NO issue can be a higher priority than safety, because every other concern is impacted by whether one’s environment is safe or not. How can children in violent conditions thrive at school? No matter how nice a building is – and whether one owns or rents – break-ins or drive-bys determine its value in every sense of the term. Business decisions – where and when to open a business, how much money is invested into an existing business – are dictated by safety, above many other factors. All over the ward, people feel less safe than they should. Is there anything that can be done? We are told that a gang problem infests the South Side and that our seemingly random violence is very often gang violence and that this is what the problem is. But is that the whole picture?
The term “gang” has become a synonym for violence in communities of color. When I worked as a reporter, we would routinely cover crime scenes in Bronzeville which we would see reported the next day as gang related by the dailies. We would have to have evidence of that in order to use the term “gang,” so we didn’t usually publish an initial report using that term. Later, it would sometimes happen that evidence showed a specific interpersonal conflict or other cause. This new information was never – in all the time I was following this sort of thing, not once – reported in the papers in the smaller stories. It would have to be some sort of scandal or a even more salacious angle for there to be an update. The original, unfounded accusation – the original smear – would stand. And that’s meant to be objective reporting. And then people wonder why there is skepticism in certain communities literally about the words that come out of people’s mouths.
What this amounts to is the idea that our ideas about the sources of our challenges sometimes come from the outside and are half-baked. Then we internalize them and stick by them because we think they are our ideas. Meanwhile, problems that could be solved or made better instead get worse.
There is nuance that must be understood, and often a hyperlocal level of knowledge is necessary in order to comprehend the factors that can make a block safe or unsafe. And there must be some support for making whatever changes need to be made. Some of that is simply communication and information. Coordination of existing resources can also go a long way. People are often making reckless choices as a result of a critical unmet need and that is the story that leads to violence, and that is the violence that the police and the media will try to connect to some sort of gang activity. But social services might have been able to help. Or just having a place where someone pushed out of their own home could stay might avoid a violent confrontation such as a mugging. You have to have empathy. You have to see that there are too many stories and that the approach of seeing anyone with a weapon as a criminal in a society that glorifies weapons but then tells African Americans they cannot have them is perverse.
We will take an area that is especially challenged, and we will focus our energy on calming that area. We will also collect data, so we can see what is working and what is not working. We will also make an investment, paying local folks modest stipends to help bring peace, block by block, to a troubled pocket of our community. We will bring programs to the area. We will subsidize transportation for young people there to go to enrichment programs. We will bring tutoring to the area. And we will measure the results in terms of violent crime.