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Gang-related funeral processions upset Chicago residents

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 9:45 a.m. CDT

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CHICAGO (MCT) — As the funeral procession headed through Chicago’s far Southwest Side, mourners weaved in and out of traffic, leaned out car windows as they sang to music blaring from their car stereos and flashed gang signs, a video on YouTube showed.

These rowdy processions for slain street gang members have upset many residents in the mostly white neighborhoods of Mount Greenwood and Beverly who say they create a public safety problem. There have even been reports of shots fired, police say.

Neighbors want a number of cemeteries in the area as well as funeral homes to take more responsibility for the mayhem, but the businesses say there is only so much they can do to try to control the misbehavior.

Paul Stewart, spokesman for Mount Hope Cemetery, acknowledged it is a popular spot for gang funerals in large part because of its “reasonable” rates — as low as $1,200 for a burial. While aware of residents’ concerns, Stewart said, the cemetery’s mission has to be to provide services to a grieving family even if the deceased is a gang member.

“If a mother has a child in a gang, the services we’re providing is for the mother of the child,” Stewart said. “The mother is working with the funeral director and they just want to bury their child.”

About 200 residents took to the streets on a recent Saturday to show their anger over the issue, marching from Kennedy Park about five blocks to Mount Hope in unincorporated Cook County. Many hoisted signs calling to “respect the living and the dead.”

Barbara Mowatt and other residents were adamant that race isn’t at play in the protests. The protest drew a number of African-Americans as well.

“If you’ve never seen it, you’d never believe it,” said Mowatt, a look of disbelief flashing across her face. “It’s not a black-white thing at all. Have respect for the neighborhood.”

Chicago police and Cook County sheriff’s deputies appear to have heard the residents’ complaints. Officers were out in force at two gang funerals last month. At both, officers were stationed at points along the procession, while a Chicago police helicopter hovered over the long motorcade of dozens of vehicles, on the lookout for signs of trouble.

At a funeral a couple weekends ago for Christopher McGowan, a reputed Black Disciple gang member who was fatally shot when police say he pointed a gun at an on-duty officer, the police helicopter followed the six-mile procession from a church in Harvey to Mount Hope Cemetery. But police reported no trouble.

Earlier in the month, gunshots were reportedly fired from a white car as the funeral procession for Lil Jojo, an aspiring rapper with alleged gang ties whose real name was Joseph Coleman, moved from the South Side to Mount Hope. Police made two arrests after finding a .45-caliber handgun in a white Mitsubishi vehicle as the procession neared the cemetery.

Police have made several other arrests during other alleged gang funeral processions in the area. In a couple of incidents over the summer, mourners drove erratically, including once in July when cars were forced off the road near 107th Street and Western Avenue.

Last May, while responding to numerous reports of cars in a funeral procession driving recklessly, Chicago police spotted a 9 mm handgun in a car stopped by the entrance to Mount Hope. As an officer approached, the driver sped off, leading officers on a car chase through Beverly before his car broke down and he was arrested, police said.

Peggy Kerrigan, who lives about three blocks from Mount Hope, said she worries that the gang processions could draw the attention of rivals and increase hazards for motorists and children outside playing.

“You get that worry there is going to be a gang war out there,” she said during the recent weekend protest.

Virginia Rowan, a neighbor, said she’s noticed more gang processions go by in recent years and suspects the fallout over the scandal at Burr Oak Cemetery played a part. Workers at the cemetery in nearby Alsip dug up hundreds of graves as part of a scheme to resell the burial plots.

To try to deal with residents’ concerns, state legislators from the far Southwest Side are pushing legislation to limit the number of funerals at cemeteries like Mount Hope with a single entrance to 10 a day. The idea is that would limit the number of potential gang funerals.

State Rep. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago, whose constituents live by Mount Hope and four other cemeteries in the area, estimated there are about one or two gang funerals a week at the cemeteries.

“It’s a public safety issue, (and) neighbors are rightfully upset,” he said.

Over the last five years, Stewart, the Mount Hope spokesman, said the cemetery has averaged about 2,900 burials a year, among the highest in the state. Most occur on Fridays and Saturdays, he said.

Mount Hope hires off-duty Cook County sheriff’s deputies to work traffic control during funerals, Stewart said. The cemetery is also trying to work with local police and elected officials to possibly open a second entrance a half a mile away at 119th Street. However, some residents said that could raise additional problems because that route could be too narrow to handle a high volume of funeral traffic.

A better idea, some residents said, would be to impound the vehicles of motorists driving erratically during processions and to hold funeral directors accountable if they fail to notify police in advance about holding services for slain gang members.

Isaiah Jones, who owns the Southwest Side funeral home where services were held for Lil Jojo, said he always lets police know in advance of gang-related funerals.

The several hundred mourners at Lil Jojo’s funeral were the most unruly he’s ever seen, said Jones, who has held many services for slain gang members in his 47 years in the mortuary business. Police cleared out the services after the crowd nearly knocked over the casket of the 18-year-old shooting victim.

“You’re in the business to make money,” Jones said. “But if I had known something like this was going to happen, I would’ve turned it down.”

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