The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.
Chicago can mean different things to different people.
To those on the outside, headlines and national media coverage about gun violence and looting in the city paint a mental image of a chaotic war zone. The label “Chiraq” is floated in the Facebook comment section of any article about the city’s problems.
For those on the inside, like me, it’s much more complicated.
Seeing images of people breaking windows and grabbing merchandise along Michigan Avenue is jarring. Most Chicagoans get no joy from seeing it. And, yes, it’s absolutely wrong. But, when cameras touch down into Chicago from outside the city, they often only scratch the surface of what’s really going on. Looting is not the most pressing issue. Why people resort to it is. Delving into the cause is helpful in finding solutions to our problems. I invite you to not raise your voice in an argument, but rather, listen and draw in closer to what people who live in Chicago are trying to say. You’ve seen “the what.” But what’s often missing from the conversation is “the why.” And it’s just as important to the Chicago story.
A pandemic has ravaged communities already lacking the investment of the gleaming downtown you saw wrecked in photos and videos. It’s also further made clear the racial and social inequalities of the city. Chicago is segregated. Money flows to the predominantly white north side for housing developments and shopping districts. Meanwhile, the south and west side, mostly Black and Latino, struggle. Pharmacies and grocery stores are harder to come by. Like many communities, job loss has hit hard. But, the rent is still due. Many are out of options. Some could barely afford to live in the neighborhood they currently reside in.
“45 percent of young African American males in the city of Chicago are unemployed right now,” said Tio Hardiman, executive director for Violence Interrupters, NFP. ”The pandemic of COVID-19 did not do anything to help our situation. It actually harmed our people.”
COVID-19 is only one of the public crises facing Chicagoans. Gun violence also impacts the physical and mental health of people in disinvested neighborhoods. According to police data, July was one of the deadliest months in the city’s history, surpassing the record death toll of September 1992. Four hundred and forty people lost their lives by the end of July 2020. Many of the victims were children caught in the crossfire, including 9-year-old Janari Ricks. This violence is often attributed to gang warfare. But, as community stakeholders like Hardiman claim, it doesn’t fully tell the story.
“A majority of violence in Chicago is not gang-related, it’s inter-personal conflict,” said Hardiman. “When you have a community of people living on the edge, any slight infraction could cause a person to harm someone.”
Before the pandemic, Chicago Police were actually touting declines in violent crime. COVID-19 was the match that set off a ticking time bomb, leading to the violence we see now.
Police, who are sworn to protect and serve these communities, don’t have the trust of the people who live there. Even Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown admits it’s something “we have to build from ground zero.”
Enter what happened in the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood Sunday. According to police, a man fired at officers during a chase, they returned fire, and he survived the wound. The use of force is currently under investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. Police say they recovered a gun on the scene, but the shooting wasn’t captured on police body cameras. That raised a lot of suspicions. Community residents, who already don’t trust officers after the deaths of Laquan McDonald and Rekia Boyd, and the department’s history of police brutality, started to take to social media with their own theories. Mistrust leads to misinformation. And according to Superintendent Brown, that misinformation led to violence and looting.
“Criminals took to the streets with the confidence that there would be no consequences for their actions,” Brown said.
It was painful to watch. In a matter of hours, people whose entire livelihood is dependent on their small downtown business saw their world torn asunder. People who toil in low wage jobs under the pressure of an unequal system may have seen a chance to get some extra money. Meanwhile, outside agitators and local criminals took advantage of the racial fissures of this city to steal some bags.
It’s a complicated and ugly mess. It’s important that news media acknowledges that.
Everyone gets in their camps and silos on social media, and thinks it has to be either/or. However, it’s possible to think the looting is unacceptable and also believe we gotta do more about why people are looting. Giving context as to why mass looting took place isn’t defending the looters by any means. It’s informing the public.
Chicago has its share of hardships that often play out on national networks and papers without perspective from the actual people living there. People from Montana or Nebraska who have never stepped foot in the city opine about its problems on comment threads.
“There is an almost knee-jerk assessment, because of what ends up making national headlines, that Chicago is inherently and hopelessly violent and that the people perpetrating gun violence are terrorizing the city, victimizing people at random, and largely go unchecked by police,” said Dakarai Turner, a former Chicago television reporter. “These opinions are false.”
“As I travel to other cities, the one thing I think people get wrong about Chicago is the level of crime in the city,” said Ricky Brown, pastor at New Creation Church. “Out of 77 communities, most of the crime involving gun violence is limited to five. The overwhelming majority of our city is very safe.”
When it comes to violence, some politicians claim Chicagoans only take action when a police officer is pulling the trigger. President Donald Trump uses the city as his primary dog whistle to rally his base against liberal run cities. Black lives matter? Not to Black people in Chicago, say critics. But, Black Chicagoans fight every day to combat gun violence and preserve Black life.
I dare you to tell “Ujimaa Medics” Black lives don’t matter to them; a grassroots collective of nurses who promote community health, and train neighbors to treat bullet and knife wounds.
You’re tweaking if you tell “Good Kids Maad City” that Black lives don’t matter to them; an alliance of Black and brown children who staged a die-in at city hall because they were tired of seeing their friends get shot and wanted more investment from the city to fix it.
I dare you to look the staff of “Lost Boyz Inc.” in the face and say Black lives don’t matter to them; a group in South Shore that uses baseball to give kids new opportunities and unlock their potential.
You can’t say Black lives don’t matter to the mental health professionals organizing healing circles and opening up their homes to kids to help unpack their trauma, while many mental health clinics remain shut down from the Rahm Emmanuel administration.
How can you say Black lives don’t matter to the people who marched in the streets against gun violence last week?
Race, social status, and even the neighborhood one lives in can lead to varying experiences with the city. The only thing that unites these people from very different backgrounds is pride in where they are from. It’s what connects soldiers like Jahmal Cole, Fr. Michael Pfleger, Aleta Clark and so many more to work tirelessly for equity and opportunity.
Chicago is a beautiful place where joy and pain intersect almost daily. We laugh to keep from crying. Frankly, we have no choice. Art, culture, great food, and music help lift our souls above our sorrows. And that pain breeds purpose. It’s in these hardships that the heart and hustle of Chicagoans shine through. It’s part of what makes this city unlike any other. So, here’s a pro tip: Next time you have something to say about Chicago, ask someone who lives there. We’re focused on building over here. Hating from outside the club will only get you muted.
- Brandon Pope, Reporter/Anchor and Vice President of the National Association of Black Journalists Chicago Chapter