Sunday, March 17, 2013

Death in Chicago

Just when you think Chicago’s murder epidemic has peaked, a new outrage reminds you that things can always get worse. The death of a six-month-old baby last week, hit by the usual stray bullet when her father was the apparent target, has produced the all-too-familiar heartbreak and helpless anger.

The murder rate in Chicago’s black neighborhoods has spiked in the last couple of years, and people are calling for action. The problem is that there’s no consensus on what kind of action is needed. Some people blame the easy availability of guns; others fault the Chicago Police Department, which is scrambling to adjust strategies to keep the lid on a situation that seems to be out of control. Some of the current chaos is an unintended consequence of two policies touted as successful: the dispersal of housing projects (bringing gang members into new neighborhoods) and the decapitation of drug gangs (leading to succession struggles). And of course there are always the root causes that need attention, whether you think it’s the economic distress of the black community or its social disintegration that’s at the heart of the problem.

So what do you do? I don’t think I’ll get much of an argument if I say that all of the above are factors in the crisis. The argument starts when you try to come up with public policies that will make things better. There’s no doubt that guns are to violence what gasoline is to fire, an accelerant that can turn a spark into a conflagration. The problem is that you can’t just wish guns away; they’re here to stay. If forty years of the Drug War haven’t rid our streets of drugs, I don’t think doubling down on firearms bans is going to make all the guns vanish. It might be smarter to concentrate on regulating behavior rather than objects.

As for the police, they’re short-handed and contending with mistrust from the community, some of which they have admittedly brought on themselves. But even if you don’t like cops, they’re all you’ve got; you can insist on better police performance but you can’t promote a “no snitching” culture in your community and expect the situation to improve.

The economic distress and the social disintegration are the toughest; those are long-term projects and are partly a matter of public policy and partly a matter of cultural changes that will only happen when enough people want them to happen. They will be with us for a long time.

If you’re feeling hopeless, it might be useful to take a look at history. It’s easy to forget that Chicago has always had crime, and sometimes it’s been worse than it is now. An instructive book is a volume by Herbert Asbury originally published in 1940 as Gem of the Prairie and re-issued as The Gangs of Chicago (echoing Asbury’s more famous The Gangs of New York) by Basic Books. Asbury detailed the long and sordid history of crime in Chicago, which was a wide-open town with weak and corrupt law enforcement from the beginning. Consider this account of a schoolboy gang war in the Maxwell Street area in the late 19th century: “For years the boys carried knives and revolvers to school, and occasionally slashed and took pot shots at each other in the class-rooms, and fought desperate and often bloody battles in the streets and playgrounds. The last of the gun-fights occurred in December 1905…” Chicago has seen this before.

And yet, things have not always been that bad. Crime waxes and wanes. Prohibition made the twenties a nightmare in Chicago, but by the fifties the streets were largely safe. Then things got bad again with the vast social changes of the sixties and seventies before improving substantially in the nineties. When crime is waning, it’s often because the police response improves, as when Captain Simon O’Donnell reduced crime in the Maxwell Street district “by literally clubbing the underworld into submission,” as Asbury says.

Tough policing can help, as New York City’s experience shows. We have to recognize that at the most basic level, brute force is needed to deter crime. We have to make sure our police force is adequately staffed and funded and supported, while insisting that police conduct be rule-governed and fair. In addition, I’d love to see us reconsider the modern equivalent of Prohibition, the futile and destructive War on Drugs. It’s the geyser of illicit drug cash that triggers the disputes and buys the guns in Chicago’s gang wars.

It’s a multi-front war. The other things have to happen as well, the social and economic improvements and the community consensus that helps restrain anti-social behavior. Part of it is public policy and part of it is minding your own back yard and making sure your kids know right from wrong. There’s no magic bullet, and what you (or I) think is the main problem is probably only one of them. But history shows that societies can improve; I’ve seen it in my lifetime. Start by holding yourself accountable and then let your elected officials know that they are accountable, too.

Sam Reaves

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