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Crime Mon Aug 27 2012

Chicago's Violence at Its Source

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?

Photo by Romana KleeCity 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.

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Diane Latiker / August 27, 2012 3:30 PM

Dear Mr. Zimmer,

I would love to speak with you regarding this article and any thoughts you might have outside of it.

Cell: 773-981-4077

Thank you,


Willa J. Taylor / August 27, 2012 8:41 PM

Adler School of Professional Psychology has been doing this kind of analysis, intervention in, and research of this problem for some time.

paul / August 28, 2012 1:18 AM

It's a vicious cycle. Nobody wants to hire a desperate person, desperate people do desperate things. The AL sharptons of the world only make the rest of the country distrust an entire class of people even more. This is America, land of the free, we have an American culture, not a culture of race. Most blacks don't act or look like our black/white president. When large groups of any race fail to assimilate they will be outcast by society as a whole. Nobody wants to help someone who doesn't behave in a civil manner. As we read the news, we see the face of crime and it is multi-ethnic. There are differences in crimes by race. Political correctness aside, when I heard about the Colorado mass shooting, I knew it was a white guy because of the type of crime. Same goes for when I hear about convenience store clerks getting killed for $20.

Julie Woestehoff / August 28, 2012 9:16 AM

The poorest neighborhoods are also those with the most school closings, which adds to social breakdown. These schools are replaced by charter schools or turnarounds which push out "unwanted" students to the streets. A moratorium on school closings would help stabilize communities that so desperately need social centers.

paul / August 28, 2012 3:12 PM

Why is violence in urban ghettos so much worse today than it was 50 or 60 years ago? I'd argue that racism and poverty in black neighborhoods was waaaaaay worse back then, but ask old timer Chicago cops (at least the ones I know) and there wasnt dozens of people shot up every weekend. What changed?

In a book called "Cotton & race in the Making of America", the author quoted several different people and what they thought about the passage of Lyndon Johnson's welfare plan. The leader of the KKK was quoted (im paraphrasing) as saying that he couldnt have thought up a more devious and vicious plane to keep the black race down. The "social floor", he went on, would lead to the disintegration of families and in particular leave adult black males without a necessary role in those familial units. Fast forward to today when there have been several generations of a family stuck in the welfare cycle and its a little easier to frame today's problems as an unintended consequence of legislation that had the best of intentions.

Im not so sure that we need more money for good schools when those little kids are gonna have to walk past crack dens and blighted properties and go home to a fucked up family. The good kids can get bussed to a good school in a better part of town. its the vulnerable ones, the 20% of black boys that end up with a criminal record, and the subset of that 20% that wind up pulling the trigger one day that you worry the most about.

Im not arguing for getting rid of social welfare programs here or anything like that, but what I am saying is that, in my view, the welfare program is the biggest difference between families in an urban ghetto now and 60 years ago.

Oh, and drugs. People do a shitload of drugs in America and Chicago is a hub for the illicit drug trade. As long as theres a demand, the violence will be supplied by the gangs protecting their blocks.

Kwame A River / August 29, 2012 5:06 PM

I look at the chicago issue as opportunity for those who dont break the law, we shall reap benefits of jobs, better housing and a better life than these hoodrats out there shootin up chicago

