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For Chicago teen activists, survival is the No. 1 objective

CHICAGO (AP) – At his desk at North Lawndale School Prep Excessive Faculty, Gerald Smith retains a small calendar that holds unimaginable grief.

In its pages, the dean and scholar advocate writes the identify of every scholar who’s misplaced a member of the family, lots of them to gun violence. After which he deploys the Peace Warriors – college students who’ve devoted themselves to easing the violence that pervades their world.

The Warriors hunt down their heartbroken classmates. They provide a hug, and a small bag of sweet.

Since September, Smith has added greater than 160 names to that little e-book, roughly half the scholar physique at this campus on Chicago’s West Aspect. And that doesn’t even embody these whose pals have been killed.

“We would run out of candy,” says Smith, sadly.

It’s arduous and sometimes anguishing work, maintaining the peace. North Lawndale’s Peace Warriors do it in small and huge methods. When invited to Parkland, Florida, after 17 individuals died in a college capturing there in February, they answered the decision – to mourn collectively and to unite in what’s change into a nationwide youth motion geared toward stopping gun violence.

Weeks later, Alex King and D’Angelo McDade, seniors at North Lawndale, walked onto stage on the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. with fists raised. They marveled on the lots of younger individuals who’d joined the struggle. Stated King: “We knew this was going to be in the history books. And for me, it was like, ‘Wow! I’m actually being heard.’”

They proceed to press their resolution to city violence: extra jobs and funding in low-income communities like theirs. However that’s the lengthy sport.

First, the Peace Warriors should survive – and assist their friends do the identical.


“Good morning, good morning, good morning!”

A small band of Peace Warriors greets college students who make their method into the varsity’s principal lobby after going by a bag examine and metallic detector.

That is when the Warriors get a way of how the day could go and the place they could must step in to keep up calm.

Most everyone seems to be upbeat, although maybe a little bit sleepy. Just a few dance to old-school soul over the sound system, till a younger girl arrives, sobbing. Two Peace Warriors rush to embrace her and escort her to the varsity workplace, the place she will be able to accumulate herself.

When the group started in 2009, there have been simply 17 Peace Warriors on the varsity’s two campuses. Again then, that small corps spent a lot of its time breaking apart fights, “interrupting nonsense,” as they name it. Since then, their ranks have grown to greater than 120 – and fights have dropped markedly, Smith mentioned.

Now, the Peace Warriors focus extra on operating “peace circles,” mediating verbal altercations between college students and tense exchanges on social media.

Alexis Willis is among the many latest recruits. Just like the others, she needed to be taught the “Six Principles of Nonviolence” of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. earlier than she might name herself a Peace Warrior.

The civil rights activist lived within the neighborhood in 1966 in an condominium that was simply down the road. He selected that location to attract consideration to segregation and excessive poverty – points that persist there even immediately.

Willis, a freshman who educated in January, likes King’s first precept greatest: “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.”

She admits that, as a toddler, she typically solved issues along with her fists. However as the extent of violence has escalated in her metropolis, and he or she has matured, she has been drawn to “this life,” because the Peace Warriors typically name their pacifist follow.

Willis says her resolve to assist her classmates “do better” was solely solidified when, in April, her beloved 16-year-old cousin, Jaheim Wilson, was shot and killed as he walked with a pal in an alley close to his Chicago house.

“Nobody that’s 16 should have to die,” Willis says, quietly.

Lower than two weeks after her cousin’s dying, she obtained her first Peace Warrior shirt along with her identify and a picture of a big hand flashing a peace signal on the again.

“When you put on this shirt, you put on a target. People will test you,” Smith tells his college students when first handing them their shirts.

Certainly, being a Peace Warrior could be a problem. Some college students name them snitches or see them as meddling do-gooders. In recent times, Smith has had a more durable time recruiting younger males to affix the group, unlucky since they’re most frequently the victims of violence.

Alex King confesses that he first merely joined the group as a result of he wished to put on the Peace Warrior shirt to high school as an alternative of the in any other case required collared white polo. However he quickly got here to see the group as household.

Talking on the March for Our Lives, he shared the story of his nephew, Daishawn Moore, additionally 16, who was gunned down final Could.

“Through my friends and colleagues, I found help to come up out of a dark place,” King instructed the gang. Stuffed with rage and sorrow, he had deliberate to retaliate towards his nephew’s killer, till fellow Peace Warriors talked him out of it: “Everyone doesn’t have the same resources or support system as I was lucky to have.”

The alliance with Parkland unites the North Lawndale college students with these from a really completely different world – rich and suburban, a spot the place shootings are removed from the norm.

Whereas college students from Parkland and elsewhere are pushing lawmakers for stricter gun rules, the Peace Warriors have made poverty their goal. Amongst different issues, the Peace Warriors need extra funding for psychological well being clinics and faculties in low-income neighborhoods. Each have seen cuts lately in Chicago.

At North Lawndale School Prep, a constitution faculty that’s privately funded, Smith says there as soon as have been 4 counselors, one for every grade. Now there are solely two who serve grades 9 by 12.

It implies that Smith and different employees – and even the Peace Warriors – should decide up a few of the slack.


On that latest morning, the woman who’d arrived at college sobbing walks as much as the varsity safety desk, the place Smith is monitoring late arrivals.

He is aware of why she wasn’t in school. Her boyfriend had simply been shot and killed. However why, he asks, is she carrying a bundle of clothes?

“It’s his clothes,” she solutions in a monotone earlier than heading down the hallway in a daze.

Smith covers his eyes for a second, then reveals cheeks moist with tears.

It doesn’t matter what number of occasions this occurs. He’ll by no means get used to it.

This wasn’t work he’d deliberate to do. The “reluctant” fourth-generation pastor, now 47, finally answered the decision to work with youth. Now he has a knack, he says, for recognizing potential leaders, a few of them additionally reluctant.

Just a few days later, freshman Robert Cook dinner sits within the deans’ workplace, awaiting a detention slip.

Above Smith’s desk in that workplace, crimson letters are caught to the wall – a message the place there was once a clock. Smith by no means bothered to exchange it after a distressed scholar knocked it down.

“This is KAIROS Time,” the message reads, utilizing a Greek phrase that refers to a decisive and opportune second.

Smith sensed that type of second when he accompanied the Peace Warriors to Parkland and later to Washington for the march.

This summer season – Chicago’s worst time for violence – is one other, as he and his college students plan periods to coach extra Peace Warriors within the neighborhood. College students throughout the nation additionally plan voter registration drives with an eye fixed on the mid-term elections in November. However right here, security should come first.

“This summer is critical. Can’t wait until next summer. Can’t wait until November,” Smith says.

As he works in his workplace, he stops and gazes at Cook dinner, the dejected freshman, as if he’s seeing him with contemporary eyes.

Has Cook dinner ever thought of being a Peace Warrior? The teenager says he will get in an excessive amount of bother.

“Peace Warriors aren’t perfect,” Smith tells him. “Don’t count yourself out. We need some strong young men.”

Possibly, simply possibly, that is one other “kairos.” A kind of crucial moments.

Time will inform.


Martha Irvine, an AP nationwide author and visible journalist, might be reached at [email protected] or at .

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Instances, LLC.

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