Now that Chicago has recorded the fewest number of murders since 1965, maybe the hyperbole that the city is the murder capital of America will die.
But I would like to use this opportunity for the city's residents to think differently about crime and neighborhoods, and how we respond to perceptions. Chicagoans, let’s please retire the insidious term "Chiraq." The expression plays off Chicago and Iraq, joined together as a means to show the so-called war-ravaged conditions in the Windy City.
Chiraq is used like a badge of honor on the South and West Sides. Young people sport Chiraq T-shirts that depict the city skyline juxtaposed with heavy weaponry. Sometimes the Chiraq logo is written in lovely cursive. Other times it’s written in graffiti below a bullet-torn blue city flag.
Chiraq as urban lexicon is a byproduct of the city’s crime statistics and how the rest of the country labels us The Scariest Place in America.
In 2012, Chicago led the nation in the number of homicides, at around 500. At the close of 2013, police say 415 people were murdered in the city that year. Twenty years ago the count surpassed 900; the 1970s and 1980s were similarly murderous. Even in a good year, none of these are acceptable figures. Tallying mostly faceless homicide victims throughout a given year—done weekly by the media with the casualness of sports roundups—doesn’t fully depict what Chicago violence looks like. This is the environment in which "Chiraq" thrives and is regarded by some denizens as a bragging point. Chiraq is not uttered in any kind of solidarity with Iraqis.
It’s hard to pinpoint the origins of the term Chiraq, which has been promoted over the last few years. Local rappers have adopted the Chiraq nickname. It’s still an underground term that hasn’t penetrated the Chicago mainstream.
Spoken-word artist Malcolm London, 20, told the Chicago Tribune: "It's a scary term, but it's a true term. Coming from the West Side, it's not a joke. The sad part is, people who may not be here, or live here, may use the term to glorify the violence. But no one enjoys living in a war zone."
Residents can be very casual in their Chiraq usage. Chicago is a blustery "City of Big Shoulders," the "City on the Make." Chiraq ignores systemic problems of racial inequality that fester in black neighborhoods. These problems are not unique to Chicago—but amplified.
“Chicago has faced the dynamics that have confronted all the major cities in the country—growth, decline, riots, crimes and boom times. In this sense Chicago is both unique and broadly representative,” writes Robert J. Sampson in Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.
Chiraq is an updated version of “war zone.” That phrase has long been used to describe urban American communities battered by gunplay. “War zone” conjures visions of bombed-out buildings, young men on street corners brandishing assault rifles and a beleaguered people taking cover in their homes. Before Iraq, comparisons to Beirut were the order of the day in many inner cities, another cliché.
Mariame Kaba, who runs the Chicago-based Project Nia, which works to end youth incarceration, pushes back on the characterization.
“By constantly referring to some communities as war zones, we trap ourselves into only considering ‘solutions’ that are steeped in a punishment mindset. We fully embrace the punishing state as our savior,” Kaba says. “When we adopt war metaphors to characterize how we live in our communities, we put a ceiling on our imaginations for how we might address violence and harm. After all, you can only respond to tanks with more artillery and not with a peace circle. Restorative or transformative justice require us to build trust and to establish relationships. This is difficult to do in ‘war zones’ where suspicion and lack of trust are the order of the day.”
My concern with Chiraq war imagery isn’t about policing language. War denotes the most extreme circumstances of inhumanity. In parts of Chicago, black people do feel marginalized. Children do suffer from trauma after exposure to violence. Joblessness, inequality and segregation are grave enough that slapping a war metaphor, for some, perhaps, demonstrates that the state is the enemy. But war is also anonymous and abstract. War can further dehumanize black bodies and count them as casualties.
Take Sen. Mark Kirk, the GOP’s man from Illinois. Last year he proposed spending $500 million in federal funds to arrest 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples street gang as a solution to Chicago’s violence. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Chicago’s South Side, lambasted Kirk.
“Kirk’s current plan does not include the option to create jobs, provide affordable and safe housing, quality health care and improve schools in urban areas,” Rush wrote to the Chicago Sun-Times. “Why is incarceration the sole option instead of rehabilitation, which is proven to work and not locking young men up?”
A few months later, Rush took Kirk on a late summer tour of Englewood, a high-crime neighborhood. Kirk met with community members and didn’t back off his round-'em-up philosophy—even after Englewood residents told him Gangster Disciples weren’t the problem.
“I would like to crush the Gangster Disciples as an organization,” said Kirk.
Kirk might not have uttered the word "war" but he certainly sees young black men as the enemy.
And in war, what do you do with the enemy?