In 2016, Chicago experienced 780 homicides, making it the deadliest year in the city in nearly two decades.
The first homicide of the year came at 2:20 a.m. on New Year’s Day in the Grand Boulevard neighbourhood on the South Side. Twenty-year-old DeAndre Holiday found himself on the wrong side of an argument half a mile from the edge of Washington Park when a man pulled out a handgun and shot him in the chest.
I got there just as the police were stringing up yellow tape around the scene.
I was a crime reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times then, tracking a never-ending string of shootings and violence. For more than a year, I had a police scanner near my desk and listened to the dispatcher say “we’re getting a ticket of a person shot” and “shots fired,” among other depressing crimes.
I was working the overnight shift that night, as I usually did, when the call went out over the scanner. “One of us should go,” my coworker said.
When I got to the scene, it was silent, and a bitter wind ran through my overcoat. I walked up to the line looking for Holiday’s body then saw it mangled in the street, partially covered by a white sheet.
One of the cops asked me to step back because the police were tying up an extra line. I walked to the darkened footpath and watched the tape blow in the wind and the blue lights bounce off the brick homes and disappear into abandoned lots.
The silence didn’t last. One by one, I watched Holiday’s friends and family members arrive in disbelief, then see his body. Devastation and raw emotion quickly overwhelmed them.
One woman kept screaming, “Who shot him? That’s my baby’s daddy!” A woman who appeared to be in her 70s wailed over and over “Wake up!” She shrieked and screamed in a way I’d never heard before, as did the dozen or so others. Sometimes it was as if everyone were screaming at once.
The cops moved an SUV in front of Holiday’s body, and an officer took the older woman’s hand and led her away. At one point, gunshots rang out a few blocks away. No one – not the police or the friends or family – looked surprised.
That wasn’t the first shooting I went to, but it was the first where I had witnessed such devastation. I thought I knew how to handle myself after scenes like that, but when I got home, back to the world I’d known before, I felt numb.
A look I’ll never forget
Last year, more than 4,000 people were shot in Chicago, and shootings have become so normalized that they rarely make the front page of the local papers, let alone the national news.
About a month after Holiday’s killing, as the Super Bowl was playing and my friends were posting pictures of their parties on social media, I was in the Sun-Times newsroom listening to the scanner scrolling through police zones.
“All right, we’re getting four people shot now,” the dispatcher said. I pressed hold on the zone and listened. The dispatcher said the victims were all 15 years old. My editor told me not to go to the scene – no one was dead yet. But then I told her the ages.
I raced my car down the highway to the Englewood neighbourhood, also on the South Side, where the shooting had happened. I found a woman who looked to be in her 30s standing on the footpath with a dazed disposition.
She told me she ran outside after hearing gunfire and kids screaming and found eight or nine teenagers on a porch. Four of them – three boys and a girl – were shot, and all were crying. Some were throwing up. Thankfully, they all survived.
One of the kids told her that two men had walked up, asked “Are y’all good?” and then opened fire.
I could see fear and trauma in her eyes. As she talked to me, her kids peeked out from behind the white curtain of their first-floor apartment. They looked terrified too. I’ll never forget that. I sensed that they were scared not only because of the shooting but also because she was talking to me, a journalist.
The neighbour seemed nervous to talk to me too. She asked me not to use her name, like most witnesses I talked to after shootings, and spoke quietly, as though she wanted to make sure no one heard her.
It was only later that I learned the hard way that even appearing to give information to a journalist could be dangerous.
‘You tryna get me killed?’
A few months later, I was in the office very late one day, or early, depending on how you look at it. I heard on the scanner that a male had been shot in the head. The dispatcher didn’t call it a 0110 – the Chicago police code for homicide – but it sounded like one. I drove to the scene to find out.
When I got there, a body was in the middle of the street, and there were only a few people around. I asked a guy walking down the footpath whether he knew what happened, and he told me something about where the shooters were standing.
“Over there?” I asked, pointing to a trash can.
“F— you, man,” he said. “You tryna get me killed?”
