It is no longer news that the violence that plagued Chicago during the Aug. 3 weekend was one of the deadliest weekends in the past two years in the city, ending in a spree of gun violence that left 74 people shot, including 12 dead.
In almost predictable fashion, news media picked up the story and ran with it, with the reports of the fatalities spreading into foreign media sites like the BBC, which quoted pastor and emergency administrator Donovan Price equating the city to a “war zone.”
The story, like most stories surrounding Chicago’s gun violence, dominated the news cycle for a full 24 hours, maybe running into a second day. At this point, at least outside of the city, the chatter of what happened has ultimately simmered down, roiling underneath the silence until the next acts of violence shake the city.
But does Chicago deserve this level of scrutiny and the constant associations of violence to its name? Is Chicago really that bad?
The short answer is, no. Chicago is not even remotely close to being the murder capital of the United States.
In April, the Trace, an independent nonprofit newsroom that focuses on gun-related news in the United States, published a report on murder rates in U.S. cities, using data provided by local police departments and news reports. Chicago fell neatly just about in the middle of the pack. Outstripping Chicago in murders were: St. Louis; Baltimore; New Orleans; Detroit; Cleveland; Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Newark, N.J.
The Trace notes:
Chicago’s murder rate becomes even more unexceptional for a large city when the category of homicides that inflates its level is factored out. When you look at murders by how they were committed, the data shows that Chicago has a much higher rate of gun homicides, specifically, than Los Angeles or New York. For non-gun homicides, the cities’ rates are effectively equal. It’s because Chicago has so many more fatal shootings, per capita, that it does not enjoy the same safety as those other metropolises.
To be sure, no one can argue that guns are not an issue in the city, but gun violence aside, as the report notes, Chicago is more or less “unexceptional.” To be clear, I’m not insinuating that we should shrug our shoulders and let the issues in Chicago go unresolved, but in the same breath, the city is certainly not deserving of the stigma attached to its name.
So then…why Chicago?
Well, it’s convenient for one, according to activist, community organizer and Chicago native Charlene Carruthers.
“What’s happening right now is what’s most convenient for people with political and economic power. They love a sensational story and they also have consistent habits of not actually addressing the root causes of the problems that exist in Chicago or any city in this country that’s impacted by community-based violence,” Carruthers told The Root.
“It tells a story that black people are pathological, that we don’t make moral decisions and that we don’t actually have community values as [Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel] pretty much said this past week and so it allows them to displace people from our communities and it allows them to continue to divest from our communities.”
So what are the root causes of the issues in Chicago? Ja’Mal Green, a Chicago activist who is currently the youngest individual to put himself in the 2019 mayoral run at 22, believes that the issues do start in the homes, but only escalate from the lack of access to resources.
“The first place that a child comes from is the home and a lot of these young people come from broken homes, so that plays a big part,” Green mused. “But when they come out of the home that’s when we got to do our jobs to make sure that they get on the right path. When they go into the school system, the school system would count them off and kick them out if they are acting out of behavior because of what is going on at home, instead of having clinical staff members and counselors to deal with that.”
The next step? These disenfranchised young people shrug school off. They get put out, or they dropped out, or whatever the case is, and then turn to the streets.
“They go to their friends, they go to people who they feel care about them. They commit a crime, they go into the criminal justice system, they don’t have money to bond out, so they take a plea deal because they’re not thinking about what’s going to happen on their record because they already lost that hope. So they get a record, come back on the streets and it’s hard for them to get opportunities. There is a lack of jobs in these communities and businesses to hire them,” Green added, citing some of the issues he’d hope to combat as mayor.
Toss in the lack of mental health facilities in minority communities and “There are so many reasons why we have this rise of violence.”
Who can forget the controversial closing of more than 50 public schools in 2013, the largest school closure in Chicago’s history, closings that disproportionately impacted black and brown children and those living in poverty? Then there’s the fact that Emanuel closed half of the city’s 12 mental health clinics about 6 years ago, effectively gutting the mental-health care system, again, disproportionately affecting underprivileged communities, leaving those in the community who need help vulnerable.
