Painful deaths, politics and a city in crisis?

August 2018

A vigil was held on the South Side of Chicago for Oceana Jones who was shot to death July 31. Photos: Haroon Rajaee

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO—Violence that erupted in neighborhoods the first weekend in August rocked the city. The pain friends and family felt over loved ones among more than 70 shot, 12 fatally, was captured in a video outside of the Stroger Hospital emergency room.
Screams, along with cries of pain, sadness and anger filled the air, could be heard outside, while inside, the ER was filled to capacity and had to initiate a “trauma lockdown,” where only the immediate families of victims were allowed inside. The video was widely circulated online.

What started out as a local story quickly captured national headlines, and as the city moves toward a mayoral election in February 2019, the shootings became heavily politicized.

News outlets again ran headlines describing Chicago as a “war zone,” called the shootings a “bloodbath,” and repeated police assertions that the violent incidents were linked mainly to gangs.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Department superintendent Eddie Johnson appeared to go into damage control mode. The two stood side-by-side during a press conference addressing the high number of shootings, and seemed to lay blame on those who live under the threat of violence every day.

“I hear people holding [the police] accountable all the time but I never hear people saying ‘these individuals out here on the street need to stop pulling the trigger.’ I never hear that,” Supt. Johnson said. “It’s the same individuals that continually commit those crimes. Where is the accountability for them?”

“If you know who did this, be a neighbor, speak up,” Mayor Emanuel added. “Don’t think for a moment people don’t know in the neighborhood who was responsible … . They have a moral responsibility to speak up, so there could be legal accountability for those actions.”

Illinois governor Bruce Rauner said of Mayor Emanuel, “He’s corrupt. He’s part of the problem in Chicago. … He’s got to go.”

President Donald Trump placed blame squarely on the mayor, tweeting, “We must strengthen community bonds with law enforcement, including cities like Chicago, that have been absolute and total disaster … It’s called bad leadership. There’s no reason in a million years that something like that should be happening in Chicago.”

There are critics of the mayor and police force in the city, where recent weeks have seen anti-violence protests shutdown major highways and disrupt a coveted North Side evening of baseball on the predominantly White side of the city. That protest called for the mayor and the police chief to resign—and it was held before the bloody summer weekend. Both decried a lack of resources earmarked for the Black and Brown neighborhoods that suffer the brunt of violence and death.

Activists and leaders have complained much of the violence is fed by lack of opportunity, guns flooding in from nearby states, a lack of city services and a distrust of police.

“It’s hard to talk about violence and ignore the corrupt tree that produces this violence,” said Rev. Gregory Livingston, who was an organizer of the North Side protest.

“Violence is not impersonal. The people who get killed or hurt in this city, all have names. This means corruption is not impersonal as well, meaning there are people involved in creating a culture of political and socioeconomic corruption in Chicago. … Rahm Emanuel and Eddie Johnson didn’t create the corruption, but they can’t be allowed to keep perpetuating it,” he said.

“With violence steadily increasing in our city, our elected officials are still not trying to solve our problems,” complained 20-year-old Trevon Bosley, who lost his brother Terrell to gun violence in 2006. “We’re not going to vote for Democratic or Republican candidates. … We’re going to vote for issues that affect us.”

Shootings involving gangs do occur in the city, but with so many taking place in the span of 72 hours, questions arose. Rumors spread that perhaps those paid to protect the community are perpetuating the violence.

“I think these shootings are a scare tactic; a smaller version of 9/11,” said Earl Walker, founder and CEO of G.U.T.S. (Giving Up the Streets), an organization dedicated to mentoring Chicago youth who live at-risk lifestyles.

“I think it’s manufactured violence because that kind of tactic works on a global scale, but also a local scale. I think the constant state of panic, disarray and anger in the Black community, is done on purpose,” he said.

“When you have shootings at this level, with all of the cameras that police have on the corners, store surveillance cameras, fewer buildings, 24/7 street patrols, and you can’t figure out who are committing the crimes, shootings and murders? And you can’t figure out how to stop or prevent them? To me, that just means [the police] can’t arrest themselves.”

Mr. Walker is convinced the string of shootings over the August weekend was retaliatory on the part of the police department.

He surmised that cops are upset at recent protests that shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side, and Lake Shore Drive on Chicago’s North Side. Adding fuel to Mr. Walker’s theory was a post on the Fraternal Order of Police blog, “The Watch,” blasting a consent decree recently proposed by Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, which outlined terms for federal oversight of the police department.

It would more stringently regulate police use of force and offer more public transparency on police discipline.

“Last weekend’s mayhem is a direct result and chilling refutation of the entire argument posed by the talking heads from the city, attorney general, and from groups like the ACLU to impose this proposed consent decree,” the post read, adding, “It also may very well be a hint of what is to come if the war on police continues.”

Adding to the police involvement and retaliation theory was news of a Chicago Police Department “bait truck” in the Englewood community filled with Nike sneakers. Activists condemned it as an attempt to entice people to break in and try to steal what’s inside.

A video recorded by community activist Charles McKenzie, showing police arresting someone as a result of the sting operation, quickly went viral. According to Mr. Walker, another bait truck was setup on the South Side of Chicago using a Walmart brand trailer sitting, seemingly occupied, on the street.

While police superintendent Johnson and the mayor have repeatedly stressed a desire to gain community trust, operations like this add more distrust and raise people’s anger.

Alderman Roderick Sawyer, chair of the Chicago City Council Black Caucus, blasted police for the sting.

