A Chicago teen’s cry: ‘No­body that’s 16 should have to die’

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - NEWS - By Martha Irvine

CHICAGO » At his desk at North Lawn­dale Col­lege Prep High School, Ger­ald Smith keeps a small cal­en­dar that holds unimag­in­able grief.

In its pages, the dean and stu­dent ad­vo­cate writes the name of each stu­dent who’s lost a fam­ily mem­ber, many of them to gun vi­o­lence. And then he de­ploys the Peace War­riors — stu­dents who have ded­i­cated them­selves to eas­ing the vi­o­lence that per­vades their world.

The War­riors seek out their heart­bro­ken class­mates. They of­fer a hug, and a small bag of candy.

Since Septem­ber, Smith has added more than 160 names to that little book, roughly half the stu­dent body at this cam­pus on Chicago’s West Side. And that doesn’t even in­clude those whose friends have been killed.

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

It is hard and of­ten an­guish­ing work, keep­ing the peace. North Lawn­dale’s Peace War­riors do it in small and large ways. When in­vited to Park­land, Florida, after 17 peo­ple died in a school shoot­ing there in Fe­bru­ary, they an­swered the call — to mourn to­gether and to unite in what’s be­come a na­tional youth move­ment aimed at stop­ping gun vi­o­lence.

Weeks later, Alex King and D’An­gelo McDade, se­niors at North Lawn­dale, walked onto stage at the March for Our Lives in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. with fists raised. They mar­veled at the masses of young peo­ple who’d joined the fight. Said 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 con­tinue to press their so­lu­tion to ur­ban vi­o­lence: more jobs and in­vest­ment in low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties like theirs. But that’s the long game.

First, the Peace War­riors must sur­vive — and help their peers do the same.

“Good morn­ing, good morn­ing, good morn­ing!”

A small band of Peace War­riors greets stu­dents who make their way into the school’s main foyer after go­ing through a bag check and metal de­tec­tor.

This is when the War­riors get a sense of how the day may go and where they may need to step in to main­tain calm.

Most ev­ery­one is up­beat, though per­haps a little sleepy. A few dance to old-school soul over the sound sys­tem, un­til a young woman ar­rives, sob­bing. Two Peace War­riors rush to em­brace her and es­cort her to the school of­fice, where she can col­lect her­self.

When the group be­gan in 2009, there were just 17 Peace War­riors on the school’s two cam­puses. Back then, that small corps spent much of its time break­ing up fights, “in­ter­rupt­ing non­sense,” as they call it. Since then, their ranks have grown to more than 120 — and fights have dropped markedly, Smith said.

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

Alexis Wil­lis is among the new­est re­cruits. Like the oth­ers, she had to learn the “Six Prin­ci­ples of Non­vi­o­lence” of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. be­fore she could call her­self a Peace War­rior.

The civil rights ac­tivist lived in the neigh­bor­hood in 1966 in an apart­ment that was just down the street. He chose that lo­ca­tion to draw at­ten­tion to seg­re­ga­tion and ex­treme poverty — is­sues that per­sist there even to­day.

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

She ad­mits that, as a child, she some­times solved prob­lems with her fists. But as the level of vi­o­lence has es­ca­lated in her city, and she has ma­tured, she has been drawn to “this life,” as the Peace War­riors some­times call their paci­fist prac­tice.

Wil­lis says her re­solve to help her class­mates “do better” was only so­lid­i­fied when, in April, her beloved 16-year-old cousin, Ja­heim Wilson, was shot and killed as he walked with a friend in an al­ley near his Chicago home.

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

Less than two weeks after her cousin’s death, she re­ceived her first Peace War­rior shirt with her name and an im­age of a large hand flash­ing a peace sign on the back.

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

In­deed, be­ing a Peace War­rior can be a chal­lenge. Some stu­dents call them snitches or see them as med­dling do-good­ers. In re­cent years, Smith has had a harder time re­cruit­ing young men to join the group, un­for­tu­nate since they are most of­ten the vic­tims of vi­o­lence.

Alex King con­fesses that he first sim­ply joined the group be­cause he wanted to wear the Peace War­rior shirt to school in­stead of the oth­er­wise re­quired col­lared white polo. But he soon came to see the group as fam­ily.

Speak­ing at the March for Our Lives, he shared the story of his nephew, Daishawn Moore, also 16, who was gunned down last May.

“Through my friends and col­leagues, I found help to come up out of a dark place,” King told the crowd. Full of rage and sor­row, he had planned to re­tal­i­ate against his nephew’s killer, un­til 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 stu­dents with those from a very different world — wealthy and sub­ur­ban, a place where shoot­ings are far from the norm.

MARTHA IRVINE - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Alexis Wil­lis, cen­ter, and other high school stu­dents from Chicago’s North Lawn­dale neigh­bor­hood hold an an­tiv­i­o­lence sign dur­ing a march in their neigh­bor­hood on Wed­nes­day, March 14, 2018. Wil­lis’ 16-year-old cousin was shot and killed in Chicago...

MARTHA IRVINE - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peace War­riors from North Lawn­dale Col­lege Prep High School bow their heads dur­ing a mo­ment of si­lence for the vic­tims of gun vi­o­lence dur­ing a Day of Peace rally at Chicago’s Legacy Char­ter School on Fri­day, April 20, 2018, which also marked the 19th...

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