By Fiona Ortiz
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Late in the evening on July 4 a haze of smoke from backyard fireworks hung over Chicago. Like kids all over the city, 7-year-old Amari Brown stood on the sidewalk enjoying the show -
until the staccato burst of explosives turned into gunfire.
Brown was hit when a man ran around the corner and shot at his group in an apparent gang-related attack. He was rushed to the hospital in his father's arms and died two hours later.
The boy was the youngest of nine people killed and about 50 injured in gun violence over the Independence Day weekend, despite beefed-up police patrols working 12-hour shifts on the long weekend, which typically sees a dozen shooting deaths.
Chicago, with 2.7 million people, is the most violent large city in the United States, with poverty, segregation, dozens of small street gangs, and a pervasive gun culture all contributing to the problem.
Brown was shot Saturday night in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Chicago's West Side, on a street of brick houses where police have installed security cameras to try to discourage crime.
Police said the shots were meant for Amari's father, Antonio Brown, who they said is a ranking member of the Four Corner Hustlers gang, with dozens of arrests. He was free on bond on a weapons charge at the time of his son's death.
A PAINFUL RITUAL
Amari Brown's death was followed by a painful ritual all too familiar to Chicagoans who see little consolation in the fact that annual gun deaths have been more than halved since the 1990s to between 400 and 500 in recent years.
First, detectives put up crime-scene tape, took pictures of bullet casings, and approached potential witnesses.
Then, at noon the next day, young women who know the family hung up photos of Amari near the sidewalk where he was shot. They made a shrine, pulling the price tags off of new teddy bears and propping them on the fence.
Antonio Brown, still wearing white jeans stained with his son’s blood, stood staring at the photographs.
Three television trucks set up on the block and pastors from several churches held a news conference where they offered to pay for the funeral and announced a $1,000 reward for anyone with information on the shooter.
"We can't blame this on the system or on the white supremacists. The person who did this walks like us, looks like us and dresses like us. He lives among us," said Reverend Ari Acree, pleading for solidarity in the African American community to help find the killer.
Family friend Michael Singleton hugged Amari's mother, who was silent and clutched her son's SpongeBob pillow.
He pointed at reporters and said, "Until we make a decision as a community to end this violence, all of you will be out here next week, on another corner, filming somebody else saying exactly the same thing I'm saying.”
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy personally patrolled dangerous Chicago neighborhoods during the weekend. By putting officers on long shifts, the force beefed up its presence by about a third over the holiday weekend, he said.
In Englewood, one of the highest-crime neighborhoods in Chicago, police patrolled the streets in groups of five, during the day. At night, the neighborhood was full of police cruisers.
At a news conference on Sunday, McCarthy touted success in rounding up illegal firearms over the weekend, saying police had seized about one weapon an hour on Friday, Saturday and early Sunday. He displayed a table full of dozens of guns.
McCarthy did not dwell on the overall number of homicides, saying he believed the death toll this Fourth of July weekend was down. Last year, news reports said between 13 and 16 people died in shootings during the holiday weekend, and close to 60 people were injured.
Overall levels of homicides and shootings have not budged during McCarthy's four years on the job, despite his concentration on seizing illegal weapons and intensifying policing in the toughest neighborhoods.
McCarthy expressed frustration that Brown's father was not cooperating with the investigation, waving a stack of papers he said documented Antonio Brown's multiple arrests over the years. He said others in the community were trying to help identify the shooter.
On the street where Amari Brown was killed, relatives were distraught over the code of silence adopted by gang members and the fearful families who live among them in Chicago. Last year, police solved fewer than a quarter of homicides.
Amari's great uncle, 46-year-old social worker Jonathan Todd, said, "Everybody in this neighborhood probably knows who it is, that's the sad thing."
(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz; Editing by Ben Klayman and Doina Chiacu)