On Tuesday evening, 150 children and adults walked from the Bronzeville area of Chicago to Washington Park for the #WeWalkforHer march to raise awareness about cases of missing black girls and women in the city. Since March, at least six women and girls have been reported missing, stirring fear among residents as the stories spread on social media. Of those cases, four were resolved when the missing individuals were found safe. The remaining two — Shantieya Smith, 26, and Sadaria Davis, 15 — were found dead.
Aziya Roberts, 13, the young South Side Chicago resident who came up with the idea for the march, was alarmed after she saw these stories on her Facebook timeline in late May.
“I thought, ‘This is happening to young black girls and I’m a young black girl and I could stand up for them,’” said Aziya via phone interview Wednesday.
On June 13, Roberts took action by meeting with directors of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which leads education, housing, youth and senior initiatives in the neighborhood. Aziya is an active member of the organization and had participated in other protests with the group, including one against school closures, which took place outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house in February.
The group’s actions inspired Aziya.
“I’ve been seeing all that they’ve accomplished and all the marches they’ve been doing and I felt like they would help me and that’s what they did,” she explained.
The determined teen said the organization helped her spread the word in less than a week to mobilize local residents to come out. And with the help of her mother, Roberts came up with the hashtag #WeWalkForHer. Chicago-based community organizers Black Lives Matter Chicago, Good Kids Mad City, —a Chicago-based group of black and brown youth working to end violence — the Black Youth Project and Mother’s Opposed to Violence Everywhere, also showed up to support.
The march route began at 35th Street and King Drive and ended at 51st Street and King Drive. Participants carried signs reading “Don’t ignore what’s going on around you”, “Never forget Chicago” and “Her life matters.” As they walked, members the group chanted, “Listen, our girls are missing!” according to Shannon Bennett, deputy director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, who was involved in organizing the march.
“Whether there is a pattern, we don’t know yet, but it’s all the talk of Chicago for the past few weeks,” said Bennett of the stories, via phone interview Wednesday. “We felt marching in the community and letting people know we are concerned — adults are concerned — would raise awareness of the issue and the fact that there are people who want to do something and not just depend on the officials and the police force to take action.”
On June 14, the Chicago Police Department addressed community members about the issue of missing women and girls after social media users shared posts speculating that six of these cases were linked to each other and that the bodies of Smith and Davis were mutilated, the Chicago Tribune reported. There are no official reports that the victims were dismembered and the Cook County medical examiner’s office has not yet determined their causes of death, according to the Tribune.
“Somehow the community has linked all six and there’s just no evidence of that,” Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at the meeting, according to the paper. “Then the community calls us with bogus tips. They think they’re helping. Those 1,000 tips are unrelated. We have to chase all those down.”
Yet of all the cases at the center of the public’s concern, Smith and Davis’ deaths do have a possible connection, according to the police department. On June 12, WGN9 reported that a dead body found in a garage was identified as Smith, who was reported missing on May 25. Davis’ body was found in an abandoned building on May 11 after she was reported missing on April 25, WLS reported. Police said both were with the same man before they were reported missing, the Tribune reported. As of June 15, this unidentified man was being held on unrelated charges in Tennessee.
“He is someone we want to talk to … based on the fact that we have this connection,” Deputy Chief Brendan Deenihan said at the community meeting, according to the Tribune. “Regardless of the classification, both are receiving the attention that a homicide would.”
Of those black women and girls who were reported missing since March, at least four have been found safe. Daquata Shannon, 16, was reported missing on April 4 and was found on Sunday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Lunetha Harrison, 55, was last seen on May 6 and was reported found on Monday, the Sun-Times reported. Victoria Garrett was reported missing on June 5 and was home the next day, WGN9 reports. Fowsia Ibrahim, 14, went missing on June 17, WLS reported, and was reported found on Tuesday.
While community members continue pushing the Chicago Police Department to investigate the deaths of Smith and Davis, they are also discussing their own solutions for protecting them. Bennett said although nothing is set in stone, ideas have included local organizations creating more activities to engage and empower black girls throughout the summer and fall and also an app that would help inform girls of where they can find safety if need be.
“Law enforcement — that’s just one piece of the puzzle, not the whole solution,” Bennet said. “But at the same time they don’t get a pass. Our tax dollars pay for them and we expect the same type of treatment on the South Side of Chicago as the North Shore that’s predominately white.”
As Aziya reflected on organizing her first march, she expressed that she wants to encourage other young people to kickstart movements in their own communities to address social issues.
“We got to start using our voices to be heard and come together,” said the eighth-grader. “If we come together, more stuff would start changing because the only thing changing now is time.”