Shot at 15, he now had one goal amid Chicago’s relentless gunfire: Stay alive.

Latee Smith, left, and his younger brother, Daniel, sit on a porch in Chicago's West Side.

‘Let this boy make it’

He’d been shot at 15. Now, amid Chicago’s relentless gunfire, he had one goal: Stay alive.

Published on August 11, 2017

CHICAGO

From his hospital bed, the eighth-grader was already plotting how to kill the kid who had put him there.

It had been a month since Latee Smith’s 15th birthday and a week since a bullet blew a hole through his right hip, tearing into muscle and bone and leaving him bleeding on a sidewalk, terrified he was about to become another dead teenager on another West Side street corner.

“Let this boy make it,” he remembered a woman praying over him amid the crowd that gathered after he and three friends, ages 11 to 16, were shot on the night of March 21, 2016.

“Squeeze my hand,” he remembered a paramedic telling him in the ambulance as he begged for something to take the pain away.

Latee had awakened from surgery in a baby-blue medical gown with a metal rod embedded in his femur. His first steps, braced by a walker, were so excruciating that he’d closed his eyes and bent his head back. He had barely eaten, losing pound after pound until the scale read 104. Then came the texts from fellow gang members who swore they knew who’d caused it all.

“I be back walking In 6 weeks,” Latee had promised on Facebook, and in response, a young man had posted three revolver emoji and vowed to help him exact retribution.

Now, in his bed, Latee could think of little else — “revenge, revenge, revenge.” He would borrow a pistol, steal a car and go at night. He would find the rival gang member who’d shot him, poke the gun out of the window and, for the first time in his life, pull a trigger.

Then, on the day he was being released, Dajuan Smith, the older brother of another teen who had been wounded, stopped by Latee’s room to say hello.

“I’m fixing to get back at them boys,” Latee told him.

Don’t, pleaded Smith, a 24-year-old high school basketball coach who had recently lost a young man he mentored to gunfire.

“Your life,” Smith said, “is worth more than you think it is.”

Latee couldn’t recall anyone ever telling him that before.

Latee shows his bullet wound from the March 2016 shooting.

About the series: Every year millions of American children are exposed to and shaped by violence. The Post is exploring that experience from the perspective of the children, rather than the adults around them.
Part 1: In the nation’s capital, a second-grader grows up surrounded by gunfire
Part 2: In tiny Townville, S.C., first-graders are haunted by what they survived — and lost — on a school playground

The third youngest of his father’s 15 children, he had grown up amid perpetual chaos, bouncing from home to home in his earliest years and sometimes going weeks without seeing his mother as she struggled with drugs and alcohol. About age 8, he wound up with his dad, a Vietnam War veteran and construction worker who moved the family to a home they could afford in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood, one of the city’s most perilous.

Latee had been bloodied in fights, sold drugs on treacherous street corners and become so familiar with gunshots that he could sometimes recognize a weapon’s caliber by its sound. He had seen a friend die on the street and mourned many others who had been killed.

And none of it was remarkable.

Perhaps nowhere in the United States does violence ravage more childhoods than in Chicago. Since 2000, it has taken the lives of over 1,000 youths younger than 18, according to police data. That figure doesn’t count thousands more who were shot but didn’t die, including Latee, one of at least 300 kids wounded by gunfire in 2016 alone.

In Chicago, juvenile homicides have been a constant

Total juvenile homicides since 2000

1,000

800

Chicago hit 1,000 juvenile homicides in May 2017

600

400

200

0

2000

June 2017

Last year, juvenile homicides spiked to their highest number since 2001 ...

Total juvenile homicides by year

80

73

73

72

40

0

2000

2008

2017

(through

June)

... and June 2017 was the deadliest month for Chicago youth since at least 2001.

Juvenile homicides by month

15

10

5

0

Jan

2001

Jan

2005

Jan

2010

June

2017

Note: Data only available by month from January 2001. Homicide count does not include officer-involved shootings.

