Letty Cooper’s pleasant frame house on Chicago’s North Side echoes to the cheerful sounds of her 10 well-behaved children. It is a typical house, in a typical middle-class setting. It is also a command post in a tense—and apparently victorious—four-and-a-half-year battle to rescue the neighborhood from the specter of violence.
The struggle began in the summer of 1973. Thorndale, where the Cooper family has resided since 1960, had always been a nice neighborhood—but now it was turning dangerous. A grocer had been murdered only four blocks away, and teenage toughs were terrorizing the streets. Then one July evening Letty Cooper’s husband, Bill, a carpenter for the Chicago Transit Authority, shouted at a car that was going the wrong way on a one-way street. The car screeched into an alley, and a thug named Gary Kellas jumped out and shouted an obscenity. Cooper walked over to ask him to watch his language, and suddenly found himself on his back.
“All Bill remembers saying is, ‘My name is Bill Cooper,’ ” says Letty. “Then he got decked. Kellas slugged him, knocked him down, then set him back up and kicked him in the face with his boot.” Mrs. Cooper, a part-time pediatrics nurse, was getting the youngest children ready for bed when neighbors led her dazed husband inside. “You didn’t have to have medical training to know how bad he was hurt,” she recalls. “His eyelid was almost torn off his face.”
For the next three days, while Cooper recovered in the hospital, gang members ruled the neighborhood. When men from a nearby apartment house caught two of them dismantling a padlocked motorcycle and went to the police station to press charges, some 40 young thugs began terrorizing their building. The mother of a retarded child was singled out for special abuse. “They stood outside her window,” Mrs. Cooper remembers bitterly, “and they chanted, ‘Send your little bitty retard out and we’ll cut his little bitty throat.’ ”
Soon after Bill was released from the hospital the Coopers decided the time had come to fight back. “We were scared to death,” says Letty, “but after talking with the cops—who didn’t push us one way or the other—we came to the conclusion that if we didn’t sign a complaint the gang would feel free to do anything they wanted.”
Bravely, the Coopers pressed charges, and neighbors banded together to fight the gang. Within four months they had lodged more than 40 criminal complaints against the hoodlums. (Both the gang and residents are white.) “People began watching out for other people,” says Mrs. Cooper, who by then had helped organize a neighborhood defense organization. “They called the cops. Most important, we all went to court. When Bill’s case came up there were 60 people in the courtroom.” (Kellas was found guilty of battery and sentenced to six months in jail. He was later convicted of murdering another neighbor.)
Not only did the new vigilance result in jail terms and fines, it also brought an unprecedented lawsuit from gang members. They claimed the citizens’ group was infringing on their civil liberties. The suit was dismissed in 1976, and finally, today, the defendants have broken the gang’s grip on their lives. “Once we thought, naively, that we could get these people out of our hair in six weeks,” says Mrs. Cooper. “The frustrations have been tremendous. If I was a crier, I’d have been crying every day.”
Recently Letty Cooper was singled out by the Chicago Crime Commission for its civilian Award of Merit. Mrs. Cooper is delighted with the plaque, which sits next to her police radio on a shelf in the dining room, but she is also a trifle embarrassed. “It was the whole community, not just me,” she insists. “We were just neighbors who kinda exploded.”