Getting to the root of Chicago's inner-city violence

Chicago Police Department area co-ordinator Glen Brooks, speaking to residents about the need to curb the city's gun violence, during a community meeting in Chicago, Illinois, US, on Feb 16, 2017.
Chicago Police Department area co-ordinator Glen Brooks, speaking to residents about the need to curb the city's gun violence, during a community meeting in Chicago, Illinois, US, on Feb 16, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Chicago's soaring homicide rate is the result of a toxic mix of history, of economic, social and geographical segregation, of a breakdown in relations between minority communities and the police force, and the fact that here, as in most of the US, it is easy to obtain a gun.

At the root of all of the above, though, is the lack of economic opportunity in some enclaves.

While downtown Chicago, clustered on the shores of Lake Michigan, is the epitome of diversity and globalisation, sizeable chunks of the rest of the inner city have been left out. In the high-crime district of Austin, for example, the poverty level is 30.7 per cent, well above the citywide average of 20.9 per cent.

And there is one distinguishable feature - most of the population in the depressed districts are African American or Latino.

"The violent crime that pushes Chicago into the national headlines is largely located in the city's impoverished and transitional communities," Mr Pete Saunders, a consultant specialising in cities, wrote last year in an article in Forbes.

 

"In Chicago's case, diverse and wealthy areas appear to be clustering and growing safer, and resegregated, impoverished areas seem to expanding - all at the same time."

Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, in a phone interview with The Sunday Times, blamed a "broken down criminal justice system" that is too lenient with offenders, who often go on to offend again.

"The challenge here is you have an emboldened criminal element that really feels no repercussions for engaging in those actions and if they don't engage in violence, they will not be able to deliver for the gang they work in," he said.

But on the ground in a district like Austin, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the city, the answer is not more policing and stiffer sentences. The Chicago Police Department has a hard job, many locals acknowledged in interviews with The Sunday Times. But it has also been slammed by the Department of Justice which, in a report last month, described "a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the... Constitution".

"I'm sure there some cops who are pretty cool," former gang member Max Cerda, now part of the non-governmental organisation Build, said in an interview at its office in Austin. Build intervenes to counsel youth in the community.

But the police sometimes seemed to lose their humanity and respect for people, and with that the trust of people in the community, Mr Cerda said.

The real answer, locals say, is economic opportunity.

At a townhall-style meeting on Feb 10, Mr Jaymal Green, a young social activist, drew wild applause when he told the MSNBC host that millions of dollars were being invested in downtown Chicago, but nothing in the African American districts.

"We walk past boarded-up schools, boarded-up houses, mental healthcare facilities shut down, and unemployment is the highest in Chicago" he said. So, before talking about violence and policing, "you have to talk about economics", he emphasised.

Few in the districts disagree. "It's what the kids wake up and see every day," said Mr Clifton "Booney" McFowler, a former gang leader who did 27 years in jail and now counsels youth in Austin.

"They don't see thriving businesses," he said. "The only people in the community they see having any kind of financial gain is the crooks and drug dealers, so quite naturally they are inspired by them." 

Nirmal Ghosh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Getting to the root of Chicago's inner-city violence'. Print Edition | Subscribe