Source: Chicago Police Department

LESLIE SHAPIRO/THE WASHINGTON POST

In Chicago, juvenile homicides have been a constant

Total juvenile homicides since 2000

1,000

Chicago hit 1,000 juvenile homicides in May 2017

800

600

400

200

0

2000

2008

June 2017

Last year, juvenile homicides spiked to their highest number since 2001 ...

Total juvenile homicides by year

100

73

73

72

56

50

0

2000

2008

2017

(through June)

... and June 2017 was the deadliest month for Chicago youth since at least 2001.

Juvenile homicides by month

15

10

5

0

Jan 2001

Jan 2005

Jan 2010

June 2017

Note: Data only available by month from January 2001. Homicide count does not include officer-involved shootings.

Source: Chicago Police Department

LESLIE SHAPIRO/THE WASHINGTON POST

He knew no world but that one, with its tangle of gangs, entrenched culture of retaliation, and relentless cycle of carnage and incarceration that had left many children like him convinced they have no future, no way to escape.

But on that final day in the hospital, Latee wondered if he was wrong. What if he could somehow defy that fate?

“I was going to end up in jail or end up dead,” Latee decided, “so I had to do something.”

And what he had to do was change everything: Who he spoke and listened to. Where he went and when. What he did before, during and after school and on the weekends. How he approached almost every decision of every day.

Even if he did all of that, Latee understood that it might not keep him safe in a city where he would still have to navigate the threat of constant and often random shootings, of rival gang members who wouldn’t care whether he’d renounced his own affiliation, of pressure from friends who would want him with them, as he’d always been, on the streets.

“The old me is dead,” Latee began to tell people, and he hoped that would be enough.

“You know somebody just got popped?” announced a teenager sitting in the lobby of an Austin youth center just as Latee and two other boys walked inside.

More than a year had passed since Latee’s own shooting. He’d spent the morning at an orientation for the city’s summer jobs program, and the news had already reached him.

“Yeah, somebody got shot while we were in there. On A block,” said Latee, now 16, pointing at himself as he slurped a plastic pouch of fruit punch. “A block” meant West Adams Street, a half-mile away, where he used to sell drugs.

Latee was doing whatever he could think of to avoid that life. He stayed off his old street corners and learned to say no when his boys prodded him to hang out. Latee often bickered with his girlfriend, but he grew to depend on her. She insisted that he come see her more often because she figured at her house, watching a Wayans brothers’ movie on the couch, he was safe. She logged onto his Facebook page and erased his old street name, and he blocked the accounts of enemy gang members who wanted to add him as a friend only so they could make threats. He improved his grades, got counseling and started a paid apprenticeship that taught him and other wounded Chicago teens how to blow glass. He spent almost every afternoon at the youth center, alone if he had to, watching rap videos on YouTube.

Latee was popular — with long hair, high cheekbones and an endearing gaptoothed smile — but didn’t talk much. Nicknamed Peewee since infancy, Latee, at 5-foot-6, had always been one of the smallest kids in class, and yet, he’d become one of the most disciplined. Nearly dying had fueled his resolve to stay alive.

“I’m lucky I got shot,” he said. “The bullet made me more mature. Smarter.”

But the first week of summer had arrived, and Latee knew that when classes ended in Chicago, shootings often spiked in the long, hot, empty days that followed. June was already on its way to becoming the city’s deadliest month for children in more than 15 years, with one being killed, on average, every other day.

“Happens all the time. Nonstop,” said Martin Anguiano, a program manager for Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development, better known as BUILD Chicago. The organization runs the youth center and has worked with the city’s most at-risk kids since the late 1960s.

Another BUILD staff member walked over to greet Latee and the other teens.

“I’m going to give you one of these,” Latee said, offering his elbow rather than his right hand, with its gashed and swollen knuckles.

Anguiano motioned to the bandage beneath Latee’s blackened right eye.

“How did that happen anyway?” he asked.

Latee shook his head, frustrated. Then he told the story.

