Poverty pulls the trigger

August 20, 2012

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reports on the spike in violent crime in Chicago--and why it reflects a political and economic failing, not a moral one.

THE END of summer in Chicago is near and the hope is that with it will come an end to--or at least a slowing of--the tragic increase in the number of murders and gun violence the city has seen over the past year.

In the last year, murders in the city have jumped by almost 40 percent, making Chicago one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Chicago's murder rate is quadruple that of New York City and double that of Los Angeles.

One recent comparison dramatized the danger in Chicago by pointing out that more people have been killed in Chicago this year than the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan during the same period. As of mid-June, 228 Chicagoans had been killed--compared to 144 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for the year to that point.

That is true over the past decade as well. Since 2001, 2,000 troops have been killed Afghanistan but more than 5,000 Chicagoans have been killed by gun violence in the same time span.

The escalating violence and murder in Chicago streets has become an embarrassing national news story for the city powers that be. After all, Chicago is the home of President Barack Obama, and powerful Democratic Party operative Rahm Emanuel is the city's current mayor.

Friends and family hold a vigil for two teenagers shot in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood
Friends and family hold a vigil for two teenagers shot in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood

The bad press has prompted city officials to try and "get in front" of growing murder statistics and the macabre body count that the local newspapers engage in every Monday morning after neighborhood shootings spike over the weekends.

DESPITE THE media focus on the numbers of people killed, there is little in the way of serious discussions on how to address the violence that is shattering some Chicago neighborhoods. Perhaps if the violence were taking the lives of white children, there would be much more of an urgency to end the carnage. Instead, it is young African American and Latino bodies that are fueling Chicago growing murder rate.

More than half of the murders in the city happen in a handful of neighborhoods that are Black or Latino--and it is the kids in those communities that are paying the price with their lives. Since 2008, more than 530 young African Americans and Latinos have been killed, more than any other city in the country. Nearly 80 percent of youth homicides occurred in 22 Black or Latino communities on the city's South, Southwest and West Sides.

The daily tragedy of children and teenagers being murdered on the streets of the nation's third-largest (and third most segregated) city have been reduced to the media fueled moniker of so-called "Black-on-Black crime." The description of violence in Black communities and neighborhoods as "Black-on-Black" crime is a way pathologizing violence that is not actually intrinsic to the race or ethnicity of those engaged in it.

In the deeply segregated U.S., most crime happens between people of the same race. Most crimes experienced by whites are committed by whites, but there is no such description as "white-on-white" crime. In other words, when a white person commits a crime, it is not seen as connected to that person's race--it is seen as an act committed by an individual.

Simplistic explanations for serious issues help to produce simplistic solutions that make for good sound bites but do nothing to actually address the real problem of crime and violence in poor and working-class communities of color. For example, a recent report made it clear that these murders are concentrated in the poorest and most-segregated neighborhoods in the city.

In fact, it would be more descriptive and accurate to describe the wave of violence in Chicago as "poverty-on-poverty" or "segregated-on-segregated" crime because that is the actual source of the tensions that have boiled over and led to the heightened murder rate in the city.

While Rahm Emanuel recently described the Chicago economy as "booming," in the two-thirds of the city that is predominantly Black and Brown, there is an economic depression.

Over 30 percent of African Americans in Chicago live in poverty and more than 20 percent are out of work. More than 30 percent of Latinos in Chicago live in poverty. In the face of such obvious facts, one would assume that jobs and anti-poverty strategies would be a part of any attempt to curb the violence in these communities. Instead, repression and moralism are deployed as the only responses to what actually is a crisis of racism and poverty

THE POLICE have pledged to flood the streets with police, conduct mass arrests and revoke bond for misdemeanor offenses for those they decide are members of gangs. Undoubtedly, this police gimmickry will only compound the existing problem--poverty and unemployment.

As Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow points out, in the Black neighborhood of North Lawndale, 70 percent of the men aged 18 to 45 have a criminal record--making employment in an already tight market almost an impossibility.

Where more policing and imprisoning will not suffice, public officials and others have offered up dumbed-down responses to what seem like the more obvious strategies. For example, when President Obama was recently in Chicago for a series of fundraisers, he gave a taped statement commenting on the murders and violence. His solution? "We need better role models...we have to provide stronger role models than the gang-banger on the corner."

