Jul 09 2014

With Friends Like These… On the ‘Military Occupation’ of Chicago

This was written fast as I am rushed today and buried under a ton of work. I will revise it over time but I wanted to put my thoughts down while they were still fresh. Also, I am officially retired from commenting on this crap after today.


It’s summer in Chicago and our ‘friends’ are once again calling for military occupation of our city from the comfort of their air-conditioned condos in cities that are not our own. These calls are purportedly offered out of deep concern and love because the military is needed to save us from ourselves. In this case, the “us” is black people living (mostly) on the South & West sides of Chicago.

It’s become routine. Every summer, it’s the obligatory WTF!!!!!????? is going on in Chicago??? All of us who live here are familiar with the ritual. The press reports on shootings and homicides with almost no context (historical or otherwise). Faceless and sometimes nameless numbers are tallied like baseball box scores. And this is fitting in its own way. The prurient voyeuristic coverage is its own sport. The politicians periodically call for the National Guard to be deployed and martial law imposed. Everyone shakes their head while thinking ‘Tut, tut, what’s WRONG with those savages killing each other?’ Then folks are off to the beach or to resume watching Netflix.

When 80 people are shot over a long weekend, pointing out that homicides are actually down makes one seem callous and out-of-touch. It engenders ironic social media hashtags like #crimeisdown. It’s understandable why it’s cold comfort to many that homicides are actually at their lowest rate in decades. This means nothing to those who are most impacted by the shooting and the interpersonal violence. These are real people whose lives have been shattered. So these facts are meaningless to those folks and this is of course as it should be. However, these facts should NOT be meaningless to policymakers and to those more removed from the daily interpersonal violence. Because those are unfortunately the people who drive and set the policy responses. So the information and analysis that they use to craft those “solutions” should be accurate. And they should not have the effect of further destroying, criminalizing, and destabilizing impacted communities.

Cognitive Dissonance: How Can Homicide Rates Be ‘Down’ when Over 80 people are shot in 4 days? (or NO, Chicago is NOT the murder capital of the U.S.)

Last week, the Red Eye published a front page story taking stock of the number of homicides in Chicago at mid-year. It found that there were 182 killings in 182 days but that the overall homicide rate had dipped. The numbers of shooting incidents are slightly higher than last year.

Recently Chris Hayes ran a special report about accusations that the Chicago Police Department (CPD) manipulates and misclassifies its reported crime data. The report is good and worth watching. It is based in part on a couple of articles published by Chicago Magazine a few weeks ago.

I have no doubt that CPD massages its numbers; many bureaucracies have been accused of this and are probably guilty. However, it is important to point out that these accusations have been made against CPD for decades.Therefore, if the numbers are currently being altered and they have been altered in the past, we are actually comparing apples to apples in the aggregate. What that means is that we can rely on the “trends” in the crime data even if we can’t be 100% confident about those numbers year to year. As such, studies like those published by Andrew Papachristos showing a consistent trend of declining “crime” in Chicago can be considered reliable.

The numbers fluctuate but the trend is that, by official counts, homicides have been consistently decreasing. But if you ask people living in the most marginalized communities, they will tell you that violence is at record levels and untenable. Their perceptions are (comparatively though not in aggregate) true because there is a growing crime and violence (separate but overlapping issues) gap in Chicago. Daniel Hertz suggests an explanation that I find plausible: “Over the last twenty years, at the same time as overall crime has declined, the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed.” Hertz was interviewed about the concept of ‘inequality of violence’ and he expounded on the idea:

“It’s always been unequal. Everybody who lives in Chicago or knows anything about Chicago knows that there’s a big gap in many indicators of quality of life, broadly speaking between richer neighborhoods on the North Side and poorer neighborhoods on the South and West Side, and has been for a very long time. But that gap in terms of violent crime has gotten much, much worse. In the early ’90s, the most dangerous part of the city had about six times as many homicides as the safest third of the city. Today that number is about 15 times.

I don’t love using these sorts of terms when it comes to homicides, but if you look at the opportunity costs of your chance of being victimized by violent crime, it’s much bigger if you live or spend lots of time in violent neighborhoods than it was 20 years ago.”

Chicago is still the most segregated city in the country and patterns of violence reflect that segregation. How safe you feel in Chicago depends very much on your race and class positions. Those same social locations also condition how ‘safe’ you feel having cops patrolling your communities.