Teens, including Latee, signed a pledge to end violence in the Austin neighborhood.

Three days earlier, BUILD had hosted a neighborhood party. Latee and a few of the other guys who had been in a gang together hadn’t wanted to go at first. The gathering was being held at Columbus Park, in the heart of their old rival’s turf and just three blocks from where he’d been shot.

They shouldn’t worry, the youth center’s staff told them. The organization had arranged for security guards and armed police officers to come, too.

So, that morning, Latee put on a white T-shirt that featured an image of the sun behind the event’s title: “Summer of Opportunity.” He watched kids romp inside a bounce house. He marched in a “Parade for Peace.”

Latee and his friends had just finished their hot dogs when a boy from the other gang walked up from behind and swung. A melee ensued before police broke it up, and BUILD staffers rushed their kids out on a bus. Anguiano had heard the opposing gang planned to return with guns.

Now, at the youth center, gathered around a table near a wall plastered with “RESPECT LIFE” pledges the boys had all signed, their minds were once again on violence.

“Who got shot on Adams?” Latee asked.

“Dede and somebody else,” said a husky, round-faced 15-year-old.

“Dede?” Latee said, surprised.

“Yeah, Dede got shot again,” another kid added.

“He just got shot like a month ago,” Latee said.

He hadn’t yet taken geometry or gotten a driver’s license, but Latee had lost 10 people he knew to gunfire, none older than 22, and 11 more to prison, including four convicted of murder.

He didn’t view all of them as victims. Many had made bad choices, and so had he.

The intersection at Cicero and Gladys avenues is one of the most dangerous in Austin.

Latee had joined a gang at age 10, shoplifting powdered doughnuts from gas stations and brawling with rival gangs, usually with fists but sometimes with two-by-fours. Then he began to swipe bikes and join joyrides in the back of stolen cars. Latee, who adopted the moniker “Lil Spazz” because it sounded more menacing than Peewee, had been caught and handcuffed, he said, but had never spent a night in jail or faced ­charges.

By the time he reached middle school, Latee began to notice neighborhood friends flashing wads of cash. They wore nice sneakers and bought new clothes for the first day of school. He wanted those things, too, so one summer morning just past dawn — at an age when he still sometimes watched the cartoon “Sid the Science Kid” — Latee nervously stepped out onto a street corner.

“Dubs,” he shouted on Adams, advertising $20 packets of marijuana just up the road from his home.

His gang trafficked primarily in two spots, and he called his the “good block” because most dealers there were children, which made drive-by shootings less likely. He could make as much as $150 in four hours, more money than he’d ever had in his life, enough to buy Nike Air Force 1s and groceries for his family.

Youth killings concentrated in west and south Chicago

In the past 4½ years, 20 of the 276 juvenile homicides in Chicago were in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side.

Juvenile homicides in

Chicago, 2013 – June 2017

Percentage of residents in Zip code who are

black:

80%

or more

20%

or less

5 MILES

Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field

Austin

Austin

Grant Park

Grant Park

Lake

Michigan

CHICAGO

CHICAGO

Homicide

Note: Homicide count does not include officer-involved shootings, which were not included in data from the Chicago police.

Sources: Chicago Police Department; 2015 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau

LESLIE SHAPIRO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Youth killings concentrated in west and south Chicago

5 MILES

O’Hare

International

Airport

Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field

Austin

Austin

Juvenile homicides in

Chicago, 2013 – June 2017

In the past 4½ years, 20 of the 276 juvenile homicides in Chicago were in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side.

Grant Park

Grant Park

Lake

Michigan

CHICAGO

CHICAGO

Homicide

Percentage of residents in Zip code

who are black:

20%

or less

80%

or more

Note: Homicide count does not include officer-involved shootings, which were not included in data provided by the Chicago police.

Sources: Chicago Police Department; 2015 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau

LESLIE SHAPIRO/THE WASHINGTON POST

Latee sold on and off, he said, until one day when he saw the body of another dealer who’d just been gunned down. The scene gave him nightmares, and he decided the money wasn’t worth it.

