Ghetto attack on nine-year-old black girl stirs US conscience

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The Independent Online
Chicago - Her name is a secret, guarded as closely as the nine- year-old herself. Raped, choked, poisoned and dumped in a stairwell, Girl X has been unconscious for a month, unable to describe her attacker.

As police follow their only clue - the gang-style graffiti scrawled on her body - the child has been embraced by Chicago's black community as a symbol of violence in its crumbling housing projects.

Hundreds have attended vigils. The Rev Jesse Jackson has helped raise thousands of dollars for psychiatric care if the girl ever recovers, and Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, has prayed at her bedside. "It's a horrible, horrible thing," said the Rev Maxine Walker, a Baptist minister. "It makes you wonder what kind of consciousness, what kind of mind, would do this."

Her suffering began on the morning of 9 January when she left a playmate's apartment and started home alone through the notorious Cabrini-Green public housing project. When she was found hours later, the pitchfork emblem of the Gangster Disciples street gang was scrawled across her body, possibly with a marker pen.

Ever since, she has been in a hospital bed, armed guards at her door around the clock.

Police have shown the graffiti to a handwriting expert, but they don't know whether they are looking for gang members or an assailant using the scrawls as a decoy. Dozens of men have been questioned and some given lie-detector tests. Informants within the gangs are being pressed for clues. "We're still progressing," said a police commander, Joseph Griffin. "Some cases you reach a dead end where you're pretty well stuck, but this thing has been ongoing."

Driving the concern over the case is the realisation - now universal in Chicago - that Cabrini-Green and similar housing projects have become nightmare environments that leave children who survive them badly scarred. The city is tearing down the worst buildings, but progress is slow and thousands still live amid the rats, trash, and drug-pushing gangs.

Still, reaction was slow in coming. In Saturday's Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Lee Bey contrasted the initially mild reaction to the Girl X case to the furore over the slaying of six-year-old Colorado beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey. "The Cabrini-Green rape would be widely known had the victim been white," he wrote. "Then it would have been news. Some legislator would have pushed for tougher laws against brutalisers of children."

On Wednesday, the black-oriented radio station WGCI parked its mobile studio outside Children's Memorial Hospital and its disc-jockeys spent 16 hours appealing for donations. Station officials estimate they raised $50,000, (pounds 30,000) mostly from motorists who drove up to drop off their contributions.

Beverly Reed, a community organiser who coined the name Girl X after the mother asked to have the real name kept secret, estimated that she has raised an additional $30,000 (pounds 18,000) for psychiatric care and moving the family "so she'll never have to see Cabrini-Green again. This has stirred the soul of the community."