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Beating a Blunt Reminder of Chicago Race Chasm

Violence: A black youth is comatose and 3 white parochial students are charged but freed on bail. The city sorts out feelings of outrage, embarrassment.

March 26, 1997|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — On Princeton Avenue, a street with a bad reputation grown worse, black people went about their business Tuesday, all too aware of what happened there to Lenard Clark.

Shaking his head silently, a black mailman twice passed the spot where the 13-year-old African American youth was pummeled into a coma last weekend, allegedly by a group of local white toughs. Two trash scavengers, wheeling shopping carts piled high with junk, picked up their pace as they approached the street.

And when photography student Don Robinson showed up to take a few shots of the neighborhood, he took care to wear a Bears football jacket instead of his usual black leather coat--and kept his car door unlocked to make sure "I can make a fast getaway."

The brutal beating has revived Chicago's latent image as a racially calcified town where ethnic enclaves coexist warily at best and sometimes clash violently.

And the fact that the three youths arrested in the assault all attended a South Side Catholic high school--the same one that graduated Mayor Richard M. Daley--has provided stinging new embarrassment to a parochial school system already reeling after white students at another Catholic high school taunted visiting black students during a basketball game, calling them "Buckwheat" and other epithets.

Nowhere has Chicago's reputation as a racially divided city lingered longer than in Bridgeport, a clannish South Side neighborhood of old row houses and decaying wood frame houses that was once the home and political base of the Daley family.

In Bridgeport, working-class white Catholic residents erected a decades-old invisible barrier against poor blacks who crowded into crumbling housing project towers nearby. While cement stoops sagged and brick facades eroded, the owners remained white. That racial schism endured even as Bridgeport itself underwent a quiet ethnic metamorphosis in recent years, becoming a haven for Latino and Chinese families--but rarely for blacks.

"People have learned to live with each other down here," Robinson said as he photographed the park where Lenard played the night he was beaten. "But they still keep all that hate bottled up and then teach it to their kids. Sooner or later, it spills out."

It spilled out last Friday, police said, as Lenard and two friends left a weather-beaten field house at Armour Square Park where neighborhood kids joust in pickup basketball games. Leaving the park, which faces south across vacant parking lots toward Comiskey Park, Lenard and his friends walked on Princeton Avenue. There, according to police, the three were taunted and then attacked by three white youths.

Lenard and his friends ran, but the three white teens caught him in an alleyway. They shoved his head into the wall of a house and repeatedly kicked him. Afterward, according to police, the white teens bragged to friends in the area that they had "taken care of the 'niggers' in the neighborhood."

Acting on tips from Bridgeport and Aurora Park residents, police took three youths into custody Sunday and charged them with attempted murder and hate crimes. On Monday, despite requests by Cook County prosecutors that a judge set $1-million bond, each of the teenagers was given reduced bail ranging from $100,000 to $150,000 and then quickly released.

The low bail stunned Chicago's black leaders. Outraged talk show hosts insisted the youths had been released after telephone calls from unnamed white politicians--a rumor that gained currency after it was reported that one of the youths was a grandson of a late organized crime boss and a grand-nephew of an alderman convicted on corruption charges.

"This cheapens the life of Lenard and other children," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who visited the comatose child at Cook County Hospital. "The law must serve as a deterrence." Jackson said he would ask the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division to open its own investigation of the beating.

"They left my baby for dead and they might do this again," said Wanda McMurry, Lenard's mother. She has visited his hospital bed for four days running, bathing him, rubbing him down with oil and praying. Hospital spokesman John Reyes said that although Lenard was still unconscious, he was "demonstrating increased movement and responsiveness." Even if he recovers, his mother worried aloud, "he will no longer be the same child."

There has been less criticism this time for the Archdiocese of Chicago, whose religious leaders moved quickly after police announced that the three suspects in the beating had attended De La Salle Institute. Some black leaders had accused the archdiocese of an inadequate response after parochial students at Brother Rice High School recently were accused of insulting black students.

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