No solution to a terrible crime

February 21, 2014

Politicians and the media ramped up fear in response to a rape on Chicago's Northwest Side--but according to Marilena Marchetti, they aren't providing real solutions.

"WE'RE GOING to make sure that we catch this monster," Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy told the crowd gathered at a public meeting to discuss the brutal rape of a 15-year-old girl in the Northwest Side Chicago neighborhood of Belmont Cragin.

At the meeting, which drew elected officials, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) personnel and more than 100 people, state Rep. Luis Arroyo echoed McCarthy's sentiment, pledging, "This monster...[he's] going to pay for this." This was one of three public meetings to take place since the news emerged on December 17 about the beating and rape of a 15-year-old on her way to school.

Weeks later, the "monster" was found: Luis Alberto Pantoja. Every time the story was told, by the Chicago Sun-Times, Huffington Post, ABC News and other media outlets, it was noted that Pantoja, the alleged rapist, is deaf and mute. The same photo appeared again and again with every news story, reinforcing the image of a "monster."

What has actually taken place is this: With community outcry at a fever pitch, police and elected officials have used residents' concerns to deepen discrimination against people of color and people with disabilities and to shield the systemic injustices that enable such a tragedy to occur.

Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy
Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy

FLASHBACK TO February 1, 2012, in Calumet City, just south of Chicago. Fifteen-year-old Stephon Watts, who was Black and autistic, was getting ready for school when he had a strong reaction to interpersonal and environmental stimuli. Family members couldn't calm him down, so they called the police to provide assistance, per the instructions of social workers and doctors.

When police arrived at the scene, they took over with unnecessary force, fatally shooting young Stephon. His father cried as he told reporters: "I want people to know that I'm grieving. I want police to know that they really hurt me. I just called the police to help. That's all I did. I didn't call them for any other reason than to have them help me calm down my son. It led to his death."

The police were never indicted for their crime.

Last November, while I was working as an occupational therapist in Chicago Public Schools, the mother of one disabled student said to me, "Is there some kind of bracelet, like they have for diabetics, that my son can wear? I'm worried that when he's out or waiting for the bus, someone could see him and hurt him just for being himself, not doing anything wrong."

Stephon's parents know this fear. It's a fear born of the power of mainstream media and of elected and public officials who called Pantoja a monster to dehumanize people and leave them susceptible to abuse, assault and murder.

The repetition of stereotypes from so-called reliable "sources" like politicians and the media make particular people appear to be the origin of problems that in reality have multiple roots, systemic roots. The groundbreaking "Adverse Childhood Experiences Study" (ACE Study) proves that the conditions people are subjected to as they develop, which they are powerless to choose, directly link to rates of illness and death and quality of life later on.

Supt. McCarthy and local politicians give the lie to their claim that they want "justice" when they reinforce the idea that people of color and people with disabilities are "monsters" who have earned whatever harm is visited on them.

Women have also been made into distorted caricatures through a convergence of media images, public policies and statements made by people in power. It's more rare when politicians makes such a public condemnation when the case involves women who wear what they perceive as "revealing" clothing, who drink alcohol or do sex work, or who accuse a police officer.

Before the recent incident in Belmont Cragin, Pantoja was accused of another rape. The judge dismissed the case against him after Pantoja claimed the victim was his girlfriend.

His former accuser recently came forward to talk about her story, highlighting the fact that she was denied a Spanish-language interpreter. She told the Sun-Times, "That's why they dropped my case, because I didn't understand well. I needed to understand."

The fear and anger surrounding the recent attack on the young victim in Belmont Cragin, however, sparked residents to put pressure on officials to hold a public meeting days after the incident. "I'm tired of this shit," said resident Raquel Castenada at the public meeting, referring to sexual violence and the police response. "I didn't find out [about the sexual assault] from the news, I looked out my own window."

"I have no faith in the police--the police station is right around the corner," she added, drawing the most vigorous applause of the night. "All I hear from them is the obvious--'Something needs to be done.' Obviously."

THE BACKDROP to this rape is a widening wealth and quality-of-life gap in Chicago that is producing insidious byproducts of violence and immiseration.

