Years ago when I was just beginning to work as a beat reporter for a Black-owned newspaper in the Windy City, one of the first things I did was to secure a safe route from my downtown office to my home on the Southside.
If you’re unfamiliar with the city, it’s divided into a huge grid with the majority of Blacks living either on the Southside or the Westside. Neighborhoods can change drastically from one block to the next – the first being quiet and inviting – the next being full of danger including gangs, drug sales and gun-toting thieves.
Criminals back then had little to fear from the police – something that hasn’t changed much almost 20 years later. Recently, America’s third largest city has attracted a lot of attention due to a troubling increase in homicides. For the record, Chicago saw 1,100 more shooting incidents in 2016 than it did in 2015, including a record high 762 deaths – the largest one-year spike in 60 years.
Police data indicates that most of the deaths and shootings occurred in five neighborhoods – on the South and West sides – where residents are predominantly poor, Black and where gangs are the most active. Leaders within the Chicago Police Department say that they need tougher gun laws, particularly for repeat offenders and tougher penalties for those caught with illegal weapons.
And while I don’t disagree with their assessment, I’d like to suggest that police in Chicago and in other cities where violence has suddenly surged, return to old-fashioned strategies where officers are assigned to specific communities and begin to engage with everyone – the young, the old, the gang-bangers and those just trying to do the right thing and survive.
I made it a point, during my years in Chicago, to immediately introduce myself to the “local crew,” passing out copies of my newspaper and showing them my press credentials. I asked them if they felt like their lives mattered. I asked them what problems they faced that city officials continued to ignore. I asked them if I could be of assistance in sharing their stories, their fears, their concerns and their dreams.
Soon, they were calling me “Clark Kent” and making sure that I was safe – even protected which was sometimes necessary when rival gangs invaded their turf.
We were not alike, or so I thought – and yet we were. I was a middle-class, college-educated reporter who wanted to show the good side of my people. But that wasn’t always easy as I more often encountered men, women and youth who lived in a world that offered them very little hope.
I realized that I had been taught to fear my own people – at least some of them. But in dealing with those who lived very different lives from my own, I began to understand that we basically wanted the same things – they just didn’t see a way, as I did, to make their heartfelt hopes become reality.
Maybe, if we really want to reduce the tragic surge of Black-on-Black crime, we should consider finding ways to give our people hope – helping them to discover paths that lead them away from their mundane, limited worlds. Perhaps then they’ll even begin to risk dreaming again – dreaming because they believe that those dreams can actually come true.