Whenever certain issues — gun control laws, racism, policing — arise, a certain group of pundits suddenly becomes very interested in Chicago.
“If LeBron James wants to champion social justice as well as basketball, he should go to Chicago and help the poor people there who are experiencing unprecedented violence,” tweeted Bill O’Reilly last week. He weighed in further: “More innocent blood in Chicago streets. Politicians are clueless. President Trump should get involved.” It sounds like concern, as long as you don’t post a single follow-up question about what happens after Trump or James show up.
The numbers on violence in Chicago are often shocking. Last weekend, 66 people were shot, and 12 of them died, including two 17-year-olds. It’s horrifying. It has also become convenient political fodder. Rudolph W. Giuliani took the opportunity to tweet: “63 murders this weekend in Rahm Emmanuel’s Chicago. His legacy more murders in his city than ever before. It’s only because of Democrat brain washing that he has even a chance of remaining. Support police professional Garry McCarthy.” If you don’t bother yourself with facts, it almost sounds reasonable. But if you do a little digging, you quickly figure out that Giuliani is wildly wrong on the numbers, and that McCarthy wants nothing to do with his support because he knows that it’s just another dog whistle.
Of course, no one whistling “what about Chicago?” has any desire to resolve the problems in Chicago. If this were about Chicago, they’d be talking about the perils of low investment in communities, the shuttering of mental health facilities, school closures, police corruption or ineffective policing. There would be a push to bring back programs that were cut during the Illinois budget crisis. CeaseFire’s violence reduction strategies were working, until the budget freeze of Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) cut $4.7 million in funding in 2015, effectively shutting down the program. Though some funding has been restored recently, the momentum they had built has obviously been lost. “What about Chicago” is a convenient deflection, and nothing more ever seems to come of it.
But what about Chicago and the gun violence that plagues it? That’s a conversation about America. Because the killing of 59 people, with more than 500 wounded, didn’t happen in Chicago. That mass shooting was in Las Vegas in 2017. Same problem but with higher numbers and a death toll reached in minutes rather than hours or days. Anyone who responds to a discussion of violence with “what about Chicago” should ask themselves what they really mean. The problems in Chicago could be, will be, problems in your own backyard: too many guns, too many untreated mental health issues, and the crushing weight of long-term poverty that can drive morals to the side in favor of survival instincts. Pundits like to point out that Chicago has strict gun-control laws, yet still has gun crime. They ignore the fact that 60 percent of guns used here are legally purchased in surrounding states with lax gun laws.
There’s a saying here: “Chicago over everything.” Chicagoans are almost fanatically loyal to our city. We’re irritatingly intense about pizza, sports and so much more. We have turned that same intensity on the problem of gun violence. We have marches that shut down major roads and self-funded violence intervention programs that might be as simple as moms sitting together on a corner and feeding kids. But we have to be aggressive, because even after the outbreaks of violence, even though the city has spent exorbitant amounts of money settling police misconduct cases, Chicago police are still more interested in setting up stings for shoe thieves than in actively working with communities to improve conditions for everyone.
The question shouldn’t be “what about Chicago?” The question should be “why aren’t we as a nation doing enough to combat violence?” We know at least some of what works: violence interruption, job programs for teens and their caregivers, funding for after-school and summer activities. Making those options more available than guns or ammunition could go a long way to solving the problem.
What would the shooting rate look like if we made sure that we funded not only schools but also community programs and health clinics? What if we made safety accessible to everyone? Right now, the only answers we’re hearing from the right are “thoughts and prayers” and pretending that a “good guy with a gun” could have saved someone, followed closely by “what about Chicago?” We ignore the part where getting caught in the crossfire can kill you, where shootings are a near-daily occurrence because we don’t want to admit that gun violence is a public health crisis in America.
There’s no easy solution to gun violence. Adding more police or targeting, traumatizing and jailing more youths isn’t doing a thing to stop violence. Ranting about failed policies like “Stop & Frisk” that violate constitutional rights isn’t about helping anyone in danger, it’s about trying to rack up points in a bizarre political game that treats death tolls like scorecards. This is a problem that requires all politicians of whatever party to make the people they are supposed to serve a priority instead of lobbyists. It means less pork in the budget and spending tax dollars on the health of the population. What about Chicago? Chicago deserves better. We all do.