Rahm’s false cures for an epidemic of violence

January 16, 2017

None of the political leaders who claim to have "tough" answers to the terrible death toll from shootings in Chicago will look at the cause of the crisis, writes brian bean.

ON THE last day of 2016, a solemn procession of nearly a thousand people marched through Chicago's downtown shopping district. They bore 750 heavy wooden crosses--on each was written the name and age of someone who lost their life to gun violence in Chicago.

As the year drew to a close, the death toll from shootings put the city in the national spotlight once again. With 781 killed and another 3,500 shot, Chicago had more murders than New York City and Los Angeles combined.

But in addition to the powerful statement of mourning in the streets on New Year's Eve, there have been all too many symbols of the false solutions and warped priorities that contribute to the violence in the first place.

Employing his typical grotesque opportunism, President-elect and bully-in-chief Donald Trump chided Chicago's Rahm Emanuel in a tweet, saying: "If the Mayor can't [lower the murder rate] he must ask for Federal Help." Trump's "tough on crime" braggadocio is clearly no solution to the plague of shootings.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at a DOJ press conference alongside U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch (left) and Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson (right)
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at a DOJ press conference alongside U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch (left) and Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson (right)

At the same time, it's true that Emanuel's administration is part of the problem, not the solution--because of economic and social policies that defend the interests of the city's elite.

Last week, for example, Emanuel was stumping for $1 billion in federal funds for a makeover of the city's downtown Union Station--at the same time as poor neighborhoods are starved for revenue and development that could improve the economic prospects of their residents. This comes on top of years of cuts in public services, such as mental health care, that could immediately affect the epidemic of violence.

But the most obvious symbol last week of Emanuel's misguided agenda was the January 13 press conference releasing the findings of a 13-month Justice Department investigation of Chicago's police practices that confirms the pattern of structural racism and violence that anti-police brutality activists have been talking about for years. The report documented civil rights violations and routine use of excessive force in exactly the South Side and West Side neighborhoods that suffer the overwhelming brunt of gun violence.

The solution to Chicago's tragedy isn't more of this broken policing, but reversing the neoliberal policies administered by both Democratic and Republican politicians and challenging the racism inherent in their shared program.

THE SHEER number of people killed by guns in Chicago is staggering. The sharp spike in homicides in the country's third-largest city accounts by itself for half of the 13 percent nationwide rise in murders.

It is important to understand that Chicago's increasing violence is in contrast to overall crime rates--including rates of violent crime--that remain near an all-time low around the country. The rise in murders nationwide is concentrated in a small number of cities, including Chicago, Baltimore and a few others, which are outliers to the general trend.

Starting from here is important because the national statistics expose the lies of right-wingers--personified in the apocalyptic utterances of Donald Trump--who paint a picture of a crime-ridden country spiraling out of control, which must be reined in by "tough on crime" policies. Likewise, the hysteria around the so-called "Ferguson effect"--an illusory crime wave that is the result of U.S. police forces rendered meek by the focus brought on them by the Black Lives Matters movement--has no basis in reality.

The numbers of people killed by gun violence rarely include those killed by police. Incredibly, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) doesn't keep records of the number of times their officers carry out murder, but there are at least a dozen or more killings on top of the ones memorialized at the end of last year.

The names of Paul O'Neal, Joshua Beale and Pierre Loury are rarely listed among the dead in Chicago from shootings--and what's more, their lives were taken by employees of the state who never face the same scrutiny as other assailants and victims or have their mug shots and criminal histories plastered in the news.

THIS CONTEXT shows why Trump's tweet-sized "solutions" to gun violence--he boasted in August that he could stop violence in Chicago "in a week" by making police "very much tougher"--are not only so ridiculous and insulting, but dangerous.

First of all, the call for more police comes in a city that already has more cops per capita than any other major in the U.S.--44 officers per 10,000 people, compared to New York City's 41 and Los Angeles' 25. If large numbers of police made people safe, then Chicago should be one of the safest major cities in the country.

