Attention, please. This is a city. Not a war zone.

By Steve Franklin

The words we use to describe violence frame how we think about it in Chicago.


Words create mindsets. They can dehumanize. They can increase the sense of despair, rejection, anger, isolation and withdrawl. Words can enforce the stereotyping that swallows whole neighborhoods under a vast canopy of violence.

photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz

photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz


Natalie Moore, WBEZ’s Southside bureau chief, talks eloquently here about the term Chiraq and the damage it does to thinking about the violence in Chicago.

She writes, in the Root: 

“Chiraq is an updated version of “war zone.” That phrase has long been used to describe urban American communities battered by gunplay. “War zone” conjures visions of bombed-out buildings, young men on street corners brandishing assault rifles and a beleaguered people taking cover in their homes. Before Iraq, comparisons to Beirut were the order of the day in many inner cities, another cliché.

“Mariame Kaba, who runs the Chicago-based Project Nia, which works to end youth incarceration, pushes back on the characterization.

“By constantly referring to some communities as war zones, we trap ourselves into only considering ‘solutions’ that are steeped in a punishment mindset. We fully embrace the punishing state as our savior,” Kaba says. “When we adopt war metaphors to characterize how we live in our communities, we put a ceiling on our imaginations for how we might address violence and harm. After all, you can only respond to tanks with more artillery and not with a peace circle. Restorative or transformative justice require us to build trust and to establish relationships. This is difficult to do in ‘war zones’ where suspicion and lack of trust are the order of the day.”

“My concern with Chiraq war imagery isn’t about policing language. War denotes the most extreme circumstances of inhumanity. In parts of Chicago, black people do feel marginalized. Children do suffer from trauma after exposure to violence. Joblessness, inequality and segregation are grave enough that slapping a war metaphor, for some, perhaps, demonstrates that the state is the enemy. But war is also anonymous and abstract. War can further dehumanize black bodies and count them as casualties.

“Take Sen. Mark Kirk, the GOP’s man from Illinois. Last year he proposed spending $500 million in federal funds to arrest 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples street gang as a solution to Chicago’s violence. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Chicago’s South Side, lambasted Kirk.

“Kirk’s current plan does not include the option to create jobs, provide affordable and safe housing, quality health care and improve schools in urban areas,” Rush wrote to the Chicago Sun-Times. “Why is incarceration the sole option instead of rehabilitation, which is proven to work and not locking young men up?”

“A few months later, Rush took Kirk on a late summer tour of Englewood, a high-crime neighborhood. Kirk met with community members and didn’t back off his round-’em-up philosophy—even after Englewood residents told him Gangster Disciples weren’t the problem.

“I would like to crush the Gangster Disciples as an organization,” said Kirk.

“Kirk might not have uttered the word “war” but he certainly sees young black men as the enemy.

“And in war, what do you do with the enemy?” 

Here’s the whole column:

What do you say?

Talk to me – digame, office 312 369 6400






No Comments

Add a Comment

* means field is required.

Name *

Mail *