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Photographing Crime Scenes in Chicago on One of the Most Violent Weekends of the Year

I spent a long, hot summer night riding from shooting to shooting with a newspaper photographer.

A woman is detained by police for fighting near the scene of a shooting. Photos by Alex Wroblewski / Chicago Sun-Times

It’s 1:30 AM on the morning of July 5, and we’re flying down the expressway at 90 miles an hour. Someone has just been shot near West 63rd Street and South Austin Avenue—we know this from the Twitter accounts operated by police-scanner geeks and our own $50 RadioShack scanner, set to one of the many dispatch channels operated by the Chicago Police Department. All evening the device has been crackling with a constant stream of out-of-breath cops spitting out the addresses and conditions of victims. This is just our latest target in the middle of a long night.

Sitting in the driver’s seat is Alex Wroblewski, a 27-year-old Chicago Sun-Times contract photographer who spends his summer weekends chasing the voices that burst through his scanner’s cheap speaker, trying to get to the scenes before anyone else in order to capture the rawest images. With him is Sun-Times staff reporter Sam Charles, who’s on hand to pull quotes out of whatever cops and victims he runs into. In the 12 hours I’ll spend with Alex on this Independence Day weekend, we’ll travel to a dozen of these scenes, a fraction of the total carnage that will take place in the city. From Thursday night to Monday morning, 82 Chicagoans will have been shot and 14 killed, including five people—two of them boys under the age of 17—gunned down by police for making threats or refusing to drop their handguns. It’s an especially bad stretch of time for a city some have dubbed “Chiraq,” a nickname that causes Alex and Sam to groan.

“The term ‘Chiraq’ is a fucked-up point of pride for too many people in the city,” Sam says. “It’s disrespectful to our city as a whole and to the people of Iraq. Too many out-of-town stupid media outlets—VICE included, frankly—have parroted the term to give it undeserved credibility and staying power.”

Sam, a 24-year-old Chicago native, doesn’t get to hit the streets as often as he’d like. Usually he’s stuck on the Sun-Times’ breaking-news desk. Tonight, though, he’s out here to “capture the spirit of the thing,” as he puts it, while two editors back at the office work with the CPD News Affairs desk to get official statements and stats, the body count.

“It sucks this city has to be as violent as it is,” Sam says. “But that’s the breaks.”

The increasing gulf between the rich and the poor in the US is especially apparent in Chicago, where the headline–grabbing violence is mostly restricted to the economically depressed parts of town. The affluent white neighborhoods to the north remain relatively safe and insulated against the agonies devouring the West and South sides.

We arrived at our first scene of the night around 6 PM, a few minutes after an 18-year-old man had taken a bullet to the gut. This was in West Englewood, on the South Side, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city. At a nearby rowdy block party, kids shot off fireworks in the street, narrowly avoiding the resulting bottle-rocket shrapnel.

“There’s nothing down there,” Alex said of West Englewood. “No good schools, no jobs, no grocery stores, nothing.”

There are also no white people there, a testament to the decades of de facto segregation in Chicago. At most scenes, Alex, Sam, and I are the only white people not in a CPD uniform. The racial tension isn’t hidden; it’s right on the surface. One cop told us to stay out of District 7, a CPD-demarcated area that includes Englewood and West Englewood, because “the blacks are really aggressive there, and you’re three white faces.” At the West Englewood shooting, a white cop argued with a visibly drunk black woman after he told her to turn down her music (Chris Brown’s “Run It!”).

“How you gonna tell us how to enjoy our holiday?” she yelled at the cop.

“It’s everybody’s holiday,” he replied. “Not just yours.”

In the early evening, the neighborhoods we cruised were covered in a mist of smoke from barbecues and fireworks—small ones that sounded like .25-caliber pistols, rapid-fire ones that chattered like assault rifles, big ones that resembled mortar blasts. As darkness enveloped the streets, the orange glow from downtown illuminated the sky above the vacant, overgrown lots that loom on so many corners.  

Near one such intersection, Alex and I stumbled upon a home that had just been raided by police. A boy cried as his father was arrested, pleading with the cops: “Officers, can I please give my daddy a hug?” Police said someone at the home had been firing a gun into the air to celebrate Independence Day, giving them cause to raid the house and seize its weapons and drugs.

“It was a good hit,” a cop smoking a Marlboro Light in the middle of the street said. He looked on edge, rattled by adrenaline. He told us what we’d heard over and over again that night: “You guys be careful out here. It’s a fucking war zone.”

The 10000 block of S. Normal Ave., where a person was shot and killed

The action dies down sometime after 4 AM, and we drop Sam off at the newsroom, his shift halfway over—now he has to write some copy. Alex is on the tail end of a 12-hour stretch of trying to get something “fresh,” an image that could represent the pointlessness and horror of the violence that thousands of Chicagoans have to live with daily. He’s been a few minutes behind all night and come up empty.

On the drive home he turns the scanner off and throws his press pass in the backseat just a few minutes before we come across the scene of a horrific car wreck on Lake Shore Drive, a winding stretch of highway hugging the contours of Lake Michigan. A sedan lies absolutely crushed after slamming into a concrete bridge support, and the driver’s head is just barely visible in the early-morning light, protruding from the mangled wreckage. Eyes closed. Lifeless.

A man in the backseat is stuck inside, reaching out the window for the door handle, screaming in pain. There’s another person, less visible, in the passenger seat. A collection of drivers who have stopped, including an undercover cop, are telling the man in the backseat to calm down and wait for the paramedics and firefighters to arrive. Alex bides his time. Without his press pass in hand he doesn’t have proof that he’s a representative of the Fourth Estate and not some amateur ghoul. He’s caught between two identities, expressing genuine concern for the injured passengers and the dead driver while simultaneously calculating the ethics involved in taking photos here. This isn’t technically a crime scene. Yet.

As the sun rises over the lake, fire trucks, cop cars, and ambulances begin to arrive. After a long, fruitless night of chasing, Alex beat everyone here by accident, and he’s in perfect position—the authorities are doing their job trying to save this man’s life, so it’s time for him to do his. As firefighters begin cutting the vehicle apart to save the passengers, Alex turns and sprints to his car and is back in moments, camera in hand.

Justin Glawe is a freelance journalist based in Peoria, Illinois. He writes about crime there, and recently launched a reporting project that will address issues of child welfare on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

More of Alex's photos below:

Family members of a man who was shot by police talk to the press.

Cops rush to the scene after hearing gunshots near 80th St. and Muskegon Ave.