Focusing on violence misses the bigger story about Chicago’s communities and culture

File photo for The Chicago Reporter

Hip-hop artist K.W.O.E. poses with kids from Englewood after a June 2015 performance focused on promoting peace through music.

Chicago is often portrayed to outsiders as an unsafe place, too violent to even visit. Every time there is a mass shooting elsewhere in the country—whether in Texas, Las Vegas, or Orlando—the spotlight seems to shine back on gun violence here. Recently, President Donald Trump was quick to once again mention Chicago when he tweeted about the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting, even though that town is 1,206 miles away.

New statistics on gun violence give a mixed picture. The number of murders is down from last year, but the total so far in 2017 is over 600. That’s a number the city has reached only twice since 2003. And Chicagoans understand the reality behind those numbers. I have lived here all of my life. I work here and so does most of my family. I’ve experienced gun violence in my own family and I see it on the news practically every day. The emergency room staff of Rush University Medical Center, where I am an administrator, regularly treats gunshot victims.

When I worked at Mount Sinai Hospital not far away in Lawndale, it was common to hear ambulance sirens pass by during the day. In my first few weeks there, I spent the majority of my day looking out the window, watching ambulances bring in the most critically wounded patients. Many times, from my office, I would hear a family grieving in the emergency room entrance, anguished at losing a family member to gun violence.

Friends ask how I live in Chicago. And many non-Chicagoans believe that we are prisoners in our own homes. Because of crimes committed against our seniors, some of the elderly are, indeed, afraid to leave their homes.

Yes, Chicago has work to do to curb violent crime. I am not naïve about that. But violence is not the whole story.

For one, the larger context of this violence is often lost. When President Trump recently called Chicago a “total disaster,” actor Andy Richter started a Twitter feed with the question “What about Chicago?” It began as a broad conversation about the need for a ban on assault weapons and new laws prohibiting the sale of these types of guns. Chicago, in fact, is flooded with weapons from Indiana and elsewhere that feed the gun violence here. But the conversation on Twitter moved from assault weapons and how easy it is to purchase them, to the number of people murdered in our city. Unfortunately, because of Chicago’s image, the larger point about federal laws on gun purchases was missed.

Another example is my neighborhood, Chatham. It’s on the South Side, where much of Chicago’s violence occurs, but the community isn’t what outsiders may think. Chatham is a neighborhood filled with brick bungalows owned by teachers, bus drivers, police officers, city employees, state and local workers, and retirees from many professions. It is a stable community of middle-class, hard-working people, who participate in block clubs, have perfectly manicured lawns, and have neighbors who are friends.

We know the children who live on our block. Some of the homes are now owned by second- generation family members, who continue this legacy of community and friendship. We have minority-owned businesses lining our main avenue.

I shop in Englewood, work at Rush University Medical Center on the West Side, hang out with friends in Pilsen, visit family in Lawndale and Roseland, and get my car serviced in Back of the Yards. I go to cultural events downtown, meet new people on the lakefront, and travel through many other neighborhoods every day. All of these communities are filled with families who work hard, pay taxes and want a quality of life that lines up with their beliefs and values.

We are not a war zone. Chicago is not a “total disaster,” as the president has claimed.

Recently, the Obama Foundation Summit provided international dignitaries, celebrities, local and national activists with the perfect backdrop for the world to see Chicago as it really is. The Obamas selected Chicago as the home of the planned Obama Presidential Center with an eye toward making the city, and in particular the South Side, a global hub for culture, business and social justice. These are all hallmarks of our city.

It’s time everyone sees this bigger picture.

Rhonda L. Owens is director of administrative services at Rush University Medical Center College of Nursing and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.

  • Just Axin

    “Gun violence” is mentioned how many times in your story? Sorry, Rhonda, but I’ve never seen a gun commit an act of violence. You missed a good opportunity to discuss the real issues, such as a criminal justice system that has failed to control violent juvenile and adult offenders, a 75% out-of-wedlock rate for a group that makes up only 14% of the population, the Illinois black caucus that refuses to properly punish gun offenders. Those are good places to start.

    • G-Lep

      You tell’er, Justy!

    • Rhonda

      Thanks for the comment. I agree there are social issues that are married to the gun violence in Chicago. Unfortunately you can’t put everything into one article. However, Chicago is not only the gun violence and social issues that dominate discussion. It is also a great place to live, work and raise a family.

      • Just Axin

        I understand that one article isn’t the forum for discussing and solving all of our problems but you’re still missing the point. Your approach was to put the focus on an inanimate object. Blaming our violence problem on guns (that are already heavily regulated) is not only unhelpful but distracting from the real, contributing issues. You seem like an intelligent person that cares about the community. I’m hoping that you’ll consider looking at things differently. Perhaps that thinking won’t be popular around the office or dinner table but you’ll be on the side of what is right and just.

        • Orlando coombs

          Just Axin. Violence is a problem is everyone’s community. Salinas, Ca is 80% Mexicans and that city has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. 105 people who murdered, mostly shot to death in Salinas in 2015, 16, and 17. Most of them young Chicano men under 30. Them Mexicans are killing each other wholesale. A 15 year boy was killed in Salinas this January. And by the numbers, look it up and you’ll find according to FBI stats, there are more whites killing whites than there are blacks killing blacks. And that has been consistent since 1980. That’s a fact. Rhonda is very much on point. But I’ll admit that violence, gun violence in black neighborhoods is a serious problem that cannot be ignored because it effects all of us. Gun Violence is an American problems and it’s rooted in the legacy of violence in America. America was created out of a violent solution for every conflict from the Coming of Columbus to the Revolutionary War and from Chattel Slavery and Jim Crow to the present day of state sanctioned violence against people of color under the system of white supremacy. And America’s legacy of violence, most of it race related is directly responsible for the current state of gun violence and other violence in America today. How the dominant society both past and present treats it’s most vulnerable and marginalized citizens has a massive ripple effect on how her citizens of all races treat one another.

      • Orlando coombs

        Rhonda, I agree with you totally. Chicago, just as every major black metropolis in this country has it’s issues and it’s problems that cannot be ignored, but each and everyone of these communities has an endless and never ending list of great, beautiful, and positive things happening in them but all everyone focuses on is the negative. I grew up in the Bay Area, San Jose to be exact and I know Oakland, San Francisco, Richmond, and East Palo Alto very well. Especially Oakland. In Oakland, and I’ve seen this for myself, has a very large and prosperous upper middle class black community with many successful and affluent African Americans who have well paying professional jobs and own successful businesses. Especially in the Oakland Hills and in some parts of West Oakland, where working professional black families own homes, hold good paying jobs, and some are even business owners. And there are affluent black communities all over America, whole counties full of several affluent black communities all across the country. And contrary to popular opinion, the majority of us are not spitting out babies out of wedlock like a fax machine spits out paper, more than half of black families in America consist of married couples and 90% of the black kids I knew growing up had 2 parents in the home, whether Mom and Dad, Mom and Stepdad, Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt and Uncle, or whatever have you. And by the way, many of our communities Rhonda are great places to live, work, and raise families.

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