A Legacy of Well-Earned Police Mistrust

What the proponents of military occupation of Chicago never say is that the CPD is ALREADY one of the most militarized forces in the world. Last year, for example, Channel 7 news reported that CPD had been given body armor and night vision glasses by the Pentagon.

The Chicago police now has computer technology that it says can predict who will be a violent criminal. It has developed heat lists to focus on ‘particular’ people. This extension of racial profiling has been happening for years in this city with hardly a peep from anyone.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the ACLU published a report decrying the tactics and technologies of war that are consistently deployed mostly against people of color and the poor across the country. In many of the most impacted communities in Chicago, this is old news.

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 Burge and his torture regime in Chicago.

Jon Burge served in Vietnam in the late 1960s as a military police officer and was responsible for among other things transporting and guarding prisoners of war. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann suggested that he would have observed some of the techniques employed by military intelligence officers who were interrogating prisoners. One of the tools that these intelligence officers used was a “field phone” as an instrument of torture. Hausmann writes:

“Many also admitted that it was common for military intelligence officers to rig wires from hand-cranked field telephones to shock prisoners, ostensibly to extract confessions and information. But the use of field phones in torture was not limited to Vietnam, as the first reports of the device actually surfaced stateside, where it was allegedly assembled in the early 1960s by a doctor at the Tucker Prison Farm in Arkansas. Knowledge of this device, often called the “Tucker telephone,” migrated to Vietnam and references to its use have subsequently been reported all over the world (p.57).”

Burge joined the Chicago Police Department in 1970 and was promoted a couple of years later to detective in Area 2. Hausmann tells us that “the first reports of abuse surfaced shortly after Burge joined the force; the Tucker telephone reappeared in 1973 when Burge used it to torture Anthony Holmes during an interrogation (p.57).”

Between 1972 and 1991, Jon Burge tortured or supervised the torture of more than 100 people (all except one were African American). The methods of torture were diverse, systematic and brutal; additionally the torture which was perpetrated by a group of white detectives who called themselves the “A-team” was always verbally laced with racial slurs:

“He and the detectives under him used a variety of techniques, including beatings, Russian roulette, shocking, and mock executions to coerce confessions from crime suspects; these techniques were intended to inflict high levels of pain or fear without leaving any physical evidence of violence; most of these forms of torture would be familiar to people knowledgeable about the unsanctioned but pervasive interrogation procedures employed by U.S. forces in Vietnam. On other occasions, victims were handcuffed to hot radiators, forced to strip, and repeatedly beaten on the genitals. Officers suffocated some detainees by placing a large bag or typewriter cover over their heads; Burge and his colleagues also shocked victims on the scrotum, penis, anus, fingers, or ears with a cattle prod or the field phone (p.57-58).”

These torture cases were directly linked to the increasing militarization of the CPD. Imagine how well military occupation would go over in Area 2 today? The communities on the South and West sides that are most acutely victimized by gun violence are already the MOST policed in the country. You cannot walk three blocks without seeing cops. Yet interpersonal violence stubbornly remains. Those who think that policing is a main component for ‘ending the violence’ often point to the NYPD as their model. I wish I had more time to address this but I don’t. Maybe another day.

What Should Be Done? Many Community Members Offer Actual Solutions & Are Ignored

Last year, journalist Natalie Moore offered an extraordinary report about Senator Mark Kirk and Congressman Bobby Rush’s visit to Englewood. Back in May 2013, Kirk made headlines for proposing to seek millions of dollars in federal funds to arrest 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples. Bobby Rush immediately criticized Kirk suggesting that the mass gang arrest plan was an “upper-middle-class, elitist white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.”

Rush later issued a statement clarifying his initial criticism:

“Kirk’s “current plan does not include the option to create jobs, provide affordable and safe housing, quality health care and improve schools in urban areas, BUT certainly a plan to incarcerate 18,000 black men is elitist. Why is incarceration the sole option instead of rehabilitation which is proven to work and not locking young men up.”

Rush offered to give Kirk a tour of his community of Englewood and made good on his promise. Moore, a reporter with WBEZ, described a meeting that took place between community members & the elected officials after the tour:

Later, a group of about 35 local residents and activists met with the two at Englewood United Methodist Church. WBEZ was the only news media outlet allowed to observe the meeting. Kirk said he wanted to learn, but the senator remained steadfast in thinking that the Gangster Disciples are the culprit for what afflicts Englewood.

