Chicago teens take lead on gun violence at home, nationally

Alexis Willis holds the funeral program for her cousin Jaheim Wilson at her Chicago home on Thursday, April 26, 2018. Wilson was shot and killed less than three weeks earlier as he walked with a friend in Chicago. Willis, who has joined a group at her school that advocates the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Six Principles of Nonviolence," worries about her own safety. "I don't want to die this summer," she said. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Crosses representing victims of gun violence stand outside Collins Academy High School in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood on Thursday, April 19, 2018. The school is one of two campuses of North Lawndale College Prep High School. Both have Peace Warrior groups, which espouse the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Six Principles of Nonviolence" in an attempt to promote peace and interrupt conflict at their schools and in their city. North Lawndale is among the Chicago neighborhoods most impacted by gun violence. Most students know someone who's been killed. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Audrey Wright, right, quizzes fellow members of the Peace Warriors group at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Wright, who is a junior and the group's current president, was asking the students, from left, freshmen Otto Lewellyn III and Simone Johnson and sophomore Nia Bell, about a symbol used in the group's training on conflict resolution and team building. The students also must memorize and regularly recite the Rev. Martin Luther King's "Six Principles of Nonviolence." (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Gerald Smith, student advocate and dean of restorative justice at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School, works in his school office on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Smith also serves as the adult adviser for the school's Peace Warrior group, which aims to prevent violence and interrupt conflict at the school and in the city. Smith often talks about the concept of "kairos" with his students -- a Greek word that refers to a critical or opportune moment. He says the burgeoning youth movement to end gun violence is one of those moments. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Alexis Willis, a high school freshman, listens to music on her phone as she walks to school in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood on Friday, April 27, 2018. She said school shootings sadden her greatly, though she and her peers worry even more about gun violence outside of school. Her 16-year-old cousin was shot and killed in early April, causing concerns about her own safety. "I don't want to die this summer," she said. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Graduating senior D'Angelo McDade leads a march in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. About 200 students joined the march as a sign of solidarity with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 students and educators were fatally shot. McDade and other Peace Warriors from his school wore tape over their mouths, some while carrying crosses commemorating victims of gun violence in their own city and elsewhere. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
FILE - In this Saturday, March 24, 2018 file photo, Alex King, right, and D'Angelo McDade, left, both graduating seniors at North Lawndale College Prep High School in Chicago raise their fists in the air as they arrive to speak during the "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington. Both are Peace Warriors at their school and both have been impacted by gun violence. King lost a 16-year-nephew last year and McDade was shot in the leg. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Gerald Smith, student advocate and dean of restorative justice at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School, right, watches after telling a student to do jumping jacks as a consequence for arriving late to school on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Smith also serves as the adult adviser for the school's Peace Warrior group. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Peace Warriors from North Lawndale College Prep High School bow their heads during a moment of silence for the victims of gun violence during a Day of Peace rally at Chicago's Legacy Charter School on Friday, April 20, 2018, which also marked the 19th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. The 16-year-old cousin of Alexis Willis, center, was shot and killed in Chicago two weeks earlier. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
CORRECTS SPELLING TO COOKS, NOT COOK - Robert Cooks, a high school freshman, puts on a tie before entering his "Emerging Leaders" class at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School on Friday, April 27, 2018. He said he has considered joining the Peace Warriors, a group that advocates non-violence at his school. "I thought about it, but then I didn't. ... I get in a lot of trouble." Leaders of the group say they've had trouble recruiting many boys into the group in recent years and have encouraged Cooks to join. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
A funeral flag waves on a hearse outside a church on Chicago's West Side on Friday, April 13, 2018, during the service for 16-year-old Jaheim Wilson, who was shot and killed a few days earlier. Wilson was a cousin of Alexis Willis, who is a Peace Warrior at North Lawndale College Prep High School. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Alexis Willis, center, and other high school students from Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood hold an anti-violence sign during a march in their neighborhood on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Willis' 16-year-old cousin was shot and killed in Chicago three weeks after this demonstration. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Gerald Smith, student advocate and dean of restorative justice at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School, speaks to students about their disagreement with a teacher on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Smith also serves as the adult adviser for the school's Peace Warrior group, which aims to prevent violence and interrupt conflict at the school and in the city. Peace Warriors also meet with their peers to resolve differences during confidential "peace circles." (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
Alexis Willis fights back tears after talking about her cousin, Jaheim Wilson, at her Chicago home on Thursday, April 26, 2018. Wilson was shot and killed less than three weeks earlier as he walked with a friend in Chicago. "Nobody that's 16 should have to die," she said. Willis, who has joined a group at her school that advocates the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Six Principles of Nonviolence," worries about her own safety. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

CHICAGO — At his desk at North Lawndale College Prep High School, Gerald Smith keeps a small calendar that holds unimaginable grief.

In its pages, the dean and student advocate writes the name of each student who's lost a family member, many of them to gun violence. And then he deploys the Peace Warriors — students who have dedicated themselves to easing the violence that pervades their world.

The Warriors seek out their heartbroken classmates. They offer a hug, and a small bag of candy.

Since September, Smith has added more than 160 names to that little book, roughly half the student body at this campus on Chicago's West Side. And that doesn't even include those whose friends have been killed.

"We would run out of candy," says Smith, sadly.

It is hard and often anguishing work, keeping the peace. North Lawndale's Peace Warriors do it in small and large ways. When invited to Parkland, Florida, after 17 people died in a school shooting there in February, they answered the call — to mourn together and to unite in what's become a national youth movement aimed at stopping gun violence.

