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Chicago teens' world fraught with violence

Neighborhood fights have taken their toll on the young residents: Some are seeing a bleak future.

October 11, 2009|Azam Ahmed and Kristen Mack

CHICAGO — His left eye still swollen shut, Vashion Bullock doesn't deny fighting in the melee that claimed a Chicago high school student's life last month.

He's watched the grainy cellphone video and seen himself standing shirtless in the middle of the mob. But to him, the footage is a 2 1/2 -minute clip of his world without context, broadcast endlessly on television and the Web.

This mob included students who made the honor roll, held after-school jobs, played sports and planned for college. But they wake up in worlds frayed by poverty and violence.

For years, Vashion and others bused in from Altgeld Gardens have fought with kids who live closer to Fenger High School and who see them as outsiders, according to interviews with dozens of students and parents. The Fenger senior said he often races to the bus stop to avoid confrontation. But that Thursday, he had been suspended for a school fight. And he'd had enough.

"How many times you want me to walk away?" asked Vashion, whose brother is charged with murder for striking 16-year-old Derrion Albert with a wooden plank. Three others were charged in the melee that involved at least 50 teens.

"We've been running for so long, and I'm tired of running," Vashion said. "Running only leads to more running."

The fight sparked national outrage and prompted the White House to dispatch the attorney general and Education secretary to Chicago to call attention to youth violence across the country.

Violence has claimed the lives of five Chicago teens in the last month. The carnage has also taken a toll on how teens view themselves. Some simply don't believe they have a future.

"I don't think a new day is promised to nobody," said Vashion, 17, pressing a bag of ice to his injured eye. "Anything could happen at any time."

The violence can be related to race, gangs or neighborhoods. The Fenger brawl involved rivalries between the "Ville" -- the area that includes the school -- and Altgeld Gardens, about five miles away.

Those charged in Albert's fatal beating came from both factions. Neither side said they meant to kill anyone.

"The video is troubling but not extraordinary," said Dewey Cornell, director of a youth violence project at the University of Virginia. "I object to the notion that these kids are somehow disturbed or abnormal. Street fights between rival groups are not new to Chicago or any other part of the United States. We have had them for centuries."

On Sept. 24, Montrell Truitt, 17, left school with his brother, Eric Parks, 15, and headed for the bus stop half a block north of Fenger. But trouble was brewing, so they headed east to a different bus stop. As the brothers walked, a crowd started to swell behind them.

Montrell, a junior who's ranked near the top of his class, called his mother, a ritual on his walks from school. He and Eric reached the train tracks on the eastern edge of the Ville. That marks the unofficial safe zone for Garden kids heading home.

"All I was thinking was, 'OK, we're getting close to the tracks, so they're going to turn around,' " Montrell said.

But they didn't. Some began to strip off their shirts to prepare for a fight. Ville teens say several cars of Gardens kids were waiting there.

Montrell's mother, Toya, told him to try to get to her workplace. But after he crossed the tracks, Montrell said, someone hit him across the back with a wooden plank. He stumbled, then turned and fought.

The rest is on the video that transfixed the nation.

Derrion, an honor student who has been portrayed as a bystander, can be seen throwing a punch. Since he never claimed loyalty to either side, no one was sure with whom he was fighting, witnesses said.

The Ville inspires loyalty from its young residents, some of whom have even choreographed a neighborhood dance.

"It's the neighborhood we're from, who we are, how we act, what we do," said Derrick Young, 17, a junior at Fenger.

Wearing fuzzy white animal slippers, he performed the Ville dance, a soft bounce from side to side, arms forward as he dropped down low.

When asked why Ville kids don't like those from the Gardens, he struggled to explain.

"As far as I know, they don't like us," said Derrick, who dreams of playing professional football. "And the way I feel, we don't like them."

Ville teens, and their parents, believe their neighborhood has been invaded.

"Ain't there a high school out there?" asked Ava Greyer, the mother of Eugene Bailey, 17, one of the Ville teens charged in the slaying. "Why would you put them . . . here?"

Conflict between the neighborhoods escalated after Chicago Public Schools transformed a high school in the Altgeld community into a military academy. That put many Altgeld kids at Fenger, outnumbered and behind enemy lines.

Jamal Harding, 18, a Fenger graduate who traded blows with a Garden kid in the melee, said walking away isn't an option.

"I'm not gonna run from it," he said. "Why should I have to run from where I live? If I have to run from where I live, where else do I go?"

To reduce violence, schools chief Ron Huberman launched an initiative called Safe Passage to provide security or buses for students who walk through gang boundaries or other dangerous areas. But the plan hadn't been implemented when the fight broke out. Now, the district is shuttling Altgeld kids to and from Fenger.

Two weeks after the fight, some students seemed to recognize the enormity of events.

With the living room lights dimmed to protect his injured eye, Vashion struggled to explain his feelings. "I apologize that something bad happened," he said. "But I might [never] see out of my left eye . . . or see my brother again."

Virtually no one thinks the neighborhood violence is over.

"You gotta be strong," Vashion said. "Strong and willing to protect yourself, from police, people, anybody. Can't nobody be left out."

--

aahmed@tribune.com

kmack@tribune.com

Chicago Tribune staff writer Annie Sweeney in Chicago contributed to this report.

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