(MCT) — Jameel Abdur-Rafia came to Harsh Park on Thursday to think about the meaning of it all.
He parked his SUV — a Honda Pilot with an “Eracism” bumper sticker — then walked into the little park and stood alone.
He looked around. The orange slides. The swing set. The metal canopy where Hadiya Pendleton and her friends had sought shelter from Tuesday’s rain.
“Another little baby gone,” he said when I approached.
He didn’t know Hadiya or her family. Neither apparently did the few others who trickled past in the early afternoon, two days after Hadiya, who was 15, was shot in the back by a killer as yet uncaught.
The visitors came, it seemed, because standing here in the bitter cold brought some honor to the dead and helped them recognize that we’re all in this together.
A Texas flight attendant, on a layover, brought flowers. One woman showed up just to make the sign of the cross in front of the stuffed bubble gum-pink elephant fastened to the iron fence.
Synira Allen, who lives a few blocks south, tucked a card behind the elephant. She was nudged toward the park, she said, by “a sense of urgency.”
“It seems like a war on black youth in Chicago.”
The war isn’t new, and you could argue that it’s not really worse than ever; it only feels that way lately.
Allen, who remembers the organized gangs that ruled when she was in high school in the late 1980s, isn’t sure it’s worse or that Chicago is unique.
“This is going on in every urban city in America,” she said. “Chicago’s just being highlighted.”
But Abdur-Rafia thinks some things have gotten worse since he was growing up not far away in the Clarence Darrow Homes, now demolished.
“Guns are more fierce now,” he said. They shoot faster and shoot more rounds. Games are more violent. In his day, kids played Pac-Man. Now they play the shooting video game Call of Duty.
Abdur-Rafia is 46 and was once snared in the destruction and self-destruction that have marked Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods for decades.
“The seventh circle of hell,” he said.
But he got clean 19 years ago, he said, went back to school, became a construction engineer and motivational speaker, got custody of his children and moved them to Oak Park.
“Out of the hood,” he said. Away from the dangers.
Yet he stays connected to this neighborhood — a woman in a car stopped and shouted a friendly hello — and comes back at least once a year as an organizer of a party of expatriates.
“We dance, barbecue and strategize ways to end the violence.”
Over here on Oakenwald Avenue, he said, things were always different.
“This was always the nice part of the neighborhood.”
Standing in the park, named after an African-American librarian, he looked up the street, at the mix of houses, brick and stone, mostly in good shape. “The dramas were a little bit west.”
When the drama leaked onto this street Tuesday, taking another child’s life, devastating another family, shaking the city deeper, the familiar cry rose: Why? What to do?
On Thursday, the mayor announced that 200 police officers would be reassigned to the streets. Abdur-Rafia had another suggestion.
“Jobs,” he said. “People are just fighting for money. They want a nice car, a nice pair of shoes. We can send robots to Mars, and we can’t stop the violence on the South Side of Chicago?”
I asked if he was hopeful.
“We have to be, don’t we?”
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.