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Op-Ed Wed Jul 16 2014
Over this Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, 84 people were shot and 16 killed. Over 1,000 people have been shot in the city since the beginning of the year, and almost all of them were black and Latino men under the age of 35. Shedding light on these numbers is important, but numbers on their own are not enough. A shallow focus on statistics and short-term solutions consistently dominates media coverage of violence in Chicago. This insubstantial, fleeting reportage ignores the deeper societal inequalities that continue to spur violence in the city's most marginalized black neighborhoods.
The Chicago neighborhoods that have the highest violent crime rates are the same that have the greatest concentrations of poverty, incarceration, unemployment and failing schools. And while violent crime has fallen in Chicago (as in all major American cities) since the 1990s, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson found that the same neighborhoods have remained the most violent.
To address violence in our city, we cannot ignore the reality that race and racism are factors in Chicago's violence. From 2000-2010, the murder rate in West Garfield Park was 64 per 100,000. Meanwhile, in nearby Jefferson Park the murder rate was 3.1 per 100,000. This is a difference of over 20 times. It is no coincidence that Jefferson Park is a working/middle class neighborhood on the Northwest Side, and West Garfield Park is an impoverished, 97 percent black neighborhood on the West Side. West Garfield Park has an unemployment rate of over 25 percent, a household poverty level of 40.3 percent, and 26.2 percent of its residents have not graduated from high school. According to the Chicago Tribune, it is currently tied as the second most violent neighborhood in the city.
The ongoing violence in neighborhoods such as West Garfield Park is deeply intertwined with the above statistics. Yet the city government has repeatedly shown itself unwilling to address the true heart of violence in these neighborhoods: the continuous message from society that their lives are not worth as much as others'. Steve Bogira at the Reader created a chart which succinctly demonstrates how race and poverty are linked to violent crime in Chicago:
The evidence is right before our eyes. And it is not hard to deduce that over a century of systematic denial of rights and opportunities for black Chicagoans would send a message to young men that their lives are not worth as much as those in neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park or Lakeview. The facts demonstrate that inequality along racial lines is not a thing of the past. And it will not go away until concerted efforts are taken to promote racial equality.
The facts also reveal that this 4th of July, which seemed shockingly violent, was actually not that different from the same weekend last year--when 70 people were shot and 13 killed. Unfortunately, it seems that the Emanuel administration and the Chicago Police Department would rather the media continue its shallow, fleeting coverage of Chicago's violence. That way, the continuity in the city's violence is less apparent and they face less pressure to address its root causes.
The Emanuel administration claims that violent crime in Chicago is in an arc of constant decline, but this does not make the present conditions acceptable. Meanwhile, it is hard to say whether the official statistics can be trusted, since the CPD was recently caught cooking the books on murder and other violent crime statistics. And a recent audit [PDF] by the inspector general found that in incidents such as the 4th of July weekend, when many people are killed, the CPD might officially count several shootings as one incident to lower recorded statistics. So, as Slate writer Josh Voorhees put it, "recent history suggests that there's a realistic chance that by this time next year, the dead and injured from this past July Fourth won't be fully counted in Chicago's official crime statistics."
Some have suggested that the solution to the violence in Chicago's black and Latino neighborhoods is to send in the National Guard. Yet the powers-that-be in Chicago have been attempting to solve the city's violence through increased policing for years now, and more of the same is clearly not what is needed. For example, Roland Martin argued in the Daily Beast that, "There is no reason the National Guard can't drop a dragnet over the hot spots in Chicago. They can erect barricades and check points, inspect cars, confiscate guns, run warrant checks and shut down the cartels in the city. In effect, Chicago needs a troop surge like what we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we wanted to make the lives of residents there safer, why not do the same for Americans?"
This line of thinking stems from the misguided notion that increased violence can work to make communities safer (and on a related note, if sending troops into Iraq decreased violence, how does one explain the violence currently engulfing Iraq? ISIS's takeover is one example of how sending in troops, or attempting to solve violence with more violence, in the end only breeds more instability, lack of trust in "authorities," and continues a cycle of violence).
Instead of ramping up militarization, the city government, NGOs and city institutions should take purposeful steps to address the poverty and lack of opportunities in the city's poorest and most isolated neighborhoods. One tiny example of the city's lack of investment in, and the coinciding disregard for poor black lives, is the lack of a level 1 trauma center in Chicago's entire South Side. The University of Chicago runs a pediatric trauma unit, but there is nothing available for adults, leaving the only option for those facing severe trauma to hike to hospitals such as Northwestern Memorial near the Loop. A study by Northwestern Memorial found that longer travel times to a level 1 trauma center increase the likelihood of death from violent injuries such as gunshots.
It is realities like these, that there is no trauma center for the city's entire South Side -- the most violent part of Chicago -- that dehumanize residents of the neighborhoods impacted. The response to violence on the South and West sides should not be the band-aid of sending in more armed officers to police and intimidate young men of color. Rather, it should be a focus on solutions that build up communities and show the residents of communities such as West Garfield Park that their lives are worth the same as young men in the Gold Coast. Opening a trauma center would be one small step in this process.
As a resident of West Rogers Park on the city's far North Side, I know how far away neighborhoods like West Garfield Park and Englewood can feel. To many Chicagoans, at times it does not feel like this violence is occurring in the same place. But this is one city, and the violence could potentially hit home for all of us -- last week an innocent man was shot and killed waiting for the Devon bus not too far from my home. The killers were aiming for a rival gang member. My boyfriend was on the bus and heard the gunshots, and it could just as easily have been him waiting for the bus instead.
Too often, we do not see Chicago as one community in which all residents have a vested interest in the well being of the city as a whole. But I hope we can come to recognize that all lives in Chicago are equally valuable, and in turn should be equally invested in. What if all of Chicago's neighborhoods were like Lincoln Park, with an unemployment rate of 4.7 percent, only 4 percent of residents without a high school diploma, and a per capita income of $73,130? Would we still have this violence problem then? Until purposeful steps are taken to equalize factors such as these, I do not see violence abating.