Feb 13 2013

One Caged, Get Another: Thoughts on Chicago Violence & The Disappeared

I should probably take some time before I write about this but writing helps me figure out what I think. So here goes…

We are told that Hadiya Pendleton’s killer has been apprehended and has confessed to her murder. I am not a friend or family member of Hadiya’s. Perhaps those closest to her are feeling relief amidst their pain today. Understandable. Perhaps they are eagerly awaiting the trials and a guilty verdict. I don’t know. Maybe they are hopeful that the young man who killed their sister, cousin, friend and daughter will spend his life in prison. I haven’t heard or read anything to this effect but perhaps…

I anticipate the angry emails that are sure to come after I post this here. It won’t be the first time that something I have written provokes anger. I’ll surely be accused of coddling murderers. That’s OK. I might be accused of never having been victimized by violent crime. I have but that’s not important. Here’s what I have to say.

When I heard that two young black men had been arrested and charged with Hadiya’s death, I felt nothing but soul-deep sadness. No relief. No joy. Nothing but sadness. After my friend Dara posted their mug shot photos on Facebook, my sadness intensified in a way that was suffocating.


There are many reasons for my sadness. I will share a few. First, I am sad because of headlines like this one: “Chicago Teen Killed After Performing At Inauguration Was Victim of Gang Violence.” Why is this headline problematic? Because the reader will assume that he/she now understands what happened. The ThinkProgress post attributes shootings in Chicago to “rampant gang violence.” This is asserted as an incontrovertible fact. [Incidentally, the attorney of one of the suspects says that his client was not a gang member.] Still it’s the gangs, stupid.

“Gang violence” is shorthand for racialized and senseless violence. Using the term usually means that we don’t have to bother to look more deeply or to understand the root causes of violence. It also means that we don’t really have to care about the victims or perpetrators unless they are “innocent.” In Chicago, the police and the political class blame almost every public shooting and murder on “gangs.” The media often parrots these claims. Below are two excerpts from media accounts about “gang violence” in Chicago, almost 50 years apart:

“On a brisk Saturday evening in February, clusters of teen-agers laugh with the abandon of the young as they leave a dance at a church deep in the black ghetto of Chicago’s South Side. Then shots ring out from opposite directions as two warring youth gangs have it out. The weekend revelers are trapped in the crossfire and a 15-year-old girl lies dead, two male bystanders seriously wounded.

In the same city, at the peak of the summer’s heat, a newspaper headline reports “6 More Teen Gangsters Wound Half Dozen Rivals — Week’s Score: 33 Hurt, 2 Dead (Ebony, August 1967).”

“In Chicago, gangs routinely and often indiscriminately open fire…About three blocks from Hadiya’s school, she and a group of 10-12 young people, including members of her volleyball team, had taken refuge under a canopy at a park to avoid the rain Tuesday afternoon. A man climbed a fence behind the park, ran at the group and started shooting, and then jumped back over the fence and into a white Nissan. The group scattered, but Hadiya was shot once in the back and a teenage boy was shot in the leg.(Source: Huffington Post, 2013).”

These excerpts underscore the intractability of gangs as a social problem but they also point to something else that should be foregrounded. In some neighborhoods in this city, almost every young person can claim a gang-affiliation. It’s the way that you can insure your personal safety. This renders the whole concept of gang-affiliation meaningless since it is impossible for you to be unaffiliated in your community. You take on the gang name & do nothing else. This isn’t Scarface or New Jack City. It’s more like wearing the jersey of your favorite sports team.

Gangs also exist within a larger context. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes:

…whatever role gangs might play in the escalating violence, we know all this is happening in the context of record levels of poverty, unemployment and a general assault on publicly funded social services and institutions that previously cushioned the worst aspects of poverty.

In a recent article published in the Guardian, journalist Gary Younge echoes a similar idea with this quote by Jamaican human rights activist Yvonne Sobers: “In a ¬≠community without a safety net the gun represents the safety net. The gun is power, money and manhood.”

We all know that at the root of “gang violence” is economic violence. Our solutions however seem focused on arresting and caging people rather than on addressing economic injustice. The portrayal of the violence in Chicago as caused by gang members will make it more likely that black and brown youth in this city will become even bigger targets of the criminal legal system. Already, law enforcement and politicians are proposing harsher gun laws that are sure to land more black and brown youth behind bars for longer sentences. Years of anecdotal evidence and empirical research have shown that these approaches to ending violence don’t work and are in fact counterproductive. Yet policymakers continue to draft and pass more new and ultimately ineffective laws. We don’t learn and that is a reason for sadness too.

Second, I am sad because I don’t trust the police, the prosecutors, or the legal system in Chicago. I am suspicious about the authorities when they say that the suspects confessed. Chicago is the false confession capital of the United States. I also know the history of police torture of black people in this city. So I wonder what happened to the suspects while they were in custody. I am not paranoid. I am rational in my mistrust. [The defendants’ lawyer is already claiming that their rights were violated.]

