May 28 2012

Urban Warfare and Its Casualties on Memorial Day…

Some inchoate thoughts on Memorial Day…

I live in Chicago and so it is not uncommon to hear that fifty people have been shot in one weekend. In fact, just this weekend 25 people were shot across the city. Because of the routine nature of this kind of violence, some of us know at least one or two of the victims either personally and through friends or family. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the “invisible” deaths in Chicago of young men like Anthony Scott, for example. There are so many shootings that we can become inured to them. We have to actively struggle against complacency. It is exhausting but necessary.

Today is Memorial Day, a day that it turns out was first marked by “freed” African slaves in the U.S. There is something strangely fitting about this. Death never feels far removed from black people in the U.S. For too many of the young people who I work with, the specter of death is in fact a constant companion. There is nothing theoretical about it. In fact, they proclaim themselves ready to die while still in their teens. Some social commentators have lamented this as a form of dangerous nihilism. I, however, have learned a lot about how racial oppression can contribute to the development of violent masculine identities from the work of Irwin and Umemoto. I consider the instrumental use of violence by some young people in Chicago to be a rational adaptive strategy in response to racial and economic oppression. A young man who has been behind bars for most of his formative years has told me on more than one occasion that he was always certain that his life only held two viable possibilities: “die on the streets or die in prison.” While he has spent the past five years behind bars, it is my sincere hope that neither prophecy comes to pass.

In February 1982, when Lieutenant Jon Burge and his officers from Area 2 were on a manhunt for two people who had killed two cops, the Reverend Jesse Jackson suggested that the black community in Chicago was living in “a war zone…under economic, political, and military occupation,” and that the police department was holding “the entire black community hostage for the crimes of two (cited in Conroy, p.24).” I have written before about Jon Burge and his torture regime in Chicago. It’s important that we remember his victims since they too are the casualties of urban warfare. But I think that for many young black and brown people, Chicago is still like living in “a war zone…under economic, political, and military occupation.” Mayor Rahm (1 percent) Emmanuel is busy closing dozens of schools effectively ensuring that hundreds more youth in the city will drop out in the upcoming school year. Chicago is still the most segregated city in America. This segregation has real life implications for young people’s mobility and their opportunities. It means that one school is turf for one gang and the other for another. It means boundaries that must be enforced. There are sometimes tragic consequences in blurring the lines.

On this Memorial Day, I am taking time to think about the casualties of the ongoing urban warfare taking place in cities like New York, Detroit, Philly, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, Baltimore and Chicago. A young incarcerated poet named Ramon S, whose work was published in an anthology titled “Escape Routes” which I have featured before, writes about one such casualty in his poem “Untitled.” I will share a few lines below:

today we lost a soldier
the streets took the upper hand
the devil said life is in demand
so them gutter guys reached out
and touched him
I was sorry to hear

but I told him what was up
so I can’t help but let him go now

though a tear will fall down my cheek
I’m still mad at him cuz he was weak
I mean I told him every
time we would speak
I thought I told him right
but I guess I was wrong

he couldn’t see what I saw
and so
God’s word is law
so now he’s gone […]

The irony that he is writing this while he himself is locked in jail cannot be lost on us. Our young people need time to grieve and time to heal. They need to remember their lost friends and family. They need to mourn and then celebrate those lives.

My friend Krista Wortendyke has spent over two years now photographing the locations of every person killed in Chicago during a set period of time. In a significant way, this is an attempt to ensure that those lost to us in this war are made visible and are not erased beyond the memories of their loved ones. I feel blessed in a way to live in this city of duality. On the one hand we are all subjected to what feels like a relentless churning of violence and on the other we are privileged to live among people who refuse to avert their eyes.

P.S. I invite you to visit Krista’s blog for some pictures of an exhibition that I helped organize of her work from the Killing Season project. My friend Mauricio and some of his students stopped by to see the exhibition and then the young people took their own photographs. I think that it is particularly appropriate to share these images on this day.