Overcoming the Violence Jitters

Nobody needs to tell us that violence has given us the jitters.

Really bad jitters.

But we seem likely to be mixing the numbers and losing focus as well.

What do I mean?

We seem to be counting acts of violence when they are not violent. And we seem to be applying broad labels about who is behind he violence or what is driving it when the labels may not apply.

Take the uproar recently when a bunch of kids ran around on a glorious day on the Miracle Mile, banging into each other, scaring strollers and drawing heaps of police, who arrested a bunch of them.

On the Internet, screams went up about terror downtown. But the mainstream news media wasn’t immune from giving us the shakes, pointing out how these youngsters were somehow linked to the city’s horrifying murder rate and a worrisome measure of how good a job the police and public officials are doing to fight violence.

Don’t think so.

The kids were not the plague that infests South Side and West Side Chicago neighborhoods.

As Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote: “There were no attacks,” Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Monday. “There were groups of kids who engaged in fighting with each other.” “No reports of robberies, property damage or injuries.

“And yet in the public mind, the two incidents quickly became a single stick of dynamite, proof that the city was ready to explode.”

Her advice:

“We turn down the volume on the alarm so that we can hear the facts over the sound of fear.”

And what are the facts about gang-related mayhem?

Is every victim and every attacker in Chicago’s black and Latino communities a gang member? Or are they a gang member after the fact of the violence and until proven not to be a gang member?

Listen to Natalie Moore, speaking on Ken Davis’ Chicago Newsroom. She raises some critical questions about how we report on violence here.

“I push back on the gang label,” says Natalie Moore, writer, author, and south-side reporter for WBEZ. “Living in a segregated city like Chicago, where people may not go to the west side or the south sides, it may make people feel absolved of the problem – well, those are just those people down there in gangs who are probably deserving to die, and they’re killing one another. I think there’s a real disconnect.”

Part of the problem, she says, is the changing nature of Chicago’s gang structure.

“The era of big Chicago gangs isn’t what it once was”, she explains. “There are a lot of splinter groups, block crews, neighborhood crews…and some of the violence that we see is what we’d call intra-gang fighting, so these are members of the same so-called crew, or gang, who are inflicting violence on one-another. So it’s a really complicated picture where you have to talk about segregation, jobs and structural violence in these communities, and when you just write them all off as gangs, it’s not painting a full or accurate picture.”

“Our murder count is a lot lower today – and even last year, when we had a spike – compared to the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s,” she adds. ”What I hear from people is that they hear more ordinary kids, or non-gang-affiliated kids are caught up in these struggles.”

The message: we who shape the images in public’s head need to be careful about mixing what doesn’t mix and accepting labels when they may not fit or may not at least explain what’s happening.

What do you think? What are you reporting?

Talk to me. steve@chicagoistheworld.org, 312 369 6400

Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz


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