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Crime Mon Aug 27 2012
by Tyler Zimmer
This past weekend 37 people were shot, nine of them fatally. The previous weekend, there were 30 shootings, six of them homicides. This summer, figures of this magnitude — between 30 to 40 people shot, four to eight killed — have been the norm rather than the exception.
Of course, high levels of gun violence in Chicago have been a persistent problem for years, but the spike in killings this summer — the murder rate is up 49 percent according to recent estimates — has drawn the attention of national media. Recent articles in The Daily and Gawker compare Chicago to the Wild West, on the one hand, and Kabul on the other. Those comparisons may be ill-advised and inaccurate, as Whet Moser points out, but they are indicative of a deeply troubling state of affairs nonetheless.
How did we get here? Why is gun violence in Chicago such a persistent problem?
City officials and police argue that the bulk of the gun violence in Chicago is related to gangs' struggles for turf and market share — and, by and large, that seems to be true. But why do so many young people in Chicago turn to gangs in the first place? Sociologists generally agree that the main reasons for joining gangs — violent or otherwise — include camaraderie, income and protection. A quick glance at the areas where the violence is most acute reveals that these three basic human needs — for respect, employment and security — are going entirely unmet by the system. In many areas on the South, Southwest and West sides — where most of the violence is concentrated — conditions are so catastrophic that it is virtually inevitable that scores of young people of color will look to meet their material and emotional needs by turning to illegal activity.
To see why this is so, it's worth looking more closely at the life conditions of those living in most violent neighborhoods in the city. As a handful of commentators have already pointed out, these areas are among the poorest. To put this in perspective, consider that Chicago has the third-highest poverty rate among major U.S. cities, and for black people in particular, Chicago is number one, with a rate of 32.2 percent. The percentage of students that qualify for free lunches at the CPS schools in predominantly black neighborhoods is in the high nineties, and in some schools 100 percent of the students qualify. As Steve Bogira puts it, "If you want children to become violent in their teens and early 20s, these are the right ingredients."
These are also areas plagued by protracted mass unemployment that have been hollowed out by deindustrialization and disinvestment. For example, among black men in the city ages 16-64, employment levels stood at a staggering 48.3 percent in 2010 [PDF] compared to 72.1 percent in 1970. Only Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee have higher unemployment figures. Before manufacturers closed down factories in the 1970s, swaths of unionized industrial jobs sustained scores of black workers throughout the city. But, unlike those jobs, the scarce work available to many black Chicagoans today is mostly precarious and low-wage, offering few benefits or opportunities for advancement. And even these kinds of jobs are extremely hard to come by. For example, months ago when a Costco opened just a few miles away from some of the poorest black neighborhoods on the West Side, the Reader reported that over 30,000 people applied for its 130 positions.
At the most immediate level, protracted joblessness means insecurity and economic hardship, but it also takes an emotional toll and often goes hand in hand with high levels of stress, depression and damages to one's sense of self-worth. Unsurprisingly, joblessness is associated with increased rates of violence. It's fashionable to blame the jobless for their plight, but the problem is one of simple arithmetic: there are scarcely any jobs to be had and hundreds of thousands of people who desperately need them. The fact is that the system is failing black men in Chicago on a vast scale, sending the message, in effect, that their labor is neither valued nor needed.
The same neighborhoods facing mass unemployment are places where there are no movie theatres or bowling alleys, with very few grocery stores or banks. Many of the schools are decrepit, overcrowded and starved for resources. Some lack air conditioning and adequate heating. Teachers and parents demand more guidance counselors, nurses, librarians, art and music programs, but the Board of Education only continues to prescribe more cuts. CPS's proposed budget this year — which teachers, parents and community members are courageously fighting against — prescribes even fewer resources for these schools in particular. This is the system saying to these kids, in effect, that their lives are less valuable, less worthy of support than those of the wealthy and connected. It's little wonder that many fail to graduate high school and end up involved in criminal organizations which — though self-destructive and dangerous for themselves as well as their communities — hold out the promise of a degree of power in the face of powerlessness and income amidst grinding poverty.
