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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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I wonder sometimes, what exactly it will be that finally pushes people to organize themselves and their neighbors, and start really attacking the establishment. And this isn't some dreamy materialist revolution where some non-existent, idealized "The People" rises up in one industrial union grand and abolishes the wage system.

Because it isn't just leftists, or progressive, or even those hothouse flower liberals that are angry; the dominionists, the conservatives, the libertarians and the loony free market fundamentalists are in a constant state of rage. They even seem to get angrier as they accumulate more power.

Given all this supposed outrage at the system, why is there no real effort to change it?

I mean, we are human beings, so something will eventually actually outrage us. I have no sense anymore of what outrages us, though.

Do we believe, for example, that it is acceptable to treat people who live in public housing like they are criminals, simply because they live in public housing? Is there something criminal about public housing? Do you only live in public housing because you aren't a "real" citizen, just an eventual criminal? Do you think those things are true? Beauty Turner's great piece in the Resident's Journal investigated the issue of CHA "contact cards."

If you answered "No" to that last question, that why do we not care that the Chicago Police Department has been directed to treat public housing residents like parolees, essentially detaining and questioning them whenever they come in contact with them going in or out of the Dearborn Homes.

Look, cops have a hard job. They're working men and women; I got no beef with the cops doing their jobs. My problem is with the policy. And I know that cops aren't likely in the habit of stopping little old ladies too often, and we shouldn't idealize the situation, either — these are high-crime neighborhoods. Still, the principle is still "innocent until proven guilty." I know this one policy in this one neighborhood isn't a reason to throw up barricades. But isn't it outrageous?

Isn't it outrageous that people who live in the same city are so isolated from each other that they wouldn't view the fact that police can behave this way in one particular neighborhood as a threat? I know they might be a different color from you, or maybe have much less money than you, or maybe they're the same color, same income, but just don't live in your neighborhood. I understand that. But, certainly you don't believe that means that they're all criminals.

If you agree that it would be absurd to assume they're all, or even mostly, criminals, isn't it fair to say it could, in a very foreseeable circumstance, be your neighborhood the police do this in? When we use expressions like "an injury to one is an injury to all," it isn't a dippy old Wobblie phrase or Enlightenment rhetoric, it's pretty practical. We don't want the government to violate that guy's liberty, because then that means they get to violate our liberty. I don't really think that's some ultra-idealistic position, is it?

So if all — or most — people generally agree that there should be equality under the law, at what point do we actually start stepping into those situations and telling the City to stop?

Seventy years ago, people volunteered to go fight in the Spanish Civil War. Whether for the Republicans (leftists) or Nationalists (fascists), they went. Maybe they thought, If we really believe in liberty and freedom and the "pursuit of happiness," we've got to defend it. I assume that had something to do with it. So they went to Spain.

We won't even cross the Dan Ryan, it seems, or the Eisenhower or Pulaski or wherever. It goes both ways: nobody seems to be stepping in on anybody's behalf. The city may be segregated, but there's only so much of that we can blame on some nefarious conspiracy. We have responsibility, too. We none of us make an effort to mix together in common institutions. Let's not be na├»ve, either — it's a lot easier to move around when you're not constantly being confronted by identification-demanding government agents. Still.

Is it a poverty thing? Our tendency to meld "poor neighborhood" with "dangerous neighborhood," while not unfounded, has allowed us to confuse "poor people" with "criminals." And it isn't just poverty, it's race, too, but as the public housing policing policy shows, the class element brings out the extremes. So do we just excuse it because we feel safe guessing on the side of "criminal" when it comes to the lowest income people?

Does "lives in public housing" = criminal to us now? If not, then this treatment is on its face outrageous. We can't have a city that authorizes the targeted interrogation and detaining of citizens because of where they live.

If this recession proves as bad as many are predicting it to be, don't imagine Chicago will remain the relatively safe, prosperous city we've gotten used to. As services decay and jobs become scarce, things will deteriorate, and you better believe that the people that can afford it will demand better "protection" of their neighborhoods from outsiders. If we don't fight these things on principle now, it becomes harder to claim the right later. In a nation of laws, sins of omission are much graver than those of commission. Giving up on the rule of law is not only screwing the person involved in that instance, it screws everybody.

So this isn't it; it isn't even a blip. The selling off of city services, the regressive taxes, the continued deterioration of public transportation at the same time that we're privatizing the roads — that didn't get it done. When all the different groups that have so isolated themselves — when are they going to start talking to each other, meeting with each other, talking to their own neighbors?

Is it going to take another blizzard?

