The day before a planned town hall meeting in Chicago to be hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton, an activist in Roseland, one of the city’s deadliest communities, expressed hope that Sharpton could help stanch the flow of blood of young black males.
“I’m glad Al Sharpton’s here,” Diane Latiker, founder of Kids Off the Block, a youth-development organization on the city’s South Side, told The Root. “We need the help. Our young people are still killing each other. Gun violence is a big issue. Families are still hurting, and it is directly linked to the economy, jobs and education.”
She plans to bring up the issues Thursday night at the town hall meeting, which will be held at Hyde Park Academy, a stone’s throw away from President Barack Obama’s Chicago residence and where Obama himself has spoken. Sharpton says he hopes to host a few meetings leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which will be observed on Jan. 20, when he hopes to offer solutions to the gun violence that has plagued the city’s South and West sides. He was unavailable to speak to The Root before Thursday’s meeting.
Gun violence in America—and Chicago in particular—is so bad that last month the national civil rights leader and MSNBC talk-show host moved into a temporary apartment in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side to shine the spotlight on the problem. He reportedly commutes to the city once a week.
“Part of my effort is to call attention to the crisis of violence in our city and our cities and those that are doing something about it,” he said on his MSNBC show, Politics Nation, at the time of his move in early November. “Just the first week of this month, gun violence in Chicago left six people dead and 17 wounded, including a 6-year-old boy.”
Chicago’s ghastly death narrative is known across the globe. In recent years the city has become known as “Chiraq,” a grim moniker that attempted to link Chicago’s murder rate to the death toll among U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Although the city recorded its lowest number of homicides in 2013, the numbers are still too high, and almost all of the deaths were African Americans, community activists lament.
As of Monday, the Chicago Tribune reports that there were 395 homicides citywide in 2013. While the final number will be far lower than last year’s 511, the number is closer to the 437 homicides in 2010 and 434 in 2011, the report says.
“While we’ve seen a drop, the numbers are still too high,” the Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Baptist Church in Austin, told The Root. Acree served as an escort for Sharpton during his initial visit. He acknowledged that Sharpton has a tough row to hoe in Chicago, where black communities are known to close to outsiders—even prominent African-American leaders.
“Chicagoans on the South and West sides are territorial and mistrustful of authority, for whatever reason,” he said. “They have been exploited and abused. But a person of Sharpton’s status seems to have a clearer path than most others.”
Part of the suspicion toward authority stems from the days when officers, working under infamous Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge, were accused of torturing mostly black suspects into false confessions and torturing witnesses into falsely implicating people in crimes. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, calling it a “dark chapter” in the city’s history, has apologized.
Emanuel, for his part, is pleased that Sharpton is helping to battle crime in the city.
“We welcome Rev. Sharpton and anyone else who will partner with us and help elevate the conversation around the need for sensible laws that keep illegal guns out of our communities and out of the hands of criminals,” Tarrah C. Cooper, Emanuel’s press secretary, told The Root in an email statement. “Our [police] officers partner closely with ministers, block clubs, community leaders and residents every day through the CAPS [Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy] program and through a return to community policing because we all have a role to play in the safety of our city. While crime is down this year, there’s more work to be done, and no one will rest until everyone in this city enjoys the same sense of safety.”
But not all leaders are rolling out the welcome wagon. At a breakfast meeting Sharpton held in mid-November at Chicago State University with more than 70 community leaders and elected officials, a number of key names were noticeably absent, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.; the Rev. James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church; the Rev. Corey Brooks, pastor of New Beginning Church; and Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church, who sent a representative, DNAinfo reports.
Alderman Anthony Beale, whose South Side ward encompasses Roseland, where Obama served as a community organizer, expressed skepticism to DNAinfo Chicago about Sharpton’s move, although he said that he welcomes the reverend’s suggestions. “I am not going to allow somebody to come in a couple days and think they are going to make a difference and then leave us with the problems we are faced with every single day," Beale said.
Lynette Holloway is a contributing editor at The Root. The Chicago-based writer is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.