There is a particular cruelty to political leaders who blame the victims for structural problems that they have full power to solve.
When Mayor Lori Lightfoot describes how the city will enforce a youth curfew, saying, “We don’t want to arrest kids. If we have to, because they are breaking the law, we will”, all I hear is a threat of more violence and a finger pointing at young people who deserve so much more freedom than our unequal city does not offer them.
Included in the list of goals that 16-year-old Seandell Holliday wrote for himself as part of a mentorship program last year were to pursue his passion for music, take care of his family and to live to be 21. weekend sparked the mayor’s announcement of a new youth curfew, had some level of personal understanding of a landscape of violence that was widespread enough to wonder if he would live for a few more years.
This landscape is one that includes both the kind of interpersonal gun violence that ended Seandell’s life, as well as the structural violence that keeps our city both segregated and deeply unequal. It’s no coincidence that the neighborhoods with the highest rates of gun violence are among the city’s poorest, predominantly black, and on the south and west sides of the city, affected by divestment and massive economic neglect.
At a city budget rally and press conference last August at Parkman Elementary in Fuller Park — which has stood empty since it closed in 2013 — educator and CTU leader Tara Stamps gave an impassioned speech that stuck with me. She called the closed schools “the physical manifestation of ‘I don’t care about you’.
The now vacant school stands in stark contrast to the busy police station across the street on 51st and Wentworth, where many of us spent long nights awaiting the release of friends and loved ones. If “I don’t care about you” is the message an empty school sends to young people, a swanky park with checkpoints and metal detectors underscores that message, and the police department is empowered to criminalize young people’s urges. It is the house.
Imposing new restrictions on the freedom of young people – restrictions that will undoubtedly affect black, brown and working-class families the most – miss the mark dramatically. Curfews have proven ineffective as a violence prevention strategy, and they compound the overall problem by exposing young people to violent police action when enforced. Encouraged by the Clinton administration, curfew laws for minors became popular in the mid-1990s as part of a tough-on-crime approach. The strategy sought to criminalize “super predators,” a racist myth that has worked overtime to blame young black people for social problems now exacerbated by decades of further disinvestment from public programs across the country. While Mayor Lightfoot’s rhetoric in 2022 may sound different from that of the architects of mass incarceration, imposing a curfew in addition to advancing municipal budgets that underinvest in communities and overinvest in policing ultimately supports the same status quo.
During a balloon release for Seandell, a friend of his said, “Downtown was a place to go out and have fun. . . . Now you can’t go anywhere without having to fight for your life. In addition to failing Seandell, who lost his life, and the youth who faces possible incarceration for his murder, the city has failed Seandell’s friends and anyone in Chicago who thinks they didn’t. nowhere to go.
Criminalization in response to violence shifts responsibility away from systems and blames those affected by disinvestment, inequality, policing and violence. It makes people wonder, “What’s wrong with young people or black people? and “Why are they breaking the law?” These questions keep the conversation going about what to do because they frame the problem as one of individual actions and treat “crime” as a fixed category as opposed to something determined by policy makers.
Instead, we can define the problem of violence as one that occurs within a larger social, economic, and political context. We can ask ourselves, “What are the systems that are causing so many people to struggle? What investments do communities affected by violence need to do well? »
State Senator Robert Peters has led statewide violence prevention efforts that are rooted in the last set of questions. “We have to provide for everyone,” he said. “And we need to see public safety not dependent on the old segregation walls, but a new public safety for everything that says Chicago belongs to everyone, Chicago belongs to the people.”
Long-term solutions to violence look like eradicating racist inequalities and ensuring that young people and communities suffering from disengagement have what they need to thrive. They appear to be reversing budget priorities that have increased the police budget every year while money for social programs, schools, health services and housing remains on the chopping block.
One step would be to invest in the Book of Peace, a youth vision-driven ordinance proposal that would reinvest police funds into jobs for young people involved in peacekeeping, restorative justice and justice. conflict mediation in neighborhoods most affected by armed violence. Violence prevention approaches that provide youth with community-based programs and jobs with some economic support have been shown to be more effective than punishment and increased policing.
Miracle Boyd, a 20-year-old GoodKids MadCity organizer, said, “A lot of people are in survival mode; they do not live. We need to bring life back to our young people and the adults who raise them. Holistic and effective solutions to violence seem to ensure that Chicagoans of all ages have access not only to the basic necessities to survive, but also to the things communities need to live and be well: an abundance of places to to gather, connect, heal and engage with each other and the world around us.
Another youth organizer, Assata Lewis, said, “Going to parks on the north side versus those on the south side is like night and day.” An approach to public spaces and community programs that seeks to reduce community violence and structural racism would be one that values investment in neighborhoods like Englewood – where life expectancies are 30 years younger than in the center -city – just as much as in tourist destinations like Millennium Park.
Tough, sensational responses to violence can be politically convenient for city leaders like Lightfoot, who want to look like they’re taking action, but it’s this type of political expediency that constantly presents us with false solutions.
What we need to commit to is the long-term work of building an equitable city where everyone feels like Chicago belongs, and making sure that it really does. What if the city pours resources into communities: well-funded schools, grocery stores, health centers, mental health care? What if the city funded thousands of jobs that hired counselors, health care workers, violence interrupters, and other community-oriented public safety jobs instead of police? What would a community full of physical manifestations of the message that the city belongs to us look like?
Asha Ransby-Sporn was a co-founder of BYP100, a black youth organization, and has been deeply involved in organizing against criminalization and policing in Chicago since 2013..