CHICAGO — Video released last month that shows a police officer killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald with 16 bullets ignited passion on the streets of Chicago. Protesters disrupted shoppers along the famed Magnificent Mile, the city’s police chief was fired, and the Justice Department launched an investigation into racial disparities in officers’ use of force.
Three months earlier, when 9-year-old Jamyla Bolden was cut down by a stray bullet as she did homework in her Ferguson, Mo., apartment, the response was different. There were no protests or demands that city officials step down. The night after her death, demonstrators in nearby St. Louis took to the streets, setting fire to a vacant house and a car — not in response to Jamyla’s death, but to protest the police shooting of a young black man in the back during a drug raid.
The contrasting responses have put the goals of some community leaders at odds with those espoused by groups such as Black Lives Matter, who have seized the political moment with loud protests calling for less-aggressive policing and more accountability for law enforcement. Some political and religious leaders say that what’s needed is an equal public outpouring over the severe crime that continues to plague many communities. Compared with the reaction provoked by a police shooting, they said, response to street violence is too often muted, fragmented and brief.
Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, whose district includes some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, in July released a seven-point plan to combat gun violence that includes several get-tough measures that would be anathema to many activists now protesting police misconduct in Chicago. His plan includes tougher gun laws, more cops on the street, and new measures that would treat defendants accused of murder with the same harsh criminal sentences as domestic terrorists.
Boykin, who is black, said he understands the concerns of those who protest police brutality, but he said he is more concerned about the frequent killings of children and others on the streets of Chicago.
“I tell you what, there needs to be stronger outrage when these things happen,” Boykin said. “We need outrage from the Black Lives Matter movement, from community leaders, from pastors. We get emotional when a police officer or a white person kills a black person, but we ought to also get emotional when a black person kills another black person.”
In Baltimore, which has seen a surge of violence that has pushed the body count to well over 300 this year, City Council member Brandon Scott has repeatedly found himself confronting the aftermath of murder. More times than he says he cares to remember, he’s comforted despondent friends and family members of the victims and tried to rally people into a force to stop the killings.
He is co-founder of the 300 Men March, an organization that holds events and runs programs aimed at stamping out the violence. Sometimes, the group gets big turnouts for events. But, he acknowledged, it is hard to sustain any momentum beyond a core of about 60 volunteers in his group.
“We have 9-year-olds, 8-year-olds, even 3-year-olds killed,” Scott said. “It upsets me that some people seem to care only when an outsider is the perpetrator. Others only care when it impacts them directly. As a city, as a state, as a country, we have to get out of that. It shouldn’t matter who unjustly took someone’s life. It should matter only that someone’s life was unjustly taken.”
But protesters say the difference between a fatal shooting at the hands of an officer and one at the hands of a criminal is significant.
Black Lives Matter and its sister groups around the country formed after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Protesters held up the acquittal of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman as evidence of society’s passive acceptance of unjust killings of black people. Their cause extended to police reform with the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others, the kinds of police-related fatalities that rarely resulted in criminal charges.
For instance, Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder more than a year after he shot Laquan McDonald, following public pressure to release video of the shooting. By contrast, De’Eris Brown, the suspect in Jamyla’s fatal shooting, was arrested eight days after her death and was charged with second-degree murder and five other weapons-related counts.
“We pay [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel to serve us, and we pay the Chicago police to serve and protect. They are public officials and public institutions,” said Charlene Carruthers, the Chicago-based national director of Black Youth Project 100, which is helping to organize protests in Chicago. “Folks hit the streets and do different things when violence happens in our community. But it is different when people confront institutional power.”
Thousands of protesters have mobilized and thrust issues such as police brutality and mass incarceration onto the nation’s policy agenda. Some neighborhood and political leaders here and elsewhere are increasingly saying they wish protesters would grow as animated about street crime as they do about police misconduct. They say bands of demonstrators could occupy crime hot spots in neighborhoods, press local officials for a greater police presence, or march until there was a political imperative to provide more services such as recreation and after-school programs that can steer young people away from crime. Or they could plug into existing anti-crime groups that are starved for manpower and support.
The debate over community responses to crime is receiving a burst of attention with the recent release of Spike Lee’s movie “Chi-Raq.” The film, based on the ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” revolves around the attempt of a fictional South Side woman to stop street violence by organizing the lovers of gang members to withhold sex until their boyfriends put the guns down.