Even then, though, he didn’t abandon the streets.

Latee blamed himself for all of it — his run-ins with police, his shooting, his inability to play football again because of the rod in his leg. Now he was trying his best to do right, but in west Chicago, that often didn’t matter.

One day, Latee was walking down a street to play video games at a friend’s house. Suddenly, he heard a gun explode, then the ting, ting, ting of bullets, meant for someone else, striking a nearby fence. He fled, running for the first time since the night he was shot.

The high school auditorium’s brown cinderblock walls were covered in bright yellow motivational posters.

“Believe that there are no limitations, no barriers to your success.”

“The best way to change it is to do it, right?”

“Whatever your goal, you can get there if you’re willing to work.”

Latee passed them on his way to a training session for his city-sponsored summer job and slumped into a chair on the empty second row, hands in his pockets and a gray hoodie pulled low.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel had touted the jobs program, One Summer Chicago, as a “doorway of opportunity” that would lead “our children to realize their full potential and a brighter future tomorrow,” but Latee didn’t think of it that way. For him, the job was essential to his day-to-day survival strategy. It would keep him busy and, hopefully, safe, for 20 hours a week. Plus, he needed the money.

Like many of his friends, he had sold drugs for no other reason than that, and at times, he’d made close to $40 an hour doing it. Through the city, Latee would earn just $8.25 an hour to go along with the $10.50 an hour at the glass-blowing program and the $100 he got every few weeks for working odd jobs at the youth center.

“It’s worth it,” Latee said. He just wanted to be able to take his girlfriend on dates to IHOP for chocolate pancakes or buy himself a fresh set of $4 faux diamond earrings.

Latee laughs with his girlfriend, Thalia Smith, at her home in Chicago's West Side.

For Latee’s 16th birthday, Anguiano, from BUILD, gave him $14, and his girlfriend bought him a blue watch and a vanilla-frosted cake coated with sprinkles. He got nothing else but had saved enough cash to pay for an afternoon at Dave & Buster’s.

Latee’s street savvy and self-control often disguised that he was, in fact, still a kid. A kid who had never flown in an airplane. Who sometimes punctuated the “i” in his last name with a circle rather than a dot. Who hadn’t shaved in a year but still produced little more than a dark fuzz on his upper lip. Who shared juvenile, profane posts on Facebook and photos of himself flicking off the camera. Who, with his girlfriend, would invent silly characters and pretend they were in comedy shows together.

Latee hoped for more — to go to college and maybe become an engineer because he’d heard they needed to be good with their hands. But looking too far ahead, he thought, was dangerous.

“I’ve gotta take my time,” he would say. “I can’t be rushed.”

Latee didn’t know a single person from his circle who’d made it out of Chicago and succeeded, but sitting there in the auditorium, he did know that a 17-year-old friend of his had been shot in the knee down the street the night before, and he did know there was a metal detector in the school’s hallway because someone had bragged about bringing a gun to an earlier orientation session.

Now the room was full, and on the stage stood a woman in a dark pantsuit explaining the importance of looking professional and making a good first impression at a job interview.

“You guys have to be here because you believe that you deserve to be here,” said N. LaQuis Harkins, an actress who’d grown up in Chicago and attended Howard University.

She asked the 100 or so attendees to repeat after her, and most of them did.

“I am,” she said, then paused, “me.”

“I am ready.”

“I am smart.”

“I am deserving.”

Staring ahead from the second row, Latee didn’t say a word as Harkins told them all to stand and try the exercise again.

Worthy. Ready. Here. Deserving.

Latee remained silent.

Latee, black eye still visible, sits in his Bellwood living room.

He sat amid a cool breeze on the front steps of a two-story, red-brick house, and not once since coming outside that evening had Latee heard a siren wail or looked up from his phone to eye a passing car. At the park across the street, sprawling sycamores shaded clipped green grass and shiny blue play sets.

