Death turns spotlight on America's murder capital
JANUARY was a big month for Hadiya Pendleton. The 15-year-old drum majorette travelled to Washington to march in Barack Obama's inauguration parade, before returning home to Chicago for her finals.
Then, on January 29, Hadiya was shot dead, the 42nd person to be murdered in Chicago last month. The honour student had just finished an exam and was sheltering from rain with friends under a canopy in a local park when a volley of bullets whistled in from a nearby car park. One boy was wounded. Hadiya was hit in the back and died.
The gunman fled and has not been caught. Police believe he mistook the children for rival gang members invading his turf.
Too much to bear ... Hadiya Pendleton's mother, Cleopatra, and brother Nathaniel, arrive at a Chicago funeral home for the wake. Photo: AP
Michelle Obama was among the mourners at Hadiya's funeral on Saturday. Chicago is the first lady's home town, and the Obama's family home is only a few blocks from the murder scene. This is where Barack Obama began his political career, first as a community organiser, then as state senator.
Mr Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now the Chicago mayor, and he was cracking down on guns even before 20 children and six adults were massacred in Connecticut, prompting the President to launch his campaign for tougher gun regulations. But despite Mr Emanuel's efforts and in the face of a falling national homicide rate, Chicago is being torn apart by shootings. Last year 506 people were murdered, making the city America's murder capital.
As shocking as that tally may be, it does not adequately reflect the extent of the carnage.
Honour student ... Hadiya Pendleton was shot dead while she talked to friends in a park.
The Chicago Tribune reported that between January 1 and December 21 last year there were 2634 reported shooting incidents in Chicago, while in the school year that ended in June 2012, more than 300 public school students were shot, 24 of them fatally.
During the Memorial Day long weekend in May last year, 10 people were shot dead and 43 wounded. At that point it was calculated that violence had increased 50 per cent in 2012 compared with the previous year.
By comparison, the murder rate in New York City last year was the lowest in 18 years, with 414 murders, down 19 per cent on the year before. There were 1353 shooting incidents in New York - about half as many as in Chicago. The violence has become so bad that the Tribune has established a blog called redeye (http://homicides.redeyechicago.com) simply to keep track of the killings. Each murder is located on a map and information about the circumstances of the murder and the victim is logged.
Another website, DNAinfo .com, established a memorial page for those killed in 2012. One of its creators, Je Sabella, wrote in The Huffington Post that as a reporter in Chicago over the past few years ''it became a Monday routine: come into the office early Monday and count how many people were murdered over the weekend … After all, we were used to it. Sometimes there are seven or eight people killed in a single weekend - and don't even try to count all the non-fatal shootings.''
Other websites have sprung up to remember the dead, either individually or as a group. The Complex.com online city guide last year published a memorial to the teenagers who died during the summer. It noted that although about half of all Chicagoans are black, three-quarters of the murder victims were black.
Many of the murders of the young people that The Complex website charts appear to be gang related. Some seem like executions; some appear to be blasts of impulsive violence, like the killing of 16-year-old Jamal Locket, who was shot during an argument over a bicycle.
The executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, Roseanna Ander, said impulsive behaviour among young men, combined with ready access to guns and the prevalence of gangs were among the causes of the violence.
Police inside Chicago's city limits were appropriately focused on taking guns off the streets, and last year confiscated 8.5 guns for every gun removed by New York City police, Ms Ander said.
But once the owners were charged with carrying a gun illegally, those in New York faced a mandatory three-year sentence, while in Chicago they often walked away with parole, she said.
While Chicago's gun laws are tough, the city is surrounded by mid-western states with comparatively lax gun laws, she said. New York on the other hand, was surrounded by north-eastern states with some of the strictest gun ownership laws in the country.
''It's not like we are stopping and searching people at the city limits,'' Ms Ander said.
The Illinois Rifle Association's executive director, Richard Pearson, believes the gun restrictions themselves are making Chicago more dangerous.
''The gun laws in Chicago only restrict law-abiding citizens and they have essentially made the citizens prey,'' he told The New York Times.
Ms Ander said it was not clear why gang membership appeared to have stayed high in Chicago while falling in New York and Los Angeles - although the racial divide in the city and the notorious housing projects could be contributing factors.
A professor at the School of Social Service Administration at Chicago University, Harold Pollack, agrees.
''New York is a wealthier city with higher-quality social services and less horrible public housing,'' Dr Pollack said. ''The warehousing of poor African-American families in places like Robert Taylor [a notorious housing project] that then became the focus of large drug-selling organisations also matters.''
There is no suggestion that Hadiya Pendleton, or any of the children with her in the park that day, had anything to do with the city's gangs.
Mourners at the funeral were offered a slim order-of-service folder that included photographs of Hadiya and a copy of a note that Mr Obama, who recently spoke at a service for the 26 killed in Connecticut, sent to her family.
''Michelle and I just wanted you to know how heartbroken we are to have heard about Hadiya's passing,'' it reads. ''We know that no words from us can soothe the pain, but rest assured that we are praying for you, and that we will continue to work as hard as we can to end this senseless violence. God bless, Barack Obama.''
According to one report, at the beginning of the service Ms Obama approached Hadiya's open casket with her arm around the dead girl's mother, who threw her head back and wailed as the lid was closed.
Should Chicago's current murder rate continue, 700 will be dead by year's end.