COLUMNISTS

Republicans who say 'Chicago' when asked about gun violence ignore their own local tragedies

No one is denying that violence, illegal guns and gang activity are a problem. But it's a misconception that Chicago is America's crime capital.

But what about Chicago? 

It’s become the rallying cry whenever Black Americans lament the over-policing of Black people and the sometimes deadly encounters between Black individuals and law enforcement officers.

“What about Black-on-Black crime?”

"Where's the outrage about Chicago?"

"Do Black lives really matter?"

The sanctimonious questions often pop up on social media. Fox News and other conservative media seem particularly fixated on the "crime crisis" in the Windy City – along with other Democratic-led cities, of course. 

Elected Republican officials are playing the let's-disparage-Chicago game, even as tragedy, violence and mass shootings strike their own communities. 

Imagine a high-profile politician pointing fingers and talking about how violent Chicago is instead of addressing a horrifyingly violent massacre in his own state that left constituents scared and angry.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott deflects after Uvalde

That's exactly what Texas Gov. Greg Abbott did following the May 24 slaughter of 19 children and two teachers at a school in Uvalde

“I hate to say this, but there are more people shot every weekend in Chicago than there are in schools in Texas," Abbott said

What a disgrace.

Abbott chose deflection instead of addressing the gun and homicide problem that exists on his own turf. In fact, Illinois experienced 1,745 gun deaths in 2020 compared with 4,164 in Texas, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chicago's murder rate ranks 28th among cities with populations of more than 100,000 people.

That's hardly the murder capital of the world.

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No one is denying that violence, illegal guns and gang activity are a problem – in Chicago and in many other cities around the country. But the reality is most of those often racially motivated, dog-whistling individuals have no vested interest in the city or its Black residents – dead or alive – they profess to be so worried about.

Yet there are countless Chicagoans who devote their time to quelling violence in their community – so many who work day and night to keep shootings at bay. Their efforts to collaborate with police and confront crime from a grassroots level are rarely acknowledged. 

Partnerships with police are working

It's a misconception that Chicago is America's crime capital. In fact, the number of homicides in Chicago has dropped this year, after a surge in 2020 and 2021 – during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Homicides in Chicago this year are expected to top 600 – down more than 10% compared with each of the past two years. 

Ornaments bearing the names and images of Chicagoans killed in gun violence hang on the Tree of Remembrance at Daley Plaza in Chicago on Dec. 14, 2020.

After spending time here with some of the nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, block clubs and community organizers determined to disrupt the cycle of violence, I have no doubt they deserve much of the credit for the reduction. They have created a comprehensive network.

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Often, these public-private collaborations, known generally as community violence intervention, employ trained professionals and community members to intervene and stop violent conflicts and provide wraparound services to those who have a high risk of violence.

Is Chicago a crimeless city? Of course not. Are people working to make it a safe place to live, work, shop and play? You bet. 

Participants of READI Chicago at work in the city's Grant Park. The program is one of several around the country utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy with men at risk of being involved in gun violence. In addition to providing the men with part-time work, READI Chicago also requires participants to attend daily group therapy sessions or life skills classes.

“Progress on violence can be slow, and at times can be frustrating. But we’re working on it day in and day out,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last month during a news conference. “And we’re seeing the fruits of those labors.”  

'I want them to win at all costs'

Wendy Borlabi, director of mental health and performance for the Chicago Bulls, said there are seven or eight nonprofits that have united in Chicago with a similar mission: educating inner city youth and encouraging them to dream of a life that doesn't involve criminal activity. 

"There's a lot of positive things happening for our youth in Chicago," said Borlabi, a sports psychologist. "I think we just get a bad rap nationally because of all the negative that comes out. There are so many good things that we're doing to try to lift our youth up and educate them, to build them up, keep them safe and give them alternatives."

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Marpray Monson, for example, returned to Chicago after attending college at the University of Kansas to make a difference. He worked as a Chicago Public Schools dean of discipline and as a high school basketball coach before walking away from his job.

Marpray Monson returned to Chicago after college to uplift the youth in his community.

Monson, 39, became frustrated with his underperforming neighborhood and school, the food deserts and poverty, and the crime that was claiming the lives of his students. He wanted a more hands-on approach. In 2013, he started a program called Hoopademix, an initiative that combines instructional basketball with academic and personal mentorship.

The goal is to straddle social and economic backgrounds to bring together racially diverse communities and families across Chicago. Ultimately, the group works to build character, teach conflict-resolution skills and keep kids off the streets.

"I want them to win at all costs," Monson told me, as we watched his summer camp participants run drills and sink shots during open play. "And where do I want them to win? In the most important game they will play, and that's life. Ball is my world, right? But ball is just a vehicle where I can really help show these kids what life is all about."

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Coach Pray, as he's called, works as a sneaky double agent. Yes, he may take his teams on the road for youth league basketball tournaments, but while visiting those various cities he's also going to make sure the kids go visit the local college campus.

Christian Michaels, a Southern Methodist University student, and Terry Gordon, a Marquette University student, return to Chicago in the summer to help coach and mentor youth.

"I'm always looking for teachable moments – a way to show there's more to life than violence," Monson said. "We can either roll up into a ball and go home or try to fight through it. We've got to start catching kids early here in Chicago – like second and third grade. We don't want them slipping through the cracks and ending up in the streets."

More than an easy buzzword for crime

Monson's sentiments can be heard and seen across the city. These folks are constructing a safety nets for kids and adults. They are working in Chicago's most disadvantaged neighborhoods to build a sense of community and crush the narrative that no one cares about lawlessness. 

Trust me, they care. 

Chicago has simply become an easy buzzword when it comes to crime – it's convenient reductionism for the parrots who choose to ignore facts, statistics and the sustained effort by Chicagoans who refuse to succumb to persistent criminal activity in their neighborhoods.

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Anti-violence protesters march along Interstate 94 in Chicago.

When someone says: “But what about Chicago?” they are discounting those who protest and devote their time and energy to changing the fabric of their city. Black people can chew gum and walk at the same time. They can reimagine a world where people of color are not killed by police or by their peers. It shouldn’t be an either/or scenario.

"We're like every other city – we're all trying to invest in our community and the youth," Borlabi told me. "But the positive that we do in Chicago gets overshadowed by the negative of what happens in Chicago." 

"I've lived all over the country and violence is everywhere," she continued. "It's not like it's just Chicago, but for some reason it's always pointed toward us that we are the capital of Black-on-Black crime. In my experience, I don't think we are."

Hoopademix participants Jermaine Thomas, Oliver Plax, Hunter Ochstein and Holden Thomas learn about basketball basics and build lifelong friendships.

Yes, violence exists in Chicago – and in many other American cities. But block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, Chicagoans are fighting daily for the safety of their own. They mentor youth. They confront gangbangers. They tutor children and work in schools to bolster education. They partner with police to patrol city streets. They feed and clothe those in need. They encourage athletics like basketball to keep young people occupied and focused on goals that reject crime.

Maybe the oh-so-concerned "But what about Chicago?" crowd should take action and join them.

Suzette Hackney

National columnist/deputy opinion editor Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at shackney@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @suzyscribe

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This is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.