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Op-Ed Thu Aug 14 2014

Ferguson Saw Rioting; When Will Chicago?

Scott Olson/Getty Images

In Chicago, we have not seen riots since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. During those riots, one event -- Dr. King's death -- sent black Chicagoans over the edge. Yet it was not this tragedy in isolation that caused black Chicagoans to take to the streets and commit violent and destructive acts. Rather, it was the history and continued reality of violence and oppression they had faced here ever since the first black Americans began to move en masse to Chicago during the Great Migration.

On Sunday night Ferguson, Missouri (a St. Louis suburb) saw riots and looting. Like the MLK riots in Chicago, the rioting was set into motion by another devastating death -- the police killing of Michael Brown just days before he was supposed to begin college. And just like in Chicago, it was not this one event alone that caused the protests. Rather Brown's death was a tipping point. It was too much for people who have been systematically oppressed and dehumanized to take sitting down.

In many critical ways, black residents of Chicago are no better off than they were in 1968. The city is basically just as segregated, and poverty, unemployment, failing schools and violence are still concentrated in the same black neighborhoods.

At the same time, instead of supporting the community, the police in black neighborhoods are highly militarized to the point of alienating and scaring residents. Law enforcement here and elsewhere consistently targets rather than protects black neighborhoods, which is evidenced by the disproportionate number of black Americans in prison. A recent study by the ACLU found that it is now commonplace for police to treat "civilians as wartime enemies" and force their way into homes with SWAT teams for simple drug busts.

Violence breeds violence. And violence can be the outright murder of an unarmed black teenager by a police officer. But violence can take more subtle forms. It also occurs when the police throughout Illinois are four times more likely to conduct vehicle searches of black and brown-driven cars than they are white, even though they find contraband materials in the cars of twice as many white drivers. In Ferguson, as in many cities throughout the country, police commit the same sort of racial profiling. Both of these forms of violence result from the same mindset, which dehumanizes and thus devalues black lives. It happens in small ways all the time, and explodes into larger acts of concrete violence such as Brown's death.

Yet while Chicago faces many similar conditions, unlike Ferguson, the city has not seen riots in nearly 50 years.

When the officer shot him, Brown was unarmed and witnesses reported he was holding up his arms to surrender. Afterwards, the police left his bloodied and bullet-ridden body out on the street for hours for the neighborhood to see.

After the news of Brown's murder spread, residents took to the streets, rioting and looting. Since Sunday night, the rioting has given way to peaceful protests. This is admirable, and violence should never be a solution. Yet when I heard the news of the riots, my reaction was not surprise that this was happening, but rather surprise that it does not happen more often. It should not be startling that black people in communities such as Ferguson, who are constantly oppressed and see no justice when their children are killed, would take to the streets.

In fact, what is surprising is that people are not rioting in cities throughout the country. It is by no means unusual news that law enforcement officials kill black men rather than using other available measures. In fact, Brown was the fourth unarmed black man to be killed by law enforcement this month in the US.

Ferguson has quickly become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the American policing system and the systematically racist way in which our laws are enforced. Yet the reality is that Ferguson could have been any poor, black neighborhood in the country.

Chicago is about one third black, and Ferguson is about two thirds. The police are supposed to serve and protect the entire community, not terrorize a significant portion of it. The images of police officers outfitted for a war zone rather than a peaceful protest have been deeply disturbing. And it is simply outrageous that a police officer would go straight to shooting an unarmed teenager without taking any other actions to subdue him, if he was truly a threat (which is not even clear at this point). Sadly, this extreme police militarization has become a norm in in black communities throughout America.

I don't think anyone believes this would have happened to a young white man in Clayton, a wealthy white suburb of St. Louis. Yet I think we can all see that something like this is just waiting to happen in a neighborhood such as Englewood or West Garfield Park in Chicago.

So the question we should be asking is not why are people in Ferguson furious and why did that anger spill over into rioting and looting. Instead, we should be asking: Why would we expect any community to take that treatment lying down? And when will something happen that will be a tipping point in our own community? Unless something changes, we cannot honestly claim that in many ways we are not setting the stage for riots in Chicago and throughout the country. And when that happens, who will we truly have to blame but ourselves? But society as a whole?

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Anon / August 14, 2014 3:59 AM


Steve / August 14, 2014 7:34 AM

I do not know if the writer is new to the area or has a case of selective memory, but the last riots in Chicago were over the Bulls winning a championship

A riot does not have to be a political statement.

