We should be talking about gun violence as a public health issue—but not treat it like we’ve done with COVID-19,” said Kam Buckner, Illinois State Representative for the 26th District, referring to the Trump administration’s early, bungled handling of the pandemic. In a clean, well-lit room in the University of Chicago’s Center for Identity + Inclusion on a rainy, overcast afternoon in October, Buckner declared, “We should treat gun violence as if there’s no price too high to prevent it.” Damp hung in the room. The audience of twenty was hushed, the only sound made by rain jackets swishing against chair backs.
Sitting with Buckner on the “Reducing Gun Violence in America” panel was Arne Duncan, former CEO of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from 2001 to 2008, the U.S. Secretary of Education under former president Barack Obama, and co-founder of Chicago CRED. Chicago CRED is one of many violence prevention organizations working on the South and West Sides of Chicago aimed at curbing the number of shootings. Duncan spoke about the founding of CRED in 2016 in personal terms: he brought up visiting the grieving parents of CPS students killed in shootings, a rate he said at the time was one student killed every two weeks.
During his tenure, Duncan was responsible for a large number of school closures, incentivizing school choice by opening of public charter and selective enrollment high schools. Although he was rumored to be considering a run for Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s job in 2023, Duncan has since attested that he’s not interested in the job and wants to focus on his current role.
To gain greater insight into the current increase in violence and the work of violence prevention organizations like CRED, South Side Weekly reached out to an array of activists, leaders of community and neighborhood organizations, and the director of an academic research lab that studies the issue.
Jahmal Cole, activist and founder of My Block, My Hood, My City, a social justice organization focused on education programming and volunteer opportunities for teens, and Democratic candidate for the U.S. 1st Congressional District, praised Duncan for “putting his money where his mouth is” by working with those most involved and affected by gun violence in the city. “We need a thousand Arne Duncans, if you ask me.”
Cole argued for reframing the issue away from a narrow focus on the violence itself, and instead in terms of the racial and economic disparities that drive it. “When people get shot in Chicago, it’s like they didn’t wake up today wanting to go shoot someone, somebody goes to the L and says I want all your money, and the guy on the ground says ‘Don’t shoot me, you know I got kids at home.’ And the guy with the gun says, ‘Same, why do you think I’m doing this?’”
When asked how greater coordination amongst nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like My Block, My Hood, My City and CRED could make real change in Chicago, Cole said, “You can’t program your way out of poverty. If that could be done My Block My Hood My City would be doing that. NGOs are filling in a gap for the federal government, but the government still needs to step up and support us as well. They have the resources and power to do that.”
And so, in one respect at least, they have. The City Council of Chicago recently voted by a margin of thirty-five to fifteen in favor of Mayor Lightfoot’s budget for 2022, allocating $85 million for violence intervention, a figure orders of magnitude higher than in former mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s final budget in 2019.
One of the organizations that received funding in 2020 and does work very similar to CRED, is UCAN, a youth-oriented social services organization working in North Lawndale and Roseland. Frank Perez, its director of violence intervention and prevention services, explained how their approach works and differs from policing. He hires “credible messengers” for his street outreach teams, often Black or Brown men who “may have been exposed to violence, perpetrated it themselves, or [been] victims of it.”
The outreach teams engage Black and Brown men and boys in their teens to mid-twenties who are considered to be at “high risk” of being involved with gun violence. Their goal is to “change their mindset around having to use violence to resolve a problem, or having to use violence to get back some respect,” said Perez. “Somebody disrespects you, somebody bumps into you, and doesn’t say excuse me. The code of conduct in the street says, you’ve got to do something violent to them…people have accepted that as normal behavior when that’s actually abnormal.”
On the street, for shifts that last anywhere from four in the afternoon until six in the morning during the summer months, UCAN’s team intervenes when they have advance knowledge that a shooting could be about to happen or mediates between individuals before tensions escalate into retaliatory shootings. The street outreach workers then connect those individuals with a case worker who can facilitate getting a job, clinical services, or returning to school. UCAN also works with the family or kin network to support that individual.
Increased funding comes at a time when Chicago is on pace for the most murders in a calendar year since 1996, and when violence is spiking not only in major urban centers like New York and Los Angeles, but also in rural, small-town America. Already this uptick is provoking familiar calls amongst politicians for heightened surveillance and greater policing in certain affected neighborhoods, as demonstrated by increased security patrols and installation of more surveillance cameras in Hyde Park in response to Shaoxiong (Dennis) Zheng’s death, the knifing of two men, and gunshots fired at Cole in broad daylight while he was campaigning at Harpers Court, all happening in the span of a single day in November.