“The other piece is that we have a very high unemployment rate here in Chicago, and a lack of full access to affordable housing. So, [with] all these high levels of divestment from our communities, people are engaged in various economies to survive and they also are put in basically an incubator for violence to occur,” Carruthers said. “We know the factors that drive violence in any community. And poverty is absolutely one of the chief causes and we’ve seen that over and over again on the South and West side of Chicago.”
“We’ve got to deal with the root problems which is start from how we have programs to help family structures but then come out to make sure that we have schools that are on a level playing field throughout the city, make sure we have mental health facilities, make sure we have economic development and investment so that we can create jobs and allow those jobs to go the people in those communities, make sure that we are providing opportunities and we have after-school programs for young people to get into to express themselves,” Green added.
To hear Emanuel talk about it though, as Carruthers signaled earlier, you wouldn’t imagine so.
“This is not about the Chicago Police Department alone. It’s not about the Summer Jobs program alone. This is about the fabric of a neighborhood and community. You can talk about the weather, but the weather didn’t pull the trigger. You can talk about jobs and they count, but in parts of the city where there aren’t jobs people did not pull the trigger,” Emanuel said during a press conference on Aug. 6, following the outbreak of violence. “There are too many guns on the street, too many people with criminal records on the street, and there’s a shortage of values about what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable, what is condoned and what is condemned.”
As a result of the uptick in violence, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson announced that 430 to 600 additional officers would be deployed to so-called “violence-plagued” neighborhoods, concentrating in the West and South sides of the city.
But given Chicago police’s history of violence against the community, does increased presence really help? (The Root reached out to the Chicago Police Department. They declined our interview requests.)
“The impact of more police in our communities means that there’s more police contact, more interaction, more harassment, more surveillance, more violence by police officers which includes sexual violence, physical violence, harassment and actual killings of black and brown people,” Carruthers insisted. “The more of them that are there we’re not safer. The more of them that are there it increases the likelihood of what we already know happens in this city of violence by Chicago police officers.”
“Police are meant to react. The police department is a reactive source. They’re only waiting on someone to pick up the phone and call,” Green echoed. “The police department is an oppressive force in these communities and they’re just dealing with the effects of people that are not being treated fairly by the system or by the administration when it comes to resources and jobs.”
The media, with its insistent highlighting of the city’s violence, only serves to aggravate the issue.
“[The media gives] airtime to people like [Chicago Police] Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and they don’t necessarily give as much airtime to the people who are actually working every single day to end the violence in our communities. And they truly don’t give as much airtime to the people who are talking about transformation over Band-Aid reforms,” Carruthers said. “The narrative is not going to change until we also stop with this convenient narrative of ‘black on black crime,’ telling us that there’s something uniquely wrong with black people … it spills over into politics. It spills over into these campaigns and it absolutely spills over into what resources our communities have access to.”
True solutions to Chicago’s issues, would start with proper investment in the community, as Green alluded to earlier. The money used to push up to 600 new officers into the neighborhoods, for example? Why not use that to better the community instead, Carruthers questions.
“We don’t have nearly as many community centers as we should have in this city. Put the money in there so that young people have somewhere to be that’s generative that’s like feeling their souls…not something that’s chipping away from them. Police don’t add any value to actually creating these healthy, thriving communities. What it tells folks is that we’re going to increase and militarize presence in your neighborhood because we’re the ones that who can keep y’all safe and y’all have failed at it. And that’s counterproductive,” she said. “It’s literally the nuts and bolts of investing in our communities and the mayor getting out of the way, city council, getting out of the way, and ensuring that communities have the ability to have real self-determination over what’s happening.”
And those changes have to come and come quickly. Even now black Chicagoans are leaving the city in droves, seeking better opportunities, but that leaves the city and those remaining residents of color even more vulnerable.
“People are leaving one; because they don’t have the amount of economic opportunities that they should. Two, they are living in communities that are deeply under-resourced and they’re experiencing deep instability, that includes violence but it also includes not having stable housing [and] not having access to quality healthcare...And those populations are concentrated, not limited, but concentrated on the South and West sides of the city,” Carruthers said. “When we lose the black population in the city what happens is we have the potential for less political power and we absolutely have the potential for less economic power.”