America’s Neighborhood Dreams and Nightmares

Following a double murder in broad daylight, traumatized neighbors plead for protection, empathy and equal opportunities, urging their community to move forward together.

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

The two men were shot dead one week ago, on Friday, March 12th, 2021. Jose Francisco Sanchez Guerrero, 21, and Demarcus Anthony Cokley, 20, died by what police have ruled a double homicide in front of their family member’s home. An 18-year-old male, also at the scene, suffered non-life-threatening gunshot injuries.

It happened in the 1800 block of Hovland Court in Evanston, Illinois, on a leafy street where students from the nearby high school often park their cars. The time was 11:46 a.m., and the sun on that that 54-degree day was shining.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, after an assailant shot the three young men and took off on foot, the city’s schools, now open for hybrid instruction, were put on temporary, soft lockdowns.

“Being There”

As the crime investigation continues, neighbors on Hovland Court want the world to know what they saw. I’ll try to describe some of that for you now, though it’s hard to know where to begin, since I’ve never before described a murder scene.

Imagine, if you will, the trails and pools of blood. The EMT performing chest compressions on a body dying on a suburban sidewalk. The ambulances and the urgent ping-pong of neighbors, onlookers, and police. And over there — is that a privacy tarp, failing to accomplish its one and only purpose?

There’s the woman collapsed in the street, her mask pulled below her chin to prevent her open sobs from suffocating her. Here’s the yellow police tape draped around the shooting scene, and the red tape hung across nearby neighbors’ lawns. Passing by are the pedestrians, slowing to lay eyes on this horrific scene, encouraged by police to “please keep moving” past yet another American nightmare of gun violence.

Neighbors have sent me photos and video taken in the immediate aftermath — snapped by trembling and incredulous fingers in the minutes after the bullets flew. These pictures were taken from living room windows, front porches and sidewalks. They are horrific.

After the shooting, the bodies of the two men killed were left splayed across a set of six cement steps with metal handrails on both sides. The men were, according to one neighbor, “executed in broad daylight.” Draped over the top of one handrail is a bright red jacket, turned inside out; a bicycle is propped against the base of the other. At the bottom of the steps is a skateboard, its wheels aimed up toward the heavens.

Each photo and video is haunting. They will never leave me, and yet I want it this way. I need to remember what the neighbors of Hovland Court saw on this day, and they ask the same of you.

Images of a Nightmare

On my phone, I press an arrow to play the video. It’s exactly one minute and one second long in length.

It begins with a woman collapsed on the street. Her head is on the pavement. Her body is faced toward the camera. She is clutching her stomach, reacting to something she’s just seen.

“Please!” she wails, “Please tell me that’s not Demarcus. Please… Please tell me that’s not Demarcus…”

The woman looks up to a masked emergency worker standing nearby, then cries up to the sky, “Help me!”

The emergency worker, leaning down, puts one gloved hand on the woman’s back and offers the other, encouraging the woman to stand. When the woman gets to her feet, she turns her body slowly toward the two men whose bodies lie motionless on the ground.

“No!” she yells. “… Just…tell me that’s not Demarcus…!”

As she steps toward the house, emergency workers unfurl what appears to be a black tarp. There are now two masked personnel at the woman’s side, encouraging her not to get any closer, but she does so anyway, and reacts to what she sees.

“Jose!”

Her scream is primal, and her voice echoes off the neighbors’ homes. “Oh my God!”

People are everywhere…so many people…but all I can hear in this video is one woman’s devastated voice.

“Oh my GOD!” she screams. “Oh my God! Oh my God!” … “Oh my God…Oh my God…This woman’s lost all her kids! She lost all her kids! Oh my God, no! Please, oh! … No! Oh my God…”

I use my fingers to pinch in and zoom my phone’s screen to get a more detailed look at the photos I’ve received.

This photo shows an injured young man on a stretcher in front of the house, surrounded by an emergency crew. Behind him, though it’s blurry, I see someone standing near the first floor window inside the home, holding the white, vertical blinds open, peering out onto the chaos in the yard.

