Chicago Gun Violence Myths, Part 2: Roland Martin and the National Guard

Roland Martin – the commentator most known for being the ascot-wearing guy on CNN – fired up the old computer box to tell Daily Beast readers that Chicago – aka “Chiraq”  – is “being lost” – which is news to Chicagoans. We’re right here and not going anywhere. In efforts to find us, I suppose, Martin says every option is on the table – but mostly sending in the National Guard to help the police turn so-called Chiraq into a bona fide war zone. For many, this sounds like a great idea. Even some of my students who live in some of the worst-affected areas think it needs to be done. But then they consider what that means for a second and repent. Roland Martin and other outsiders like Republican Senator Mark Kirk talk about Chicago as if we were a war zone under siege from dangerous thugs and gangbangers, rather than a city of neighbors with a decreasing trend of gun violence over the last 20 years.

To his credit, Roland Martin points to systemic racism and poverty as being root issues of the gun violence in the city – deep-seated issues that need to be addressed and tackled over several years and steps. But then he goes shooting (pun!) for some quick fixes. This isn’t wrong in and of itself; we do have an immediate problem and there are people here and now whose lives and fears need to be attended to.  Martin’s mistake is that he sees Chicago as a crisis which needs extreme measures to fix, even if the short term solution will lead to more long-term problems.

For this three part series, we are looking at the Chicago gun violence from insiders’ perspectives in order to quell myths addressed from the national media and racist conservatives. Part 1 looked at how systemic racism against black and Latino people is the main root cause of the gun violence in the city. Later, we will look at the War on Drugs and gun laws. For today, we will look at how crisis calls and further militarizing of the police hurt Chicagoans – as well as some possibilities to help Chicagoans partner with police in sustainable ways that would reduce actual crime.

Contrary to the scare stories that the media is conjuring, homicides are continually declining in Chicago. The over 500 from a couple years ago is a pretty bad number, but nowhere quite the 900+ from twenty years prior. It was an uptick from the last few years, but prior to that and since then the numbers have continued to decrease. This year, until the 4th of July weekend, we had been on track for an average of one murder a day. Which is higher than it should be – and importantly hurts a lot of people and families – but it’s not exactly the crisis the media is making it out to be. Some argue the numbers are skewered by the police department and downtown, but as Prison Culture notes, that has always been the case, so it is likely that the trend is the trend – and the trend is of a gradual decrease in homicides.

This is important because it colors how we treat urban areas like Chicago. If we see the city as desperate and lost, we treat it out of desperation rather than as something that can be sustainable. We remember what our current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, famously said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Which is scary considering that his work is firmly rooted in neoliberalism – making profits out of selling off public goods and bodies.

This is not to say that the murders and shootings shouldn’t be taken seriously. Hearing gun shots in the middle of the night is scary and happens in white neighborhoods like Logan Square as well as the “usual suspects” like Englewood and La Villita. So the violence is real, but it’s being looked at through the wrong lenses. On the topical level, it is about those immediately hurt and affected and should be focused on both prevention and alleviation. But it is also about the long-plan – so when people like Roland Martin scream that “all options should be on the table,” they are suggesting quick fixes that result in bigger problems. Calling us Chiraq and offering to send in the National Guard is one of these damaging quick fixes.

There is already more than enough distrust in the black and Latino communities of police forces. The police are set up in a way that is highly antagonistic toward communities of color. They follow the Broken Windows theory of criminal theorist James Q Wilson*. The theory is that crime follows when things aren’t all tidy – according to a white middle/upper class view of tidiness. If there are prostitutes or litter or broken windows or “broken” families, then crime follows. This disregards actual contributing factors such as poverty and societal alienation. So we lock up the prostitutes and the inhabitants of the litterbugging community and then create more “parentless children”. We lock up anybody with a bag of weed, because smoking leads to a life of crime and pre-crime is the new orange.

