Stopping the causes of violence

October 17, 2013

Mariame Kaba, founding director of the Chicago community organization Project NIA, examines how violence is depicted, in an article for her blog Prison Culture.

YOU MIGHT be forgiven if you thought that interpersonal violence (particularly homicides) among youth in Chicago was at an all-time high, rather than at one of its lowest levels in 20 years. The headlines blare that Chicago is a "war zone." We are told that we are living in "Chiraq," "Chiganistan," "Terror city"--take your pick. Our frame is all war, all of the time.

In fact, a friend posted a photo of a poster that he saw in the South Loop (a fully gentrified community) just a few days ago advertising an art exhibition sponsored by Home Depot titled "Finding the Lost Childhoods of Chiraq", where the organizers label our children "child soldiers."

In the Chicago Tribune earlier this month, a Chicago resident named Matthew Hinerfeld wrote a letter to the newspaper which was published. In it, he said:

It is time for us to take drastic steps to ensure the safety of the children in our most dangerous neighborhoods. Incremental increases in police patrols and incremental efforts to enhance our schools simply won't work. The cycle of poverty, drugs and violence that has a stranglehold on so much of our city is too strong.

Let's break that cycle. Let's call out the National Guard to patrol our most dangerous neighborhoods for a generation. Yes, a generation. Put soldiers on every block. If we assure our children true safe passage to and from school and in their neighborhoods, then within that protective umbrella, given enough time and determination, we and the leaders in those communities can educate a generation of children, many of whom currently have almost no chance of success in life, but a good chance of being shot before they become adults.

Only this way can we do our best to break the cycle of poverty, drugs and violence and liberate whole swaths of our city for generations to come. We owe it to the children of our city to try.

Friends mourn Heaven Sutton, a 7-year-old victim of gun violence
Friends mourn Heaven Sutton, a 7-year-old victim of gun violence (Ashlee Rezin)

Hinerfeld's words seem to be the logical conclusion of perceiving and talking about some neighborhoods as "war zones," as "Chiraq." When we use these terms (which may or may not accurately describe how we live based on our own subjective experiences), we inadvertently legitimate a military response from the state (though the state needs no excuse to crackdown on the marginalized).

I would suggest that even more insidious is the way that these terms condition our own thinking about ourselves and each other. We trap ourselves into responding to these structural problems with a punishment mindset and a war footing. And this has devastating consequences for communities that are already over-policed, militarized, under-resourced and ravaged through decades of disinvestment. Using this terminology ultimately contributes nothing to ending interpersonal violence, and may in fact exacerbate it.

It's certainly true that in some parts of the city, you are more likely to be shot or physically harmed than in others. However, on the whole, Chicago is actually "safer" in terms of public shootings and homicides than it's been in decades. The city is, in fact, nowhere close to being the so-called "murder capital" of the country. Check the statistics, you'll see that I'm right.

But you notice that I said "safer" in terms of public shootings and homicides, not "safer" in terms of "violence." Because in very real ways--in terms of structural and institutional violence and overall oppression--things are pretty terrible for a lot of people. But we don't discuss this with nearly the frequency or sensationalism that we do when we catalog the dead and the injured (as important as it is to memorialize those precious lives).

Structural/Institutional Violence

So I want to make sure to point out some of the structural violence that we are contending with which forecloses an opportunity for our young to thrive. I want to challenge all of us to expand and broaden our definitions of violence and of justice.

1. In 2012, we learned from Census data that the poverty rate in Chicago has continued to increase. For example, the child poverty rate in the city rose from 33.1 percent in 2010 to 35.8 percent in 2011. The extreme poverty rate rose from 10 percent to 11.2 percent (source). The poverty is concentrated in Black and Brown communities in Chicago, which means that it is all too often ignored. But poverty is violence.

2. In 2012, there was a police shooting of a civilian about once a week. These were 50 shooting incidents involving 57 individuals (eight of whom were killed). The vast majority of those people shot by the police were Black (about 88 percent). Three of those shot were identified as Latino (source). This, too, is violence.

3. This spring, the Chicago Public Schools closed almost 50 schools overwhelmingly on the South and West sides of the city. Almost 90 percent of the children displaced are Black (source). This is violence.