Was this a child? A parent? A sibling? A medic? A police officer? I cannot tell.

But in the faces of those on the street, I clearly see agony, fear, loss, generational trauma, and an unspoken sense of utter futility.

Urgency and Emotion

Before I receive these images, one neighbor describes their feelings.

“I don’t know what to do,” they say, “ … or even who to turn to. I can’t get these images out of my mind. I can’t sleep. My friends and family tell us to move, but they don’t understand.”

They elaborate.

“People don’t understand how hard we worked and how long we dreamed of moving here. Picking up and getting out?” the neighbor asks. “It’s not that easy. This has to stop. And these victims? They had families, too. I’m a parent, and these dead boys were somebody’s children.”

“How can others help?” I ask.

“It should be said that all of the residents of our street cannot imagine the pain and grief this family’s dealing with,” I’m told. “We send our sympathy and condolences to the families. And we want all the residents of our city to wake up, be accountable, be uncomfortable, and be invested so this will never happen again.”

I ask, “What does your neighborhood need?”

“Please share this story with everyone,” the neighbor tells me. “I am pleading for help — on behalf of my family, on behalf of my neighbors, on behalf of our city. We need the right people to understand the pain we feel in our neighborhood. We are traumatized.”

Wounded Voices

One neighbor describes their elementary school child walking past the murder scene minutes before the shooting, and their older child, walking home from school, seeing the bodies on the sidewalk.

On March 16th, four days after the shooting, this neighbor — who’d previously filed multiple complaints with the city about its lack of prompt response to an abandoned property as well as concerns about neighborhood safety and violence — contacted Evanston’s 5th Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons via email:

I am now in shock and sick to my stomach!

I feel weak, scared, alone, trapped, exhausted, frightened, abandoned and neglected.

I am no longer patient, no longer waiting or willing to risk the health and safety of my family as some neighborhood experiment.

The neighbors of Hovland Ct are deeply saddened by the lives lost last Friday. We are deeply sympathetic for the families and their losses.

[We] and our families will be forever scared by this day. Our neighbor has lived here over twenty years and never seen anything like this. It is too close!

The Evanston Police Department failed our block! They have known that there was a problem and did nothing to monitor the situation or try to prevent the almost inevitable.

Again, I will repeat, unless there is fire or blood their hands are tied.

Evanston [is] a place I thought would be safe to raise my family.

Instead, there are porchside executions where my kids ride their bikes, where my thirteen-year-old daughter walks home to a crime scene, and dead bodies are on the sidewalk.

The haunting images of this day have rattled my family to the core.

This entire city of Evanston should demand more because this is a half block from Evanston Township High School.

We should all have the right to be served and protected equally.

I know the parks in Evanston do not get neglected like ours. The parents of my kids’ friends point that out.

I know that if there was a pile of rubbish in a yard perhaps in another part of town, it would have been handled more promptly.

Now, my kids’ friends cannot come visit. My friends and family do not want to come to our house.

Our property value will plummet, and their hands are tied. We are trapped, and unless there is fire or blood, their hands are tied.

Our family is now living in an absolute nightmare!

We and our neighbors demand to feel safe and protected, the same way neighbors do on Chicago Avenue or Central Street. We want our park to look like Bent or Penny Park — not something out of Chernobyl.

Stop turning your heads and pay attention, because there is fire and blood in — and on — our streets!

There is not just a murderer in our neighborhood. There is a murderer in Our City!

I feel that I have failed my children because this is not a better quality of life.

Rue Simmons replied almost immediately to the family’s email, and the response was forwarded to me:

“I completely understand, agree, and will take more action. We have got to do better. I’m sorry you are feeling this way. I’ve shared your experience on my block and was furious and heartbroken, I continue to share this frustration today. I will start with the property standard matter and request increased police visibility, park updates and more attention from property standards and public works. Please let me know in addition to contacting 311 so we can address these matters with urgency. Again, my apologies that we haven’t done more sooner. Onward.