It’s a very fascist outlook, and poor people and people of color are the targets. But it’s not the only sense in which Chicagoans are already pitted against those meant to serve and protect us.

A short story: A couple years ago the cops raided my brothers’ entire block. In a neighborhood 98% black and widely known for what some call an “open air drug market” (which honestly is a bit insulting because it erases the residents. It’s still a neighborhood). So of course my brothers and their friends who were just leaving his house were suspect. Everybody was suspect.

They were handcuffed and locked in squad cars for hours under suspect of intent to buy drugs. Because why else would white people enter a black neighborhood in segregated Chicago? And my brother was trying to tell them that he lived there; just reach in his pocket for his wallet and there is all the proof he would need. But the cop in charge just reminded him that he’s the cop in charge.

Didn’t matter. The cops weren’t there to serve the residents anyway. It was an antagonistic mood that captured an antagonistic posture. The police laid an entire city block to siege – and I’m not sure how in doing this they are better than the gang bangers they’re trying to get. Would this have happened in a white neighborhood in Chicago? Without the news going ballistic? And they wonder why they can’t get cooperation.

Even without military assistance, the Chicago Police Department is already at odds with black and Latino Chicagoans, particularly in high-crime regions. Every person with dark skin is treated as a potential enemy, as a threat, just for driving, for walking, for hanging out. How would a military occupation on top of a militarized police occupation help? How would it not look like a hostile takeover when martial law takes over?

How would sending the National Guard into black and brown communities allow residents to feel safe?  Are black and Latino people not to be trusted and must be off the streets by 10:30 pm? Will they need to show papers if they’re coming home from work or studying late? And since when do occupied territories welcome their military occupiers? If Chicago is really Chiraq now then we sure don’t want to become more so.

Roland Martin quotes as an expert Ret. Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré, who was in charge of military operations in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But I do not recall that ending so well for poor black people in NOLA. Based on how the military treated Katrina survivors, White communities on the North Side will not get the same treatment as communities of color, that’s for sure.

Instead, police need to be set up in such a way where their first priority is to collaborate with communities as partners. We will need more community police and residential connections not, as the trend has been under Mayor Emanuel, fewer. As police officers are treated as interchangeable, neighbors do not know who their beat cops are. The people on the block should see regular, familiar faces on walking and biking patrols. As a result, police gain trust, especially as they’re able to deal with potentially explosive situations with more nuance. As they engage community leaders as partners – and that means gang leaders, too – they can work on something that everybody wants, curbing homicides, shootings, muggings, and robberies. Indeed, communities need to be invested in each other and in ways to curb the crimes that actually hurt people. When the police and the military are put in positions to look for suspect people, everyone becomes a suspect. And though violent crime rates can be down – the violence of making criminal suspects out of people due to the color of their skin continues, merely delaying the inevitable hostilities.

In fact, this is what it comes down to – Martin has sought advice from a military leader whose job is containment. But a contained people is not a healthy people and those that contain do not look upon their subjects as human beings but as hostile forces and potential combatants. In order to address crime, those who serve and protect need to look at us as potential partners whose trust needs to be earned. We’re willing to give it to them to reduce crime, but not to entrap ourselves.



*Wilson, it must be mentioned, was quoted in Jason Riley’s Wall St Journal piece, blaming black people for higher rates of crime among black families. Which we debunked earlier, but here is the quote extracted from Riley:

If crime is to a significant degree caused by weak character; if weak character is more likely among the children of unmarried mothers; if there are no fathers who will help raise their children, acquire jobs, and protect their neighborhoods; if boys become young men with no preparation for work; if school achievement is regarded as a sign of having “sold out” to a dominant white culture; if powerful gangs replace weak families—if all these things are true, then the chances of reducing by plan and in the near future the crime rate of low-income blacks are slim.

I do not know how to tell this man’s arguments apart from Rush Limbaugh’s – they’re both so luridly wrong and racist. And yet, Wilson is one of the most respected criminologists period. Things that make you go huh…


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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