The Belmont Cragin neighborhood was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. In 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported:

In the Bungalow Belt of northwest Chicago, houses sink into the morass of foreclosure every day, leaving behind boarded-up windows, scraggly lawns, plummeting home values and an unintended invitation for squatters to settle in. This is life for residents in the old industrial enclave of the Belmont Cragin community, where a flood of more than 900 foreclosure filings struck last year, the second-highest rate in the city.

Gang violence and crime are issues in the neighborhood. Unemployment and school closures are making things worse. To meaningfully address the problems that Belmont Cragin faces would require a dramatic shift from the mayor's agenda of cutting the budgets of public services and slashing pensions to an agenda of taxing the rich, creating jobs and revitalizing communities.

In Belmont Cragin, residents have already been fighting for the public services they deserve. They protested to keep a privately run charter school from breaking ground and leaching funds out of local public schools. At a protest in January, ninth-grader Lizette Lopez, said, "My school is a great school, and it would be even better if they actually started investing in it, instead of spending...on unnecessary schools in my community. How does making a new school even make sense?"

At a mass demonstration downtown against the school board's plan to close dozens of elementary schools, Dana Cruz, whose niece's school in Belmont Cragin was under attack, explained to the Lawndale News why she was protesting.

"Cruz believes that once students are transferred to new schools, classes will become too crowded and some students will not be able to handle that change," the neighborhood newspaper reported. "She also believes that this change will cause some students to drop out and join gangs, and will result in an increase of violence."

BELMONT CRAGIN residents have the potential to resist the status quo that has officials paying attention now.

The third of the public meetings addressing the rape was held by the Northwest Side Housing Center in conjunction with elected officials, Chicago Public Schools' Safety and Security Department chief Jadine Chou, and the Chicago Police Department. To ostensibly promote justice, officials hyped vigilantism and unrolled yet another initiative to provide streetwise training that teaches children "stranger danger."

"We are the eyes and ears for [the police]," said 30th Ward Alderman Ariel Reboyras. "We must remain active. We've got to be proactive. An active community is a safe community. Know your neighbors."

Officials could have talked about a plan to create jobs, restore affordable housing or bring public services to the neighborhood to eradicate the conditions that breed violence. Instead, their limited offer was more of the same, sprinkled with abelist, racist tropes.

It's apparent that people like Chou, McCarthy and the politicians who joined them are in the game of passing things off as solutions to avoid a challenge to the status quo. They intervene during moments of crisis and suffocate any potential community resistance with plain misdirection--by alternatively scapegoating people of color, people with disabilities or women--which hides the real monsters among us.

Those real monsters are Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his 1 Percent friends who wield control of the resources that could alleviate gang violence, homelessness, poverty and joblessness in Chicago. Instead, they've overseen sustained social strife for so many to advance their own personal gain.

It was little over a year ago that I found myself sitting across a table from Chou with CPS mothers Sherise McDaniel and Shereena Allison during the struggle to save their childrens' elementary school, one of more than 50 schools slated for closure.

Chou said that it would behoove us to give up fighting to keep George Manierre Elementary School open. She told us to cooperate with police to devise a route that would lead Manierre students as young as 4 years old to a different school "safely" across opposing gang lines twice a day.

Thankfully, no one took her advice. Later that evening, Manierre was taken off the closure list, along with three other schools, the result of months of political activism.

If Chou, McCarthy and Reboyras were truly interested in justice, they would vow to end conditions that maintain cycles of violence. That would mean re-doubling efforts to advocate alongside activists and grassroots organizations for community stabilization through job creation, affordable housing and quality public schools.

Supt. McCarthy and others should be opposed for labeling a disabled man of color a "monster." Public officials need to start following the lead of the real heroes of the Northwest Side--the hundreds who braved the cold to speak out at town hall meetings and protest their public schools being shut down. They are the ones who see through the lies and want to fight for real change.

And our public officials should consider the work of ordinary people who are fighting for people who harm others to be held accountable in ways that can bring about healing and recovery of trust ,without doing further damage.

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