‘Off The Sidelines’ urges women to be change they seek on gun violence

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Some had lost loved ones to gun violence. Some got involved to try to prevent that loss.

Others one day came to the decision they weren’t going to be fearful in their own communities, while others got sick and tired of constant headlines written by gun violence, in Chicago and nationwide.

The women who gathered at Captain Hard Times eatery on 79th Street last Thursday had one thing in common: They sought ways to get off the sidelines and do something. And the event sponsor, the Off The Sidelines organization’s mission is to help women do just that.

“Silence is no longer an option when it comes to the violence in Chicago,” said Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who co-founded Off The Sidelines in 2015, along with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, to encourage women to bring their ideas to action.

“What better voices to help magnify than those of the women out in the streets working every day to make their communities safer?” Gainer said at the monthly issues-focused discussion that had drawn concerned women from as far away as Hinsdale and Alsip.

Sharing their own journeys to activism were five women on the front lines, seeking to stem violence perpetrated by gangs in pockets of the South and West sides, as well as by deranged individuals responsible for mass shootings in places like Orlando, Florida; San Bernardino, California; and Newtown, Connecticut.

“I’m not an activist, just somebody’s mother who couldn’t bear to be one of the mothers brought to the front row through loss of their children,” said Tamar Manasseh of Mothers Against Senseless Killings.

She founded M.A.S.K. in Englewood, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, in 2015, and has received accolades for stemming the violence within its small radius — just by setting up camp on a corner daily in the summer, feeding children and re-creating the “village” of old adage.

“I don’t know where mothers who get that phone call find the strength,” she said. “It would kill me.”

Activist Diane Latiker spoke of founding her Kids Off The Block organization in 2003 by opening her living room to 10 kids in the crime-beleaguered Roseland neighborhood, where she’s lived for 28 years. Her group is recognized locally and nationally for its work with at-risk teens.

“When you can have one block where four families have lost kids to gun violence, what does that do to hope? When you don’t have hope, you have no problem picking up a gun, going to a rival’s home and shooting their mother who opens the door, then going home and making a video about it,” Latiker said. “We try to bring in all our kids, including those in gangs. I’d rather be in their lives and have peace on my block, than stay in my house, close the door, and live in fear.”

And fear, the women said, is what governs neighborhoods where the statistics play out. With more than 450 murders this year, the city ended July on pace to exceed 2016’s record 784 homicides.

But Chicago is not alone. The three cities with highest per capita homicide rates in 2016 — St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit — are currently on track to meet or beat last year’s rates, with data showing the majority of these homicides were committed with firearms.

“It just infuriates me that the National Rifle Association is this white male bully organization that benefits from the violence on our streets. They love to say, ‘Illinois has really strong laws, but look at what’s happening in Chicago,’ ” said Brenna O’Brien, who serves as the Chicago lead for the Illinois Chapter of the national grass-roots group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

O’Brien spoke of being moved to get off the sidelines last year after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, when 50 people were killed and 53 injured by a gunman at a packed gay nightclub in Orlando. She now devotes much of her time to advocating reform of federal gun laws.

“Look where the guns come here from — Indiana, Missouri, Wisconsin. There’s this bigger issue that we can’t just ignore, and it’s become my passion to take that narrative away from the NRA,” O’Brien said.

Speakers included Maria Pike, whose son, Ricky, was gunned down in Logan Square in 2012, and she now works with Moms Demand Action to bring other gun violence survivors to action mode, and Colleen Daley, of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, who joined the battle in 2011, after the son of her childhood friend was gunned down in Lincoln Park.

“Gun violence doesn’t care if you’re black or white, rich or poor, if you live in the ghetto, or in a mansion. Women are the backbones of our communities. It takes all of us working together, on federal and state policy, on street corners, or just starting out of our homes. We need you,” she said.

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