Weeks earlier Emanuel made a similarly vague comment: "It's not about crime, it's about values."

In a breathtaking display of arrogance and delusion, heir to the multibillion-dollar Pritzker family fortune and charter school mogul Margot Pritzker suggested that the city collect a penny from each citizen "...including children. Let's use the money toward equipping community centers, security cameras, neighborhood watches. It won't be enough, but it will help our broken city and show we are serious."

Popular Chicago Catholic priest, Father Michael Pfleger, at least, identified what he called, "a perfect storm of unemployment, failing schools and program cutbacks," but Pfleger also collapsed into patronizing cliché when he suggested as the cure: "Parents have to step up. Neighbors have to step up. Communities have to step up."

Moreover, Pfleger invited police chief Garry McCarthy to march with him through a South Side neighborhood as a gesture of solidarity with the police.

In New York City, which has its own crime issues, Obama adviser and talk show host, Rev. Al Sharpton, has suggested that people "occupy the corners" to diffuse flashpoints of tension and stop violence before it starts.

Dozens of other pundits, politicians and commentators have suggested parents do more, have called on celebrities to speak out against violence and offered many other prescriptions against the violence--except for the painfully obvious.

Where is the demand, just as a starting point, for meaningful jobs in these economically depressed communities, full funding for all public schools, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, and the restoration of budgets for the array of social and welfare services that have made poverty much harsher in the U.S.?

IN THE political age of budget cuts and shrinking government services, politicians of all stripes, and the people who support their agendas, have a vested interest in blaming a "lack of values and morality" for the problems of crime and violence in communities of color. It makes it a "personal" problem and not one produced by a system of economic and racial inequality at its root.

Crime and violence are not mysterious nor are they diseases; they are the predictable outcomes of the economic violence that provides the ravaging context within which the gun violence and murders are happening in Chicago.

When people have no realistic possibility of meaningful employment because of either a criminal record or just the simple absence of jobs, then joining a gang becomes a viable alternative, if not a necessity, for economic survival.

Minority neighborhoods in Chicago have been devastated by budget cuts, unemployment, entrenched poverty and a despondent hopelessness that the future will ever be different.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel made the distinction between his own kids' lives of privilege and luxury and those of Chicago's Black and Brown children when, after an extravagant South American vacation, he quipped to a local newspaper, "Every year, we try to take the kids to a different part of the world to see. When you...grow up...you want to be an Emanuel child. It's unbelievable."

Truer words have never been spoken when compared to the poverty and segregation in which most Black and Latino kids in Chicago grow up. In the ghettos of Chicago, public schools are starved of resources and shuttered, desperately needed mental health clinics are shut down and thousands of home and building foreclosures perpetuate an atmosphere of insecurity, anxiety and unpredictability that compounds the tensions that give way to violence.

Violence in poor and working-class communities is a serious issue for those who live there, to be sure. But all too often the "solutions" offered are more police and relying on the racist criminal justice system that has created many of these problems in the first place--or self-blame.

But crime and violence do not exist or take place in a vacuum. Martin Luther King Jr. said more than 40 years ago that the U.S. government was the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world" and that as long as that reality existed, he could not condemn the poorest people who committed violence in this country--because they are the actual victims of American greed, racism and corruption:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked--and rightly so--what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

Poor and working-class communities that suffer violence are looked at as exceptional or aberrations to the "mainstream," when, in fact, the violence acted out in neighborhoods is only a reflection of the violence that is often glorified and celebrated throughout American politics and culture. From Hollywood bloodbath movies, to the death penalty, to wars and occupations, to the criminal support and subsidization of the genocidal state of Israel, the U.S. ruling class worships at the alter of violence, mass murder and mayhem.

Is it any wonder then that when deep cynicism replaces hope for the future that some act out in a way that is completely consistent with many of the values promoted by those who rule this country: brutality, vengeance and destruction?

Of course, the violence acted out by the oppressed against each other is an expression of powerlessness, desperation and profound social alienation--but it also reflects the absorption and influence of ruling-class mores.

The alternative to this is not more police, and it is not debates about morality and values, it is about giving the young people of this country hope that there is a future worth living for. It means not closing their schools, stealing their homes, or brutalizing, arresting and imprisoning them.

"Hope," in this context, is the simple belief that another world, free of racism, poverty and repression is possible. It is a future worth fighting for.

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