Welcome to Englewood
Just a couple months ago Forbes published an article citing that more Americans have been killed in Chicago since 2001 than in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. The murder rate is at a 20-year high, with the victims predominately young black men and boys from just a couple of neighborhoods—Englewood consistently at the top of the list.
In the 24 hours surrounding my first visit, nine people died and thirteen were wounded by gun violence across the city.1 I spent my adolescence just thirty miles from this place—straight west, in a suburb called Naperville. In July 2016, Naperville was named one of the safest cities in America.
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It was an oppressively hot August 8th in Chicago. I flew into O’Hare and headed downtown on the L, transferred to the green line at Clark/Lake and rode it to the end, Ashland/63rd. A short zigzag walk and I was where I wanted to be—Beautiful Zion Baptist Church at the northwest corner of Ogden Park.
But I wasn’t there for the church; I was there for the boxing. And I wasn’t the only one.
As I climbed heavily through 1000% humidity to the third floor, a swarm of young boys came barreling up the stairs. They ducked Ms. Sally’s greetings with hellos and laughter, eager to start in on the bags. A little later a group of older boys entered slowly, quietly; each clocking in and respectfully saying hello. Ms. Sally calls them her ‘justice boys’—there to satisfy probation requirements.
The gym is full of life at this point with the pop and smack of gloves on pads and the thud of heavy ropes. A clock buzzes every sixty seconds, rudely prompting the boys to change exercises. With no air conditioning and few fans, it’s a sweat box, but the boys are proud of it nonetheless: I can tell by the bright orange, blue, and purple walls, hand-painted signs and huge grins.
The boys named this place Crushers Club—it’s a refuge for a whole lot of kids growing up in the most violent neighborhood in the most segregated city in the country.
The club comes alive in the after school hours, when boys come barreling in for boxing and belonging.
The weekend before my visit was especially bad: 26 people shot within 20 hours—one every 43 minutes.2
I remember standing at the top of the stairs, at the entryway of Crushers Club as Ms. Sally—the founder—explained the weekend to me. Taped to the windows on my left were sheets of paper with names and addresses listed in black and red ink. I asked what they were and why she hung them up:
“On every Monday I print off a list of the weekend’s shootings so the kids know where the hot blocks are—where to avoid. The names in black are those wounded, the ones in red are kills.”
The list was four pages long, single-spaced in 12pt font.
Later I asked a couple of the boys about the list: What is this? What does it mean to you? “Oh that’s a list of everyone who got shot this weekend.” … “It makes me grateful to have a place I can come, you know, like Crushers Club, cause otherwise I’d be out there, you know, yeah.”
Making Sense of a War Zone
My questions are so basic: How are there so many guns? Where are they coming from? There are many neighborhoods and cities struggling with serious inequality and poverty—but they’re not this violent. Why is violence so prevalent here? Why do we tolerate this and who can stop it?
Many, many experts have experienced, researched and written about the broad plethora of root causes, including (but not limited to) segregation, mass incarceration, and inequity within the education system. [ Reading recommendations listed in Editor's Note ]
One factor in the violence of Chicago specifically is a relatively recent (and sweeping) change in gang leadership and hierarchy. The Chicago Tribune explained it this way:
Street gangs, once compared with Fortune 500 companies for their organizational skills and ruthless pursuit of profits, are now mostly made up of small, leaderless sets of members bound together by personal relationships rather than geographic or narcotics-trade ties. Personal insults and petty conflicts, often inflamed by social media posts, are just as likely to lead to a shooting as is competition for drug turf. Taken together, these changes have created an anything-goes atmosphere on the streets.
The boys at the club say you don't have to be in a gang to die. To me, it seems like an enormous storm of vacuums: Leaderless gangs and fatherless families. Most of the working-age men are locked up or dead, to put it bluntly (and many of the boys I talked to said they would've been one of those two things if it hadn't been for Ms. Sally).
'Mass incarceration' is shorthand for the national reality that people of color make up more than 60 percent of the population behind bars.3 Even though crime has declined, the number of Americans behind bars has quintupled since 1980.4 Put another way, there are more African American men incarcerated in the U.S. than the total prison populations in India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined.5
QUICK + DIRTY / 40 Reasons Why Our Jails Are Full of Black and Poor People
One in three prime-working-age black men in America will be incarcerated before they turn 50.
"Mass incarceration and its direct and collateral consequences have effectively replaced intentional racism as a form of 21st century structural racism. Indeed, research shows that mass incarceration and its effects have been significant drivers of racial inequality in the United States, particularly during the past three to four decades," writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.6
The hard realities in Englewood reflect deeply broken systems. "The stain of segregation bleeds into the most basic elements of black lives—from housing and health to food equality and educational opportunity—and no area exemplifies this like the neighborhoods that make up the South Side of Chicago," writes Melinda Anderson in The Atlantic.7
Lock up the fathers and what becomes of the sons?
The boys of Englewood carry burdens of provision and protection; seeking strength wherever they can find it, gangs (ironically) seem safe. Mom works two jobs and still can hardly pay the power bill, while Grandma (bless her heart) is keeping watch over the block.