He stormed off. It dawned on me that, with one flick of the wrist, I may have put him, and possibly myself, in danger. I felt awful.
When I finally got to sleep that night, I dreamed that someone kept pointing a gun at me. I woke up screaming. I rushed to my computer, and there in my inbox was an email from a family member of the victim. The person was swearing at and threatening me.
I couldn’t get the screams out of my head
By July, I was having trouble relating to my friends and family.
One night, I headed to a homicide scene in the neighbourhood of Austin on the West Side. The trees were covering the city’s notoriously golden street lamps, and it was really dark. The police had just taken the victim’s body away and were taking down the yellow tape. I walked over to an older woman standing on the footpath.
When she and I finished talking, I walked over to three men standing on the side of the house where the victim had been killed. I had my camera on my shoulder and motioned as if I wanted to ask them some questions.
One of the men took one look at me and said, “You better get the f— out of here.” Another put his hand in his pants as though he had a gun holstered there. I had a sudden realisation that all of the police officers had left the scene. The three of them started cursing at me and walking forward.
My heart started racing. I said “All right” and turned and walked at a brisk but steady pace to my car, trying to show neither fear nor disrespect. When I got to my car, I looked back and saw them down the street, still yelling at me. I felt stupid as hell.
I had been feeling weird since the New Year’s Day shooting. For a day or two after visiting a scene, I would feel this peculiar kind of tunnel vision. It was as though I were looking at the world through a foggy television screen. I couldn’t touch or focus on anything.
I couldn’t get the screams out of my head. While they were all different, they were also all the same: the pain of losing someone to violence.
Few people in my life understood what was going on.
The socioeconomics of murder
It wasn’t just the screams or the violence that made the scenes hard to process. The causes of violence were readily on display at almost every scene.
Most shootings in Chicago happen in about 10 of the city’s 77 neighbourhoods, on the South Side and the West Side. Poverty, racism, lack of opportunities, and more were apparent at every scene, even in the smallest details. It made the suffering harder to process.
When I’d drive from the Sun-Times office downtown to the crime scenes, it was hard to miss the contrasts. The skyscrapers, plush condos, and designer stores gave way to run-down buildings, boarded-up schools and storefronts, and empty lots.
At one crime scene, where a 28-year-old had been shot dead on a footpath, a young boy walked up and down the footpath along the police tape. No older than 7, he would stop and stare at the body every so often. As far as I could tell, it seemed normal to him.
Another shooting I covered happened at a memorial event. Nearly 100 people had gathered to remember a friend killed on the block a few years prior when a man pulled out a gun and killed a man and a woman and injured two more. A 16-year-old girl at the memorial had an asthma attack during the shooting and died later at the hospital.
At another, a 16-year-old boy was shot in his car after a man walked up and asked where he was from. “I’m not about that,” the boy’s friends told me he said. The man pulled out a gun and shot him in the head.
“I just bought him a plane ticket to Mississippi, and now he’s dead,” the boy’s mother told me.
It just felt as if bodies were piling up in my head.
This is just a small fraction of the scenes I saw in Chicago.
What’s awful is that what I saw pales in comparison to what some reporters in the city have seen. And it certainly pales in comparison to what the victims, their families, and all those living in Chicago’s hardest-hit neighbourhoods have experienced.
But by the time I put my two weeks in, I was tired of living in the dark.
I was tired of having to take two or three Xanax to fall asleep, only to black out and then suddenly wake up four hours later in a feverish sweat.
I was tired of the regular nightmares – my girlfriend at the time told me I would frequently scream in my sleep.
I was tired of hearing the dispatcher say, “We’re getting a ticket of a person shot. Person shot.”
I was tired of the constant guilt and I was tired of being threatened and screamed at by the people I was trying to help – though I certainly didn’t blame them for their anger and emotion.
It’s been about eight months since I quit, and I’m still processing what I saw. I still get flashes of bodies or hear screams when I see flashing police lights or a broken car window.
I think sometimes about how that year affected me – how it made me feel numb, how I wore a scowl I couldn’t seem to shake.
Then I think about what I might be like if I grew up in one of those neighbourhoods I went to so often.