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Beyond The Numbers, Living Through Chicago's Gun Violence In 'American Summer'


We're just two months into the new year, but as of last Monday, 43 people in the city of Chicago have been killed. Thirty-three of those people were shot, according to The Chicago Tribune's weekly homicide tracker. And those numbers are horrifying in and of themselves. But what the numbers alone don't show, cannot show, is what it feels like to live through that kind of violence - to be a family member, a neighbor, a city dweller in a place where violent death has become so common.

So Alex Kotlowitz decided to try to tell that story. You might be familiar with his award-winning 1992 book "There Are No Children Here," which followed the lives of two young brothers living in one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects. His latest book, "An American Summer," documents the stories of victims and survivors from the summer of 2013. And Alex Kotlowitz is with us now from WBEZ in Chicago.

Alex, thanks so much for joining us.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Oh, Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, you've got a long history in sort of covering just what it's like to live in a place where violence happens. But I wanted to ask you to sort of take us back to why you started writing about these stories to begin with.

KOTLOWITZ: Sure. It was - so it goes back into the mid-1980s, during the Reagan years, at a time when we had completely turned our heads away from - our city especially - our impoverished neighborhoods. And I began spending some time at the Henry Horner Homes' public housing complex. And I think I felt this immediate sense of shame - like, how is it possible? I didn't know that people were living in conditions like this - and then was really knocked off-balance by the violence. I mean, as bad as it is now, it was actually considerably worse back then. And it was clear that it really took a toll, especially on the kids in that community.

MARTIN: And I'm trying to figure out where to start because the whole point of this book is to tell individual stories. So do you want to start with your story, your own family - I mean, the boys that you got close to in your first book?

KOTLOWITZ: Sure. Yeah. So one of the boys - the younger boy - I spent two years with these two brothers in public housing back in the '80s. And the younger boy, Pharaoh, was this kid who just loved school. And he had asked if he could move in with me for a week. He just needed a place of solace, a place where he could concentrate and focus on school. And that week turned into two weeks to three weeks and ultimately six years.

But I write about this moment in the book when he graduates from high school, and he's on his way to Southern Illinois University. And one night, shortly after midnight, I get a phone call. And it's a detective who I happen to have known from my time working on the book. And she told me that there'd been a murder, and there was some reason to suspect that Pharaoh might have been a part of what had taken place. And my knees buckled.

And it turns out that Pharaoh had taken a cab from our home to his mom's. And when he got there, two young men pulled him out of the car. One of them had a gun and ended up shooting the cab driver in the back of the head and killing him. And, as it turned out, Pharaoh had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. He was just a bystander. But he'd witnessed this murder.

And I remember the next day trying to reach him by phone. It was before cell phones. And I - finally, I reached him in the evening. And I said, Pharaoh, where have you been? And he said to me that he'd been shopping all day. And I just thought, shopping? If it were me, I'd just witnessed a murder, I'd be curled up on my couch. And I thought, you - do you not care anymore? Have you gotten too hardened by this?

And, of course, I've come to learn - and this is what the opening of the book is about - is about how that moment has so stayed with him some 20 years later.

MARTIN: Is that the point of this book, is that everybody's a story? It isn't just, like, a squib in the paper.

KOTLOWITZ: Right. What worries me as I read the daily accounts of what's going on is this notion that somehow, people have this really distressing experience and then sort of move on. But, of course, this single act of violence - it shapes who people are. It gets in their bones. And that's what this book is about. It's really to sort of understand what the violence does to the spirit of individuals and to the spirit of community.

KOTLOWITZ: You know, you talked to a number of people who had killed people. And one of the things that I think might be surprising to some people is how many of them - they deeply regret it. And I was just interested if that was surprising to you, or...

KOTLOWITZ: Right. I mean, I know that it was surprising. But you're absolutely right. I mean, there's this one story in the book - the story of Eddie Bocanegra, who at the age of 18, a friend of his is shot and paralyzed. And Eddie, in an act of retaliation, goes out and shoots and kills somebody, and he serves 12 years in prison. And his story - it's a story about trying to forgive yourself for what you've done.