Eric Wright / August 30, 2012 4:04 AM


It is an obfuscation of truth to attribute Al Sharpton, or so-called black behavior to the racist attitudes and feelings of whites. First of all, white supremacy is based on untruths that have been systemic sense this country's inception. Very few white supremacist speak from actual experience, their white supremacist attitudes have been passed down and galvanized by the media and other racist institutions. So this poor excuse of "Al Sharpton", or "uncivil blacks" are causing me not to empathize with the poor black people is a lie on many different levels. Not understanding America’s history of oppression levied against black people is the reason whites aren’t able to empathize with blacks. The very attitudes that you are attempting to justify are rooted in century old white supremacist notions. The notion that blacks are inferior therefore their inability to compete is rooted in their own inferiority not my racist attitudes that in turn fuel a white supremacist socio economic structure. It was these very attitudes that created this black ghetto that you scorn, and this is a matter of fact not fiction. Not one comment on this board mentioned the Kerner Commission of 1968 where an all white committee commissioned by Lyndon B Johnson examined the disparities in our society and concluded that American was headed into an Apartheid type situation that was separate and totally unequal. The commission also stated that "White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it" when referring to the black ghettos. However the discussion about inner cities like Chicago will never be framed using historical and contemporary facts.
The ghetto was formed out of white supremacist policies such as mortgage and business loan redlining. It was maintained by restrictive housing covenants in neighboring white communities. If you look further, you will find that the federal and local governments also played their part by attempting to subvert progressive black leaders and movements. This was done by the COINTELPRO program nationally and in Chicago specifically, through the Daley orchestrated Red Squads. You combine this with global factory outsourcing, poorly funded schools, and persistent job discrimination you’ll get the resulting chaotic situation in the black ghettos.

Only way that this gang violence situation will ever be remedied is if the root of the problem is addressed. Addressing the symptoms is like plucking all of the leaves off a tree and expecting the tree to fall down. It’s just that idiotic, but yet we continue this futile exercise on a daily basis and stupidly ask the question “why isn’t it getting any better” (and this is only relative to people who may be concerned with the ghettos, for the majority of America’s inhabitants are not concerned about black people dying in the streets). So if you consider yourself non racist and concerned about justice, then start by picking up a book about ghetto creation and studying it. Even with good intentions, you are still inept in solving the problem if you are not learned about the problem. I suggest you start of reading American Apartheid…

Tamika Jones / August 31, 2012 5:35 PM

I just want to say I'm so sorry Chicago is going through the same exact thing, we are experiencing here in Detroit. I am a Detroit Police Officer and have seen the problems advance from bad to horrible. Our young black males are out of control here. But I have to say one thing, I noticed the black family unit is weak in Detroit. The young black males are lacking Parents, fathers especially.

Jeannette / August 31, 2012 6:13 PM

Sometimes it seems like blacks don't have it so bad. My husband and I were just talking about how much easier it would be to get special grants, loans, housing stipends, etc if we were black. However since we are white we don't qualify for these entitlement...maybe this is off the subject but it's an observation.

rechercheguy / September 3, 2012 11:40 AM

@Jeannette - i wouldlove to know some more about you -

1. Roughly, what part of Chicago or the suburbs (or the country) do you live in?
2. What part of the country did your family come from?
3. What is your educational level? Your husband's? Your family's?
4. In which part of the city are your kids enrolled in for school?
5. If you're employed what is your income level (roughly)? Your parents'?
6. If you're both employed, what are your husband and your occupations?

Kazu / September 3, 2012 12:26 PM

Great article about a a tragedy in one of the great cities in this country. We need to look at the root causes of violence, as opposed to simply reacting to the symptoms. PPWN has been working at one High School in North Lawndale, where we have seen a decrease in violence by 90% over the past 4 years. Creating peace in these communities is possible if we use the right strategies, and invest in the youth and in the community. Check out our story here and please support good work going on in the community -

BKW / September 4, 2012 12:12 PM

Jeannette, PLEASE go read a book, get a clue, take a class, get your head out your butt or SOMETHING!! GOODNESS!!!!!

Mike / January 12, 2013 11:56 AM

Please visit link to petition for poverty reduction.

Ryan Sypkens / December 9, 2014 3:00 PM

This is a great article that many need to read. We need to focus on the REAL problem instead of what is seen on the surface. Thank you for your contribution!

Ryan Sypkens / December 9, 2014 3:00 PM

This is a great article that many need to read. We need to focus on the REAL problem instead of what is seen on the surface. Thank you for your contribution!

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