Chicago park shooting: outrage, again

Chicago park shooting renews focus on city's reputation as a murder capitol – and that of its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who faces voters in 2015. Areas hard hit by gang violence feel abandoned.

Courtesy of Ken Herzlich/AP
This still frame, made from a video provided by Ken Herzlich, shows the scene where a number of people, including a 3-year-old child, were shot Thursday night in a city park in Chicago. The city has tried to solve its crime problem by increasing police patrols, but this site was outside the targeted zone.

Chicago’s reputation as a “murder capital” was once again affirmed late Thursday when gunmen opened fire on a crowded city basketball court, hitting 13 people, including a three-year-old boy in the face. The shootings were among 23 total taking place across Chicago in a 12-hour period. Two people are dead.

Sadly, outrage over the incident now follows a familiar pattern: The mayor releases a statement expressing outrage, the police superintendent holds a press conference expressing outrage, and people in Chicago’s most marginalized neighborhoods express outrage that they don’t understand why violence in their city continues to make their streets unsafe.

“Violence is just the result of the city’s inaction for about 50 years. They’ve abandoned these neighborhoods,” says Pat Devine-Reed, a 40-year activist in Englewood, a neighborhood on the city’s South Side that has long suffered population loss, blight, and crime.

“Many young people live day to day and if they die, they figure its part of life. No one else cares about their lives," she adds.

The continuation of violence in Chicago keeps the city making international headlines, a factor that Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is trying very hard to fight. He is running for reelection in 2015 and faces constituencies in the city’s South and West Sides who are already distraught over his decision to shutter 50 public schools, the majority of which are in their neighborhoods. Indeed, polling shows Mayor Emanuel’s popularity is falling among black voters: 40 percent approve of his performance and 48 percent disapprove; last year, that disparity was 44-33, according to a Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV poll released in early May.

To Ms. Devine-Reed, the discontent with Emanuel is simple: “I don’t think he has an inkling of what are the depths of the issues are. It’s not that he doesn’t care, I really don’t think he knows. He goes on tours of the neighborhoods and all he sees are surface stuff.”

In recent weeks, Emanuel has been very public about gaining traction to win back black voters: He announced a Whole Foods Market opening in Englewood in 2016, he publicly apologized for a police torture scandal that was carried out under previous regimes, and he wants to rename Stony Island Avenue – one of the South Side’s most historic thoroughfares – after a beloved civic leader and pastor.

The violence, however, is not abating, and many people in these neighborhoods, such as Englewood, Roseland, Auburn Gresham, and Back of the Yards, where gang violence is most prevalent, say they are weary of living in areas where violence appears unstoppable – and feeling they have little control over their environment.

Many say they're also feeling the lack of political will to generate business and housing opportunities or to sustain investment in public infrastructure.

“People feel disempowered about institutions such as banks, the police, schools – it’s a piling on of institutional disinvestment to the extent people feel distrust, not just of their neighbors, but they feel an institutional lack of caring that then feeds on other issues in the neighborhood,” says Robert Sampson, a Harvard University social scientist who has studied Chicago’s South Side for his book, “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.”

Emanuel and Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy have consistently pressed the need for state and federal lawmakers to pass stronger bans on gun purchasing and ownership. “Illegal guns, illegal guns, illegal guns drive violence. Military-type weapons belong on the battlefield and not on the street corner or in Back of the Yards,” Superintendant McCarthy told reporters Friday.

Even comedian David Letterman would not let Emanuel get a free pass when the mayor appeared on his late-night television show earlier this month.

“What I hear about Chicago now is ‘Oh, don't go to Chicago, the violence is unbelievable.’ Now, tell us why people say that,” Mr. Letterman asked.

Emanuel first responded with a joke – “well, first of all, they’re watching CBS and you” – and then he assured Letterman that overall shootings are down compared with last year. He failed to mention, however, that month-to-month homicides remain relatively consistent with last year’s totals, and the city’s homicide count is still among the highest in the US.

According to FBI crime statistics released Monday, Chicago registered more homicides than any city in the US last year, even more than New York City despite having only one-third its population. Chicago homicides reached 500, a 16 percent increase in 2012 from the previous year; New York City reported 419 murders, a 19 percent decrease.

Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago, says it is a “mischaracterization” that Chicago has an overall homicide problem because “it is concentrated in just a few areas of the city.”

While homicide rates are certainly down from historic highs decades ago, these areas are being hit the hardest resulting from a splintering of gang factions that operate outside the larger hierarchy of traditional gangs, he says.

For example: Thursday’s shooting in Back of the Yards involved some victims who were Gangster Disciples and at least one shooter was a member of the Black P Stone Nation gang, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. But unlike traditional gang violence, these new gang factions are less organized and more prone to acts of random, less targeted hits, with little concern for those that get in the way. 

With the drug economy more lucrative than any other, violence is now an everyday component of market forces. While improving gun access and better policing does matter, Professor Lurigio says a more profound solution requires a deeper commitment to its root causes, such as failing educational system and lack of investor development.

Violence “is a problem that’s been endemic to certain areas of the city that are impoverished. The subculture of gangs uses violence as an instrument to improve their economic standing,” he says.

The city touts the fact that it seized more than 5,000 illegal firearms to date this year, which is the highest number for any other US city; and the result of new police strategies, such as dispatching foot patrols in 20 “impact zones,” where killings are most likely; and tracking certain individuals who are likely to be involved in retaliatory killings. They say their efforts are working: Shootings are down 48 percent in these zones since February.

The Back of the Yards shooting, however, was not in such a zone, McCarthy said Friday.

While the department's strategy may look good in zones targeted for attention, the budget cuts Emanuel approved when he first came to office are having an impact in other parts of the city, outside the zones.

Pat Camden, a spokesperson for the Fraternal Order of Police, says these cuts mean that, overall, fewer officers are on the streets. Moreover, restructured patrols consist mainly of fresh recruits who have little experience mitigating the harshest situations someone in their line of duty can face.

Mr. Camden says that one problem is that Emanuel recruited McCarthy from Newark, N.J., and not from within the department, which means he lacks “the institutional knowledge” of how certain neighborhoods operate.

Solutions like paying overtime for officers to staff the “impact zones” rather than getting the department fully staffed again is weakening the city’s ability to patrol and respond, he adds.

“It’s not working," he says. "It’s time to take the gloves off."

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