Older brothers and friends are here today and gone tomorrow. It's a dangerous, lonely grind. Crushers Club is one of very, very few safe places where the boys can simply be boys. The competition, discipline, brotherliness and belonging is intentionally cultivated to provide a strong alternative to gang life.
Some of the boys process their experiences through music—sharing their stories and their struggles through rhythm and rhyme. A couple of them are quite prolific, so we asked if they might compose a song for this feature. Working with BitterSweet contributors Joel Buckner and Ametria Dock, Melik Phipps and Jezekiah Jackson produced this track.
Listen carefully for all of the above in their own words:
Making A Way
When she first learned of the gun violence plaguing Chicago sixteen years ago, Ms. Sally Hazelgrove did the obvious—she moved into the neighborhood to be part of a solution. Baby son in tow, Ms. Sally began approaching boys on the street corners asking, "What is it you want? What would you prefer to be doing than hanging out here on the street?"
The consensus was quick and clear: Boxing.
So Sally went and got herself trained as a boxer (yes, you read that right) and began training the boys in vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Her goal of course was simply to give the boys a little bit of life back in every day—an alternative to gang life.
Many of the boys she met in the early days as 9, 10, 11-year-olds are still with Crushers Club today, employed as 19, 20, 21-year-olds. Ms. Sally says they are the heroes of this story.
Terrence Davis, for example, met Sally when he was just eleven; today he is twenty-eight and General Manager of the club.
"I most definitely would have been in jail because of the crimes that I used to, when I was a kid. You know what I'm saying? But she [Sally] saved my life. I could say she saved my life with this Crushers Club, and this gym, and this stuff. You know what I'm saying? Pretty much, that's it."
"A lot of my friends who I grew up with in the projects, they fell to the struggle. They gone now. They either, they in jail for the rest of they life or they dead." Everyday Terrence drives around the neighborhood picking up the boys that can't (or shouldn't) walk to the club. On Thursdays, after training and homework, he gives the boys free haircuts.
Dionte, too, grew up with Crushers Club. He met Sally when he was just ten-years-old and now at nineteen he's a Golden Glove champion and Junior Olympic champion with dreams of going pro—"and getting me a bigger Crushers Club."
It’s like we’re a big family—family I never had. But I had Sally to motivate me through it all so that’s what I be trying to do with the younger kids.
Englewood Crushers (Short-film)
Over the course of six months, we visited Crushers Club dozens of times to film fight nights, training, interviews, life. This film is the culmination of all we learned and saw.
When she was just starting out, Sally would go to the middle schools and probation officers and say, "Give me your toughest kids, the ones you're afraid of. Let me train them in boxing and see if that helps them."
Isaiah was one of those boys. He was nine-years-old when he was first sent down to the school basement to train with Sally (sounds cryptic, I know). Nineteen now, Isaiah is employed with Crushers Club and won the Golden Gloves last year—twice. He competed at nationals and wants to go pro in 2017.
And Isaiah's not the only rising star—Ivry has been with Sally for four years and in 2016 won the Junior Olympics for his weight division.
Sally laughs, "Oh I never really expected us to be good, you know. That was never really what it was about. Success, to me, is when a boy comes to me and says, 'Ms. Sally I just want you to know I gave up my gun.' That means their identity is changing, that they're finding their security and belonging in Crushers instead of the streets and gangs."
Buford Arrington, with 27 years as a Program Manager for Cook County Probation Department, says, "Sally has created a safe haven; kids have a place to go other than being at home or on the streets. Crushers Club, in my opinion, is very valuable and uplifting. My job was to refer kids to her program from the Probation Department. Crushers Club is uniquely impactful in part because it's a physical outlet within a structured, safe environment. I commend Sally for her dedication and her service in the community."
These boys beam hope and resilience. Crushers Club is very much a family.
One of the most amazing aspects of Crushers Club is that it's youth-led. Nineteen boys are currently on the payroll and Sally wants to grow that number to fifty asap. Obviously the economics of street life is a powerful draw, so the opportunity for employment at Crushers Club is critical if these boys are to have a fighting chance.
In Terrence's case, he started out pulling weeds in the parking lot for $3 a week. As a homeless youth, that was life-saving. Now, the boys have responsibilities for the day-to-day training, maintenance, and development of the club—with Terrence and Sally at the helm. As the older boys train the younger boys, hope is compounded and the streets are drained of shooters.
Don't let anyone tell you violence in Chicago is hopeless, because a little club on the south side is crushing it.
1 9 dead, 13 wounded in Chicago shootings Monday. Chicago Sun. August 2016.
2 3 dead, 23 wounded in shootings Saturday through early Sunday. Chicago Tribune. August 7, 2016.
3 8 Facts You Should Know About The Criminal Justice System And People of Color. Center for American Progress. May 2015.
4 Naperville touted among safest U.S. cities for kids. Chicago Tribune. July 2016.
5 The Black Male Incarceration Problem Is Real and It’s Catastrophic. Antonio Moore. Huffington Post. February 2015.
6 One Strike and You’re Out. Rebecca Vallas and Sharon Dietrich. Center for American Progress. December 2014.
7 Chicago’s Inescapable Segregation. Melinda D. Anderson. The Atlantic. August 2016.