Community rallies against gang activity

By mlekovic

A crowd of students, teachers and concerned Chicago residents gathered Sept. 23 as 31st Ward Ald. Ray Suarez, Mayor Richard Daley and other community officials voiced their anger over drug abuse and gang violence that students of Chicago Public Schools have to deal with on a daily basis.

More than 200 people attended the annual rally. Protesters marched from Falconer School, 3020 N. Lamon Ave., to a parking lot at 4621 W. Belmont Ave., waving picket signs and chanting against violence and drug use.

Nine CPS students have been killed during gang-related violence in the first month of the 2009-2010 school year.  Administrators from several schools said they don’t want to see any more empty seats in their classrooms due to this violence.

Daley said parents should step up and take charge of their children and stay active in their neighborhoods.

“It’s about time that adults start acting like the Congressional Medal of Honor winners and stand up and protect your family and your home and your community,” Daley said. “The police cannot do it.”

Carol Garai, assistant principal at Calvin Park High School, said it’s important to send a message to the community.

“We are supporting anti-violence,” Garai said. “We absolutely have to stop what’s happening in the neighborhoods. In our communities, we have too many young people that are dying. It’s all due to gang activity. And it starts at a young age.”

City streets were blocked off and traffic was stopped while police escorted protesters through the streets of the 31st Ward.

Suarez greeted the patrons at both the beginning and end of the march by insisting on breaking the silence and speaking out against drugs and violence.

“We have to stay motivated and make sure that we send a strong message, and that message is no to drugs, no to violence and yes to education,” Suarez said.

Chicago Public Schools teachers spoke out, saying they were tired of losing their students to gang activity.

Isaly Acevedo, a fifth-grade teacher at William P. Nixon Elementary School, proudly waved a sign for one of her fallen students  over her head as she marched.

“It’s important [to rally] because if we don’t, I am going to keep losing my students,” Acevedo said. “These are gems in the rough that need to be polished and need to be prepared to be better citizens and productive individuals in our society.”

During the summer, Acevedo lost one of her students who was fatally shot by gang members. Acevedo said that her student was also a member of a gang.

“He was a product of his environment,” Acevedo said.

Acevedo has been a teacher for four years and every year she attends these rallies in support. She said she does so because if she doesn’t, “who will?”

“I think it’s important to understand that stopping the silence means stopping the violence,” Acevedo said.

Dozens of students from different schools marched in unison because even though they  weren’t schoolmates, their message was the same.

Mario Fernandez, a 14-year-old freshman at North Grand High School, supported his school as they marched with a message of anti-violence.

Fernandez said he and his friends chase away the kids who write graffiti around his neighborhood.

“I skate at a skate park, and I see people tagging and I ask them, ‘What are you doing?’ and tell them, ‘Get out of here because we skate here,’” Fernandez said.

Fernandez said gang activity hits close to home because he lost a cousin to  violence.

“One of my friends is still in a gang and I tell him he shouldn’t do it because I lost a cousin and some old friends to gangs,” Fernandez said.

Once the protesters reached their destination, Suarez thanked and urged them to speak out about gangs and violence.