The movie’s theme and title — local slang comparing the carnage in Chicago to that in Iraq — prompted a political dust-up and threats to rescind its $3 million in city tax breaks. But those concerns over the movie’s depiction of violence were quickly overwhelmed by concerns over the city’s real violence.
In early November, 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee was lured from a South Side playground to a nearby alley and shot multiple times in an execution that police said was carried out because of his father’s gang ties. A 27-year-old man, who police said was a gang member, has been charged with first-degree murder in the case; police say they expect two others to also be charged.
Tyshawn’s killing sparked local marches, activists distributed reward fliers, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for President Obama to host a conference on gun violence in response to the mayhem that so far this year has resulted in more than 450 homicides in Chicago.
The killing moved KHOU anchorman Len Cannon to raise some pointed questions in an on-air commentary broadcast a week after the slaying, 1,100 miles away in Houston.
“Where’s the outrage over this boy’s death?” he asked, while standing beside a large screen displaying a picture of a smiling Tyshawn. Cannon continued: “Does he have to be killed by a police officer for anyone to be outraged?”
The commentary became an online sensation, and many viewers who left comments on YouTube were supportive of what Cannon said.
The reaction was similar to that generated by an emotional and profane video posted by a St. Louis-area grandmother in August, after 9-year-old Jamyla was killed. Although there was no public outcry to Jamyla’s death, people protested the police shooting of a young black man during a drug raid the next night. Mansur Ball-Bey, 18, who had no criminal record, was shot in the back after allegedly pointing a gun at two officers who were chasing him from a drug house; his family disputed that account.
In a video posted to her Facebook page, Peggy Hubbard, 52, who is married to a police officer and grew up in the St. Louis neighborhood where Ball-Bey was killed, recounted the two incidents. Then, she asked: “Last night, who do you think they protested for? The thug. The criminal,” she said, referring to Ball-Bey. “Because they are hollering police brutality. Are you kidding me?”
Hubbard went on. “A little girl is dead. You say black lives matter. Her life mattered. Her dreams mattered. Her future mattered. Her promises mattered. It mattered.”
Within days, the video got more than 7 million hits, igniting an overwhelming response. Some people called Hubbard, who is African American, a racial traitor. There were death threats. But the vast majority of responses agreed with her.
“People said that it was about time somebody said something about this,” Hubbard said in an interview. “Don’t get me wrong. There is police brutality, but it is hard to holler police brutality when so much brutality is our own.”
That may be true, said James M. Jones, a social psychologist at the University of Delaware. But, he said, it is also human nature to be less vocal when criticizing members of one’s own community than outsiders who are seen as doing harm.
The nation’s racial history makes that particularly complicated in African American communities that are hit hard by both street violence and police misconduct, added Jones, whose research focuses on race, class and culture.
“Exposing our flaws and fallibility in a public way in an environment that has always vilified us is something that we are reluctant to do,” he said. “That lady’s video suggests to me that for Black Lives Matter and others to get it right, they need to incorporate her perspective and the perspective of the newsman about the fact that we don’t respond the same way when we kill our own.”
Chico Tillman encounters that sensibility regularly as he manages a team of people who mediate disputes for Ceasefire, a Chicago nonprofit group that operates on the science-based premise that violence is a contagious disease that spreads as more people are exposed to it. The program has had success curbing violence, but its reach is limited and its victories are always fragile.
“When a police officer kills an individual, that is a singular event that brings the community together in common cause,” he said. “In other cases, the causes of violence are often internal things that divide the community.”
At St. Sabina Church, a South Side parish that hosted Tyshawn’s funeral, a large board holds row after row of photographs of mostly black men and boys gunned down on Chicago’s streets. The Rev. Michael Pfleger sees them as victims not only of violence, but also indifference from their own community and the wider society.
He noted the low-achieving schools, double-digit unemployment, large numbers of men returning to the community from prison, and easy access to guns. “A perfect storm,” Pfleger said. “Hopelessness is at an all-time high. When society tells people they are not valuable, people internalize that and they take it out on those closest to them. It is like Spike Lee calls it: ‘self-inflicted genocide.’ ”