Power and Politics in Chicago’s Struggle to Reduce Violence

More

In 2021, Chicago is on pace to have an even more violent year than in 2020, which saw a 50% jump in homicides. If this uncontrolled violence persists, it could cost the Mayor the next election. To its credit, the City has come up with a solid plan to combat gun violence. It prioritizes police reform and the expansion of social services. Yet, it comes up short of putting a price tag on what it would actually cost to put the plan into action.

Mayor Lightfoot has called for massive investment in the 10 communities most affected by violence, including North Lawndale, Greater Roseland, Englewood, and others, her programs like INVEST South/West, an initiative to improve neighborhoods, have not reached the grassroots.

Trying to fund a massive gun violence plan in the face of a $1.2 billion budget shortfall isn’t the only problem the City faces. It will continue to struggle with reducing violence if it keeps placing politics above best practices in violence prevention. Like past mayoral administrations, the Lightfoot administration continues to give preferential treatment to politically friendly anti-violence organizations and stakeholders while locking out Black and Latino leaders with strong community ties and grass roots anti- violence organizations.

Playing Politics

City Hall knows that to really solve the problem, it would need to allocate significant resources and money to key individuals and community-based organizations with strong ties to the community. People and organizations with real ties to the community are better positioned to reduce violence; however, they are also better positioned to influence the public and private institutions and economy in their communities. That’s real power. 

Dealing with violence needs to be beyond politics. New players need to be brought in with real ties to the grass roots. Lots of money has to flow and with money goes power.

And that’s what City Hall fears. 

The problem of violence is one of power. The neighborhoods with the highest rates of homicides are the same neighborhoods with the least amount of self-determination. The violence is simply a product of the most oppressed people using maladaptive coping to seek status and a place in their communities. Yes, the City wants to see a reduction in violence but only conditionally. The Mayor’s Office is all for reducing violence as long as it doesn’t require the redistribution of power and resources to poor Black and Latino folks who may use their newfound empowerment to flex their political muscles.

Some have called for redirecting some of CPD’s $1.2 billion budget to anti-violence organizations. In the spirit of social equity, it is imperative that these funds go directly to Black and Latino-led violence prevention organizations who have historically been locked out. Currently, the largest violence prevention organizations in Chicago are run by non-Black people. Except for one organization, Acclivus Inc., all other violence prevention programs are led by non-Black people. READI Chicago, Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, Communities Partnering 4 Peace, St. Sabina, Cure Violence, and Chicago CRED, among others, have no Black people who are the ultimate decision-makers. Yes, some Black people work in these programs as upper-level administrators, but the CEOs, Executive Directors and Senior Officers, etc., the ultimate decision-makers, are usually non-Black folks.

This is highly problematic because gun violence is a problem unique to young, Black and Latino males. Many of the young men who are at greatest risk for being victims and perpetrators of violence struggle with an inferiority complex. It is their low self-esteem and low self-worth that cause them to do violence. To modify their behavior, they need role models who have had their same lived experience but have learned to how to enhance their self-efficacy. Constantly seeing non-Blacks as the “big boss” reinforces the perception that no matter how much they improve, they will always be inferior to non-Black leaders.

It’s not that the non- Black leaders of the anti-violence programs are bad people. I believe many of them sincerely want to see a reduction in violence as much as anyone; however, just optics of it all comes off as the “Great White Hope” who is in “the hood” to save Black folks from themselves.

Imagine what it must look like to young, African American males who enter these violence prevention programs only to see Black people that have more lived experience, more academic credentials, and more years of professional experience than anyone, yet, the “big bosses” are non-Black. This reinforces the perception that Black people are inferior no matter what. These young, Black males need to see Black people as ultimate decision-makers. The best way to get them to stop killing each other is for them to recognize their self-worth and the worth of their fellow brothers.

Another reason Chicago has been unable to solve its homicide problem is that it knows very little about the circumstances that lead to gun-related homicides. Beyond erroneously blaming it on gangs, the City has no clue. The City doesn’t know what leads to the shootings because it relies too heavily on a small group of researchers, primarily from places like the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab and other top-tier research institutions like Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago to inform them. There is little, to no diversity in the leadership in this group. Yes, there are many people of color who work in these research initiatives, but the principal investigators, executive directors are all Caucasian. The white leaders of the research community are not comfortable (nor should they be) examining the cultural precursors unique to young, Black males who are at most risk for being the victims of perpetrators of violence. The White leaders of the research community steer clear of such territory out of fear that they would be perceived as racist for their findings of young, Black males’ cultural identity. Therefore, their research doesn’t inform the City about the circumstances that lead to gun-related homicides. Even still, tens of millions of dollars are spent annually on violence prevention and research without even addressing the circumstances that lead to gun-related homicides.

Today, homicide in Chicago is three times higher than in NYC and higher than in LA. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Data shows that murders here were the same as in NYC and LA until around 2004 when a huge drop in NYC and LA were seen, but Chicago remained high. Since then, we had a big spike in 2016, 2020, and this year, which were much more prominent than the other two cities.

Until City hall places best practices in violence prevention above politics and fixes the systemic issues that lead to structural violence, Chicago will continue to see soaring homicide rates.

Lance Williams Ph.D., is a professor in Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Bronzeveille.