What’s the Matter With Chicago?

Chicago's horrifying gun violence last weekend isn't the result of a "spiritual deficit," as Mayor Rahm Emanuel argues. It's the result of decades of poverty and austerity.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at a press conference on August 6, addressing Chicago's weekend of gun violence Joshua Lott / Getty Images

Last weekend in Chicago was a gory one. The Sun-Times summarized the slaughter:

A barrage of weekend attacks…garnered international attention as 71 people were shot, 12 of them fatally. The violence reached a peak early Sunday, when 30 people were shot during a three-hour span, including eight in a single Auburn Gresham shooting. About a dozen more people were shot on Monday.

The shootings have shaken the city’s political establishment. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Chief Eddie Johnson have staked their reputations on the declining numbers of shootings and fatalities; they are now grasping at straws to explain the current crisis.

Emanuel actually blamed a “spiritual deficit” for the spike in shootings and murders that are concentrated in Black and Latino communities.

“There is nothing on the streets of Chicago that is stronger than what is in the faith community and what’s in family. Our kids need that structure,” he said at a press conference after the weekend.

The mayor’s comments hearken back to “culture of poverty” arguments about the roots of urban violence, still so popular among not only conservatives but liberals too. (Emanuel tosses in a dash of Christian Right-style moralizing about faith and family, for good measure). But it is unlikely that a call for spiritual renewal will make up for the decades of deindustrialization, disinvestment, police violence and torture, budget cuts, schools closings, and all the other policies that have plagued these neighborhoods for decades.

There is something deeply wrong in Chicago, and the forces of racism and austerity are to blame.

Mean Streets

Unfortunately, there is little new to the current crisis in Chicago. The longstanding attitude of the political establishment has been that as long as the body count is confined to black and Latino neighborhoods, it is a manageable problem. Yet for the residents of these communities, the life-or-death nature of these problems is far from manageable.

Ten years ago, James Thindwa, a longstanding union activist in Chicago wrote in In These Times, in response to similar gun violence in Chicago back then, “America’s big cities have failed to lift their inner-city communities out of poverty.” It was that poverty, he argued, that produced the bloodshed on Chicago’s streets.

Thindwa’s article was written before the Great Recession tore through the US working class, especially through black and Latino communities in major metropolitan areas. An entire generation of wealth has been wiped in the housing swindles that to this day have left large parts of the city dotted with abandoned, boarded-up housing. Historian Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote six years ago:

Over 30 percent of African Americans in Chicago live in poverty and more than 20 percent are out of work. More than 30 percent of Latinos in Chicago live in poverty. In the face of such obvious facts, one would assume that jobs and anti-poverty strategies would be a part of any attempt to curb the violence in these communities. Instead, repression and moralism are deployed as the only responses to what actually is a crisis of racism and poverty.

Little has improved in the intervening years. Unemployment for Black youth remain astronomical compared in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reported in May:

A University of Illinois at Chicago report two years ago found nearly half of twenty- to twenty-four-year-old black men in Chicago were neither in school nor working in 2014, more than double the rate for young Latino men and nearly six times the rate for young white men.

That figure for black men has since dropped, to 37 percent in 2016 from 46 percent, while the share of black women in that age group who were neither working nor in school declined to 30 percent from 34 percent, according to the new report.

Many African Americans have left the city, whether for fear of their own lives or their children’s, better job prospects, or frustration with a political regime that cares little for them. Nearly two hundred thousand black people have left Chicago since 2000. A reverse Great Migration is underway in the city.

Nor is there anything new about the reaction by the political establishment or the various, mostly self-appointed community leaders. There are worn-out calls for more police, greater gun control, some tepid call for community investment, and the usual chastising of parents. But nobody really believes any real solutions are at hand.

South Side Catholic priest Father Michael Pfleger deserves some credit for keeping the issue of violence in the city’s poor neighborhoods alive through the many campaigns he has waged over the years. But the recent marches he organized that shut down some of Chicago’s main thoroughfares are so politically safe that Emanuel supported them.

Two days following the bloody weekend, Chicago police demonstrated their perverse priorities and were caught by residents of the mostly black Englewood neighborhood setting up a “bait truck” of Nike sneakers near a basketball court hoping to entrap black youth. Residents caught them oncamera and confronted them.

Meanwhile, the Chicago police have continued their killing spree, most recently by gunning down legal handgun owner Harith Augustus in the South Shore neighborhood last month. Augustus was a family man and barber who led a quiet life. He was stopped and killed by police for no other reason than “exhibiting the characteristics of an armed man.”

Augustus’s death lead to angry protests by nearby residents. The police responded by attacking demonstrators and reporters covering the story, in scenes reminiscent of the police assault on antiwar demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention.

Corporate Giveaways and Killer Cops

At the same time, Mayor Emanuel has consolidated his power and virtually eliminated any opposition on the city council. We face a united business and political class that’s determined to push through their agenda no matter what the cost in money or bodies.

