Day 6

Chicago in crisis: what it's like to lose 24 friends to gun violence

In the first three months of 2016, police in Chicago say murders are up more than 80 per cent over last year. Brent speaks to Camiella Williams, a former gang member who now teaches at-risk youth, about the work she does in a city that authorities say is on track to have more than 500 killings this year.
Chicago Police detectives investigate the scene where a number of people, including a 3-year-old child, were shot in a city park on the south side of Chicago, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Authorities said no one has been taken into custody in connection with the shooting. (Paul Beaty/The Associated Press)

The Chicago police department has a serious problem with race.

That was the finding of a scathing report released this week, which concluded that the police appear to "have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of colour."

The task force behind the report, assembled by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, looked at 400 police shootings between 2008 and 2015. Three-quarters of the people wounded or killed in those shootings were black.

The Chicago police force was mired in controversy last year after the release of graphic video footage that showed one of its officers firing 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. (Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

The report comes as Chicago struggles with an alarming surge in violence. The city is on track to have more than 500 killings this year — far outpacing last year's murder rate, which was the highest of any city in the United States. Already, more than 130 people have been shot dead — more than in New York and Los Angeles combined.

That violence is all too familiar to anti-gun activist Camiella Williams, who lost her 24th friend to gun violence last month.

A gun made me feel powerful.- Camiellia Williams

Williams has gone to so many funerals that she says she is becoming numb to the violence in her city. But she is not counting on the police for justice.

"I know the police is not going to catch these people," she says.

A former gang member who got her first gun at age 13, Williams understands the pressures that push people to become violent.

"What I was exposed to in my community — shooting all day, fighting … You begin to say, 'Look, I'm tired of fighting. I'm taking the hits and the blows, so now I've gotta get a gun.' And a gun made feel powerful."

Demonstrators protest the shooting death of 16-year-old Pierre Loury near the location where he was killed on April 12, 2016 in Chicago. (Getty Images)

Williams left gang life after she found out she was pregnant. She now lives in the suburbs of Chicago and has a 9 year-old son. These days, she works as a teacher, helping at-risk youth to navigate their neighbourhoods and break the cycle of violence.

It can be discouraging. But she says she won't stop. "If I give up," she says, "what message is that sending to the people I'm trying to help?"

Chicago has seen an alarming spike in its violence and murder rates this year.