With Chicago violence out of control this year, with more than 500 people killed and thousands more shot, including dozens of little children, I watched a depressing demonstration outside Chicago police headquarters on Thursday:

Little kids modeling bulletproof backpacks.

This is where Chicago is now.

The kids held the bulletproof backpacks this way and that way, crouching, using them for cover, as they would on a Chicago playground when street gang hitters take out the guns. They looked about 8 years old, the age of Dajore Wilson, murdered in a gang hit on Labor Day while in a van in Canaryville.

“When we have children in the playground, and they hear shots fired, or they can run away, with it on their back,” said an adult to the TV cameras.

“And if there is a frontal assault,” said the man, telling the little boy to hold the bulletproof backpack up in front of him, “he is in a position to protect the vital organs.”

The vital organs.

A light wind was blowing down South Michigan Avenue and those three words stuck with me. A few cops paused about a dozen yards away to watch. They know about the vital organs.

So do the parents screaming in the emergency rooms. And ER nurses and doctors and Chicago Fire Department paramedics know about the vital organs. You can think of the medical personnel stepping out onto their back stoops at home after dinner to be alone a few minutes, and their husbands or wives or kids asking, “You OK?”

They lie and say, “Yeah, I’m OK.”

And they say nothing about the vital organs.

When I was a younger reporter I might have sneered at the theatrics of the kids with bulletproof backpacks and called it a stunt. Or wisecracked, “Is this the best they’ve got?”

And I figure that there are those of you out there, people of good will and properly skeptical minds, who might think the same thing. I wouldn’t blame you. You might think it to be a stunt, and maybe it was. Or, you might think that isn’t enough.

And you’d be right. It isn’t enough.

It is appalling, actually, to see a baby crouched behind a shield, little fingers holding the backpacks out for cover, playacting at what is all too real here.

But if the theatrics of kids modeling bulletproof armor in Chicago puts just a bit more pressure on City Hall and the police and the Cook County state’s attorney, I’d say it was a good thing.

The organizer of the bulletproof backpack demonstration was Tio Hardiman, a gang violence interrupter and counselor who knows his way around politics. He wants Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker — and maybe some billionaire with deep pockets — to provide about 4,000 bulletproof backpacks and divide them between Englewood and South Austin.

“Yeah, it’s about pressure,” he said, referring to all the children who have been shot this year. “We have a pandemic like COVID-19 and people are provided with face masks and hand sanitizers. To prevent sexually transmitted diseases, they’re provided condoms.”

But bulletproof backpacks? You’re trying to pressure City Hall and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and the judges, aren’t you? That was obvious. He nodded.

The backpacks are not new. Such bulletproof gear was developed years ago after mass shootings at schools. I don’t know if they’re all that successful. But if you had offered a couple of those backpacks to my wife when our kids were little, she’d have taken the boys and left town.

“What I’m saying is that until the mayor and public officials and law enforcement figure out how to stop this violence for real, in the meantime we’ve got to protect the babies out here and provide them will bulletproof backpacks, bulletproof baseball caps, bulletproof baby car seats and bulletproof sweatshirts so they’ll have a chance to survive,” Hardiman said.

Pritzker and Lightfoot know about bad optics.

And Chicago’s children holding bulletproof backpacks for TV cameras are very bad optics.

There were other speakers, too, at the event, and other children. Several moms admonished their communities to stand up, reject violence and tell police about the killers and shooters.

Nortasha Stingley’s daughter, Marissa, was 19 when she was gunned down in 2013 a few blocks from their Park Manor home on the South Side. Outside police headquarters Thursday, Stingley said her daughter’s killer is still free.

“Who’s to say what this man has been doing? Who’s to say if he (confronts) another woman … and shoots her too?” she said. “Too many women are being killed. Time to wake up. Not just white people. All people. We need to stand up.”

As I was writing this, my wife was reading a Chicago Tribune story by reporter Jeremy Gorner, about the Northwest Side’s Albany Park neighborhood. Seven people have been shot there in the past three days, just blocks apart. Our twin sons lived in that neighborhood, in their own apartment until a few weeks ago, when they moved in with us into the Chicago three-flat.

“You read this?” Betty asked, angry.

Yes, I said. I read it.

She gave me that look. A mother’s look.

And I thought of three words: the vital organs.

Listen to “The Chicago Way” podcast with John Kass and Jeff Carlin — at www.wgnradio.com/category/wgn-plus/thechicagoway.

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Twitter @John_Kass


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