Chicago’s Gun Violence — a reflection
It was my last semester in college, mid-week, the sun was shining bright through the windows of Ellis Library. I was researching The Gettysburg campaign for a course presentation, when I read the news, “Student Hadiya Pendleton shot dead after she performs in Obama inauguration.” As I continued the article my mind raced: did I miss something last week? Was she killed in DC? These questions would be answered just a few sentences later. The gut wrenching truth would reveal that a beautiful 15-year old girl, whose future had been brighter than the sun, was shot in the back while with her friends after school in a nearby park in Chicago.
…eight-years later, few past memories make me so angry.
In writing this reflection I strongly wish I could write that Hadiya was the last child casualty of this Great Plague — regrettably, that wouldn’t be so.
An honest reflection requires identifying truths and the most important is this: in Chicago the highest concentration of gun violence happens on Chicago’s South and West sides, specifically Chicago Black neighborhoods that are economically distressed. The Chicago Tribune, a local publication that tracks Chicago Violence provides a heat map of shooting incidents here. However, this American tragedy isn’t specific to Chicago alone. Regionally, St. Louis and Detroit’s highest concentration of gun violence also happens in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Nationally, New York City and Los Angeles are no different. Through systematic practices such as redlining, New Deal racism, and employment discrimination — just to name a few, historical racism has it’s fingerprints affixed almost completely to many of the guns themselves.
Moreover, while a reflection should highlight where we’ve come from; it should double-down on the possibilities of where we can go. The remaining words on this page I hope will do just that: show the way to a brighter future.
I. It is in moments of flux and change that a city can rise.
— Alexander Hamilton
Only in Chicago could a city burn to the ground, rebuild itself, and mount a successful campaign to host the world’s largest event with folks coming from every corner of the globe to attend. Figuratively, if we are to reproduce the successes of The Chicago World’s Fair we must begin by asking the right questions and rid ourselves of ineffective responses to violence: i.e. Where are the parents? My observations; as someone who spent time in and out of jail in my youth, as the founder of an after-school program, and now as a Chicago Police officer focused on reducing gun violence is that generally, the parents are doing their best with the resources they have available to them. A counter and fruitful response might be to ask ourselves how we can help parents whose children decide to pick up and discharge a firearm. In David and Goliath, by Malcolm Gladwell, Gladwell explains that “poverty is exhausting and stressful. If you have to work two jobs to make ends meet it’s hard to have the energy in the evening to read to your children before they go to bed. If you’re a working single parent trying to pay your rent and feed and clothe your family, manage a long and difficult commute to a physically demanding job it’s hard to provide your children with consistent love and attention and discipline that makes for a healthy home.” Suffice to say, parents need help — the same help provided to Irish families by the Catholic church right before the turn of the century.
As millions of Irish immigrants fled Ireland pre and post famine to the United States they came “violent and without skills” writes William Stern of City Journal. In Stern’s in-depth analysis of Father John Joseph Hughes, commonly known as Father Dagger, the Catholic Archbishop of New York that founded the Catholic School System saving the lives of countless Irish-Americans for generations to come, Stern writes that,
Tens of thousands of abandoned Irish kids roamed, or prowled, the city’s streets. Violent Irish gangs, with names like the Forty Thieves, the B’boys, the Roach Guards, and the Chichesters, brought havoc to their neighborhoods. The gangs fought one another and the nativists. Over half the people arrested in New York in the 1840s and 1850s were Irish, so that police vans were dubbed “paddy wagons” and episodes of mob violence in the streets were called “donnybrooks,” after a town in Ireland.
Death was everywhere. In 1854 one out of every 17 people in the sixth ward died. In Sweeney’s Shambles the rate was one out of five in a 22-month period. The death rate among Irish families in New York in the 1850s was 21 percent, while among non-Irish it was 3 percent. Life expectancy for New York’s Irish averaged under 40 years. Tuberculosis, which Bishop Hughes called the “natural death of the Irish immigrants,” was the leading cause of death, along with drink and violence.
