It was the wise Martin Luther King Jr. that stated, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Though explicitly referring to the active disenfranchisement of Black people in the 60’s, this powerful quote provides much truth in the context of urban violence. As a nation, our discourse on urban violence has been exceptionally skewed and lackluster. Urban violence, typically characterized by much gang violence, is more than often discussed in exclusively punitive terms against the gang members. Break the Law and you will be reprimanded. Break the Law as a black gang member, and you will be severely reprimanded. Punitive methods of justice are inherent in our history and legal structures. But to what extent has this traditional reactionary approach negatively and unproductively limited our national discourse? In this post, I would like to offer two suggestions in order to expand our national discourse on urban violence and ultimately see more effective results.
LZ Granderson, a CNN opinion writer, suggests that we should all treat gang members as terrorists. Aside from the obvious fact that this would inevitably result in disenfranchisement, torture, and/or assassination, this perspective focuses exclusively on the gang member without considering the systemic factors that lead individuals to violence. Instead of submitting to the ineffective and reactive methods of the American Justice System (delineated by much racial bias), we must first engage in a more expansive and pro-active discourse. There are two main reasons why youth join gangs: (1) protection from existing violence and (2) access to monetary profits in response to lack of employment in poor communities. In areas where gang activity is especially high, so is unemployment. This much is true in Chicago’s South and West sides where the black unemployment rate is well above 10 percent. In a world where jobs are limited, and blackness is a barrier to economic success, many individual submit to crime-usually resulting in violence- as means to economic security. If we truly want to see an end to violence in our cities, we must also discuss its roots, and not just the end outcomes.
Second, we must also expand our definitions of perpetrator and not focus solely on gang members. Violence from police officers is a phenomenon too common and extensive in our cities. Surprisingly, our national discourse ignores this reality. Just this past March, Ryan Rogers was brutally killed by a Chicago Police Department (CPD) officer in a shot to his back. This past November, 137 bullets from 13 Cleveland cops killed the unarmed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. In March of 2012, Rekia Boyd, though unarmed, was also killed by a CPD officer. Nonetheless, these recent examples are only further substantiated by historical examples. Consider the case of Fred Hampton: the Black Panther Party leader that was a victim of a planned assassination from both the CPD and the FBI. The Chicago Torture Cases only vindicate police violence further. For about 12 years there was an institutionalized policy of torture within Area 2 of the CPD (used mainly against black males) that resulted in the unlawful imprisonment of many innocent men. Some are still in prison. It is important to note that these are not all isolated events. Instead, they represent a culture of police abuse, violence, and homicide. If we are going to talk about the severe issue of violence within our cities, we should actively criticize violence from all perpetrators, not just black and Latino gang members. Further, we must not ignore those slain under the name of “justifiable homicides.”
Some ignorantly claim that more vigilance is required in the inherently more dangerous and violent society of the 21st century. This is an unwise notion. As seen above, this may result is more violence. However, beyond that, more vigilance also means less proactive responses to urban violence. We, as a nation and as a people, should actively attempt to go beyond the surface and be more critical of the information we receive and the ineffective methods we support. We must be critical of those we charge with protecting us. And, above all, we must engage in a more expansive discourse if we truly want to see improvements on violence in our urban epicenters.
If we do not, more innocent victims will be killed, more youth will join gangs, and the negative cycle of violence will simply continue.