—Evanston 5th Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons

Prelude to a Nightmare

One neighbor explained how they moved their family to this neighborhood in 2013 after the city promoted LiveEvanston, pitched by Evanston as a neighborhood stabilization program. The neighbor describes scraping, scrambling, sacrificing, and jumping through hoop after hoop to prove they’d be model homeowners in an area the city claimed to be committed to revitalizing.

The neighbor described attending the required homebuyer counseling course, applying for two loans, and promising that their family would be the only individuals residing in the residence for the next 15 years.

They say the city, utilizing fifty single-family homes and condos in Evanston’s west and south neighborhoods which had, due to the foreclosure crisis, become vacant, had rehabilitated these properties and sold them to buyers with qualifying incomes. The neighbor tells me that, in addition to the “lure” of homeownership, the city’s program even threw in — as a perk — a new bike upon moving in.

One Hovland Court neighbor shared a report they say they’d recently requested from the Evanston Police records department, detailing how many times the police have been called to their street. The trends in the documents they shared with me are troubling, yet hardly a full picture. For instance, this report doesn’t go back far enough to include the 2/9/2018 murder of Yazek Semark, 20, in the alley of the 1800 block of Hovland Court.

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Onward…But How?

So, where does a neighborhood, a city, and a nation go from here? How do we address the issues that lead to this ongoing trauma? How do we attend to so many matters deserving our collective understanding and attention? How do we better protect everyone in our community, and ensure everyone is afforded equitable opportunities?

With these questions and more in mind, I reached out to lifelong Evanston resident Dr. G. Kwesi Cornell Logan, a diversity and inclusion strategist and President of Logan Consulting Services, LLC. I asked Logan how he felt after this latest incident, and how he thinks “onward” might look.

In one word, I feel pain.

It’s a shocked sadness…though I am not surprised given the crisis in our community today. A crisis of marginalization and powerlessness. A crisis of identity. A crisis where we as a society have lost too much of our humanity.

This incident is yet another ember in the fire of trauma that burns parts of our community from within.

I know a couple of the boys impacted by this tragedy. Some are classmates of my son. This happened right down the street from the home my family and I have lived in these last 23 years.

And in those years, nearly 2 dozen Black males have been shot and killed in the few block radius of my neighborhood; a few of them on my street and on my block. Some of them I’ve personally known.

This is tragic.

We, as a community, need to find creative ways to pool together our resources for the betterment of our youth and our elders.

From my experience living overseas with many indigenous people and cultures of color, I’ve come to see and know that one absolutely essential part of the remedy is a rite of passage for our youth to become authentic, successful, and engaged members of our community, cultivating in them an identity, skillset, and purpose they carry with them throughout their lives.

This would require a pooling of our community resources in a way I do not think we have yet seen. A rite of passage may not be THE solution, but it is — without a doubt — a PART OF the solution. From my experience and my work, I’ve come to know this in my soul to be true.

In my opinion, it should be part of reparations, supported by every facet and every level within the Evanston community. In this way too, Evanston can be an example for the nation. But first, we must be that example for ourselves.

Each incident like this chips away at my being, yet each chip fuels the fire of my determination (to do something about this). However, the light and heat from this fire are not reaching far and deep enough yet. This feels like unspeakable emptiness….and it hurts.

What I suggest with the concept of a rite of passage and developing identity are not only ways we struggle, but ways we can work our way out of this crisis we are in.

We are not free. This is not freedom. This is part of the legacy of Black people in America — fighting for liberation, justice, and the soul of the nation. “Onward” to me means that, after 401 years now, the struggle for liberation in this country continues.

— Dr. G. Kwesi Cornell Logan

I implore everyone who reads this to imagine how it felt for the neighbors who’ve repeatedly reached out to so many, unsure where to turn, feeling lost and asking for help, looking for those “who might actually DO something.”

Will you be one of those people, whether here or in your own community? Will you step in and be a part of the solution?

I welcome and encourage your comments.

Christine Wolf is a writer, coach and community activist from Evanston, Illinois. Find more of her work at www.christinewolf.com

Writing Coach. Journalist. Author. Marathoner. Lover of emotions, words & spicy nachos. Find me on Twitter & Insta @tinywolf1, and at www.christinewolf.com

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