As a moment of silence ended at a safety summit this summer, Rich Arredondo dropped a bombshell on the group of local educators, social workers, a Chicago police officer, an alderman’s aide and representatives of Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, CAPS.
Arredondo, a Chicago State University business professor, introduced a new option against gun violence for students: Body armor. More specifically, thin bulletproof plates that slide into backpacks and can be used as a shield against a ballistic barrage. He brought along a bright red backpack for demonstration.
"It’s terrible we have to think this way, but we need defensive measures," he told the group, which remained silent at first.
Arredondo sat next to Tom Auer, owner of Bearse USA Custom Sewn Products, located near the school. The two men have been developing a prototype of the body armor plates for more than a year.
"We’re just giving people options," he explained.
The thin plates are about the size of a sheet of paper and weigh two pounds per square foot, "about the weight of a textbook," he said. The prototype plate he brought to the meeting has two bullet casings embedded in it, to show it can stop a 9mm or 45 mm point blank ballistic charge.
Cost of the plates would range between $40 and $200, depending on the volume of sales—if the idea even takes off, he says. "Is the national consciousness ready for this? I don’t know," he told the group.
But several of the safety summit group members knew instantly.
"It’s shameful that we have come to this," one Hispanic father said, shaking his head.
"We need to denounce gunfire against our children, not deflect it with their backpacks," one mother said.
David Cassel, director of the Alliance of Local Service Organizations, echoed the feelings of many. "I don’t know if we want to sell fear to families." He said money needed to buy such body armor could be much better spent on prevention and intervention programs that are already working.
Auer, a local businessman who co-organized an employee program to help chaperone students to and from school, stayed out of the crossfire between Arredondo and those not so enthusiastic about sending kids to school with body armor backpacks.
But Chicago Police Capt. Jack Murphy didn’t hesitate with his support of the idea. "It’s sad we’re talking like this, but as we speak gun manufacturers are producing weapons that will wind up on our streets in two weeks." Our society, he added, is much too casual with handguns, treating them like cigarette lighters, not tools of death.
‘Too much talking, not enough action’
Inside the crowded offices of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, outreach workers Tami Love and Rosita De La Rosa ponder solutions for the city’s violence epidemic against innocent children and teenagers. First and foremost: Take action.
"I hear about a movement, but I don’t see any moving, just ideas and suggestions and photo ops for public officials," says Love, a mother of two 17-year-old twins.
Visibly frustrated, she says too many communities have no parks, no programs and no safe zones for urban teens, most with too much time on their hands and too few after-school alternatives. Yet she has the same parental concerns of mothers living in safer neighborhoods or seemingly idyllic suburbs.
De La Rosa, who attended six meetings in one month all spurred by Schanna Gayden’s killing, says, "There’s too much talking, not enough action."
One of those meetings produced a list of possible actions, including more police surveillance cameras at key sites, pressuring legislators to pass stricter gun control laws and organizing block clubs so residents can bond and band together.