CHICAGO - A community unable to make sense of the killing of a 6-month-old Chicago girl filed past her tiny white casket Tuesday, as religious leaders implored them to transform gang-riven neighborhoods and seize the "power in the blood of the innocent."
Jonylah Watkins was sitting on her father's lap in a minivan when a gunman approached on foot and shot them both in what police have said was a targeted attack on the girl's father, a gang member. Jonylah's death was the latest to draw national attention to Chicago's struggle with gang violence and murder. Her young age, in particular, has angered many and prompted calls for a frightened community to shed its reluctance to cooperate with the police and bring the killer forward.
Speaking at a church in the Woodlawn neighborhood just blocks from where the March 11 killing took place, Pastor Marshall Hatch said the baby's death was evidence of just how much the community has failed the next generation
"All of us need to apologize to her for not doing our best to make this world a better place," he said. "She deserved better than she got."
The size of the crowd that turned out to remember someone who never even made it to her first birthday sent a profound message of its own, he said.
"There is a power in the blood of the innocent ... Our lives must change," he said.
The girl's father, Jonathan Watkins, who was seriously wounded in the shooting, bowed his head over her open casket and lingered there for about 10 minutes alongside his wife. The 29-year-old, who had nicknamed his daughter Smooch, wore a white hooded sweatshirt decorated with words in memory of the girl.
Chicago registered more than 500 homicides last year for the first time since 2008. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy recently told reporters that homicides are down this year compared with the same period last year, but he acknowledged that the infant's shooting made it "hard to see the progress."
McCarthy said Monday that investigators are determined to track down those involved in Jonylah's killing. He said police have surveillance video showing the van they believe was the getaway vehicle and were trying to verify a report of an Facebook post threatening Jonathan Watkins.
Watkins has a criminal record, and McCarthy said he is a gang member. While Watkins is cooperating with the investigation, McCarthy said there is "a lot more" help he could provide.
Several of those attending the service lamented the "code of silence" that keeps some residents from reporting crimes, cooperating with authorities or even fingering members of rival gangs who have targeted them.
A City Council member representing the area said in a booming, angry voice that the girl's death should move people to "stop killing each other."
"We can't put this on the police, we can't put this on anybody but ourselves," Alderman Willie Cochran said. "We have to make that change."
"And I want the killer to be apprehended," he said to loud applause. "Somebody's going to pay for this child being killed. Bring him forth!"
Many of those attending the funeral said they did not know the family but came to express their condolences and out of a sense of solidarity with others who are trying to keep their children safe.
"The block I live on, in the summer it's so bad over there, you can't stand outside," said 60-year-old Joann Thomas, who also lives in Woodlawn. "I got three small ones that I keep in the house all times," she said, referring to the great-grandchildren she looks after and tries to keep safe from harm.
A message written on signs that were hung on a fence along Martin Luther King Drive, where the church is located, encapsulated the community's pain.
"Mothers are not supposed to bury their children," it read.
In an especially poignant moment, the baby's grandmother, Mary Young, read a poem at the funeral echoing the calls for change.
"My neighbors of Chicago, what have thou done? You brought in the darkness and removed the sun," she said. "It's now obvious the time has come when killing one another will no longer be tolerated by anyone."