CHICAGO — Kesha Hester doesn't understand how Demarco was shot.
That couldn’t happen to her son, Hester said months later, sitting in her Garfield Park home. Not Demarco Webster, who, like his brother and sisters, never played outside because it was too dangerous.
Not Demarco, who brought home A's and B’s. He was going to be the school salutatorian. He was going to go to college — maybe Duke, as he dreamed.
Not Demarco, who had turned 14 only two weeks earlier. He was supposed to help her with cooking for the holidays, as he always did. He was the one so good that even his brother and sisters said, “It should have been me, not Little Marc.”
Kesha Hester grew up in Chicago and has raised her children on the West Side. After the murder of her son Demarco in Austin, she decided she had to move her family. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
'It's crazy over here'
A police officer drove Hester to the 500 block of South Central Avenue, where Demarco had been shot while helping his father pack furniture to move. Someone in a car fired shots and drove off, police said. Demarco was hit in his torso; his sisters, sitting in the car nearby, were unharmed.
Hester got to the scene before the ambulance left, and she got inside with her son and Demarco’s father. She prayed over her son’s bleeding body and looked at his ribs, which looked broken under his skin. Before Demarco went into surgery Hester spoke with him, a tear rolling down her son's cheek.
"I said, 'I love you. I'll see you when you come out. I'll see you when you come back,'" Hester said.
A little while later, the doctors told her Demarco died on the operating table.
The 14-year-old honor student was one of 24 people shot just on Oct. 29, a bloody day that left five dead. Also killed was Martell Turner, 25; teenager Deandre Banks; Robert McClinton; and Luis Corona, the victim of a robbery-turned-slaying.
It was just another day in a bloody year that has seen more than 730 people slain in the city — the highest tally since Chicago’s poorest communities were ravaged by crack cocaine and violence in the ’90s.
The violence has been so bad Chicago has been blamed for raising the nation's homicide rate while other major cities have seen drops in murders.
The West Side — where Demarco was killed — has been particularly hard hit by gun violence. Shootings in Austin — which totaled 406 through Dec. 26 — have nearly doubled since last year, and they’re up 237 percent since 2010. More than 75 people were slain in the neighborhood, most of them killed by gunfire.
A DNAinfo analysis showed four of the five police beats that had the most shootings this year were clustered together in the Austin, Garfield Park and North Lawndale areas.
Police beats with the most shootings in 2016:
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In February, when 16-year-old Dujuan Williams was gunned down about 1½ miles from where Demarco would later be killed, neighbors said they felt unsafe in the area. Some keep their children inside, don’t talk to neighbors or hope they can move out.
“We lose friends over here probably once a month,” resident Martrell Meeks said. “It’s crazy over here.”
'This issue does not define us'
On a cold December day, a landlord who rents apartments in the 4400 block of West Monroe Street — a Garfield Park block that’s had more shootings than any other in the city this year — said he’ll only come to the area when he has a gun and someone else with him, though there’s a day care and seniors living on the street.
“I don’t think it’s safe here any time,” he said of the block, which has seen one person killed and 11 wounded in shootings this year. “I think this is one of the most dangerous blocks” in the world.
Windows in the 4400 block of West Monroe, a Garfield Park block that's had the most shootings in the city this year, according to a DNAinfo analysis. On the left, posters that say "RIP Jo" are taped up. On the right, at a different home down the street, gunfire broke a window, a worker gutting the building said. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
The landlord — who asked not to be named out of concern for his safety — said tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of heroin passes through the block. It’s particularly bad there because it’s close to the Eisenhower Expy., which people use to come into the city, buy drugs and quickly leave, he said.
There is "a lot of traffic in dealing with heroin" in Garfield Park, 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin said.
Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said there is a "generational drug problem" that leads to violence over turf on the West Side, while violence on the South Side — another part of the city hit hard by shootings — is often fueled by social media feuds.
A DNAinfo analysis found drug crimes plague the area more than in other parts of the city, but police reported fewer drug crimes there in 2016 than previously.
Drug arrests are down citywide by about half from last year's 24,000, and most of the decrease came from West Side neighborhoods. Johnson said authorities are trying to find alternatives to drug arrests and are focused on gun violence.
Ervin, whose 28th Ward goes into parts of Garfield Park, hopes the hiring of more than 900 officers can help cut down on crime.
"Where you find drugs, you are going to find violence," Ervin said. "There has been a laxer attitude of possession and delivery of narcotics. It has emboldened climbing violence.
"There are good people who live in East and West Garfield Park. This issue does not define us. With some help our community can flourish like other communities in Chicago."
A man holds out a plastic tea candle during a Dec. 21 vigil for the more than 700 people murdered in Chicago this year. Speakers at the vigil criticized city leaders for not doing enough to help Chicago's hardest-hit communities. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
'We're suffering in the city'
Police and city leaders have pushed for harsher punishments for gun crimes for years, and in a recent statement the mayor's office said this year's spike in violence could be traced to criminals using guns not being held accountable.
"While violence anywhere is unquestionably unacceptable, this rise in violent crime in parts of Chicago’s South and West sides is a direct result of the lack of accountability for gun offenders who inflict harm in our communities," the mayor's office said.
In a September speech, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had some solutions: investing $36 million in mentoring programs over three years; creating jobs for young people, ex-cons and former drug users; and improving the Police Department's relationship with communities of color.
One of the ways Emanuel is trying to mend that relationship is by overhauling the ways in which police are held accountable. The city is replacing the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigated police use of force, and giving all patrol officers body cameras by the end of 2017, among other things.
Maurice McFarlin, a Northeastern Illinois University professor who has studied Chicago gangs and violence for years, said much of the city's violence is not "thought out" but is carried out by people who have been hurt and feel "self-hatred."
