'We Be About Nothin': ABC News' Alex Perez, a Chicago Native, Lost Childhood Friend to Gang Violence

ABC News' Alex Perez grew up in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

ByReporter's Notebook by ALEX PEREZ
October 5, 2012, 3:14 PM

Oct. 18, 2012— -- If you've read anything about Chicago the last few months, I'm sure it's been made clear. There are parts of this wonderful city that are very violent and very dangerous.

The gunfire -- and desperate cries for help -- have been deafening.

Through the conversation sparked at the ABC News' summit, "Hidden America: Don't Shoot I Want to Grow Up," I pray we'll shift the focus from what has happened to what we can do to end this unfair loss of human life.

My heart bleeds every time I see a grief-stricken mother have to bury one of her children.

As someone who was born and raised in Chicago, this is unfortunately a problem I've known and had to deal with for many years.

As a kid -- and even now as an adult -- I've always cherished my close friends.

From about ages 4 through 16 that close friend was Joaquin. We met in kindergarten and went to elementary school together and even started high school together.

Unlike me, Joaquin was an adventurous and fearless kid. Two qualities that come in handy when you're growing up near the dividing line of two violent gangs in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood.

On a typical day, we had to muster up the courage to walk through the pack of rabid gangbangers that stood on the corner "protecting" their "territory." I was always a little scared but would put on a tough face, and would most times just let Joaquin do the talking. "What you be about?" some thug would ask almost every day. "We be about nothin'." Joaquin would quickly respond as we made our way out of the pack and continued our three-block trek to school. Every now and then, we would get shaken down for the little cash we had. Usually not much, but it meant no penny treats for us at old lady Linda's candy-store.

We knew those gangbangers had guns, but it wasn't until we actually saw one of them fire the gun at someone else, that we realized just how real and life-changing that piece of dark metal can be.

More than two decades have passed since then, but unfortunately that experience I had as a kid growing up in Chicago is an experience that Chicago kids are still dealing with in 2012. Some of the neighborhoods have changed, and the victims and shooters are often younger, but the results remain the same: deadly.

This year alone more than 400 people have been murdered in Chicago. Scores of others have been shot and survived.

I can tell you firsthand, no matter how long our city has been battling this disease called violence, the emotional pain for the victim's families never gets any easier. It never becomes normal. You never get used to it. There are those who feel this is a problem in someone else's neighborhood and doesn't affect them. Until it does. And that raw, unfair, deep sense of loss changes them forever.

Joaquin and I made it all the way to sophomore year in high school together. As we got older, I became more comfortable being what most other kids considered a dork. But Joaquin, who had a knack for being extremely intelligent without much effort, found high school to be too easy.

Somewhere along the way he decided the attention and power that many of those gang members had, the same ones we spent years avoiding, was something that he wanted. There was something about the fear and intimidation they caused that called him like a moth to the flame.

There were a number of things he had to do to join that club of thugs. Including what has been best described to me as a "suicide mission." It involved crossing into another gang's territory, and confronting a rival gang member. The very thing his new found "friends" would flat out tell you they would never do.

A few days before he agreed to his gang initiation assignment, Joaquin told me what he was being asked to do and asked for my opinion. I told him I thought it was crazy, that it was a bad idea.

The next time I saw Joaquin was at funeral home. He was in the casket. Shot dead by rival gang members.

His death changed me and a lot of the people in our circle of friends. We knew even more clearly exactly where we didn't want to end up.

There is no way to compare Joaquin's death to that of the innocent victims who had zero connections to gangs and still lost their lives.

Those are the hardest to accept and I don't think we ever grow to understand why.

Fact of the matter is there are no easy solutions to ending this gang bloodbath. But unless we start talking about it, there may not be any solutions.

Let's move the conversation forward. Not just what happened, but what do we do now.

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