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Organizers host anti-violence basketball tournament in Chicago park


© Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune

By Malika Andrews, Chicago Tribune

Ten young men ran up and down the cement, outdoor basketball court at Delano Elementary School, their yellow and gray t-shirts drenched in sweat. Around them, 50 more sat in plastic folding chairs smoking cigarettes, eating hamburgers and waiting for their turn to play.

A neighbor approached the scorer’s table to inquire about the large, unexpected gathering on Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s a game organized by the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago,” a man on the sidelines told the stranger.

“If this is nonviolent, man, he can’t be playing,” the stranger replied, pointing to a player with a T-shirt tied around his forehead. “He got three felonies.”

Memorial Day weekend in Chicago is notoriously violent, particularly on the West Side. For a group of organizers from the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago (INVC), most with their own criminal pasts, the best solution to the city’s gun epidemic was to offer an alternative: a neighborhood versus neighborhood basketball tournament designed to bring teenagers and young men from rival gangs together.

Traditionally, the East Garfield Park neighborhood in the police’s Harrison District is one of the city’s most violent.

So far this year, the Harrison District has had 149 people shot – the highest in the city.

The INVC staff, who work with at-risk youth who have committed crimes, chose the location because it was at apex of players’ neighborhoods.

Sequan Currie, 18, doesn’t come to this block often. He lives in North Lawndale and the INVC is helping him to find a job. Eventually, he wants to go to college to study computer science. Basketball is a way for him to get away from violence.

The tournament was one of the few events of its kind over Memorial Day weekend. Chris Patterson, INVC’s program manager, says that they have been planning the event for three weeks.

“Chicago is a basketball city,” Richard Wilkens, an INVC stafffer said. “Basketball is one of the things we use to connect. Even before Michael Jordan was here, we was a basketball city.”

Wilkens, who wore an off-red t-shirt and shorts, explained that most of the men attending this tournament would otherwise be standing on a street corner. He knows this because years ago, he was that kid. He says he saw multiple close friends get shot – some, just a few feet away from him.

Wilkens, 54, served time in prison for retail theft. He said he spent time in solitary confinement for fighting with another inmate.

“When you live in a community like this, it’s a fast life,” Wilkens said. “Run. Duck. Hide. Shoot. It’s fast-paced. So, you make choices on an impulse and you get stuck in it.”

He continued: “Once you do it, you do it again because there is always a need. Now, you went from ‘I’m going to go out there this week and do it,’ to ‘I’m going to do it for this month.’ ‘I’m going to do it for the next couple months.’ ‘I’m going to do it until the end of this year’. And then you either get shot or arrested and you stuck. It’s addictive.”

A recent study from the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago echoes Wilkens’ point. The study reports that 37 percent of black men ages 20-24 weren’t working or in school. That percentage is down from nearly 50 percent in 2014.

Saturday’s tournament was the brainchild of INVC outreach coordinator Bryant Robinson and Darrell Johnson, the program manager for INVC’s West Garfield branch. It was inspired by the old Midnight Basketball League of the 1990’s. That league was designed to give young men an alternative to selling drugs, committing crimes and engaging in gang violence.

Robinson, who said he has been convicted of four drug-related felonies, played in the midnight basketball league as a teenager.

Clifton “Booney” McFowler, 57, explained that Chicago’s gang landscape was different back then. Gangs were large, organized groups like the Vice Lords and the Latin Kings. Since the leaders of those groups were arrested in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the gang structure has decentralized power. The once large groups splintered off, shifting the gang landscape to smaller cliques and block-by-block turf wars.

McFowler, who has long, salt-and-pepper dreads, said he was an original member of the Vice Lords. He served 27 years in prison for two gang-related murders and one attempted murder, he said. Since his 2009 release, he has been mentoring at-risk youth as a staff member at Build Chicago.

During Memorial Day weekend in 2016, more than 20 people in the Harrison District were shot. The following year, the Chicago Police Department deployed more officers for the holiday weekend. With the extra law enforcement, no one was shot Friday through Monday of Memorial Day weekend in 2017. Two people were shot the Tuesday after the holiday weekend.

“There ain’t ever going to be one cure for this illness in our community,” McFowler said.

The INVC hired referees from the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) for Saturday’s games. Young men from East Garfield, West Garfield and Austin showed up to play on eight different teams. Many of them would usually not come to this part of town – it wasn’t their turf. INVC members went around to the older kids in the different neighborhoods and told them they wanted a peaceful tournament. These young men wouldn’t be causing trouble.

In addition to the game, staff members from various violence prevention groups mentored young men and let them know resources available to assist them. Police cars drove by half a dozen times, slowing down to eye the men on the court before driving on.

Some of the players and staff members brought their families. Young children played on a blue slide adjacent to the basketball court. 13-year-old Dorian put up shots on a net-less hoop. Janai, 7, passed a basketball to her younger brother Jace, 4, while their father, Jamal, played in a game.

Pam Allen, who lives around the corner from the school, set up a shaved ice station in the shade next to the court. She poured sugary peach, grape, watermelon and coconut (“coconut is the most popular. I always bring two jugs of the coconut”) syrups into Styrofoam cups and handed them out to children for $1. The concoction turned their lips vibrant shades of purple and red.

By dusk, the games finished. The INVC team won the final game 30-23 and got a trophy. The young men dispersed. Perhaps some went home. Others may have gone to hang out on a street corner.

“It’s sad because some of these guys won’t be free in the next year and some of them will be dead,” Bo Deal, a rapper and volunteer said. There’s hope, I just don’t see it changing anytime soon.”

Away from the cacophony of Future music, shrieking children and the bouncing of basketballs, four people were shot on Saturday. One man on the South Side of Chicago died. He was 34-years-old.


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Organizers host anti-violence basketball tournament in Chicago park
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