Nonetheless, the prevailing assumption is that gun violence is at root a law-enforcement problem whose resolution depends on the "right" kind of police tactics. The response from the Mayor, for instance, bears this out. His approach has been to advocate various policing strategies that range from increasing surveillance and closing liquor stores to performing neighborhood sweeps and denying arrested gang members I-bonds.
But, for reasons that should now be quite obvious, this law-enforcement-based approach has failed time and time again. Highly touted new police strategies come and go, but gun violence remains a relatively constant feature of life in specific areas of the city. In fact, the entire idea that levels of community violence in Chicago — or in any US city for that matter — depend primarily on what the police do (or don't do) is deeply suspect. What we're seeing in Chicago is the result of a profound social and economic crisis on the South and West Sides, not a paucity of discipline and punishment meted out by the police and the courts.
And it's not just that more aggressive policing is ineffective at preventing violent crime. In fact, we have good reason to think that it would make the problem worse. First of all, the CPD itself has an unsavory track record of misconduct and illegal activity in the very communities — overwhelmingly populated by people of color — where the violence is the most acute. Second, police brutality against people of color is a scourge that plagues cities from coast to coast. As the recent, local cases of Rekia Boyd and Stephon Watts make clear, the Chicago area is hardly an exception. Harassment and violence meted out by the CPD against innocent blacks and latinos is a persistent problem that is sure to get worse if more aggressive policing tactics are employed.
An increased police presence also threatens to exacerbate many of the problems associated with what activists are calling "The New Jim Crow" — following the lead of Michelle Alexander's widely-discussed book of the same name. The basic structure of the New Jim Crow is this: because of policies associated with the "War on Drugs," black people are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses, even though they are no more likely to use or sell drugs than whites. But once they're slapped with a criminal record they're virtually shut out of the licit labor market and denied a number of basic rights — from voting privileges and food stamps to public housing access and student loans for college. The result is legalized discrimination and exclusion from mainstream society for millions of people of color.
This is a problem of epic proportions here in Chicago, and aggressive policing — especially more "random" stops of black youth, neighborhood sweeps, and the like — will only make it worse. Staggering percentages of black men in the city — 70 percent in North Lawndale, for instance — are already ex-offenders, many of them guilty of non-violent, drug-related crimes. A staggering one in five black men in Cook County in their twenties are presently under some form of supervision by the criminal justice system. One result of this is that large numbers of black men in Chicago have been permanently locked out of the (already bleak) economy and branded as pariahs at a young age — a key reason why many are forced to turn to illegal forms of employment.
Another result of this state of affairs, as Michelle Alexander puts it, is that "practically from cradle to grave, black males in urban ghettos are treated like current or future criminals," whether or not they've actually broken any law. It is in conditions such as these that racist images of black men as inherently "suspicious," undeserving and pathological take root and flourish. These images, of course, prime the pumps for calls to get "tougher" on crime through more aggressive policing at the same time that they encourage a cold indifference toward the plight of young people of color.
We're talking about a population of the city that has been abandoned, criminalized and isolated by the system to the point where many must feel that they have little to lose by getting arrested — and who can blame them? It's not that the individuals who pull the trigger aren't responsible for injuring or murdering their victims. But if we ever want the cycle of organized violence to end we have to ask what sustains gang membership as well as what fuels violent gang competition in the first place. The answer is obvious when we look at what life is like for many people on the South and West Sides.
These conditions cry out for profound, substantial change — but I'm not holding my breath hoping that "the millionaire's mayor" is going to lead the charge. The complicity of political and economic elites in the status quo, however, only makes it clear that what's needed is a broad-based social movement of ordinary people. The bottom line is that we can't expect the violence to go away until poor and working-class Chicagoans are organized to force the powers that be to address the problem at its roots.
Tyler Zimmer is currently working on a Ph.D in social and political philosophy at Northwestern University. He lives in Chicago.
Photo by Romana Klee, used under Creative Commons license.