This was demonstrated clearly in late May. A nearly unanimous vote on the city council for the Obama Presidential Library, was followed by a nearly identical vote for the new police $90 million academy (with Democratic Socialists of America member Carlos Ramirez-Rosax casting the lone vote against the academy) pushed forward the rapid gentrification and militarization of the city. Rosa was instantly attacked by the council’s Latino Caucus, who briefly expelled him — demonstrating that not just Rahm but the entire Chicago political establishment won’t tolerate any dissent from their pro-corporate agenda.

Simultaneously, Emanuel and the Chicago City Council are doing everything they can for a possible Amazon takeover of the city. Amazon’s search for a second headquarters (HQ2) has set off a “Hunger Games-like” competition that has proved a boon to the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos. A recently released batch of emails between Rahm and Amazon officials should cause great concern. One exchange between Jay Carney, Amazon Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, and Rahm is particularly embarrassing.

The Chicago Tribune quoted Carney: “Rahm — Assume you saw our news. We look forward to diving in deeper on Chicago’s proposal. As I think I mentioned before, everyone here was impressed with the proposal your team put together. Many thanks, Jay.”

In response, apparently reminding Carney of his ability to deliver a sweet deal for Amazon, Rahm enthused, “Whose (sic) your daddy?”

Emanuel and Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner offered Amazon a $2.2 billion package to entice Amazon to Chicago, with choice locations in the city. With the promise of bringing fifty thousand new jobs to Chicago, the new HQ2 would transform the city along the lines of much of Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan/Brooklyn. It would be a disaster for working-class Chicago.

All of this is background to the upcoming mayor’s race, which has produced an army of challengers but none likely to unseat him. Still, a runoff could be possible — perhaps with his former police chief Garry McCarthy, who’s running a law-and-order campaign. It’s a long shot but not out of the question. McCarthy might command enough of the old white backlash vote — cops, firefighters, middle-class reactionaries, many of whom voted for Trump in 2016. Combine that with enough people who think Rahm is “weak” on crime, and McCarthy could come in second.

Rahm’s campaign will surely paint McCarthy as a stalking horse for Trump and the Republicans. McCarthy won’t win, but he could have a distorting effect on the mayor’s race, pulling the whole debate and discussion further to the right.

Other factors may complicate things for Rahm and the political establishment. The outcome of police officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial in the Laquan McDonald case could be explosive if he is let off despite clear video evidence of his shooting McDonald sixteen times.

A guilty verdict will awkwardly vindicate Rahm firing McCarthy in 2015, even though everyone knows that suppressing the video of Van Dyke murdering McDonald helped Rahm win reelection last time. If Van Dyke is found not guilty, it will vindicate McCarthy for standing by his officers. It will also emboldened every racist in the city and county. But that verdict could also lead to a new round of large demonstrations and more militant actions.

The outrageous and growing inequality of American society in every area — jobs, pay, pensions, education, housing costs — will continue to be the underlying issue in every election contest, whatever the outcome of the Van Dyke trial. Housing in urban areas for the working class is reaching an emergency situation. Homelessness is increasing. The displacement of long-term residents in black and Latino communities like the Mexican neighborhood Pilsen is impossible not to notice.

This crisis produced a clear victory for the non-binding resolution calling for lifting the state-level ban on local rent control this past March. Crain’s, the mouthpiece for Chicago business, seemed stunned by the lopsided victory for housing activists: “In all, 12,519 voters supported the referendum, according to data compiled by the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. That’s three-quarters of the 16,693 people who voted on it.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strengthened its bargaining position in the city with the recent merger with ChiActs, the city’s charter-school union. The CTU contract expires in June 2019, and if the historic teachers strikes this past spring have taught us anything, it is that education struggles have the potential to ignite large, publicly supported strikes that can transform the broader political situation.

The situation in Chicago is bleak, although not without potential for transformation. It’s not that different from conditions in the city a century ago.

In 1902, the great socialist Eugene Debs wrote an essay called “What’s the matter with Chicago?” Amid a diphtheria and typhoid epidemic, Debs condemned city leaders’ inaction:

Chicago is the product of modern capitalism, and, like all other great commercial centers, is unfit for human habitation. The Illinois Central Railroad Company selected the site upon which the city is built and this consisted of a vast miasmatic swamp far better suited to mosquito culture than for human beings. From the day the site was chosen by (and of course in the interest of all) said railway company, everything that entered into the building of the town and the development of the city was determined purely from profit considerations and without the remotest concern for the health and comfort of the human beings who were to live there, especially those who had to do all the labor and produce all the wealth.

Debs called it the “deadly virus of capitalism is surging through all the veins of this young mistress of trade and the eruptions are found all over the body social and political, and that’s ‘what’s the matter with Chicago.’” His proposed response, perhaps unsurprisingly: “cast your … lot with the international Socialist movement.”

That movement and the city’s community and labor movements are still the only hope for Chicagoans who want the slightest bit of dignity for anyone besides the ultrarich.