Carlos / August 14, 2014 7:50 AM

Thank you for writing such an informitive and helpful article, Rahcel, that seeks to calmly put an end to violence in the city of Chicago.


Bob Hartley / August 14, 2014 8:52 AM

Neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of Chicago have been an economic depression since the 1970's. From 1970 - 1980 alone, Chicago lost over 250,000 manufacturing jobs. In 1970, 70% of African American men were employed in manufacturing. In 1980, the figure had dropped to 30%. And how did we confront this economic disaster? Did we provide job training? No. Did we bolster education funding? No. Did we provide free daycare so that people could work? No. Did we provide comprehensive healthcare so that the unemployed could keep their health? No. Did we provide a proper safety net so that people could withstand a massive economic shift? No. Our only response was and is a punitive one. Through the disaster know as The War on Drugs, we've locked up millions of people a large portion of which are African American. But we didn't stop there. We then made it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to re-enter society. We made it illegal for them to work in certain professions and trades. We banned them from public housing and food stamps. We banned them from acquiring student loans. And, now, in response to the violence that ANY community would certainly experience if it were to face the same economic deprivation for decades, the mayor of Chicago is sending in Illinois State Police and the FBI. So, again, those in power refuse to confront the economic cause for the societal effect of poverty and racial discrimination. Once again, we'll be locking up more African Americans instead of treating a traumatized community with compassion. And once again, the result will be continued massive unemployment and the violence that comes with it. What was that definition of insanity again?

dbs / August 14, 2014 10:14 AM

Appreciate the article, but these aren't riots. The chaos has encouraged some bad people to act badly, but it's mostly peaceful protesters and journalists being attacked by a militarized police department run amok. Just now the MO Gov relieved the St. Louis County Police of their duties, finally.

Ken / August 14, 2014 11:55 AM

To the writer: do some research. There was a riot in Grant Park during the '68 convention, several months after Dr. King was killed. Puerto Ricans rioted in Humboldt Park in '77. Or is it only a riot when African-Americans are involved? Just asking ;)

Leen / August 14, 2014 12:55 PM

"Violence breeds violence." & here you are saying we should have more riots. I'm pretty sure the riots going on is violent. And it isn't accomplishing anything good. All it's doing is allowing people to behave badly such as breaking into buildings and looting. They haven't even been to court yet & people have jumped the gun.

Harlon Katz / August 14, 2014 2:02 PM

There is a bit of selective editing here. The police were wearing riot gear for the "peaceful" protests due to the non-peaceful protests that had occurred earlier. How are they supposed to know when the protestors will turn into rioters like the prior time and when they will not.

Also, you mention police being more militant in black neighborhoods as an excuse for the poor behavior of the residents - I think you are putting the cart before horse - they are more militant due to the more violent and more disrespectful citizens in the black neighborhoods.

This is no different than the Palestinians blaming their terrorism on the blockades when the blockaders were only put in place after their violence.

Ann / August 15, 2014 2:33 AM

In spite of five nights of police riots, Ferguson got away lucky. The protesters were not armed, or if they were armed at least they did not open fire on the rioting police. Here in Chicago a similar occurrence would become a blood-bath. Lets hope that Ferguson is a wake up call to our lawmakers to get the war weapons and equipment out of local law enforcement, and to teach police officers everywhere how NOT to incite violence.

Jason Smith / August 18, 2014 7:39 AM

Dear writer, This article is just proving racism is put on both sides. Automatically you assume every white cop is racist because they target a black person. But yet cops do so because yes black people have set the bar for them self and brought on there own stereotype. It's more likely for a lower class bkack male to join a gang then a middle class white male. If i was a cop I would be wearing that gear to because i wouldn't want to be getting killed. You sound racist and ignorant for assuming WHITE people are the problem and always have been. Yes i agree the 60s were a bad time but it's called moving on. If blacks want to be treated equal then they need to put up the race card and stop using it.Also yes, more blacks are in jail because they have commited more crime than other races.Even Stephen A. Smith of ESPN talks about how blacks put this on themselves.. and Stephen Smith is black! There are 2 kinds of black people. Modern day and old fashioned. Modern day have moved on from the bad things that happened and get jobs. Old fashioned sit at home with 10 kids yelling about slavery and George W. Bush being a racist and begging for welfare.Move on.

Jason Smith / August 18, 2014 7:42 AM

And i give props to Harlon Katz you were spot on

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