Plus, the Justice Department's investigation shows what "tough" policing has produced in Chicago: More racism and systematic violence, not less, and in the very areas that suffer the most shootings.

Chicago's police force is notorious for its brutality and corruption. In the city of Jon Burge's torture rings, of the secret Homan Square detention center known as "Chicago's Guantánamo," of the execution of Laquan McDonald and the cover-up that followed, and of the Chicago cops' extensive history of brutality and code of silence, what could "tougher" mean?

This long and deadly record has been shouted to the rafters by local activists for years while being ignored by city, state and federal officials. Now, the release of the Justice Department report confirms the fact that the Chicago Police Department is violent, racist and unaccountable.

Justice Department investigators concluded that it was both "pattern and practice" for CPD officers to shoot at "fleeing suspects who pose no immediate threat" and to routinely use excessive force, particularly against young people. The report skewers the department for the routine use of racist slurs directed at young Black people.

Among the other findings: the CPD is negligent in investigating cases of police misconduct, doesn't take witness statements from those who have seen acts of violence and conducts investigations--when they are conducted--in a manner "favorable to the officer" that ignores contradictory physical evidence to the official statement.

Having a "very much tougher" police force could only result in even more open warfare against Black Chicago.

But that is precisely what Trump means with his Twitter provocations. Jeff Sessions--Trump's choice to lead the Department of Justice that is now responsible for working with Chicago police to follow up on the recommendations in the report--has a record of being against investigations of police.

At his confirmation hearings last week, Sessions explained that these probes "tend to undermine respect for our police officers." His statement is true, though perhaps not for the reason Sessions intended: Real investigations that aren't twisted to defend police crimes do undermine respect for the cops--because they acknowledge and confirm the daily truth of their existence as a lawless, racist gang that terrorizes, tortures and murders with abandon.

TRUMP'S CHEST-beating hyperbole about violence in Chicago is about bolstering his "tough-on-crime" bluster and encouraging the racist reaction in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that exposed the epidemic of police terror. Trump would give even more power and less oversight to police departments that have already--under Obama's Democratic Party administration--faced almost no negative consequences for their sordid record of misbehavior and murder.

But as horrid as Trump's vision of policing may be, Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic Party establishment have no better answers to Chicago's violence. Not only does he call for more cops, just like the Republicans, but Emanuel is primarily responsible for perpetuating the economic and social conditions that are the causes of the violence in poor neighborhoods.

The economic war carried out on Chicago's South and West Sides has been ongoing for decades, but it was exacerbated by the economic crash of 2008 and accelerated by Emanuel's neoliberal policies. The overwhelming priority of his administration has been to turn Chicago into a home for more corporate headquarters and a profitable location for private investment ensconced in the downtown "Loop" district.

These priorities have come at a high cost for Chicago's working families, which have been left with closed-down mental health clinics, schools, public housing and other public services. Emanuel's administration has devoted millions of dollars in city revenues for basketball arenas, fancy hotels and presidential libraries--while nearly half of young Black men are unemployed and not in school.

While Emanuel presides at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for his newest pet projects, empty lots and boarded-up buildings dominate the landscape in Black and Latinx areas of the city. The main investment of the "world-class city" in these areas is in the CPD blue-light surveillance cameras mounted on streetlights over countless corners and the occupying force of police themselves, in their ubiquitous SUVs.

An environment of hopelessness has been created by the twin evils of economic violence and the armed presence of police. In that sense, it cannot be any surprise when suffering and death arise among residents of these areas. The world surrounding them inflicts violence every day, and individuals reflect that world that suffocates them.

FOR ALL his efforts to keep attention focused on pressing issues like refurbishing the lakefront bike path, Emanuel has been forced by the national attention to respond to the spike in gun violence. His proposal for "solutions" last September--still considered his "major policy speech" on the matter--is as revealing for its scapegoating and misdirection as for the emptiness of his proposals for "action."

