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Examining The Reasons For Chicago's Violence


We want to start the program today looking back at a deadly August in one of this country's biggest cities, Chicago. Chicago police said there were 90 homicides there last month, the most in 20 years, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Ninety people were killed, but a total of 472 people were shot during the month. That comes out to about 15 people every day. The city has had more murders this year than Los Angeles and New York combined. Our question today is why? Why Chicago? Different people have different ideas about what's really going on. Chicago Police say it's a combination of guns and repeat offenders. Other say it's the economy, gangs or a poor public education system. Still, others say it's the geography because Chicago's central location makes it a hub for the drug and gun trades.

There is no clear consensus, so we decided to ask several people with close ties to the city for their perspectives. You might find some of their ideas surprising. Lonnae O'Neal is a senior writer for ESPN's The Undefeated. She grew up in a segregated Chicago. She says that segregation is still an issue, but other historical factors are playing a part, too.

LONNAE O'NEAL: First of all, we need to remember violence in Chicago go way back. You know, this was mob central. This was Al Capone. These were gangster days. There are gangster tours of Chicago, and so violence didn't start on the south and west side of Chicago. Violence is very much baked into the cake and part of the story and the legend of Chicago. We want the violence in Chicago to be caused by A or A and B and C, when really it's a hundred things over years and decades and generations. And a real lack of political will to fully address and excavate any one of them.

MARTIN: Andre Hamlin is now head of security for Derrick Rose of the New York Knicks. He grew up on Chicago's south side, and he's a former gang member. He says one of the biggest problems is children simply don't have enough to do.

ANDRE HAMLIN: You know, a lot of time we have so much downtime. And my grandfather always used to tell me idle mind is the devil's playground. And I found myself like that after the day was gone, after all the sports was gone, that's how I found out. My day was gone. Like, man, we don't have nothing to do. OK, you all, let's break into this garage. You know, let's get - let's be mischievous. So I really think we have too much downtime.

MARTIN: A completely different theory comes from Dr. Carl Bell. He's a prominent psychiatrist in Chicago. He's been practicing there for 45 years. He mentioned a cut in social programs and another idea that you might not have heard.

CARL BELL: The other more recent problem that I've discovered is fetal alcohol exposure. If you think about who's doing the shootings, they're spur of the moment. They are indicative of poor affect regulation, poor impulse control. And when you look at who does those kinds of things, it's children who were exposed to fetal alcohol.

If you go into these poor communities, you see a plethora of liquor stores. And what's happening is that women - in this case, African-American women - don't know they're pregnant for the first month or two. They're engaging in social drinking causing fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in children. And so when you fast forward 17, 18 years later, look in the juvenile detention center, three-fourths of the children in those facilities can read - have something that looks like ADHD, have speech and language disorders, have poor impulse control, have poor social judgment. That's all fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

MARTIN: Father Mike Pfleger's voice is one that's often heard in Chicago on the issue of gun violence. But he says more of his colleagues need to step up.

MIKE PFLEGER: I think the faith-based communities have not had as much impact because I think they've been absent from the conversation. I think the faith-based communities have failed. You know, we're supposed to be the moral voice and, to be quite honest with you, I think the faith-based communities from the Muslim to the Christian to the Jewish traditions have been silent, silent on, you know, these issues in America of race, silent on the issues of this violence that's become an epidemic.

You know, I've always said the biggest code of silence, to me, has not been law enforcement or the street. It's been the church. And where has our voice been as a conscience to society? Where's our voice been confronting the neglected and the throwaways that some people have meant to feel in our communities? Where have we been demanding that corporate America and government step up and stop ignoring and abandoning whole communities and whole groups of people who are poor?

So the church in my mind is at a, you know - it's really at a crossroads. Either the church is going to begin to become vocal and become a moral voice again or the church is going to become irrelevant.

MARTIN: Well, one faith leader who certainly hasn't been quiet about this issue is the Reverend Jesse Jackson. He's been leading various civil rights organizations in Chicago and across the country since the 1960s. I asked him why murder rates in many other U.S. cities have been trending down, but going up in Chicago.