Roseanna Ander, executive director of The University of Chicago Crime and Education Labs, pointed to a number of structural factors behind the present surge in gun violence, including the negative economic impact of the pandemic being disproportionately felt by young Black and Brown men, the murder of George Floyd and the consequent crisis of legitimacy around policing and government, residential segregation making access to employment and mental health services difficult, and the lack of a robust social safety net to provide those services in the first place to low-income communities. However, this came with a caveat. She said, “anyone who tells you they know with certainty it’s X, I would just take that with an enormous grain of salt.”
Because there are so many contributing and mutually reinforcing factors to this issue, Ander contended that comprehensive interventions involving street outreach, trauma-informed therapy, and employment offer “real promise in terms of improving outcomes for adult men that had significant justice system contact and exposure to gun violence.”
While violence in areas like the Loop or Hyde Park garners extensive coverage by local media, the voices of people from the most-affected neighborhoods are often left out. Longtime South Side resident and community leader Tamar Manasseh, founder and president of Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings (MASK), injected a poignant dose of realism into the discussion, where previous conversations tended to drift towards familiar talking points.
“Who’s going to go to school if you’re not going to learn anything, but you still might get murdered? Like, no one’s going to do that. And I can’t blame them,” Manasseh said, referring to the negative consequences of school closures that have forced students to cross neighborhood gang lines in order to pursue a decent education.
Against the notion that this is a matter for policymakers to deal with, Manasseh urged residents to take direct action and get outside the comfort and safety of their homes. “You’re not going to be able to do this from behind the desk or, you know, sitting in and looking out of your living room window. You actually have to be out here in it,” she said. “It’s almost like, you know, face-to-face combat with violence in Chicago. Like you have to actually look at it in the face in order to stop it.”
Manasseh also disagreed with the idea that a groundbreaking solution was going to arrive like a shining savior from downtown offices, especially from people like Duncan, whose prior public record renders some of their motives suspect. “More of the same, breeds more of the same. So, if you keep giving the same funding to the same people, and then they keep doing the same things, you keep getting the same results. So, I’m really hoping that, hey, they gave the money to somebody who’s doing something different and maybe that’ll help, but I’m not holding my breath.”
When Manasseh met with Susan Lee, Mayor Lightfoot’s former deputy mayor for public safety and now chief of strategy and policy at CRED Chicago, back in 2019, Lee urged patience for the new administration’s programs to work. From Manasseh’s perspective, things have only gotten worse. To counter despair and to mark the immense tragedy that any instance of gun violence represents, Manasseh, who is Jewish, lit a candle for every person who died between last year’s Yom Kippur and this one’s. Over that period, she has lit about 800 candles.
As an alternative to giving money solely to police or violence interruption organizations, Asiaha Butler, another longtime South Sider and the co-founder and CEO of Residents Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE), argued for taking a holistic approach and appropriating money for direct community investments: “It’s kind of one angle, which is like violence prevention, street outreach, and police, but we’re not thinking about the environment or the residents already in the area, who can be, you know, supported as block leaders. We would just love to see a little bit more of that.”
Butler pointed to projects RAGE has worked on to change the physical environment of the neighborhood, like their Englewood Alt_Market on 66th and Halsted St., which transformed an abandoned storefront, known to be a neighborhood hotspot for violence, into a place where residents could pick up non-perishable foodstuffs and essential items.
Broken streetlights, vacant lots, and abandoned buildings all breed violence, according to Butler, and so a simple solution is to demonstrate concern through strategic investments directed by the community. Butler argued that a vacant school in Englewood with over 40,000 square feet could be turned into a place for workforce development, a boarding school, or social services office that could bring in mental health services.
Creating sustainable solutions to longstanding problems like gun violence, Butler told me, requires listening to what community members are actually saying and demanding, relying on their rootedness and knowledge to create “peaceful oases.”
“They can let you know which abandoned building is the one that everybody stashes and drops the drugs at, or are dropping their guns at,” said Butler, but only if community members are brought to the center of the conversation around gun violence. Butler and Manasseh both suggested that empowering and rewarding community members for daily actions would be a simple and suitable way to foster and keep the peace. “It’s about giving the power to make our community safer to the people in the communities,” Manasseh said.
Max Blaisdell is an educator and basketball coach based in Hyde Park. He is originally from New York City and later served in Peace Corps Morocco. He last wrote about the book “The Next Shift” for the Weekly.