By the turn of the century, “alcoholism and drug addiction withered away. An estimated 60 percent of Irish women, and almost a third of the men, totally abstained from alcohol. Many Irish sections in the city became known for their peacefulness, order, and cleanliness.” In short, this happened because parents got help. The foundation was education. Schools were built from gradeschool’s to colleges (Fordham University) and social programs existed as a crutch not as a half-built prosthetic. Parents were supported through relevant job training and offered incentives to succeed. However, these processes weren’t secrets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke similarly about them during The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 when he said,
“…through an act of Congress our Government was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the midwest, which meant it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor,” King said. “But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm; not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms; not only that today, many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
With regards to a quality education, providing social resources, and ensuring the welfare of communities The United States has proven masterful at the task. From Levittown domestically to The Marshall plan internationally — community development or nation building, the modern-day blueprint resides in our back pocket.
II. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Early in my career as The Police, a colleague told me a story about how he first applied to be the police at a suburban police department. During the interview, he told them he aspired to be a homicide detective. Their response: “we haven’t had a homicide in over 20 years.”
He didn’t get the job.
The median household income for the suburb he applied to? Just shy of $70,000. The median household income for West Garfield Park, a Chicago neighborhood consecutively ranking at the top of the list for gun violence? $23,947.
In The Joker’s Wild: On the Ecology of Gun Violence in America written by Eric Michael Johnson in Scientific American, Johnson analyzes Harvard School of Public Health Professor Ichiro Kawachi’ study investigating the factors in American homicides. Johnson notes that in Kawachi research, “the results were unambiguous: when income inequality was higher, so was the rate of homicide.” Comparably, 2400 years ago Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle remarked, “poverty is the parent of crime.” Now, if Kawachi’s investigation is on par with the data and Aristotle’s speculation is grounded in truth then significant economic investment in under-invested communities would be a good starting point to decrease gun violence. Additionally, if $2.2 trillion US dollars can appear, for all intents and purposes, overnight to stimulate the economy by way of economic assistance, do we have any more U.S. dollars to decrease gun violence? When little black boys and black girls can live past the ages of 15 and 16 or 17 years old — the return on the US investment would undoubtedly pay itself back 100-fold. Cancer hasn’t been cured, rapid climate change is warming the planet at unprecedented rates, and China is on pace to outgrow our economy before the end of the decade. Our priority as a Nation, at this moment should be to operate at all possible speeds with the strength of all citizens — not only because of the difficult challenges ahead but because our existence depends on working towards a more perfect Union.
III. There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth. — Carl Sagan
Hadiya’s Promise, an organization founded by Hadiya Pendleton’s parents advocates for peace and change in Chicago and around the country saving countless lives through their work — a testament to their late daughter. Pastor Donovan Price arrives at shooting scenes throughout the city providing resources and support to families of shooting victims. And since the start of the year Chicago Police officers have taken over 1,100 illegal guns off the streets. In short, there are folks from every race, ethnicity, and neighborhood across the city burning the midnight oil to ensure a safe and more vibrant Chicago. In choosing hope over fear we make progress. In action versus indecisiveness we move forward. Courage is the greatest virtue of them all, Winston Churchill declared, “because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” Let us lean into the Stars.
Allow me to reflect in conclusion, I do not despair of this country or its Great city Chicago. On the contrary I am most hopeful not only because of the names and organizations I’ve previously listed in reference to Chicago, and the many others I did not, but also because of the bold movements happening from the Carolinas to the Pacfic. 144 Women are members of Congress — 52 are women of color, The 1619 Project corrects our Nation’s history on Slavery and highlights its consequences, and Amanda Gorman is a remarkable illustration of what can happen when we invest in young people and into the arts. These are examples that we are on the eve of an extraordinary transformation. We must stay the course! “All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years,” Abraham Lincoln remarked in Springfield, Illinois in 1838. “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
My opinions are my own and are not associated with my department or any other officer on the department.