“Last year, the police Maced the whole hallway”

A girl from Chicago's Altgeld Gardens housing project talks about high school, murder and the long walk home

Topics: School Violence, Barack Obama, Chicago

"Last year, the police Maced the whole hallway"Nadashia Thomas, 6, a cousin of Derrion Albert, holds a sign beside a poster of Derrion Albert at Fenger High School in Chicago, Sept. 28, 2009.

On Sept. 24, Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old junior at Chicago’s Christian Fenger Academy, was beaten to death in a brawl near the high school. A cellphone video of the killing found its way to the Internet and was aired on news broadcasts around the world. The scenes of violence in the streets of Chicago were partly blamed for the city’s elimination in the first round of voting for the Olympics.

The fight that killed Derrion began as a dispute between boys from the Ville, the neighborhood surrounding Fenger, and Altgeld Gardens, the housing project where President Obama worked as a community organizer in the mid-1980s. Traditionally, students from Altgeld attended Carver High School, a five- to 10-minute walk away. The school is now a military academy, which draws students from all over the city and the suburbs. To make room, students from Altgeld were shifted to Fenger. That decision was made by Arne Duncan, who was then CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and is now Obama’s secretary of education.

On Oct. 7, Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited Chicago to discuss the killing and pledged $500,000 toward efforts to end youth violence at Fenger and its surrounding elementary schools. Parents at Altgeld Gardens want their children sent to Carver. On Tuesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson rode a school bus to Fenger with students from Altgeld, promising to seek a meeting with Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has rejected the idea of reassigning students.

“The day that the city of Chicago decides to divide schools by gang territory, that’s the day we’ve given up the city,” Daley said.

The article below was written by a 17-year-old girl who lives in Altgeld Gardens and attends Fenger. She prefers to remain anonymous.

— Edward McClelland

I’ve been going to Fenger for four years. I’m a senior. I think that this is the worst that it’s ever gotten. It’s different gangs from different territories: They got 11-9, which is on 119th Street. 12-Trey, which is 123rd. They got the Ville, 11-Trey Crazy, and they got the Gardens. Ever since I’ve been going there my freshman year, I’ve seen people get stabbed in the school, I’ve seen people get cut in the face with a razor blade. Last year, the police Maced the whole hallway during a big fight. When I was a sophomore, the night before prom, a boy got shot. He was playing Russian roulette at his house.

The day Derrion Albert died, there was shooting outside the school early that morning. After school, I was at cheerleading practice. My best friend came in there and told my other best friend that her brother was out there fighting. It was kids from the Gardens and the Ville. The Ville is 111th. The fight happened on 111th. They got mad because kids from the Garden were in their neighborhood. Usually, the kids from the Garden take the bus, but they said they chose to walk that day.

When she left, they made an announcement on the intercom. They said “Everybody be safe. Don’t take the 111th Street route to Michigan [Avenue].” When I left school later on that day, I talked to some of the guys, and they told me that somebody got hurt, and we didn’t know who it was. A text was sent out that somebody died. The next morning, that’s when we saw Derrion on the news.

When we returned to school, people were treating kids from the Gardens differently. I was hearing rumors that somebody was going to shoot out the bus. People don’t know I’m from the Gardens, but every time I tell them, they say, “Oh, no, she a snake. She a snake.” Because of everything that happened. They say it’s our fault that he died. How they treated me before, it was just cool, calm and collected.

Kids from Altgeld Gardens will be hollering in the hallway, “We want Carver. We want it now.” They’ll just be playing. But I think that kids from the Gardens should go to Carver High, because that’s our neighborhood school. When I was in eighth grade, they sent me a letter that said, “You’ve been accepted to your neighborhood school, Fenger.” I’m like, “How’s Fenger our neighborhood, when Carver’s in walking distance?” A fight is going to happen anywhere, but our neighborhood wouldn’t have been in this if we weren’t going to Fenger.

Since Derrion passed away, the school has felt like prison. We have no freedom. You have to get monitored when you go to the bathroom. The lady stays there and holds the door. They have people patting us down, on the chest and in between the cleavage when we go into school every day. Last year, when I was there, none of this was happening. We had cellphones. You can’t have cellphones anymore. They take them and they return them at the end of the day.

After the fight, everybody transferred their kids out of the school. Everybody. The majority of kids transferred out. I want to, but this is my senior year, and it will mess with my credits.

Even if they give the school $500,000, it’s not going to work. Kids are going to be kids. They are going to fight. They are going to argue. They can’t stop the kids from doing what they want to do. At the beginning of the year, they said they were going to transfer all the kids out that caused problems. But they aren’t doing anything about that. Nothing can stop violence. It’s going to happen.

I knew two of the kids that have been charged. They lived here in the Gardens. People say that they haven’t been into any violence. The Ville people was wrong for crossing the tracks. If the Garden people want to walk there, they should let ‘em. I walk from the school to Michigan every day, and I don’t have any problems. The kids from the Gardens crossed the tracks, and the kids from the Ville went after them. Also, if they go to Michigan, it’s one bus home.

Before this, we had to take two Chicago Transit Authority buses to get to school. It took 45 minutes to get to the school on the bus. Since the fight, the school has been sending buses to pick us up. It’s safer.

Mayor Daley is wrong when he says that sending kids from Altgeld to Carver will be letting the gangs decide school boundaries. I don’t like that man. That’s crazy. It isn’t any school boundaries. It’s safety. They’d better not give me no say so with him. I’ll tell him, “You don’t go to Fenger. You don’t know what’s going on. You’re putting Altgeld kids’ and innocent bystanders’ lives in danger by sending them to Fenger.”

Most of the kids at Fenger come from neighborhoods that are close by. The only out-of-area neighborhood is Altgeld. Ever since freshman year, every neighborhood has been getting into it with every neighborhood. Today at school, someone told me, “The Gardens dirty.” I responded in an angry manner, “The outside’s dirty. What place that you know isn’t dirty on the outside. When you walk in my house, it’s clean.”

Derrion’s death has given Fenger a bad name. When I went to go fill out a job application at a restaurant, they looked at my application and they was like, “We’ll call you,” and when I went out the door, they threw it out. I heard them say, “Fenger’s ghetto.”

People aren’t gonna forget Derrion’s death. It’s going to make people change their minds about coming to Chicago. I think it had to do with Chicago not getting the Olympics. Derrion did not deserve what happened to him. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family. I hope these kids just come to their senses and realize they are killing our youth. This is our future.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>