I drive toward my former Chicago neighborhood and, as always, my perceptions of time grow blurry at the edges. I’m in town for two family memorial services and, crisscrossing the far South Side, I don’t see a white person for four days.
This is unchanged from the 1970s, when I was a child and white children (like white shoes) were something you saw only seasonally, after Memorial Day and before Labor Day, when you left the city on vacation.
Some leaders — including Mayor Rahm Emanuel — and residents are upset about director Spike Lee’s new movie, set in the city and reportedly titled “Chiraq.” On Thursday, Lee, who has provided few details about the film, tweeted a picture of “the Lee Family Filmmakers On Set Of CHI-RAQ.” The nickname, a reference to widespread street violence, was popularized by Chicago’s Chief Keef and other drill rappers, whose style is lyrical nihilism over menacing beats.
Chicago’s murder numbers are annually among the nation’s highest; a dozen people were killed over Memorial Day weekend alone.
I head to my old elementary school, steps from Jackie Robinson Park, to hear from voices on the ground. Last summer, while visiting, I ended up running from gunfire.
The principal of Mount Vernon Elementary, Dawn Scarlett, “just saw a long line of people applying to be extras” in the Lee movie. Chicago has “such negative press,” she says. “Here’s an outsider coming in and calling it Chiraq.” But then, she acknowledges, “This is a tough place.”
She had just seen kids playing basketball and said a quick prayer for them.
Perhaps a movie calling attention to the violence might help, I suggest.
“No, I don’t think so,” Scarlett says.
I mention to security guard Thomas Hale that, at a news conference, Lee is pictured in front of a photo of Blair Holt, a 16-year-old honor student shot in an attack on a city bus in 2007. Blair, the son of a police officer, died while shielding a girl as a teenager fired at rival gang members. “The name is outrageous to me,” he says, referring to the film, “but the city has shootings every day.”
At the park’s basketball court, Chris Weatherspoon, 17, is shooting hoops alone. He gets out early from Percy L. Julian High School to work, but “I ain’t found no job,” he says. He’d heard the movie was “supposed to be about killings and gangs. I’m not into that.” He has no quarrel with “Chiraq” the movie. Lee is making it based on “what we call it. Technically, it’s our fault,” he says.
There is always a roiling debate about whether urban ills are structural or cultural. But culture consistently rises in response to structural conditions. Weren’t the blues, another Chicago staple, a cultural response to social and economic misery?
“I tell my students, ‘Think about the circumstances in which you were raised,’ ” says Michael Jenkins, a criminal justice professor at the University of Scranton — about the parents, teachers, schools and other organizations that get thanked in the graduation speeches, that were there to support them. Then “think about some of the poor decisions you made even with all those structural conditions in your favor.”
There are things “we celebrate as leading to success, but we fail to acknowledge that the lack of those things explains poor behaviors,” he says. There are places that suffer from lack of investment, unemployment and underemployment, undereducation. We act as though everyone has “the same choices we have, then we take credit for our own decisions when they were also bounded, but bounded by more positive outlines.”
I think about being bounded, and the South Side, so full of life, so full of death, that keeps calling me back. I think about how decades ago, across America, white men sat in their white-men rooms deciding what kind of country they wanted to live in. They put blacks under a kind of dome and fortified it with public policy, racist covenants and conventions, active malevolence, casual indifference and an increasingly militarized force to police it.
At a University of Chicago cafeteria, I talk to Jonathan Michaux, 28, who is working on a doctorate in biology. He had never heard of Chiraq, the movie or the term, but he has heard his home town of Detroit compared to Iraq, so “it makes sense,” he says. “Chicago is a lot like Detroit.” Of the circle of friends with whom he grew up, Michaux says, he’s the only one still alive and not in jail.
It’s like Baltimore, too, where six police officers were indicted last month in the death of an unarmed black man, and which had 42 homicides in May, the deadliest month since August 1990. Whether a teen or a police officer pulls the trigger, it’s all death in a pressure cooker.
Michaux says Lee will “probably show the conditions that create the violence.” The movie won’t give the city a bad name, he predicts, because most people think of downtown and north of that as Chicago. When he was first heading to school, the university sent out e-mails about places the students should avoid. “I never see a tourist south of this campus,” Michaux says.
I leave the city — and always part of my heart — clear on one point. Chicago is not Iraq, some war-torn place in the Middle East. It is a storied American city, parts of which have been allowed to remain in despair and decay for decades. It is a place where people make choices: Some act out rage and alienation by killing one another. Others act out their paralysis, their lack of political muscle, will, creativity and citizenship, by fretting over the name of a movie.
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.