People in communities that face the most violence are ignored, face racial prejudice and begin to doubt their value — and the value of other young black people — because they are mistreated, McFarlin said. They face chaos and stress, he said.
"People want to say it's the people's culture, that that's just the way they are, that's what they do," McFarlin said. "When really it's the conditions that foster that kind of culture. And if those people were living under those conditions, they'd turn out the same way."
Lance Williams, a Northeastern professor who has studied Chicago's gangs, said the city's shootings will continue until the conditions that lead to violence are addressed.
"I just know as long as we are not dealing with the overarching causes of violence, we're going to continue to see it at elevated levels," Williams said.
Police have faced criticism as arrests dropped while murders surged — the Sun-Times found arrests were down 28 percent this year compared to 2015 — but experts aren't sure law enforcement can provide a long-lasting solution.
Some think officers are taking a "more laid-back approach" to policing as they face criticism in brutality cases, Williams said, but even if officers were more aggressive they wouldn't be able to solve the issues that create violence.
2016 saw the results of education and housing policies that had devastating impacts on some neighborhoods, Williams said.
The Renaissance 2010 plan that pushed for public school closures was "really bad school policy," Williams said. Some 50 schools were closed in 2013, forcing students to go to schools that were farther away, with some changes having kids cross gang lines.
In addition, the CHA's Plan For Transformation forced people out of public housing and into unfamiliar, "under-resourced" communities where the newcomers and established residents feuded and had to compete, Williams said.
This meant some black Chicagoans were pushed into schools and communities that didn't have the means to support them, Williams said, and the city is seeing the result of its decisions.
At the same time, young people of color are facing a "crisis of joblessness" in the city, struggling to get work even when seeking it, according to a January 2016 report.
"No one is really talking about the fact that the city's policies have created these very stressful environments, and no one is really talking about what the city really needs to do to reduce the stress," Williams said.
Residents sometimes try to cope with those issues by drinking or abusing drugs, Williams said. Young men struggle with depression, and some have a "very suicidal mentality" but no way to access mental health resources, he said.
"We're suffering in the city ... from some very, very severe systemic issues," Williams said. "It just looks like the city has no desire to address any of these issues. They're just offering this kind of lip service to hopefully weather the storm."
Kofi Ademola Xola, an activist and member of Black Lives Matter, speaks at a Dec. 21 vigil for the more than 700 people murdered in Chicago this year. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
On Dec. 21, days before the Christmas weekend would claim 11 more lives, about 40 people gathered at the American Indian Center in Ravenswood to host a vigil for the hundreds of people slain in Chicago this year.
The names of victims were projected onto a wall. Underneath, three black, cardboard coffins were painted to say, “RIP Mental Health Clinics,” “RIP Police Accountability” and “RIP Rebuilding Public Housing.”
Speakers' voices echoed as they criticized the city's leaders — particularly Mayor Rahm Emanuel — for closing half of Chicago's mental health clinics, shuttering dozens of schools and forcing kids to cross gang lines, not providing adequate housing and not holding police accountable in recent years.
All of that and more has contributed to this year's rise in violence, they said.
Two men hold up a cardboard coffin that says "RIP rebuilding public housing" at a vigil for the more than 700 people slain in Chicago this year. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
The group took up white carnations and plastic tea lights and marched to Emanuel's house, where they laid the coffins on the ground. Police guarding the home watched as the mourners held a moment of silence and then spoke again about violence and making change by holding police and politicians accountable.
Kofi Ademola Xola, one of the speakers and an activist with Black Lives Matter, said he expects things will only get worse in Chicago in 2017. The city won't have fixed the problems that created this year's violence, he said, and President-elect Donald Trump won't be focused on helping communities of color.
"Poverty is violence, and it exacerbates violence," he said. "If you give people access to mental health care, education, you give them the opportunity to realize their full humanity. And we're denied that."
One of Ademola's examples of disinvestment in communities of color: State funding has been cut to CeaseFire, a program that led to drops in shootings and killings on the West Side.
With many lawmakers looking the other way, Ademola said, people of color are trying to work together and find their own solutions. Organizers host vigils, protests and other events to speak out against violence throughout the city.
"It's up to us to organize and push back and hold them accountable," Ademola said, "because they will never do it on their own."
'The city is silent'
Gun violence has taken the lives of 28 people close to activist Camiella Williams, she told a crowd at the Dec. 21 vigil. The South Side native said she looked at the murder victims' names as they were projected on the walls but had to turn away after a few moments — she was crying.
“Their lives matter,” Williams said, “and the city is silent.”
Demarco's mom won't be silent anymore. She grew up in Rockwell Gardens, and one of her friends was shot dead in front of her when she was 11. She kept losing friends, she said, and it became normal.
She became numb to the violence, she said, unfazed by the sound of gunfire.
It wasn't until after Demarco was killed that Hester realized the same thing had happened to him and his older sister, D'Nya. After the shooting, Hester's younger children, 5 and 8, questioned why their brother hadn't dropped to the ground to avoid getting hit — just children, they already knew what to do when they heard gunfire.
They might become numb, too, Hester realized.
She won't let that happen. Instead, Hester and her husband are planning to move away. They want their children to be able to play outside.
A poster seeking information about the shooting death of Demarco Webster, a 14-year-old gunned down while helping his father move on the West Side. [DNAinfo/Kelly Bauer]
They'll keep trying to find justice for Demarco, too, Hester said. The family wants to open a center in Demarco's honor that can help young people in Chicago.
Fearing Demarco would be forgotten, his family created fliers with a photo of the teen and, in large letters: "HOMICIDE. UP TO $1,000 CASH REWARD."
The family took to the streets to hand them out in December, desperate for someone to come forward with information about the shooting.
So far, no one has.
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