“In a moment where police capacity is clearly under extreme strain, these sorts of tactics are the last thing we should be spending manpower and energy on,” Mr. Sawyer said in a statement.

“This initiative serves only to undermine already fragile efforts to build trust between law enforcement and the community, and to reinforce counterproductive policies that have contributed to the mass incarceration of Black youth in our city.”

Enoch Muhammad, founder of Hip Hop Detoxx, which engages and empowers young people, agreed.

“Whenever we have an election cycle, you get the same game that’s being played,” he said. “We can’t fall for the engineered diversions and distractions,” Mr. Muhammad told The Final Call. “When you set up a bait truck—and now it’s national news that the Chicago Police Department and the railroad company were behind this—in impoverished areas, trying to entrap people in poverty and colonized conditions into getting into criminal activity, it’s criminal to even bait them in the first place.

“But this just serves as a sign that if the police would bait Black people with gym shoes, what else have they been doing?”

WVON radio host Perri Small listened to the press conference held by Mayor Emanuel and police chief Johnson via telephone. Ms. Small felt the mayor and police superintendent were more worried about their public reputations, particularly after the shootings became national news, than fixing the problem. She said their words amounted to nothing more than optics and political posturing.
“Rahm Emanuel continues to keep people in this city impoverished, unprotected and dismissed. He’s more worried about his national and global reputation, and getting re-elected as mayor,” Ms. Small told The Final Call. “When Eddie Johnson was a commander in the 6th District, he was very good at what he did. I think he’s in over his head now because he does not have the respect of the White rank-and-fi le officers or the F.O.P. (Fraternal Order of Police),” she said. “He is consistently advocating for police officers because they all bleed blue, but when it comes down to it, I want him to stop blaming Black people for the police only having a 17 percent homicide closure rate, which is the lowest in the country.

“If Eddie Johnson says the police know who the repeat gun offenders are, then why can’t they solve these homicides by arresting these people and get them off the street?”

The shootings are a sobering reminder of the need for Black Chicago to work together. If not, the endless cycle of violence that leads to death or incarceration will continue.

“I used this quote for one of my courses from when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree in psychology, and it’s from Larry Hoover,” Mr. Walker explained. Larry Hoover is founder of the Gangster Disciples street organization, and is currently serving six consecutive life sentences.

Mr. Walker continued, “He said that Blacks represented 37 percent of the prison population, even though we’re only 12 percent of all people in the country. Larry Hoover said that by the year 2015, they’re going to have 70 percent of our community locked up, and the other 30 percent will be prisoners in their own community. The man was a prophet. He was right, because that’s exactly what’s going on right now.”

The pain of losing a loved one and the trauma of being shot is all too real. On Friday, August 3, three people were shot. The following day, Saturday, August 4, 14 people were shot. On Sunday, August 5, 47 people were shot, with the violence spilling over into early Monday, August 6, when six people were shot, all before 5 a.m. Many of the victims were teenagers, however the youngest was just 11-years-old.

While many shootings and murders occurred because someone fired into a large crowd of people, the most callous killing didn’t happen over the weekend, but earlier in the week, on Tuesday, July 31. Twenty-one-year-old Oceana Jones was shot and killed on 79th Street in Chicago’s Gresham neighborhood on the South Side.

Ms. Jones and her boyfriend were chased by a group of men after leaving a gas station. Police say it was a case of mistaken identity.

“They said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘I’m not from around here,’ That’s when he shot the first time,” Ms. Jones’ boyfriend, Darnell, said explaining what happened that fatal night. “We were holding hands, running. He shot one time and then hit us. Then she let go of my hand, she tried to hide, then he shot again. Words can’t explain how I feel right now. No words. I’m broken to pieces. Don’t nobody know this girl like I do.”

According to her mother, Oceana was a straight-A student in high school and had just turned 21 several weeks before she was killed. While police continue to investigate the shooting, and despite the scene being captured on the gas station surveillance video, no arrests have been made.

As it stands, the city’s response to the violence is the same as always: Throw more policemen at the problem. Mayor Emanuel and Supt. Johnson plan to send 430 additional officers into the South and West Side neighborhoods considered to be the most violent during the week, and on weekends, that number would increase to 600.

Officers will be required to work overtime, and on planned days off. Officers from other units within the department will be required to work patrols.

Last November, the Chicago City Council passed Mayor Emanuel’s $8.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2018, which will help complete his two-year plan to hire more police officers—including adding 250 new cops to the force, 192 field training officers, 100 detectives, 50 lieutenants, and 37 sergeants, bolster nerve centers used to monitor and fight crime, and facilitate police reform. The police budget is over $1 billion.

Still, with all of this investment into police and public safety, the city continues to divest from Chicago’s predominantly Black communities.

Mr. Muhammad feels the real work in helping curb violence starts with the people who live in areas most prone to violence.

“We have to make our neighborhoods clean, and decent places to live,” Enoch Muhammad argued. “The different groups and coalitions that we work with, we are trying to project life onto our people. That doesn’t mean we dismiss those protesting city officials, police and aldermen, but we want to send the message to the people in the neighborhood who live on these blocks, that our first responsibility is to project life in our own homes. If we don’t, we’ll continue this cycle. The ruin of a neighborhood, the ruin of a city, the ruin of a nation, starts in the home.

“So we have to start talking to people about what they can do, starting at home, to help those in our community have a respect for life, and teach them how to live life and not continue the cycle of death that has been going on in our communities generationally.”