“Slow,” read a yellow sign on a pole. “Children.”

About eight months after Latee’s shooting, his family had left Austin for another West Side neighborhood two miles away. Then that new home caught fire, destroying almost everything the Smiths owned, so the insurance company had moved them just outside Chicago to the red-brick house in Bellwood, where the village motto is “Your Family is Our Future.”

“I wish we could stay,” Latee said. “Ain’t got to worry about too much.”

But even on this placid block in Bellwood, Latee couldn’t entirely escape the city’s chaos.

He thumbed through Facebook and found one boy who had bragged about attacking another kid on a bus. One talked of “war,” and one posted three “bang” emoji to represent gunfire. One tagged a rival and, next to a devil emoji, wrote, “Betta go to the hospital.” One added a photo of himself pointing a pistol at the camera. “Die,” wrote one, alongside the name of Latee’s old gang.

It was Facebook, in fact, that had led to his own shooting.

That March night, he’d run into a half-dozen friends who were headed toward another gang’s territory so they could take selfies to mock their rivals online. They asked him to come.

Latee hesitated, but the boys reassured him.

“We got a gun,” he recalled someone saying.

Minutes later, as Latee glanced at his phone, the shooting started.

Pow, pow, pow.

He froze. Then came a fourth shot and, just below his waistline, a pinch.

Latee dropped the phone and turned to run. He planted his left leg and then took one step with his right. It gave out, and he collapsed to the concrete.

Sprawled on his back, Latee heard a car pull up as blood soaked through his eighth-grade, navy blue school slacks.

It must have been a drive-by, he thought, and now the shooter had come to finish him. His three friends who’d also been hit — ages 11, 14 and 16 — had all gotten away.

He was alone.

Latee played dead, closing his eyes and covering his face with his arm. He held his breath. He prayed.

“We got one shot,” he heard a bystander tell a 911 operator on the phone, and at last, Latee exhaled.

Now, seven miles from where he’d expected to die, Latee reveled in these quiet summer moments that he knew would soon end. His family couldn’t afford to remain in the suburbs, but he was hopeful he could avoid trouble when they returned to their repaired West Side apartment building, on a street where the teen had no gang ties and had made no enemies. He could stay safe there, Latee told himself, even though two boys he knew, one 15 and the other 16, had just been killed three blocks away.

Latee and Clifton “Booney” McFowler talk outside the youth center.

The teenagers on West Gladys Avenue were going to get arrested or shot. Latee knew it, and so did his mentor, Clifton “Booney” McFowler, who had just driven by and seen them on the drug corner.

“Just about all them little dudes at one point I done grabbed them from somewhere, man, to try to stop them,” said McFowler, standing in the Austin youth center’s parking lot. “You know how I used to see you, ‘Man, Peewee, what you doing, man? Why you out here, man?’ ”

Latee nodded as he spun a football in his hands.

McFowler, who wore his long, graying dreadlocks beneath a reversed black baseball cap, was a legend in the neighborhood, an original member of the Cicero Undertaker Vice Lords. He had spent more than two decades in prison, serving his last stint for murder. Since his release in 2009, he had devoted his life to persuading Austin’s next generation to take a different path.

“But they don’t listen,” the 56-year-old continued. “They think they too far in where they can’t get out. But it ain’t like that, man. You can always get out.”

“They probably too scared to get out,” Latee suggested.

“You gotta want it, and they don’t want it, and I’m getting frustrated.”

McFowler had also spotted one of Latee’s childhood friends, and at the mention of his name, the teen paused.

“Darrion about the only one I really love, though, man. He understand,” Latee said. “The rest of them, they want me to stick around, but Darrion — like, I’ll tell Darrion, ‘I’m gone,’ and he’ll be like, ‘All right, shortie. Keep it real.’ The rest of them be like, ‘No, stick around, man.’ ”

“I’m glad he ain’t on Adams, though,” McFowler said of the street where Latee once dealt.

“That’s the worst one,” he agreed.

