Two solemn meetings were held last week for the community grieving over the murder of an Evanston teen by an Evanston man in his early 20s. They allowed community members to hear and share reactions to the shooting of 14-year-old Dajae Coleman by the alleged gunman, Wesley A. Woodson III, 20, on Sept. 22. Dajae was walking with a group of friends after leaving a party.
On Oct. 1, nine people with a relationship to Dajae spoke before a crowd of about 200 in a meeting convened jointly by the McGaw Y and Youth Organizations Umbrella (Y.O.U.).
The next evening, about 400 people packed the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center at the request of Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl to hear about existing programs for youth aged 14-25 and make suggestions about what can be done to deter youth from violent and antisocial activities.
Recommendations centered on family and community: providing more mentors, looking out for youth who are neglected by family or disengaged from society, educating parents, keeping kids in school, finding jobs for youth, and teaching anger management and conflict resolution. Some recognized that Evanston has lost two youths, both victim and shooter, in this tragedy.
Songs and performances at the Oct. 1 meeting addressed the glorification of violence or the scourge of guns, drugs and gangs that permeate modern society.
Graig Tertulien, a graduate of Evanston Township High School and a freshman at Columbia College sang, “Oh, here we go again/ Another little child is dead/ Their time is gone.”
Lamar Jorden, who was featured in the documentary “Louder Than a Bomb,” questioned the gangsta culture that pits blacks against blacks in his performance “I see genocide in your eyes.”
Bill Geiger, CEO of the McGaw Y, said the purpose of the evening was “to listen, learn and gain a deeper understanding and empathy about our community, our entire community.”
As moderator of the Oct. 1 meeting, Y.O.U. executive director Seth Green said, “Many of us spent the last 10 days grieving. … All of us have been burdened and searching. … I hope you can understand that these incidents [of violence] are not just isolated incidents. … They burn in the mind.”
Mr. Green asked the nine panelists two questions: how the death of Dajae Coleman had affected them and what they believed the community should do about violence.
Kathy Graves is a mother and an outreach worker for Y.O.U. at Nichols School. She said, “The tragedy is that … it doesn’t matter if parents do the right thing. … We are trying to figure out how this doesn’t happen again to another child.”
Tanasha Slaton and Leslie Robinson are both mothers who are active in the community. Ms. Slaton said, “It breaks my heart. Those children need help. How do you explain to your child? Everything you say: ‘Stay in school, don’t do drugs, don’t gang bang’ – it’s like it means nothing.”
Jabril Eason and Saveiun Shadd were teammates of Dajae. “I lost one of my closest friends,” Saveiun said. “It’s just wrong,” said Jabril.
Ms. Robinson said, “It was like someone put a knife in my heart. … The alleged killer took the option of doing something negative. I know Wesley’s parents. … I know both [families]. I knew Wesley had great parents but he chose a different path, a different direction. ...
“People say that marches and rallies don’t do anything, but if we march to City Council with a message: ‘Do something. It’s not just the Dae-Daes [Dajae’s nickname] we’re losing; it’s the Wesleys. …’”
Michael Johnson and Andre Patrick are coaches at the Evanston Pride feeder basketball league. “I think we turned our heads on kids who are troublemakers. … I’m very hurt and angry,” said Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Patrick said, “We have to be mindful of kids who are ‘in between.’ They have no adult to help them make decisions. These kids don’t always want to do wrong. They’re caught. They’re battling things out there, too. As a community we have to find a way to help kids that are just searching day in and day out. … They’re trapped in that situation. They’re battling something – not that that excuses it.”
Mr. Johnson said, “I [was] one of those kids that people turn their heads against. I was in the street and I didn’t have to be. … Then I didn’t want to be in the streets any more. … With the right guidance, 97 percent of those kids will do right.” He suggested more mentoring programs.
“We should put some opportunities in place for kids who are on the right track, but also for kids that are on the wrong track. Give them jobs, if there is funding. Give the opportunity for these kids to turn around,” said Mr. Patrick.
Ms. Slaton said, “[Children] want someone to reach out to them. If we had more parents giving of themselves … reaching out to these kids … It takes all of us in Evanston to step up. … We all have to step up because these are all our children.”
Tony Strong, a member of the audience, said, “I feel that just as the City looks at the roads and the infrastructure, our children are the infrastructure. … It’s an undeniable truth that at some point we have to change the way we’re dealing with the situation. … Kids are operating out of an entirely different frame of mind. We can’t turn our backs on kids who have not been taught the right way. … He still has a heart. No matter how cold it may be, he still has a heart and there is someone who can change him.”
Only near the end of the meeting did the subject of guns arise.
“I’m speaking as the grandmother of a freshman at Evanston Township High School,” said Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. “We do have two tragedies: Dajae and Wesley. … One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is guns. Is it that easy to get a gun? How does it happen that it is so easy for kids in Evanston to get a gun?”
“[Guns are] extremely easy to get,” said Mr. Johnson. “A lot of people go to Indiana, to gun shows that sell antique guns, but they’re not all antique guns – you can go [even] if you’re a felon; you can get high-powered rifles.”
Mr. Johnson added, “The white community respects guns more than the black community – they say, ‘Let’s go hunting.’ The black community says, ‘Don’t touch that gun.’ We get them and we don’t know what to do.” He said he thinks that when white people take their kids hunting, the kids learn the power and destruction of guns and so stay away from them.
While several youth football teams practiced on Foster Field in the early autumn evening, more than 400 adults and teens gathered within Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center to express their concern for the future of Evanston’s children.
Mayor Tisdahl, who had called the meeting, outlined the recreation and job-training programs in the community and asked all residents to let her know their recommendations. “The 18-to-25-year- olds need our attention. Let me know your ideas,” she said.
Pastor Mark Dennis of Second Baptist Church read a statement from 50 local clergy, outlining seven key points for the community. “Civility is necessary,” he said. “Character formation is not optional. Gun violence must go.”
Afterward the concerned community members – and at least one alleged member of the National Rifle Association who lives in another town – gathered into groups of 10-20 to brainstorm about how to protect Evanston’s youth.
As at the Oct. 1 meeting, mentoring was a frequent recommendation. Other suggestions from the community centered on education, jobs, parent education, safety and community involvement: keeping kids in school, mandatory or voluntary after-school programs, active truant officers, greater curfew enforcement, offering safe transportation to and from events, a youth center with arcade games or a bowling alley, more opportunities for kids to express themselves through art and music, a community center open all night, “required [community] service for all kids,” more vocational training, more jobs, learning how kids obtain guns and drugs, enlisting the help of former gang members, “helping 13-to-17-year-olds learn to read,” teaching kids and parents respect, and teaching anger management and conflict resolution.
There were themes of forgiveness and unity: “Let’s not give up on the kids.” “Let’s stay consistent and let this not be the only time we get together.” “We lost two kids; we have to forgive one another.”
At the end of the evening Police Chief Richard Eddington thanked community members for their concern and involvement and encouraged them to sustain it.
“The emotion that brought us here tonight is not a vaccine – it’s a vitamin pill. I look around and see the block captains, those who work hard, and I encourage you to partner with them. Please take what you learned tonight and push it forward."