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The Real Story Behind Chicago's Horrific Gun Violence

Sky-high unemployment in communities of color is a key factor behind a massive spike in gun violence so far this year.
A Chicago police officer guards the perimeter of a crime scene where six people were found slain in February. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Don't let the appointment of a new top cop in Chicago fool you: The city's epidemic of street violence and record number of homicides runs much deeper than one guy can fix.

Still, all eyes are on Eddie Johnson, the veteran cop named interim superintendent this week in a bold (some say slick) move by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. An African American who didn't even apply for the job, Johnson jumped the line in front of three other candidates recommended by the Chicago Police Board. But residents and advocates focused on the city's gun violence woes—38 people were shot over Easter weekend alone—know better than to get excited about new personnel.


"Sometimes we look to the police too much for solutions, and they get too much credit when violence is up or down," says Natalie Moore, author of the just-released The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. "These issues are kind of beyond that. We have to be less concerned over some sort of magic number."

The police board has been holding public hearings throughout the city this year, which, in true Chicago style, Mayor Emanuel apparently saw fit to ignore. Chicagoans are used to such ham-fisted treatment, though: In 2003, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley bulldozed a downtown runway in the middle of the night with no advance warning—closing the airport known as Meigs Field forever.

Johnson takes the helm at a time when Chicago is experiencing record homicides, many of them tied to gang warfare. The police department's most recent CompStat figures showed 133 people had been murdered in 2016, compared with 77 during the same period in 2015, 59 in 2014, and 66 in 2013. Shooting-wise, police recorded 639 shootings as of March 27 compared with 335 shootings the same period in 2015, a 91 percent increase. And the new cop boss comes in under a cloud, having been named by a mayor many residents cannot trust after city and county officials declined to release video showing the police shooting of Chicago teen Laquan McDonald in 2014 for a year. Angry voters—powered by weeks of protests by youth activists—succeeded in ousting Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez in a March 15 primary. She proved stubbornly unrepentant in her role in the McDonald affair, which only came to light in November, after a judge was set to force the video's release.


The truth is street violence isn't determined by the police chief when you have a city with a high black and brown unemployment rate, according to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, which is headquartered on the city's South Side. In 2015, the jobless rate in Illinois was 12 percent for African Americans and 7.2 percent for Hispanics.

"You can't police poverty, you have to eliminate it," Jackson tells VICE. "We have vacant lots, closed schools, recycled poverty. There's a growing sense of recycled desperation." Residents tend to agree Chicago has to look at the systemic factors behind people killing one another, such as community disinvestment. Moore points to the work of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, where researchers are concerned with the access and flow of illegal guns. "It's probably more important to look at overall trends and what works and what isn't working," she tells me. "It's easy to get caught up in the number, and sometimes the solutions become more military- than investment-based." A recent University of Illinois at Chicago report on youth joblessness highlights a source of desperation: 88 percent of black youths ages 16 to 19 were jobless in 2014, and 85 percent of Latino youths were unemployed, compared with 29 percent of young people nationally. Brown and black youths also have seen jobs disappear, the report says. Between 2005 and 2014, Hispanic teens experienced a 42 percent drop in jobs. White youths also lost jobs during that period. If shootings and homicides are an indication of the long-term impact of joblessness and other economic events such as the foreclosure crisis in black and brown communities, the flip side could be the rise of angry white voters here. Crowds who flocked to hear GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump (at least until his event was canceled) on March 11 illustrate how white communities, too, have felt the pinch of an economic downturn and slow recovery. This phenomenon has been called the "hollowing out" of white America. "People's aspirations are being dampered. They feel as if their hope has been diminished," Pat Hill, a retired policewoman and former head of Chicago's Afro-American Police League, says about communities of color. "It's really a feeling of depression." Even African Americans living in middle-class neighborhoods or nice blocks of troubled communities can't avoid the impact of violence and the factors that drive it. "Part of the phenomenon of black middle-class neighborhoods is they aren't isolated from other communities the way maybe white middle-class communities are," Moore says. "As a taxpayer, we may end up paying more for criminal justice. The lack of education and workforce training for young people affects the whole city. None of us is truly isolated."

Indeed, Zarriel Trotter, a 13-year-old Chicago boy who appeared in an award-winning anti-violence public service announcement, was struck by a stray bullet last Friday. And while the streets bleed for wont of opportunity, Jason Van Dyke, the cop behind McDonald's death, has been hired by the city's police union as a janitor since his firing and indictment. Someone actually created a jobs program for a man seen gunning down a child in the streets, but Chicago can't find the wherewithal to put antsy, disaffected young people to work year after year.

Until the city—and country—gets serious about treating Chicagoans with respect, all the personnel changes in the world won't be enough to get us out of this mess.

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