Tonight, a group of South Austin residents and community leaders will gather in front of an apartment building in the 400 block of South Lotus Avenue for a prayer vigil.
The vigil has become an annual tradition for some in the neighborhood. It marks a grim anniversary.
The group will pray for an end to gun violence and for the memory of 17-year-old Marcus Greer, who was shot to death inside the apartment building six years ago, on April 15, 2008.
Greer was hanging out in one of the building’s hallways with about 20 other people when another boy opened fire, striking Greer in his midsection.
His sister Jamilia Greer says she thinks about that night “all the time.” She and her family live about a half block away from the building where Marcus was killed.
“My cousin was outside and saw everybody running, and then he asked them, ‘what’s going on?’ And one of Marcus’s friend came down and he said Marcus got shot in the stomach,” Greer said.
Marcus had gotten in trouble in the past, but his sister says he was turning his life around. He enrolled in an alternative high school about three months before he was killed. Jamilia Greer and her brother Marcus were close, just three years apart in age.
“He was fun to hang around, he had a lot of friends,” Greer said.
When asked if he was back hanging around with the wrong people when he was shot, Greer says her brother was “just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Police caught the shooter, a 16-year-old from the neighborhood. He was tried and convicted as a juvenile for the shooting and is now out of prison. Because he was charged as a juvenile the shooter’s name is not public.
In 2008 the 15th Police District, which covers most of Austin, saw 731 gun crimes according to police data. That figure does not include the 15th District’s 30 homicides. Last year, that number was down to 559 such gun crimes and 25 homicides.
Vigil organizers think their annual event is partly responsible for the drop.
Shortly after Marcus was killed, Jamilia Greer approached James Shannon, the executive director of Fresh Start Fathers. She asked him to lead a group in prayer at the corner of South Lotus Avenue and West Congress Parkway, where the prayer vigil will be held today from 5 to 8 p.m.
Shannon is a single parent who lives just down the block from where Marcus was shot. His daughter is the same age as Jamilia Greer, and the two girls grew up together.
“They approached me because I’m a community activist in that area [and asked me] to do a prayer for him because people are fed up with this vicious killing, this gun violence … in their communities,” Shannon said. “So every year [we] do this for Marcus and for all the other children whose lives were taken by gunfire.”
Shannon says this year he wants to take the vigil “to the next level.” That means inviting pastors, politicians and community leaders from all over Chicago.
“Because of our efforts gun violence has decreased drastically in that area,” Shannon said. “So I am trying to appeal to all the pastors and all the citizens and community activists to do as we’re doing and watch us as we do this … and take it to their areas as well.”
The goal of the vigil, he said, is “to express an outcry so loud that people will have to listen.”
Shannon wants to reach young men on the corners, businesses that sell guns, the police on their beats and leaders at City Hall. He wants a reinvestment in Austin and proposes using shuttered school buildings to provide education, job training and parenting classes to neighborhood youth.
The number of vigil participants varies, Shannon said, from around 40 on a rainy day last year to more than 100 in 2010 and 2011. This year Shannon expects “hundreds of people.”
Despite the progress since Marcus’ killing, South Austin is still marred by violence.There were more homicides in the 15th District in 2013 than there were in 2011.
And from 2011 to 2013, Chicago saw a 20 percent drop in aggravated battery, which is how the police department classifies all non-fatal shootings. But in Austin that number decreased by just 5 percent.
“It got better, but not that much,” Greer said. “There’s just too much going on … with all the kids being killed.”
Chicago Police officer Tonya Collins is unsure if events like the prayer vigil can really reach the people on the street who are causing most of the violence.
“I won’t say it matters to [the people doing the shooting], but we like them to be aware that we are out here on the street, too, in a more positive way than [they] are out here,” Collins said.
The police department is not participating in the Greer prayer vigil, but the CAPS officer says public gatherings can make a difference in combating crime.
“It let’s the community know that even though this [shooting] happened, the citizens, the residents and the police are working together,” Collins said.
Patrick Smith is a producer and reporter at WBEZ, and a freelance reporter for AustinTalks. Follow him on twitter @pksmid.