A police car crosses 111th Street in Chicago on Friday, October 2, 2009,… (Terrence Antonio James…)
Anjanette Albert doesn’t walk on the stretch of 111th Street where her son was murdered on his way home from Fenger Academy High School in 2009.
It’s just too hard.
Four years have passed since 16-year-old sophomore Derrion Albert was bludgeoned to death, kicked and hit with fists and wooden planks. Video posted online captured each horrific blow he suffered in that street fight. The brutality stunned the whole nation.
“It’s been bad. It’s been real bad,” she said, fighting back tears. “I’m trying to stay strong and keep a smile on my face and be OK. But I’m not. It’s not getting any better.”
Until an anonymous person announced plans to donate one, there was no plaque to mark Albert’s resting place in a mausoleum. A makeshift shrine with photos, his honorary diploma and candles sits on a table near the couch inside Albert’s Bronzeville apartment.
Albert has launched a campaign to have an honorary sign erected designating the location of her son’s murder. A petition she posted online at gopetition.com has 290 signatures in support.
“I think that the children—they should remember what happened out there that day,” Albert said. “It would remind the kids. All I’m trying to say is you don’t have to do this. Remember what happened.”
City ordinance gives aldermen the authority to make arrangements for honorary street signs. Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), whose ward includes the area around Fenger High School, said she wants input from residents before proposing the honorary street designation to City Council. She said she is concerned about setting a precedent.
“I’ve had quite a few young people in my area to die from violence, not in the same manner because his was national, but that doesn’t lessen anyone else’s,” she said.
“What would I say to the other children that have lost their lives in my ward? Am I to do an honorary street on every street? I mean, I love that child because he went to my school. He did nothing wrong. But what would I tell every other mother?” Austin said.
More than 1,600 honorary street signs have been erected in Chicago. They bear names ranging from those of businesses to civic organizations, from politicians to religious figures, from police officers killed in the line of duty to athletes, and from musicians to dignitaries. Some names are widely unknown to most Chicagoans while others, such as Oprah Winfrey Way, Bernie Mac Street and Hugh Hefner Way, are immediately recognizable.
In Austin’s ward, there are 46 honorary signs. Most honor religious leaders.
“There aren’t any standards as to who is significant enough to get an honorary street name,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at UIC and former alderman.
In most cases, the person honored usually played an important role in the community and is recognized as a leader by community organizations, churches or ethnic groups, he said. Deciding whom to award the honor can be a difficult decision.
“The alderman is right. If we put up honorary street signs for each youth who was killed, we would have a flood of new street signs, given there are 500 murders in Chicago,” Simpson said.
“It still might be worth doing,” he said. “It does require some consideration as to for whom are you going to do one of these signs.”
Derrion Albert’s death sparked national outrage, and politicians including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder came to Chicago in the aftermath. Five people were convicted and the incident led to the creation of the Safe Passage program, aimed at keeping Chicago Public Schools students safe on their way to and from school.
For Albert’s mother, designating an honorary street for her son would be a way to have something positive come out of the nightmare she has been living and reliving every time her son’s name is mentioned in the news.
“All I know is I’ve never asked them for anything. I’ve never made any demands or put any pressure on the city for anybody to do anything. This is all I ask for,” she said. “I’m not trying to make a name for myself. I just want what’s right for my son. This should never be forgotten, what happened out there that day.”
An honorary street might make it easier to help Albert heal and one day ride out to that street. “It might, just to see it,” she said, “just to know that I fought for this, for you.”
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