Teenage reporters put ghetto on map

David Usborne on two Chicago youths who have become stars of national radio
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The Independent Online
Chicago - The boys, LeAlan and Lloyd, shake their heads - no, we cannot visit the scene of the crime. I look too much like an undercover policeman and we would arouse the suspicion of the gang. "They would want to know why Shorty is coming with a man," LeAlan flatly explains. Shorty is what they call a kid around here.

But later, when dusk has fallen, we drive past the grim tower blocks of the Ida B Wells public housing project in Chicago's South Side. LeAlan points to the fourteenth-storey window from where the boy was pushed. I imagine a shape falling and thumping on the earth below. And I see another boy, his brother, running out to catch him - too late.

It is 18 months since the tragedy. Only five years old, Eric Morse was tipped to his death from an abandoned apartment on this building's top floor by two other boys who lived in the maze-like project. They were aged just 10 and 11 at the time. Two months ago, the pair became the youngest in America ever to be sent to a maximum security juvenile prison.

Eric's death made national headlines. President Clinton spoke about it. But the outrage has long since faded while violent death remains a daily facet of life in the neighbourhood. This week, however, America's memory will be jogged about the case and the continuing plight of the South Side by two reporters who have stayed in the battle zone, war correspondents, if you like.

Lloyd Newman, just 17, and his friend LeAlan Jones, 16, are much like most children here, forced to become adults pitifully early. Already fatherless, Lloyd lost his mother to an alcohol-related illness five years ago and lives with two elder sisters. Paces from his home is the the strip they call "Planet Rock", where the cocaine pushers loiter. LeAlan does not know who his father is and lives in a tumble-down house nearby with his grandparents, his mother and other cousins and nephews.

But the boys are different, too, because they have escaped the vortex of drug-dealing, fighting and stealing that so many of their peers have been sucked into. And what really distinguishes them is their work as journalists.

It all began for the boys in 1993, when they were adopted by David Isay, a radio producer in New York. Only 13 then, they were equipped by Mr Isay with tape-recorders and told to make a 30-minute documentary about growing up in the projects. The result, "Ghetto Life 101", was broadcast on National Public Radio, the nearest thing in America to the BBC, to extraordinary acclaim. Among the awards won by the boys was the Prix Italia and the Livingston Award, a national prize for journalists under 35.

The Morse case has been their new project. Called "Remorse, The 14 stories of Eric Morse", it is to be broadcast on NPR's main afternoon magazine programme on Thursday. This time, the piece lasts a full hour and NPR has cleared the schedules for it.

In their report, the boys ask how two so young could possibly have committed so evil an act. (The police said that Eric died because he refused to steal sweets for his murderers from the local supermarket.) They interview the prosecutors and the defence lawyers from the court case and track down friends of both Eric and of his murderers and members of their families. With their recorder, they also wander the building where it happened.

In one segment they are standing by the fateful window. LeAlan: "I wonder how he felt, falling from 14 storeys." Lloyd: "I don't know, I just be thinking about how it is in heaven." LeAlan: "Since Shorty was so young, you know he went to heaven. Dude, you think they got a playground in heaven for Shorties?" Lloyd: "Nope. Ain't no playground in heaven."

As we talk in the living room of LeAlan's house, it becomes clear what their main purpose is: to explain the sheer awfulness of life on the South Side Project - where the population is almost exclusively African American and for the most part dependent on public assistance - and how in that context the murder of Eric, while by no means forgivable, was at least understandable and somehow less heinous.

LeAlan, the more self-assured of the pair, likens the apartment blocks to concentration camps. "The people, they see the same thing every day: it's the same stink of urine, the same graffiti. There is no green grass or flowers and if you see a dog it will be mangy. What kind of animal do you know that could live in a situation like that and come out prosperous? I don't know of any zoos where they keep animals in worse conditions." Struggling to explain how this affects people he evokes a chemistry experiment he did at school. "There is all this pressure, see, and finally you cannot hold it."

The evidence of the social explosion is everywhere. I ask how many of the boys' school friends have been killed in the neighbourhood and they tick off four names. How many of their peers have been in trouble with the police? "Almost half," replies LeAlan. Lloyd disagrees and, laughing, says, "Most everyone." LeAlan calculates that one in two of his classmates are already fathers.

Here, LeAlan's grandmother, June Jones, suggests that it is the tender age of so many of the parents that has created the problems. "Children raising children", she says, noting that at a local school where she works part-time 17-year-old mothers come to drop off four-year-olds in day care. "As a parent I learned to be firm, but how can children teach children?"

Then there is the rule of the gangs. This neighbourhood is under the reign of the Gangster Disciples and within it the boys feel relatively secure. When later we drive to a nearby restaurant to get some fried chicken, LeAlan announces ominously that we are in the territory of the rival Stones gang and that it is especially violent. In the previous few days, six people had been killed across Chicago in gang warfare.

On tape, the prosecutor in the Morse case insists that the murderers, whose names have not been published, acted with premeditation. Lloyd and LeAlan have trouble accepting this. Perhaps they only meant to scare Eric but accidentally dropped him. Or maybe they simply had no concept of what they were doing. "They most probably thought they would go home for dinner and hear no more about it," says LeAlan. "If they did it premeditated, then, man, that was cold." Under US law, the guilty pair will be released when they are 21.

LeAlan is pessimistic for the South Side. It has been the same all his life, with little sign of the politicians changing things. And he adds: "This is the seventh and ninth generations of African Americans living in this society and like any species they're going to adapt to their surroundings. The kids are going to be worse than their fathers and are going to take crime to another level. It's true."

But for themselves, the two boys are ambitious. Lloyd speaks of being a businessman and flying in jets. LeAlan mentions studying at Oxford. How have they been able to withstand all the pressures so vividly described in their documentaries? Replies Lloyd: "Pressure can be good. Pressure makes coal into diamonds".