In this speech--in which he found time to criticize those who protested police violence and recycled the "Ferguson Effect" myths--Emanuel put forward his mantra of the "4 Ps": policing, punishment, prevention and parenting. Specifically, he called for increasing the size of the CPD by 1,000 officers, more severe punishments for illegal gun possession and a modest expansion of mentor programs, including the awkwardly named "Becoming A Man."

Putting more cops on the street won't solve the problem for a Democrat any more than it would for Trump--certainly not in a city which is statistically proven to be over-policed compared to other major cities.

Likewise, the blanket approach to punishing gun offenses will also make matters worse by ensuring that more Black and Brown people in Chicago face incarceration and interaction with the criminal injustice system that contributes to disenfranchisement and despair.

Having more people pulled off the street to have years of their lives torn away, only to find it harder than ever to get a job when they return, adds to the misery, rather than relieving it. Moreover, harsher gun laws would increase contact with the police and criminal injustice system, which means more danger and violence for Black Chicago.

All this is doubly true in light of the Justice Department report on the CPD, which documents for all the world to see how these cops who are supposed to make the community safer from violence only make it more so. Emanuel's somber statement that the report is "sobering" is feigned surprise from a man who engaged in the cover-up of the execution of Laquan McDonald.

Meanwhile, Emanuel's one perhaps liberal-sounding proposal--mentoring programs that supposedly give youth "role models" who will stop them from joining gangs--will be no more helpful in addressing police violence.

Firstly, the blame for violence is placed squarely on Black families, not any external factor for which Emanuel might bear responsibility. This is a common approach for Emanuel. He likewise placed blame for the crisis of the Chicago public school system--which he has systematically defunded and destroyed--on a problem of parenting. His racist victim-blaming is designed to misdirect attention about problems whose real causes lay in the economic violence of austerity.

Secondly, the idea that a mentor can keep a young person on the "right" path toward a bright future assumes that such a path exists. Without a comprehensive approach to creating good jobs, building infrastructure and revitalizing schools, the road for people on Chicago's South and West Sides is strewn with obstacles.

What does it mean to mentor someone when the material options for advancing are so scarce? The "right" path must exist, and all the mentoring programs in the world won't create one out of nothing.

THOUGH RAHM is despised by much of Chicago, his solutions are largely shared by the liberal establishment. The demand for 1,000 more cops was embraced by alderman of every political stripe and by progressive mayoral hopefuls such as Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Indeed, Garcia made more cops the central feature of his only television ad of the campaign.

Similarly, the new "progressive" Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, who defeated the much-loathed Anita Alvarez, with the support of many Black Lives Matter movement formations, has little different to say.

One of Foxx's first moves after taking office was to create a new unit to target gun trafficking. She has also been silent on police shootings after nearly a year in office, and even backpedaled on her claim to be for special prosecutors in cases in which the police kill.

This is no surprise from an official whose job is to charge and put in prison poor and disproportionately Black people, regardless of what liberal credentials she may claim. That is the way that the system works.

The killings in the city of Chicago are tragic and terrifying. But confronting them won't happen through more cops on the street, tougher laws, blaming Black parents or token mentoring programs.

Real solutions will have to do something about the many factors that cause violence--and see the problem as a product of social crisis, not the other way around. One such solution are the policy suggestions presented by the Chicago Teachers Union in its document "A Just Chicago."

The communities most plagued by violence need jobs, rebuilt infrastructure and revitalized public services. They need them with the urgency conveyed by the sea of crosses and names in the march down Chicago's streets at the end of last year.

Any solution must also tackle the racism that is used to maintain social inequalities and must be paired with a demand to decrease the number of police, both to free up desperately needed revenue and to reduce the violence intimidation of the state and the effects of mass incarceration that exacerbate violence generally.

Achieving this will require mass protest--and a political force that rejects the system of racism and austerity that breeds the horrific violence that has so destroyed the lives of so many people in Chicago and beyond.

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