Third, I am sad because I know these young men who are accused of this murder. I don’t know them personally. They are not related to me. But they are familiar to me. Michael Ward is 18 years old and an alleged killer. He reminds me of the young man who I visited at Cook County Jail less than 6 weeks ago. 19 years old, sullen, dripping with false bravado, Jason (not his real name) is locked up on an aggravated assault charge. He too is “gang-affiliated.” This means less than nothing because it tells you little about who he is. Jason is the cousin of a friend. She reached out to me for help in securing adequate legal representation for his case. When we visited, I asked him how he ended up in jail. He said: “It was always gonna turn out this way.”

I feel profound sympathy for Hadiya Pendleton’s family. I am so sorry for their loss. It is cruel and unfair. It should not have happened. I also feel sympathy for the family and friends of Marcus Ward & Kenneth Williams who are now likely to lose their cousins, friends, uncles, brothers, and sons to the prison system for a very long time. After my friend Dara posted on Facebook that Marcus and Kenneth could have been her cousins (metaphorically), she received a message from a young woman who is IN FACT Kenneth’s cousin. Here’s an excerpt of what she wrote:

“Dara, [he] IS my cousin. We are trying to be optimistic. I would never suspect him to be a part of this. And I still don’t believe it. He has no prior record and was looking forward to going to the air force…this was his #1 priority so that he could get out of the hood. I can’t even see him jeopardizing that… I know his mother has tried her best to keep him on the straight and narrow though.”

Aside from all of the people I listed above, I also feel sympathy and sadness for Marcus and Kenneth too. And this is where many will part company with me. I understand.

In his law enforcement “confession,” Hadiya’s alleged killer suggested that he killed her in a case of mistaken identity:

The gunman in the slaying of Hadiya Pendleton told police he was in the middle of a three-year battle with a rival gang when he opened fire at a South Side park and hit the 15-year-old who “had nothing to do” with the feud, according to prosecutors.

“She was just there,” Michael Ward, 18, told police after he was arrested with Kenneth Williams, 20, prosecutors said during a hearing where both were denied bail.

Williams told witnesses he and Ward were driving around on Jan. 29, looking for members of a rival gang that had killed one of Ward’s friends, according to prosecutors. Williams had also been wounded by a rival gang member last summer, police said.

“Ward stated that his gang and the rival gang had been shooting at one another since 2010. [Ward] stated that when the rival gang killed one of his friends, he thought, ‘If we keep standing for this, we are going to be some straight bitches,’ ” prosecutors said.

These young men are going to be caged for years and years because they were caught up in an endless cycle of retaliation & violence on a micro level in a society that encourages and rewards retaliation & violence on a macro level. The United States is an incredibly violent country. We are in a permanent state of war with a President that is using drones to kill people in other countries (including American citizens). The police are militarized and amazingly violent. We live in a rape culture. We consign millions of our fellow citizens to obscene poverty. We can’t overcome racism or heterosexism. We watch sports predicated on violence. We play violent video games. We watch violent films. We lock millions of people up in prisons & jails that are the epitome of violence. We are awash in millions of guns. Then we ask, with a straight face, how our people can so easily resort to violence to address perceived slights or to solve problems.

As my friend Cyriac has eloquently said: “The natural state of this society is violence‚Ķ” Violence is a language that these young men have mastered and can speak fluently. It’s how one goes about accessing needed resources. It’s how one asserts his manhood. It’s how one seizes power (no matter how pyrrhic). We have to be taught to be non-violent. That’s a fact.

Finally, I am worried that these young men who have been accused of this terrible act are in the process of being disappeared in the criminal legal system. Disappeared. Never to be heard from again. Good riddance to bad rubbish is basically the response that I have seen in the public sphere. There are few questions being asked about whether they are actually guilty. Is anyone curious about who these young men are? About what their life story is? It doesn’t appear so. We’ve already made them monsters and are seemingly ready to string them up. Branding them as sociopaths lets us off the hook. We don’t want or have to think of them anymore. Let the attention be on the victim of their crime. It’s right that we should focus on the loss of Hadiya.

It’s also right that we not disappear these young men. They are the throwaways of our society. Disposable. Yet the truth is that those who we throw away won’t stay gone. They will make themselves heard and known. Our neglect ultimately comes back to harm us. I wonder what it would be if we could truly embrace all of our people. What if we refused to cast them out? What kind of society would we have if no person was truly left behind? As it stands, we are failing our young and ourselves. We need another way because this one is not working. For anyone.

There’s a lot of talk of “love” and “healing” in the land. But many who espouse those words, I have found, are quick to embrace punishment and banishment. So I end with words posted by a friend on Facebook yesterday: “I am holding the intention that healing for everyone involved is possible.” I’ll add: “May more people embrace restorative and transformative justice as the path forward…”

Update: The young men have officially been indicted now. Please sign this petition calling for them to have a fair trial.