More than 100 Benito Juarez students joined a walkout midday Monday on the school’s first day of classes since four teens were shot and two were killed Friday.
As the students gathered at the spot just outside their school building where Nathan Billegas, 14, and Brandon Perez, 15, were fatally shot, they raised their arms in an effort to reclaim the space.
“Let us pause now, mindful of the memories of our dear brothers, far too young, far too soon, who have died in our midst,” Father Brendan Curran of the Resurrection Project said.
Dozens of volunteers, anti-violence organizers and preachers supported the shaken school community with balloons, signs decrying gun violence and food.
The students grew quiet as they released the balloons — yellow and white spheres, black stars and red hearts. Some teared up and leaned on one another as they looked to the sky.
The students then marched in the streets around their Pilsen high school, briefly shutting down small sections of Cermak Road and Ashland Avenue.
“What do we want? Justice. What do we need? Peace,” sophomore Kiya Vaughn, who helped organize the walkout, shouted into a bullhorn from the front of the pack.
The marchers paused as one student took the bullhorn.
“Start protecting our children who come to school to learn, to become something in life. All you care about is gun violence? Get out! That’s not something to be proud of. Guns are not something to flex,” she said.
Two others shot included a 15-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy. Brandon was a student at Juarez, while Nathan was a student at Chicago Bulls College Prep, police said. The surviving girl attends Juarez and the surviving boy is a student at Noble UIC College Prep, according to police.
After the demonstration, sophomore Camila Lopez told reporters she was a friend of Brandon’s. She remembered him bringing her food and texting her about his little sister.
“He was always so sweet,” Lopez said. “I was looking back through our messages and it just broke me.”
She heard the gunshots that killed the funny and caring boy as she was leaving school Friday, she said. It helped to be back in class with friends, she added.
Lopez called on the school to upgrade security and for her classmates to turn in the gunman who killed her friend.
“I know somebody knows who it is. Just speak up, man. We can’t live this life,” she said. Police released a photo of a person connected with the shooting Saturday.
Many students don’t feel safe, walkout organizer Vaughn told reporters, but the demonstration proved a point.
“I want the world to see that we can have safety. We can be safe,” she said. The student leader wants to see “more security, more stuff being done about gang affiliation,” she added.
Anti-violence organizers called for more resources to establish cease fires and mentor young people at different events at the school Monday.
Violence Interrupters founder Tio Hardiman said he thinks the shooting was gang related based on what he heard and the apparent brazenness of the post-dismissal shooting on school grounds.
“A lot of people that experience trauma do not get the chance to heal,” he said at a morning news conference.
Later in the afternoon, a few people returned to the site of the shooting to hold a vigil open to the Pilsen community.
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“We just got to get them out of the streets. How? Just fund their programs,” Pilsen anti-violence organizer William Guerrero said at the vigil, which was attended by mayoral candidates Ja’Mal Green and state Rep. Kam Buckner, a Democrat from Chicago.
Ricky Medina, who works to create safe spaces for rival gang members in Little Village to meet in peace, held a candle as he spoke.
“I shouldn’t be holding a candle every week,” he said. “The change starts now, or we’re gonna keep burying our kids.”
The shooting was a symptom of disinvestment in the Pilsen neighborhood, the Rev. Marcus Guerra of Ezekiel’s Heart Ministries said.
“These kids have not even had a chance to have their first love or make their first heartbreak,” he said. “The kids need to know that we care for them.”
The dozen or so people gathered for the vigil placed candles and red roses at the spot where the two boys were shot. A few offerings sat there earlier in the day, but as night fell the wall became covered in signs and the ground full of flowers and balloons showing in candlelight.