As mothers of slain children, block leaders and ex-felons spoke about challenges in Englewood, not one person mentioned gangs. Jobs and community centers were oft-repeated, and residents emphasized that police are not the answer to decades of disinvestment and neglect.

“Everybody’s depending on the police to do the job. That’s traditional. We need to go back to untraditional ways,” said Darryl Smith, president of the Englewood Political Task Force. “If the federal government sends the money in where the local officials can funnel it down and help build this back up. If you don’t have resources… people are going to die.”

Kirk responded: “Oftentimes when people say you cannot police your way out of this, I would say thank God that Illinois and Chicago didn’t believe that. We could’ve just let Al Capone run the whole place.”

The audience scoffed at the decades-old crime reference and tried to explain street crime to Kirk. The senator said his strong views about the GDs came from conversations with Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy.

Mark Kirk suggested that he had come to Englewood to “listen” and yet the account of the meeting demonstrates that he couldn’t actually “hear” community members who were asking for more resources. Instead he proffered his own “solutions” to the “problems” of Englewood. Those “solutions” invariably involved more policing and more “development” which has become code in this city for gentrification.

In early 2014, Mark Kirk secured $18.5 million of federal money to fight ‘gangs of national significance.’ Below is a breakdown of how Kirk believed the funds would be allocated:

Kirk said he expects the money will doled out in several months. About $8.5 million is earmarked for Project Safe Neighborhoods, which warns parolees they face long sentences if they’re convicted of a gun offense. About $7.5 million will go to the U.S. Marshals Service to hunt fugitives and about $2.5 million to juvenile justice grants, he said.

Mark Kirk is what happens when we name certain communities “Chiraq” or “Chiganistan.” By labeling some of our neighborhoods ‘war zones,” we invite outsiders to offer their prescriptions for how to end the so-called war. Community voices are drowned out and people who live in these neighborhoods dubbed war zones are perceived and treated either as enemies or victims. Their agency is discounted and they are not considered experts of their own lives.

I have proposed in the past that we retire these descriptions from our lexicon. By using terms like “Chiraq” and “war zone,” we (inadvertently) legitimate a draconian military response from the state (though the state needs no excuse to crackdown on the marginalized).

I would suggest that even more insidious is the way that these terms condition our thinking about ourselves and each other within our communities. By constantly referring to some communities as war zones, we trap ourselves into only considering “solutions” that are steeped in a punishment mindset. We fully embrace the punishing state as our savior. In that way, Mark Kirk is us.

When we adopt war metaphors to characterize how we live in our communities, we put a ceiling on our imaginations for how we might address violence and harm. After all, you can only respond to tanks with more artillery and not with a peace circle. Restorative or transformative justice require us to build trust and to establish relationships. This is difficult to do in “war zones” where suspicion and lack of trust are the order of the day. What we call things matters – the Right knows this – it spends a lot of time wordsmithing its ideologies – “free market,” “death tax,” “death panels,” for example.

I understand why we rely on “war” metaphors. Perhaps we hope that they will convey urgency and seriousness of purpose. But what we too rarely account for is that black people (in particular) are not seen as human – therefore the urgency that we seek is by definition unattainable. The state will not be rushing in any time soon to provide needed resources. Public Enemy illustrated this brilliantly years ago with their song “911 is a joke.” Black lives are unfortunately seen as disposable. And by using “war” language, we are further dehumanized (if that’s possible). We are only bodies, casualties in a profoundly anti-black world.

War zone metaphors allow Mark Kirk to utter the following words: “There’s a silent racism out there that says we can’t do anything about this, just give up. I’m not going to give up on the city.” Perversely, for Kirk, not giving up on the city means arresting and incarcerating a significant number of its black inhabitants. It also means continuing to violently police black people with impunity. When we rely on war terminology, sadly, ‘I have to destroy you to save you’ becomes plausible.

As much as anyone, I want the shooting and interpersonal violence to end. I want young and older people to live long and happy lives. I want our communities to flourish. More police and martial law will not ‘end violence.’ If anything, they exacerbate violence for too many people. Earlier today, one of my Facebook friends, scholar-activist Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor perfectly captured my thoughts and so I end with her words:

“They will propose anything but the damn things that need to happen–the implementation of policy and programs that give young Chicagoans the belief that they have a future and that they matter. Until that happens and is backed up by real money, jobs, schools, hospitals, library, mental and physical healthcare…among many things… Then this is all just a bullshit conversation by those in power and in the press.”