Violence, social crisis and the two Chicagos

September 1, 2016

They'll never face charges, but the real criminals responsible for the violence in cities like Chicago sit in City Hall and corporate boardrooms, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

AUGUST OF 2016 will be remembered in Chicago for a sad and terrible reason: It was the most violent month in nearly 20 years. According to data provided to the Chicago Tribune by the Chicago Police Department, some 400 people were shot and 78 murdered.

So far this year, Chicago has recorded 487 homicides and more than 2,800 people shot, compared to 491 homicides and 2,988 people shot during all of last year, according to the Tribune.

The numbers are staggering, but they don't even tell the whole story. In order to do that, you have to listen to the people who worry about the safety of their loved ones every day.

Frances Colon, an 18-year-old Roberto Clemente High School student, was shot and killed in a store in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, the victim of a stray bullet fired during an argument between two men.

She was planning to attend Northeastern Illinois University. "'Mama, I wanna be a lawyer,' she would say to me," Frances' mother told Chicago Union Teacher magazine for a report on students killed by gun violence. "I don't care what I have to do to achieve that dream."

Chicago police on patrol at night
Chicago police on patrol at night

The Tribune and local television news reports portray the violence that has cost the lives of Frances and so many others as senseless and unexplainable.

Senseless it may be, but it is not unexplainable.

The real criminals are hidden in plain sight. They didn't pull the trigger, and they won't face spending the rest of their lives in prison like the young Black and Latino men routinely charged with murder after the killings.

But they're responsible for the roots of the violence--by starving some Chicago neighborhoods for resources while others are first in line for further funding and improvement.

Because there are two Chicagos. Rahm Emanuel's Chicago and Frances Colon's Chicago. One that's well-funded, protected and safe, and another that is not. The violence and crime that afflict one aren't unexplainable--they are the inevitable result when a city government and the business community it serves put poor communities of color so far down on the priority list.

JUST A few years ago, Mayor Emanuel received some praise from his old Obama administration friend, then-Attorney General Eric Holder, for Chicago's low crime numbers. "I don't think that this community, this mayor, the leaders from this community get enough credit for it," said Holder at the 2014 press conference.

Emanuel's victory lap was short-lived, a few days later, there were 82 shootings and 14 deaths over the July 4 weekend.

Plus, who knows if crime was really down in the first place, considering that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) is hardly known for its record-keeping.

A 12-month investigation of several years of CPD crime statistics by investigative journalists David Bernstein and Noah Isackson for a 2014 Chicago magazine series revealed a number of murders that weren't treated as such by the police.

Bernstein and Isackson identified "10 people...who were beaten, burned, suffocated, or shot to death in 2013 and whose cases were reclassified as death investigations, downgraded to more minor crimes, or even closed as noncriminal incidents--all for illogical or, at best, unclear reasons."

The two reporters found that officers from different ranks and from different parts of the city said they had been asked or pressured by supervisors into reclassifying their incident reports--or that "their reports were changed by some invisible hand. One detective refers to the 'magic ink': the power to make a case disappear," they wrote.

IN RESPONSE to the spike in violence this year, the CPD has come up with several possible causes. Among its explanations is the claim that gangs are now using social media, which they say has escalated disputes. They also blame a flood of illegal firearms into neighborhoods.

Newly hired Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has been trying to get state legislation passed that would impose harsher sentences for those arrested repeatedly for carrying illegal guns.

The department also cites "morale problems" among police, especially after the release late last year of video showing police shooting unarmed Black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times--which caused a storm of outrage and protest.

The problem of morale, the CPD argues, has resulted in police making fewer stops and confiscating fewer guns. "I've been out to roll calls, and so have our board of directors," said Fraternal Order of Police president Dean Angelo, "and what we're hearing is that officers think that the FOP is the only group of people who have their back...I've never seen morale this bad in my career."

Instead of protesting the police for killing with impunity, people in high-crime communities should work more closely with the cops, say city officials--or as the Homeland Security slogan says, "If you see something, say something."

It doesn't make much sense when you consider that Chicago police are responsible for shooting some 262 people between 2010 and 2015, killing 92, according to a Chicago Tribune's database--most of them in the poor Black and Brown neighborhoods that experience high crime rates.

