, calling on the community to reach out to the underrepresented demographic.

“We’re socialized to be entertainers, and we’re not valuing education,” Mendenhall said. “The sports and entertainment world is fictional. These guys went to college. They got an education and they’re telling you to sell drugs.”

“You’ve got to value yourself, value your future,” he said. “So many things are more valuable than running a ball, shooting a hoop.”

‘Any violence is too much’

Jonathan Baum, a recently elected District 202 school board member, said he heard about the peace rally from the ETHS Parent-Teacher-Student-Association, but acknowledged he was the only representative of the organization in attendance.

“I don’t know why more people aren’t here,” Baum said. “It’s unfortunate.”

Baum said the socioeconomic division in Evanston and the corresponding discrepancy in violent incidents may blind many Evanston residents to issues which are of great concern to the African-American community.

“Any violence is too much,” he said. “I think the fact that the violence is targeted at a particular part of the community shouldn’t make the rest of us insensitive to it.”

Baum said Evanston residents should tackle the issue on three fronts: the family, the schools and the community at large.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl also attended the event, calling for the community to band together to decrease the homicide rate to zero.

“The speakers were excellent and it was well-attended,” Tisdahl said. “It’s been affirmed that lots of people are concerned about violence in our community.”

Tisdahl said she planned to take a coordinated approach involving local churches, schools, including Northwestern, law enforcement and the general community to tackle the issue.

At a local level, Scott ended his speech by emphasizing that not all young black Evanston men are tied to the same fate.

“I’m not here to impress you. When you see me, you can be reminded of what every young black man in Evanston is capable of becoming.”

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