Weeks later, Alex King and D'Angelo McDade, seniors at North Lawndale, walked onto stage at the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. with fists raised. They marveled at the masses of young people who'd joined the fight. Said King: "We knew this was going to be in the history books. And for me, it was like, 'Wow! I'm actually being heard.'"

They continue to press their solution to urban violence: more jobs and investment in low-income communities like theirs. But that's the long game.

First, the Peace Warriors must survive — and help their peers do the same.

___

"Good morning, good morning, good morning!"

A small band of Peace Warriors greets students who make their way into the school's main foyer after going through a bag check and metal detector.

This is when the Warriors get a sense of how the day may go and where they may need to step in to maintain calm.

Most everyone is upbeat, though perhaps a little sleepy. A few dance to old-school soul over the sound system, until a young woman arrives, sobbing. Two Peace Warriors rush to embrace her and escort her to the school office, where she can collect herself.

When the group began in 2009, there were just 17 Peace Warriors on the school's two campuses. Back then, that small corps spent much of its time breaking up fights, "interrupting nonsense," as they call it. Since then, their ranks have grown to more than 120 — and fights have dropped markedly, Smith said.

Now, the Peace Warriors focus more on running "peace circles," mediating verbal altercations between students and tense exchanges on social media.

Alexis Willis is among the newest recruits. Like the others, she had to learn the "Six Principles of Nonviolence" of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before she could call herself a Peace Warrior.

The civil rights activist lived in the neighborhood in 1966 in an apartment that was just down the street. He chose that location to draw attention to segregation and extreme poverty — issues that persist there even today.

Willis, a freshman who trained in January, likes King's first principle best: "Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people."

She admits that, as a child, she sometimes solved problems with her fists. But as the level of violence has escalated in her city, and she has matured, she has been drawn to "this life," as the Peace Warriors sometimes call their pacifist practice.

Willis says her resolve to help her classmates "do better" was only solidified when, in April, her beloved 16-year-old cousin, Jaheim Wilson, was shot and killed as he walked with a friend in an alley near his Chicago home.

"Nobody that's 16 should have to die," Willis says, quietly.

Less than two weeks after her cousin's death, she received her first Peace Warrior shirt with her name and an image of a large hand flashing a peace sign on the back.

"When you put on this shirt, you put on a target. People will test you," Smith tells his students when first handing them their shirts.

Indeed, being a Peace Warrior can be a challenge. Some students call them snitches or see them as meddling do-gooders. In recent years, Smith has had a harder time recruiting young men to join the group, unfortunate since they are most often the victims of violence.

Alex King confesses that he first simply joined the group because he wanted to wear the Peace Warrior shirt to school instead of the otherwise required collared white polo. But he soon came to see the group as family.

Speaking at the March for Our Lives, he shared the story of his nephew, Daishawn Moore, also 16, who was gunned down last May.

"Through my friends and colleagues, I found help to come up out of a dark place," King told the crowd. Full of rage and sorrow, he had planned to retaliate against his nephew's killer, until fellow Peace Warriors talked him out of it: "Everyone doesn't have the same resources or support system as I was lucky to have."

The alliance with Parkland unites the North Lawndale students with those from a very different world — wealthy and suburban, a place where shootings are far from the norm.

While students from Parkland and elsewhere are pushing lawmakers for stricter gun regulations, the Peace Warriors have made poverty their target. Among other things, the Peace Warriors want more funding for mental health clinics and schools in low-income neighborhoods. Both have seen cuts in recent years in Chicago.

At North Lawndale College Prep, a charter school that is privately funded, Smith says there once were four counselors, one for each grade. Now there are only two who serve grades nine through 12.

It means that Smith and other staff — and even the Peace Warriors — must pick up some of the slack.

___

On that recent morning, the girl who'd arrived at school sobbing walks up to the school security desk, where Smith is tracking late arrivals.

He knows why she wasn't in class. Her boyfriend had just been shot and killed. But why, he asks, is she carrying a bundle of clothing?

"It's his clothes," she answers in a monotone before heading down the hallway in a daze.

Smith covers his eyes for a moment, then reveals cheeks wet with tears.

It doesn't matter how many times this happens. He'll never get used to it.

This wasn't work he'd planned to do. The "reluctant" fourth-generation pastor, now 47, ultimately answered the call to work with youth. Now he has a knack, he says, for spotting potential leaders, some of them also reluctant.

A few days later, freshman Robert Cooks sits in the deans' office, awaiting a detention slip.

Above Smith's desk in that office, red letters are stuck to the wall — a message where there used to be a clock. Smith never bothered to replace it after a distressed student knocked it down.

"This is KAIROS Time," the message reads, using a Greek word that refers to a decisive and opportune moment.

Smith sensed that kind of moment when he accompanied the Peace Warriors to Parkland and later to Washington for the march.

This summer — Chicago's worst time for violence — is another, as he and his students plan sessions to train more Peace Warriors in the neighborhood. Students across the country also plan voter registration drives with an eye on the midterm elections in November. But here, safety must come first.

"This summer is critical. Can't wait until next summer. Can't wait until November," Smith says.

As he works in his office, he stops and gazes at Cooks, the dejected freshman, as if he's seeing him with fresh eyes.

Has Cooks ever considered being a Peace Warrior? The teen says he gets in too much trouble.

"Peace Warriors aren't perfect," Smith tells him. "Don't count yourself out. We need some strong young men."

Maybe, just maybe, this is another "kairos." One of those critical moments.

Time will tell.

___

Martha Irvine, an AP national writer and visual journalist, can be reached at mirvine@ap.org or at http://twitter.com/irvineap .

___

This story has been corrected to show that a student quoted in the story is named Robert Cooks, not Robert Cook.

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