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.
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.
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?