“It’s like everybody over there is doomed. In the middle you’ve got the young kids, y’all’s age, then at the corner you got the old group that done gave up,” McFowler said. “It’s doom all around, everywhere you turn.”

But here was Latee, who, for people working at the youth center, represented proof that change was possible. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t even a sophomore yet. Latee would make it out, they told him. He had to.

“I promise,” McFowler said, “I don’t worry about you no more.”

“Yeah,” Latee murmured.

“You notice I ain’t been in your ear or nothing no more. Because you got it.”

“You always used be in my ear, though.”

“But I ain’t got to,” McFowler said, pointing, his voice steeped in certainty. “Because you got it, man.”

“Yeah,” Latee said again, just above a whisper, his voice devoid of certainty.

Latee helps another teen, Marco Thrasher, roll hot glass at Project Fire.

Latee peered across the room into the blazing orange eye of a furnace. Amid the swelter in a gray-walled, high-ceilinged art studio that once served as a firehouse, he waited for his turn to slip the tip of a steel pipe into the flames.

It had been a year since he’d started at the glass-blowing program, Project Fire, and nine boys, including Latee, were working together for the summer. He hadn’t met them all before but knew what they had in common.

There was the lanky guy in the white tank top, his shoulder scarred from a bullet that blew through it when he was 13. There was the thickset former football star who, at 16, had nearly bled to death after being shot while waiting for a school bus. There was the stocky teen who had been hit twice, first in the back and again, a month ago, in the thigh. There was the one whose skull had been fractured with a crowbar and another whose rifle wound remained visible on his ankle and another, aided by a wooden cane, who still had a 9-millimeter round embedded near his spine. There were the two in wheelchairs, one who hoped to walk again and the other who never would because he no longer had legs.

Combined, they knew more than 120 people who had been killed in Chicago, but the boys weren’t talking about any of that now. The work in the studio demanded focus and, at least for a few hours, gave them an excuse to forget the desolation that had come to define their lives and their city.

It was Latee’s final shift of the week, and he’d planned something special.

“Yellow and black,” he told the teen with the bullet still stuck in his back, so the young man hobbled to a metal table and poured out two mounds of crushed glass, one in each color.

Latee walked over with a pipe, wrapped on one end with molten material, as the roaring heat from a 2,300-degree furnace washed over him. The fire used to unnerve Latee, but its intensity now centered him. He’d learned that the smallest error could shatter the glass, and that threat made sense to him, because he understood the steep cost of a mistake.

Latee pulled his pipe from the furnace, then rolled the glowing glob over the colored piles.

“You making a bowl, right?” someone asked.

“A cup,” said Latee, who planned to name it “Bumblebee.”

He used a spoon-shaped piece of wood to mold it, then sculpted the knob with wet newspaper until he brushed his hand on a searing hot pair of shears.

“Ah!” Latee yelped, yanking his arm back as a rap song pulsed through a nearby speaker.

“It’s a crisis in my city, people dying in my city, getting tortured in my city,” came the words, recorded by the young man with the ankle wound.

Latee tugged and sculpted, reheated and cooled, and soon his cup, among the trickiest pieces he’d ever tried, had begun to take shape. He smiled.

“Somebody gonna buy it,” Latee predicted from behind his clear protective lenses.

He needed to warm the material once more before finishing, so he headed back to the furnace. Then, just as Latee returned with the metal pipe to a work bench, his cup snapped off the end. It plummeted to the floor, crashing against a metal sheet.

Heads turned. His teacher stopped. Latee gasped.

“Damn,” he said.

From across the room rushed Pearl Dick, who co-founded the program. She leaned down with a thick pair of Kevlar mitts.

Dick turned the object in her hands, inspecting each side.

Not a single chip, she told Latee. His cup had survived.

Relieved, he poured himself a drink from a water cooler and took a seat by the open front door, away from the fire. His work for the day was done. Latee had made it through the first week of a Chicago summer. There were nine more left.

Steven Rich contributed to this report.

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