JESSE JACKSON: I'm not sure what makes one community relatively less dangerous or less volatile than another community. But the fact of the matter is people there deserve livable wages. They're the working poor. West Garfield Park, for example - $10,000 per capita income, 4 percent of the residents live in poverty, unemployment rate is above 25 percent. There are eight such communities where you have guns and drugs and jobs out, and violent conditions breed violent and desperate behavior.

MARTIN: You know - and I hope you don't take offense at this - but we also called Dr. Carl Bell, whom I'm sure you know.

JACKSON: A brilliant physician.

MARTIN: He is brilliant. He also says that statistically speaking, the difference in the murder rate between Chicago and places like LA and New York is not that significant, that focusing on these individual months like this - in fact, he says is actually kind of scientifically unsound. And I'm just wondering how you react to that.

JACKSON: I was coming down on sixth or seventh street from the airport a few days ago, and the houses where people were working in the Midway area with jobs and manicured lawns and the like, you could see a developed community with employed parents and the diesel school down the street. You cross over another street, you begin to see boarded houses, and you begin to see vacant lots and high weeds and closed grocery stores out of those communities which are breeding violence. They are targets for the drug trade, the targets for the gun trade. These children are shooting automatic weapons at 9 and 10 and 12 years of age.

And now you have this police-community tension 'cause you can't police poverty. You must eliminate poverty. You must educate children, employ parents, provide transportation. Chicago's inner city has been treated unlike the rest of the city, and the results are predictable.

What makes us do so well in athletics - the same kids, the Dwayne Wades of life. When the playing field is even and the rules are public and the goals are clear, referees are fair and the scores are transparent, we do well. We need an even playing field for opportunities, for education, health care and job training.

MARTIN: Do you feel this is fixable, Reverend?

JACKSON: Of course, it's fixable. I repeat to you, if you in fact were to employ people right now, begin to do the landscaping - all these weeds in the inner city - jobs, SBA loans. That's why we've asked for a White House conference on violence causes and cures. It's scientific. It's not natural. This is social and political. It encumbers on racial disparities which should be abhorrent and is, in fact, illegal. You look at the impact of poverty. People who often have fewer aspirations, they think they can't make it, their spirits are broken, they are perplexed. We must break that cycle and give people hope. Hope matters.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if you're surprised that we're having this conversation at this point in our country's history?

JACKSON: I guess I'm surprised that ears are so full of cotton that we can't be heard. And the sixty (ph) that were killed at Orlando - it was an outrageous terrorist attack. President went there. Vice president went there. And the lights were there. The killing in Sandy Hook - the government shifted its focus on Sandy Hook. But here when you have 2,800 shot this year, add that to the 500 who have been killed. And this state does not have burial insurance, so that they either stay in the freezer or they're cremated and thrown away. This is a horrendous condition, and we deserve better. We deserve rescue and recovery.

MARTIN: Are you hurt? What are you feeling right now?

JACKSON: I guess I'm feeling determined to keep fighting. There's something within me that will not give up, that will not surrender because I know we can do better. I've seen us overcome great odds when we're focused and tried, and I think that when your back is against the wall, the three things you can do - one, you can adjust or we resent. We become angry and just walk around paralyzed - or we can resist. We must keep resisting and not give up.

And the governor act as if Chicago is not in Illinois. You hear nothing from the governor except cut off resources for transportation, cut off resources for medical training, cut off resources for seniors going to get their medicines. (Unintelligible) governor's not in the state. And we've not yet heard from the White House and Congress on this problem.

We just asked them for four basic things. One, we want a White House conference on violence causes and cures; two, racial and gender disparities - the gaps are very clear - three, to address the impact of poverty which is a weapon of mass destruction and a plan to put people back to work. And it will work if we try it. We have ideas, but so far we can't be heard.

MARTIN: That's the Reverend Jesse Jackson speaking to us from Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.