And Eddie really struggles with that. I mean, what's so remarkable about him is he has absolutely dedicated every moment of his life to trying to kind of undo the wreckage that he was a part of. He's running this remarkable program working with young man, trying to get them into therapy to deal with the trauma that they've experienced in their lives, which Eddie knows firsthand. But absolutely. I mean, I think there are second acts in life. I think people are able to move on, but they are internally trying to find a way to make sense and forgive themselves for what they've done.

MARTIN: There's so many stories that we just don't have time to tell all of them. But there's - I can't pronounce his name - Quinntellbua...

KOTLOWITZ: Oh, Q. Benson, yes.

MARTIN: ...Q. Benson, who witnessed the police shooting of an unarmed teenage boy and came forward to tell that boy's family what he saw.

KOTLOWITZ: Yeah. This is one of the stories that made me so angry. And it's a story of a young man, 19-year-old Calvin Cross - never been in trouble with the law. He's out with a friend one night. Three police officers jump out of the police car, one of them with a semiautomatic rifle strapped to his chest. And they claim - this is what they've read in the depositions - that they saw Calvin fumble with something in his waistband, and then they claim that he tried to run and shot at them over his shoulder.

And so they chased him. They unloaded - I want to say 25 rounds of ammunition. The officer carrying the semi-automatic unloaded the entire weapon and had to use his pistol. And they ended up killing him in a vacant lot across the street. And in the end, this gentleman, Q. Benson, who is a military veteran, happens to be visiting his sister - and he immediately, when the shooting starts, he just instinctually just drops to the ground, pancakes on the cement.

And then he goes in to his sister, and when he comes out, he sees all the police standing around where he had been lying on the ground, and there's a - they claim to have found a gun there. And he's shaking his head because that's exactly where he had been laying, and nobody had thrown a gun in his direction. And it turns out not only have they found a gun, but the gun was almost 100 years old and inoperable with all six bullets in the chamber. Actually, this case, as it turns out, was the lead case in the Department of Justice report that took on the police and their relationships with communities of color.

MARTIN: Well, this is one of the reasons I bring this up. You know, on Friday, Chicago's court-supervised consent decree went into effect, and that means that the Chicago Police Department will undergo reforms overseen by an independent monitor. In 2017, an investigation found a pattern of civil rights violations and racial disparities in their use of deadly force. You know, on the one hand, yes, it's - people think this is appalling behavior. I mean, these are like police executions. On the other hand, the defense seems to be, what do you expect? This is a violent city. People are going to do whatever they have to do.

KOTLOWITZ: I think the other part of this, Michel, I should say is, to be fair to the police, I feel like we've put too much pressure and burden on the police. The violence, the poverty in these communities - it's not necessarily solely a police problem. And I think sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that it is.

MARTIN: I am mindful again of what you say in the prelude, where you say that anybody who knows what works or what doesn't is lying. But I would still like to ask you, what should the rest of us be doing?

KOTLOWITZ: Yeah. I think, one, we've got to reckon with this both individual and community trauma. It's something we've completely neglected. But the other thing for me which seems so self-evident - and I almost feel embarrassed to say this because it's said so often. But somehow, we've got to find a way to rebuild these communities. Almost all the violence happens in these neighborhoods that are deeply distressed. And you walk out of your house in Englewood on the South Side of Chicago, and you look at this beautiful, gleaming skyline downtown, and you know what's not yours. And this resentment builds.

MARTIN: What's keeping you going, though?

KOTLOWITZ: What keeps me going?


KOTLOWITZ: Oh, the people I meet. I'm in awe of who they are and what they're doing. The violence has certainly shaped them. While it's gotten in their bones, it hasn't defined them. It's not necessarily who they are.

MARTIN: That's Alex Kotlowitz. His latest book is "An American Summer: Love and Death In Chicago." It is available as of Tuesday.

Alex Kotlowitz, thank you so much.

KOTLOWITZ: Michel, thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKINSHAPE SONG, "LIFE AS ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.