Cookouts Against Crack | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Cookouts Against Crack 

A moment of peace comes to a troubled corner.

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Darrell was warned. If he didn't stop dealing drugs at the corner of Karlov and Maypole, he was going to get shot.

Darrell--not his real name--had been selling crack and heroin at that spot for years. A Vice Lord who owed him money had set him up there, to settle the debt.

But a few months ago, that same Vice Lord granted the corner to one of his friends. The new guy confronted Darrell, telling him, "You can't run this corner anymore. This is mine." Darrell didn't budge.

On September 10 Darrell was approached by an outreach worker from CeaseFire, a violence-prevention group with an office in a nearby church. Get off the corner, the worker told him. The new guy is riding around the neighborhood with his friends, and he's got a gun.

"He just blowin' smoke," Darrell scoffed.

That night, half an hour after sundown, a gunman walked up to Darrell and shot him three times in the back. He was taken to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he lost a kidney and part of a lung.

Darrell's boys started talking revenge. So on the Friday after the shooting, CeaseFire held its weekly midnight barbecue across the street from the scene of the attack.

Every year Chicago leads the nation in murders, and West Garfield Park leads Chicago. The neighborhood's 11th Police District is colored red on the city's homicide map. In the first eight months of this year, 44 people were killed here. For years CeaseFire members have held marches at the site of every shooting, but this summer they started picnicking in the neighborhood's heroin bazaars. Drug dealers hate crowds.

"We move around every week in this neighborhood," says CeaseFire director Norm Kerr, a husky man in a football jersey. "Some of the spots we go to are drug corners. People want to eat, and it's a good way to break the ice. When they see the barbecue, it totally throws 'em off."

On September 13 Kerr was standing catty-corner from the shooting scene, a vacant lot spread out under the Green Line tracks. A two-car train clattered atop the trestle. Behind Kerr, CeaseFire workers lashed a fluttering vinyl banner--"CeaseFire: Campaign to STOP the Shooting"--to the iron fence of a play lot. On the posts of a wooden trellis they taped up flyers that read "I want to grow up." Frank Perez teased the coals inside his 55-gallon-drum grill to a gray smolder, and started rolling hot dogs across the grate. The smell of burning meat stopped a white Cadillac. The driver leaned out the window.

"Y'all cookin' barbecue?" he shouted. "Can I get a piece?"

Come back in half an hour, he was told. There'd be hamburgers, steak, chicken, Polishes.

The kids were noticing, too. Even at 11:30, they were all over the swing set, swaying back and forth like hypnotists' charms. A radio was tuned to WGCI, turned up so loud it pulsed out static along with the beats. Some of the boys had borrowed a girl's wheelchair and were popping wheelies up and down the sidewalk.

They all lined up for barbecue. Before they ate, Tony Raggs made them write their names and numbers on CeaseFire's sign-up sheet. Later they'd get a call inviting them to join the group's basketball league, or its literacy tutoring, or its GED classes. Raggs also gave them each a "Stop. Killing. People." button and a sheet detailing the consequences if they did kill someone: "LIFE in prison or DEATH." On the back was a list of job-training agencies, mentoring programs, alternative schools, churches, and drug treatment centers.

"A lot of kids out here," volunteer Howard Langston said to Raggs.

"It feels safe," Raggs said. "It might be midnight, but it's safe."

Then the gangbangers showed up, big guys in do-rags and drooping jerseys.

"It's like the soup line in the 30s," one exclaimed, as he collected a hamburger. "I ain't seen this many people in the park since the grand opening."

A man named Hard stepped out of an SUV.

"We need more of this," Hard said, holding a Polish, "because it brings black minorities together. Everybody is in harmony. It's not no violence."

Most Fridays, said 11-year-old Jarvis, he and his friends hang out in the play lot until "12 o'clock on the dot, or you gonna get a whuppin'."

That night the kids stayed out until 1:30, which was when the volunteers started yawning. They rolled up the banners, sealed the leftovers in tinfoil, poured the coals into a sewer drain.

"Some of these kids, there's nobody home at night," said Perez. "This may be the first cooked meal they have all day. All they have is potato chips, because there's nobody home to cook. Look at these kids. Not an adult among them."

As the picnic was stored away, one of the moms on the block shooed the children from the play lot.

"Get your ass in the house!" she scolded.

The radio was switched off. The kids filed through the gate. The CeaseFire volunteers drove away, until the curb was empty of cars. Then the corner was just as quiet, and just as dangerous, as the rest of West Garfield Park.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.

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