Chicago’s mind-numbing numbers

Honors student Hadiya Pendleton.

Honors student Hadiya Pendleton.

By Tim Akimoff

A colleague walked into the Chicago Public Media newsroom on a Monday morning recently and asked, “How many were shot this weekend?”

The answer came from the executive producer of talk programming, who sits next to her.

“Like 22 or 23,” he said, never looking up from his computer screen.

“And how many were killed?” she asked.

“Only three,” he replied.

This is how we talk about gun violence in Chicago.

This is how Chicago starts each Monday.

Well, most of Chicago anyway.

Somewhere in Austin, Garfield Park or Englewood, Chicago’s most war-torn neighborhoods, someone is crying knowing they will never see their child, husband, mother, father, wife again.

There are are rarely any names in the media coverage, just numbers.

Thirty-four children under the age of 18 were killed in Chicago so far this year.

Last weekend it was just an 11-year-old girl at a slumber party, inside a house. The bullet, one of many fired into a crowd as retaliation for a previous fist-fight, passed through the thin walls of the house and into the child’s head.The weekend before that, it was 22 shot, two dead.The weekend before that, it was 29 shot, four dead.

The weekend before that was a doozy though.

Cops, journalists, morticians, they all hate hot summer weekends, because shootings seem to correlate to warm weather.

But warm weather and three-day holiday weekends are a recipe for long days, longer nights and big numbers.

When we came to work on Monday, no one had to ask what the numbers were. We all knew 82 people had been shot, 14 fatally. Two of those were teens shot by police.

So far 235 people have been shot and 39 killed in July in Chicago.

It is no wonder some people have started calling it Chiraq.

The mayor says more police, more overtime, more money. Community activists say better gun controls, more services for poor neighborhoods and better schools.

Reporters put numbers into spreadsheets, which are read by programs that create heat maps that show splotches of murder and mayhem across the city like a flock of birds on a radar screen.

Once in a while a face emerges from the violence. If it is a good enough narrative, of course.

Like Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old honor student gunned down a week after performing at President Obama’s inauguration.

She was one of 42 people murdered in January 2013. The First Lady attended the funeral and, for a while, Hadiya Pendleton was the face of the victims of Chicago’s gun violence.

A year and a half later, and even Hadiya’s story fades into the numbers.

I always wanted to work at a New York Times bureau in some war-torn city in Africa or Asia.

I wanted to tell the stories of the victims of war, to reveal the cost of violence on the resources of a city or a region.

Here I am in the upper Midwest, in the Second City, right smack-dab in the middle of a war zone.

This year so far, 1,181 people have been shot and 196 people have been shot and killed.

In the 1990s, there were multiple years with more than 900 murders.

More trauma centers around the city mean fewer people die from gunshot wounds.

Tim Akimoff

When I was a small-town reporter in places where two murders in a year shocked the community, we told their stories in rich detail, poring over their lives to help the community understand the loss.

The faces were splashed around print and television, and the radio stations interviewed the families.

Tough questions were asked, mayors and police chiefs were held accountable.

In Chicago we continue to ask: “How many people were shot this weekend?”

“How many killed?”

As if the answers to the violence are cryptically hidden in the ratios of those shot to those shot dead.

The numbers grow week after week, and we lose what little connection we have to the faces, the personalities, the humanity of the counted.

In January, it all starts over again.A fresh slate. And we wonder how many will be shot this year?

How many will be killed?

Photograph: WGN-TV

Tim Akimoff is married and the father of three amazing kids. He’s worked as a journalist at newspapers in Oregon, Montana and Ukraine, a television station in Anchorage, Alaska and a public radio station in Chicago, Illinois.
Editor’s note: I met Tim when he was a University of Oregon student and recruited him for an internship, so impressed was I with his sense of adventure and fearlessness as a journalist.
Tomorrow: “Camera shy” by Elizabeth Hovde

12 thoughts on “Chicago’s mind-numbing numbers

  1. I have no idea how you bear this week in and week out. I would be in a fetal position in my closet … I’m nearly there already with how damn crazy this world is these days! It’s like everyone’s going mad all at the same time and nobody anywhere knows how to make it stop.

  2. It’s depressing to reflect that murder is merely the most extreme symptom of underlying societal dysfunction. With murder being at the level that it is, who knows what multiplying effects would need to be applied to measure suffering related to mental health issues, abuse and neglect, hunger, school drop outs, and the like. Thank you for reminding me of the invaluable role you play as a journalist, in not only reporting the news, but effectively framing it.

  3. Sad to know all of this is happening. I visited Chicago for the first time earlier this year and was captivated by the big-city-meets-Midwest-nice atmosphere. Food was amazing, and it was nuts to watch how well everyone gets around in the snow. (Contrast this with Oregon or my native state of Tennessee, where life shuts down.)

  4. Very sad. I’m glad a face was put up and not a number, but so sorry that any face is ever put up for a murder. Having had a brother murdered, it is hard to believe people can live with that kind of sorrow, with those kinds of numbers.

  5. Unbelieveably sad! Happening in our OWN country! Thanks for the insight on the war happening right here in America. Sorry to all those who lost a loved one!

  6. I’ve been following the numbers in Chicago a bit lazily as I have family in the area. I can’t wrap my head around that mayhem and feel for the people who are on the ground trying to change the tide. I recently heard an NPR report of a woman who watches two girls and how she’s training them what to do when they hear gunshots. I can’t imagine giving my own child the kinds of instructions she has to give the girls to increase their survival. It’s heartbreaking and it seems we’re all just in shock about what to do with it. I think you bring up an interesting point that when the numbers increase we decrease the personal level and maybe that’s what needs to change – give every victim a face and story instead of making them a statistic.

  7. This is one of those horrifying issues that makes me want to bury my head in the sand. I listen to NPR in the car on my commute, but there comes a time where they continue their good reporting on horrifying situations I feel powerless to address that I have to switch the station and take a break from Syria or Gaza or Ebola. I think this is another example- even though these are individuals with lives and families, the gun violence problem is so large and scary that it starts to fade into the background of the public discourse. I don’t know if it stops being reported on because people don’t want to hear it, or if people don’t hear it because it isn’t being reported on, but I am certainly guilty of saying “sad overload!” and avoiding some of these serious issues. Kudos to you for confronting it and putting it into perspective.

  8. Yes, thanks for your perspective. And thanks for working so closely with the kind of numbers none of us wants to add up but really do need to be aware of in order to have a better understanding of what we’re facing and trying to solve or lessen. I often tell folks that the comments and Q & A you would hear in a newsroom would make the folks in the room sound like uncaring, cold individuals. I think the talk is simply shorthand and coping. And lovely because a lot of us news types speak it.

  9. These stats are shocking and appalling. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chitown throughout my life and am a lifelong Cubs fan. The grisly facts don’t match up to my childhood memories of hot summer days at Wrigley, windy afternoons on the lake and days spent walking along the river in the gorgeous downtown area. Makes me sad.

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