On Feb. 11, a Chicago resident was shot at a BP gas station on the northwest side of the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Taylor Street, less than three blocks from the Oak Park/Austin border. Five days later, a group of residents from both communities gathered on the other side of the intersection before marching to New Life Ministries church, located at 634 N Austin.
The purpose of the march was to decry the recent spate of violent crimes that have taken place in Oak Park and in Austin, and to show that the two communities were united in tackling the violence.
In the last two months, Oak Park has been hit with four armed robberies, a shooting inside a residence on Jan. 10 and a Feb. 8 armed robbery at Austin Blue Line ‘L’ station.
The Feb. 16 event was organized by northeast Oak Park residents Christina Waters and Deno Andrews, as well as Suburban Unity Alliance founder Anthony Clark and Sharita Galloway, the mother of Elijah Sims, an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior who was murdered in Austin last year.
“Tonight, we’re trying to send a message that we not only care about our community in Oak Park, but about the community in Austin, because we are neighbors,” Clark said. “We want to build business relationships, we want to building personal relationships.”
There were many Austin residents among the crowd of about 60 people, including members of the Jehovah Jireh #1 Outreach Ministry’s Stop the Violence initiative, who wore their trademark red jackets.
“I lost my son to gun violence,” said the organization’s founder, Goerge Bady, Jr. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”
As the marchers made their way inside New Life Ministries, Clark invited everyone to speak honestly about their experiences and feelings, and try to offer concrete solutions.
“We need to come together to find out something we can do with both communities,” said Galloway. “Because [the danger] is real, and I’m a living example of that.”
Galloway also called for the end of the “code of silence” on the streets, noting that there were witnesses to her son’s murder, but it remains unsolved because no one has come forward.
Waters said that she was pleased that a police car has been positioned at the gas station where the Feb. 11 shooting took place. She said she’d like it to remain there for a longer period of time. She also urged more residents to get involved.
“No matter how small it may look, [if you] see something, you say something,” she said. “And be aware, at all times, for your safety.”
Andrews — the founder of Felony Franks, a hot dog restaurant that employs felonies, and a candidate for trustee — said that more needs to be done to address the roots of the violence, including poverty, a lack of resources and a shortage of employment opportunities for ex-offenders. He also said that lower property taxes would also help reduce the violence.
“No business can afford to go [into an area] if they can’t afford to pay property taxes,” he said. “I think it’s about time us Oak Parkers start spending money in Austin. I’m committed to local business. When I shop for the holidays, I don’t shop [more than] two miles from my house.”
Youth advocate Iesha Oliver-Hollins, of Austin, said that she has seen violence up close and personal.
“[When I was] coming home from work, they killed a guy standing next to me,” she said. “They shot a boy in the head like I wasn’t there.”
Oliver-Hollins said that she has been trying to help young men be productive and stay out of gangs, but it has been a struggle. A big reason for that, she said, is the lack of funding for non-profit organizations that could provide better alternatives for youth.
“[The youth] want to stay out of trouble, but how can we continue to provide support?” she said.
In response, Clark said that it was important to support efforts like the ones put on by Oliver-Hollins.
“There’s a narrative that exists that no one in Austin cares,” he said. “They’re fighting. When they’re yelling and screaming for change, we can yell with them. When they see people that don’t look like stereotypical Austin [residents], it matters.”
Derrick Green, a Stop the Violence coordinator, echoed Oliver-Hollins’ call for support. He also argued that ignoring the problems in Austin won’t help Oak Park.
“If you close your eyes to the problems in Austin today, you’ll be dealing with them tomorrow,” Green said.
Sydney Jackson, a senior at OPRF, founded Roses 4 Austin, an organization that looks to help kids in Austin and other West Side neighborhoods through volunteer work. She said that resources to help Austin may be relatively scarce but they exist.
“There is a lot of money in Oak Park,” she said. “I had a lot of money to use for what I was doing.”
Jackson also said that she believes that her generation want to help – they just need to be encouraged.
As the event wrapped up, Oliver-Hollins said that she didn’t want anybody to walk away with an impression that nobody in Oak Park wants to reach out across Austin Boulevard. She runs the Teens 2 Queens dance ensemble, which practices at Austin Town Hall park fieldhouse.
Oliver-Hollins said she was surprised and impressed that there were girls at OPRF who not only joined, but have stuck with it, making the trip to Austin four days a week.
“[Younger generations] have more of an open mind than I realized,” she said. “They want to come together.”