4. In the community areas where 50 public schools were closed in 2013, the amount spent on schools since 2000 was $2.2 billion and the amount spent on incarceration in that same time frame was $2.7 billion (source). This is violence.

5. In 2012, the high school dropout rate for CPS students was 35 percent--more than double the national average. School pushout is also violence.

6. Unemployment for young people of color in Chicago is sky-high and has been steadily increasing. In North Lawndale, for example, nearly 70 percent of Black males aged 16 to 35 are unemployed by some measure. This is violence, too.

We've been disinvesting from our communities of color through foreclosures, the demolition of public housing, food deserts, the closing of 6 mental health clinics, and more. These are violence.

Stop the Violence

So as I've said, we need a broad and inclusive definition of violence in order to understand what we need to do to transform it.

I am calling for us to abandon the slogan "Stop the Violence" because I think that it doesn't describe what we actually mean and want. I think that we need to call for stopping the poverty, stopping the foreclosures, stopping police harassment, stopping the mass incarceration of Black and Brown bodies. We need to get specific.

You might ask: But what about the shootings and the homicides that are happening in some communities in Chicago? What are we going to do about those? Don't the lost lives matter?

My answer is: Yes, of course the lost lives matter. We should mourn those losses. Some of these have directly impacted me, so I care deeply. But I want to say that we're not lacking in people who say that their "hearts go out" to those who have lost their lives, and we know that there are countless people who we will never meet who grieve the individual lives lost.

We've had vigils, built living memorials, offered moving testimonials for those lives. These should absolutely continue. It matters how we commemorate our dead, particularly since the one constant throughout American history is a persistent denial of Black humanity and a callous disregard of Black pain.

But as I've made clear, I hope, I think that not nearly enough attention has been paid to pointing out that interpersonal violence is a manifestation of oppression. Interpersonal violence is simply the glue that holds those oppressions in place.

So I want us to identify and surface those oppressions; the actual root causes of interpersonal violence so that we may eradicate shootings and homicides.


We need to make concrete demands to ensure the transformation of violence. What should we be asking for? What should our demands be?

We should be asking for a lot. We should not allow oppression to, as Alice Walker has said, put a "ceiling on our brains"--and, I would add, on our imaginations. Let's demand:

1. A WPA-style jobs program; we need full employment with a living wage for everyone of working age.

2. A National Moratorium on approving charter schools and a recommitment to ensuring a fully public education system.

3. Let's stop funding prisons and instead support more humane, effective and cheaper community-based alternatives for addressing interpersonal violence and harm.

4. Let's call for an immediate end to the war on drugs and do ongoing work to move us away from a punishment mindset that is profoundly racist, classist, and heterosexist.

5. Let's call for a moratorium on foreclosures and reinvest in building affordable housing.

6. Let's call for single-payer health care for all.

7. Let's insist on an end to capitalist exploitation across the world.

8. Let's insist on an end to the racist "war on terror."

9. Let's call for disarming the police, military AND the general public instead of a vague "gun control."

10. Let's forgive student loans for more young people who want to contribute positively to their communities.

We should demand all of these things, unapologetically, consistently and loudly.

These are difficult days for some young people, living and growing up in Chicago. And the truth is that thousands of young people in Chicago are being failed by every institution, on a minute-by-minute basis. So we should continue to condemn and to hold accountable the systems and institutions that are supposed to ensure the health and well-being of young people in our city. We have a duty and an obligation to do this.

I am enraged that systemic oppression and violence conspire to steal some young people's sense of hope. When I was much, much younger, I used to love fairy tales. All of them. I loved a happy ending. Now as a grown woman, I've retired my love of fairy tales. But I still love happy endings (however rare they are). I cling to the idea that transformation is possible. I believe that structural change is possible. I believe that we can uproot oppression. It's why I do the work I do. I often turn to poetry as a balm and salve in an often unforgiving world.

So I end with a poem by Jayne Cortez that encapsulates why I think we all must continue to struggle for justice. It's titled "There it is."

And if we don't fight
if we don't resist
if we don't organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is

So there it is.

First published at Prison Culture.

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