Heroes in the Hood: A Solution More than Ever

What’s killing Chicago?

Is it more than gangs, and drugs and guns?

Stuck on a cycle of harm that doesn’t fade, I hear more asking us to look deeper.

Writing this week in the Chicago Reader, Steve Bogira says:

“The perpetual focus on whether a crime is gang related ignores another common-denominator that’s an even greater factor in Chicago’s violence. Woodlawn is poor and black and has been for ages. Jonylah may or may not have died because of gang-related violence. She definitely was a victim of segregation-related violence.”


And he emphasizes the point more sharply here:

“I’ve been writing about Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods for three decades, which means I’ve written a lot about crime. I’ve learned, not surprisingly, that violent offenders usually come from violent, chaotic homes—and that such homes are common in poor, black neighborhoods. Some African-Americans don’t want to hear about this because they think it’s blaming African-Americans. Some white people don’t want to hear it because it’s “making excuses.” We tell ourselves instead that lethal violence is simply the individual choice of evil people—a choice that by a remarkable coincidence is made often in impoverished Woodlawn, and almost never in affluent Winnetka. We ignore the social and historical roots of segregation violence, and instead zoom in on the incident that preceded the lethal reaction—the petty argument, the drug theft. We settle for pat explanations like “gang related” that only explain a little.

Writing in the American Prospect, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell tells the country about the other Chicago. Her theme is the same. There’s a root to the violence that won’t be fixed by more cops and more jail time.

She says:

“In the wake of the Hadiya Pendleton murder, local politicians have made the usual calls for tougher legislation and more cops. Mayor Rahm Emanuel urged the Illinois General Assembly to pass a new mandatory minimum-sentencing law. The law would boost the required prison time for people convicted of gun possession from one year to three years. It would also require that those convicted serve 85 percent of their sentences. His police chief, Garry McCarthy, moved quickly to put more cops on the street, shifting about 292 sworn officers from desk duty. On the national level, Senators Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, have proposed federal legislation that creates a statute to punish people who buy guns legally, known as “straw purchasers,” then pass the guns on to criminals. Under the proposed bill, a straw purchaser could face up to 25 years in prison. McCarthy’s approach to reducing the violence may get offenders off the street for a while, but it won’t change the dynamics that breed new offenders.

Left unchecked, the social ills that lead to violence are passed on like a mutated gene. Quarantining communities plagued by these ills and locking up more offenders simply has not worked. In Chicago, a young person growing up in poverty amid the daily dose of street violence is estranged from the hope that propels most of us forward. Last week, six-month-old baby Jonylah Watkins was killed when a gunman opened fire on the baby’s father, a reputed gang member. The senseless shooting is further proof that Chicago isn’t likely to see a significant downturn in homicides until it finds a way to bring the isolated masses into the fold.”


So what do you do?

You treat violence like a disease, a bad habit, a fatal habit, a cultural adaption to a terrible reality that has gone terribly wrong.

The concept of violence as a public health issue is not new here since CeaseFire began its work interrupting the spread of the mayhem.

But Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith of the Harvard School of Public Health made a compelling case and raised a daunting challenge this week. She was here to explain her strategy of erasing violence by erasing the behavior that drives it. Her credentials are solid. She was one of the first in the country a while ago to make this argument. She was here at the invitation of the Facing History and Ourselves organization.

So, how does this work?

By lining up organizations and individuals with youths who need mentors. By staffing schools with anti-violence counselors. By spreading the logic of remediation and peace-making. By putting workers in the streets and parks and neighborhoods who can interrupt the thinking that makes things turn fatal.

What’s the proof? There’s plenty of it, she says.

But the problem, she adds, is that many of the best programs are small or isolated or terribly underfunded. The problem is that the front line defense is changing behavior but this strategy gets overwhelmed by the last choice. Instead communities chose the more common way of stopping the violence by punishing it with more jail time, tougher sentences, more of what Mary Mitchell worries about.

So, what the answer here?

Think of heroes in the hood but think of them as a movement, Dr. Prothow-Stith says. Think of them as a wave united as in the civil rights movement.

How do you report this?

How do you check this out?

You begin by looking for these groups and organizations that make a difference. You figure out what support they have and how they fit into public officials’ plans. You figure out if what they promise to do is a reality and you raise questions about why there aren’t more of those programs that succeed. Then you look at what public officials, community leaders, politicians and others have to say about what are the solutions and you see if these programs fit into those formula.

It’s not hard. We have dozens and dozens of groups trying their best here in the face of fatal mayhem.

You story could be far more compelling and productive than just adding the clause that police thought the cause was gang related.

What do you think?

Are you doing this kind of reporting? If so, please share it with us.

Talk to us.

steve@chicagoistheworld. office 312 369 6400

photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz




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