When I express outrage that Chicagoans are being treated this way, it isn't really because I think Chicagoans have more right to their liberty than Oak Parkers or Minnesotans or Hondurans. I'm really just using that word as a way to make it more immediate to people. Maybe it seems an impossible, fruitless endeavor to demand liberty for the Chinese workers or for Tibetans, but maybe if we consider the situations — absolutely mild by comparison, of course — in our own community, we'll eventually work ourselves up to caring about distant human creatures.

This is happening, like, right over there, in other words: people are being treated like criminals by the state, there is a presumption of guilt rather than innocence, and the state is actively targeting its own citizens for harassment. That is happening — really not so far from wherever you're at right now. If there was no traffic, you could probably drive there in 20 minutes. So close! Seriously.

And, yes, you pay rent or a mortgage, and they live in public housing; and yes, some of them can't find work, or just don't work, and you probably do. And they probably make less money than you do. But you pay a mortgage, while somebody else lends you the money; you work for a salary, but somebody pays you that salary; and you make some money, but there are people who spend more than you make. So, knowing that — why aren't we outraged? Isn't it easily imagined — in fact, isn't it quite reasonably probable, that we ourselves could end up in the same boat?

Does it have to happen to every single one of us before we'll remember this supposed "principle" of ours?

Maybe it's because there isn't a coordinated, organized thing for us to do. There isn't some place to show up to express our outrage. The next generation of leadership for this city needs to provide that space — do that, and maybe within a generation we can start to think about the Hondurans.

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mike / May 21, 2008 10:17 PM

As a high school teacher in Humboldt Park, I witness daily how many of my students are treated as criminals by the city. Even more, if they are associated with a criminal, they become associated with the crime. In essence every 17 year old is supposed to be Keeper of His Or Her Brother, Sister, Auntie, Uncle, Dad, Mom, Friend, Block.

In fact, there are specific 'targeting' days and my students call them "Sweeps Days." Rounded up, detained, and questioned. Occasionally driven to other neighborhoods, other borders, and dropped off (IE - Try to get home safe now kiddo)

There are innocent kids, right now, in your city, who are routinely treated like 3rd world criminals.

Swept, so to speak, to the guilty curb.

...Where's the anger?

w / May 22, 2008 3:40 PM

Maybe the anger will come when it starts happening to "middle class" white people.

Carl / May 22, 2008 4:13 PM

I agree that there is a real difficulty in accepting policies that imply guilt before committing a crime but, I find it hard not to side with law enforcment in this occasion.

It would be one thing if we are asking these communities to not evade taxes or obey traffic signals rather, we are asking them to simply stop killing each other. It really puts everyone in a difficult situation when you want to help communities regenerate themselves instead of gentrify, but when they cannot even keep stray bullets away from their kids, what options are left?

The fact that so many suburban people are moving back into the city has put money in the hands of the CHA and other organizations that at least stand a shot of putting together a real urban housing policy (something our federal government does not have). Despite what some believe, many new Chicagoans do care deeply about fixing broken neighborhoods. But when you have such an outbreak of shootings and killings, how can I justify any risk to myself or my family when those neighborhoods cannot even protect one's right to live? At some point, someone's freedoms must be sacrificed so another's freedom can be preserved.

mike / May 22, 2008 8:18 PM

Carl - There are many points in which I could rebut and/or debate you; however, you said it best:

"At some point, someone's freedoms must be sacrificed so another's freedom can be preserved."

This is the exact point that democracy ceases to exist

For historical reference please see slavery, segregation, and Bush doctrine.

mike / May 22, 2008 8:19 PM

Carl - There are many points in which I could rebut and/or debate you; however, you said it best:

"At some point, someone's freedoms must be sacrificed so another's freedom can be preserved."

This is the exact point that democracy ceases to exist

For historical reference please see slavery, segregation, and Bush doctrine.

Carl / May 22, 2008 11:37 PM


What good is a democracy when it cannot guarantee life? If those in the democracy do not act with respect towards their freedoms, what right do they have to those freedoms?

To be fair, I am entirely against racial profiling for terrorists and I think the point is in the severity of the problem. If the number of people killed by terrorist attacks in the US even remotely approached the numbers of people killed by guns every year, I might think differently.

Personally, I take a dictatorship that ensures people's right to exist over a democracy that can't (or is unwilling) make such a promise.

Furthermore, sacrificing some freedoms to provide for the freedoms of others happens in any non-anarchist society. For example, I lose the freedom of being able to steal items to protect another's ability to have items. The problem in a democracy becomes when there is an imbalance between the freedoms that are limited and the result of the added freedom. Exampled again, there is currently an imbalance in our right to possess firearms and our right to be safe from gun crimes. Therefore, we either need to accept less safety from gun fire or impose greater restrictions on firearms.

Lastly, democracy has little to do with what specific freedoms are assigned to the populous and much more to do with the process by which those freedoms are assigned. If the popular opinion is willing to forego a right then the democratic process is still intact.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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