Nine people were killed in 36 shootings over the weekend in Chicago, reflecting what some community leaders say is a deadly breakdown in discipline among gang members after a crackdown over the past few years put many of their leaders behind bars.
"The older guys in the past looked out for the little ones. Now they're all locked up," said Nick Stames, a social studies teacher at Crane Tech High School on the city's gang-ridden West Side. "There's no sense of discipline in the projects. Everybody's doing their own thing."
Now there is growing fear that Chicago could be in for a long, bloody summer.
"If this happened on this weekend, what is ahead of us when it gets to be 85, 90 and when the schools close in June?" said the Rev. Michael Pfleger, an activist on the South Side. "A lot of kids out there are running their own game, trying to one-up each other for respect."
The shootings included drive-by attacks, and one case in which someone shot up a plumbing supply store with an AK-47. At least 14 of the shootings were gang-related, according to police. As for the rest, the only thing they can say for sure is that three had nothing to do with gangs.
Warmer weather brings crime
Police spokeswoman Monique Bond would not comment on the breakdown-in-discipline theory. She and others said they were not surprised the spike in shootings happened on one of Chicago's first spring-like weekends.
"When the warmer weather comes, more people come out of doors," Bond said. "More crime can occur."
In the past few years, federal and local law enforcement authorities have taken dozens of gang leaders and members off the streets in and around Chicago.
In December, for example, federal authorities broke up a drug dealing ring at Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green housing project, arresting 16 people, including a leader of the Gangster Disciples. Six months earlier, in Kane County, authorities arrested 31 members of the Latin Kings in 22 slayings, some dating back two decades.
Tio Hardiman, executive director of CeaseFire, an anti-violence group that uses former gang members to mediate conflicts, said that with the gang leaders behind bars, rank-and-file members have decided it's every man for himself, and are fighting over turf and money.
"It used to be a guy had to get an order before he could shoot somebody," Hardiman noted. Now, "guys go off on their own. Nobody has to answer to nobody."
Crime up from last year
During the same weekend last year, Chicago had 19 shootings, including four killings, and 21 shootings were reported during the same weekend in 2006. Chicago had 87 homicides during the first three months of this year, compared with 88 during the same period in 2007. Police said more recent figures are not yet available.
The weekend shootings come after a six-month period during which more than 20 Chicago public school students were shot to death. It is unclear just how many of those were gang-related, but many of the students attended schools on well-known gang turf.
Around the country, a number of cities, including Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Dallas, are not reporting surges in gang violence.
In response to the bloodshed, Chicago police are making a show of force, deploying SWAT officers — something the department usually doesn't do until the summer — focusing more attention on areas where gang retaliation is likely, and increasing their presence at schools.
At Crane Tech, for example, officials began escorting students to and from a nearby public housing complex last month after more than 100 simply stopped coming to class. They were too scared after a reputed gang member shot and killed a student.
Pfleger said the weekend shootings are proof that more needs to be done to fight gun violence.
"We better come together now," he said. "It's no coincidence on the first warm weekend all hell breaks loose."