Yet the idea of more involvement with the police is put forward even by community activists, such as well-known Catholic priest and longtime activist Father Michael Pfleger.

On the other hand, hip-hop artist Rhymefest recently demonstrated why more people don't report crimes in Chicago--when he tweeted the video from his encounter with the Chicago police after he tried to report that he had been robbed at gunpoint. He was first ignored, and then treated as if he were the one who was under suspicion.

The experience of people suffering the worst violence in Chicago is that they face nothing but suspicion, abuse and worse from the Chicago Police Department.

FOR THE deeper causes of Chicago's crime and violence, you don't have to look any further than the poverty and racism that city officials have allowed to thrive.

According to police data, homicides are concentrated in the poorer and predominately Black South and West Sides. For example, in the West Side Harrison District, almost 400 people have been shot so far this year; 350 were shot in all of 2015.

Over time, some Chicago neighborhoods have seen a growing gap in the levels of crime. A 2013 study by Daniel Hertz at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago showed that between 1990 and 1993, the murder rate in the most dangerous third of the city was six times higher than in the safest third. The study looked at numbers for the years 2008 to 2011, and the murder rate in those neighborhoods was 15 times higher.

Crime occurs disproportionately in African American communities, so while one in three Chicago residents is Black, they account for three out of four shooting victims.

In neighborhoods where few city funds go toward creating jobs or providing social services--and where one event, such as losing a job or falling ill, can send an individual into a spiral, sometimes the only option for getting by is outside the law.

For those who have criminal records, finding legitimate employment becomes a mammoth task. And if you rely on public assistance or low-income Section 8 housing, a criminal record puts that in peril, too.

Initiatives that could make a difference--like after-school programs and job training--are underfunded and often nonexistent in the neighborhoods that need them the most. And the budget ax is still falling in Illinois.

Brenda McMillon was among a group of anti-violence protesters who organized a press conference to point out that Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner had money for interest payouts to banks like JPMorgan Chase, but not for funding anti-violence programs like After School Matters, Ceasefire, Teen Reach or summer jobs.

McMillon, a family child-care provider, has lived in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood for almost 50 years, and lost her 18-year-old grandson to gun violence three years ago.

"In my heart, I believe that if those children had something to do in the community, maybe my grandson would still be here," McMillon said. "There were social programs when I was growing up. Will our governor choose to pay out the banks or fund the programs we desperately need?"

EMANUEL'S ATTACK on public schools in Chicago has also played a part in the increase in violent crime. Despite opposition mounted by students, parents and teachers, Emanuel and the board of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has succeeded in closing dozens of schools in poor and working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods--in most cases, schools that had been starved of resources until they could be deemed under-performing.

According to a 2013 report by Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE):

Of the 129 schools CPS identified as underutilized in February 2013, 88 percent of the students attending these schools are African American, with 103 of the schools composed of a student body that was over 90 percent African American. Nine of the 129 schools have student bodies that are predominantly Latino.

The report found that the locations of school closures directly corresponded to locations with troubled mortgages, foreclosures and loss in population.

In addition, forcing students to transfer to schools outside their neighborhood resulted in a spike of violence in the area around the schools, as students were forced to travel through gang territory, according to the CReATE study.

While underfunded community groups struggle to try to make their neighborhoods safer, the people with the real money shower it on projects in other parts of the city. A good example again is public education--because while Emanuel claims that schools in poor neighborhoods are too empty to keep open, for-profit charter schools continue to open around the city.

Former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made a small fortune organizing behind-the-scenes no-bid contracts with her former employer, education consulting firm SUPES Academy. But this was nothing compared to the profits being made that are perfectly legal.

Chicago's poorest neighborhoods could experience a vast improvement if the city simply threw money at the problem--funding after-school programs, neighborhood schools, social services and job training. But the opposite happens. Black and Latino neighborhoods are further starved of resources--and the politicians blame their residents for the inevitable consequences.

Emanuel and other city officials have made it clear that their number one priority for Chicago is the profits and power of the elite--and that means there's little to nothing left over to find real, lasting solutions to crime and poverty.

As long as this is allowed to continue, the violence will also continue.

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