The call for “the feds” to eliminate crime in Chicago, as President Trump tweeted this week, highlights the failure of the his administration to see Chicago and her families caught in the crossfire of poverty, violence, and political neglect as complex, compassionate human beings, who strive for a better life.
The consistency of viewing Chicago’s south and west sides as nothing more than “carnage” or “crime-infested” is, at best, intellectually lazy, and at worse, the privileged rhetoric of a person who sees people of color as problems to be eradicated instead of citizens to be supported. The administration’s call to send in federal troops is a thoughtless reactionary answer to a question requiring a higher level of gravitas currently unavailable from the highly-privileged, limited life experiences of Trump’s cabinet.
Over-policing and militarization of public safety institutions since the 1960s has created a culture of occupation, where police are forced, via training and policy, to see the vast majority of the citizenry as threats, as opposed to residents the department is called to serve, protect and build long-term, sustainable relationships.
Karl Bickel, senior policy analyst for the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, gives background on the problem of militarized policy, especially in African-American communities:
“The current drift toward militarization has its roots in the 1960s and the response to the social unrest that swept the nation at the time,” he wrote on the agency’s website in 2013.
The work of Bickel and others highlights the fact that military tactics, use of force, and the racialized lens of viewing African-American bodies as a threat to domestic tranquility and democracy influenced, and currently influences, police policy. Police departments in the 1980s, with the expansion of the war on drugs, began to look more like military operations, versus community services for safety. The Trump administration is immersed in this tragically flawed strategy of military-style response to socio-economic issues. This response demeans citizens living in challenged communities and undermines law enforcement professionalism and the potential power of community-based policing policy and community-centered solutions to policing.
Militarization of the police and the use of federal troops criminalizes the entire community, increasing tension, resentment, dampening community investment and neighborhood solutions to local problems. There is a role for the “feds” as Trump tweets. If this White House desires to support and, to a larger degree, the millions of people – not just Black and Brown – who live in distressed communities struck by the socio-economic tsunami of neglect and poverty, a broader and pragmatic approach must be considered.
The communities struggling with the violence in Chicago also have some of the lowest levels of homeownership. Home ownership is a factor – not the factor – but a factor in curbing violence. Neighborhoods with high home ownership witness decreases in criminal activity because long-term home ownership creates block clubs, community connection, school engagement, and a desire to protect one’s largest investment. But with a stroke of his pen, Mr. Trump has made it more difficult for first-time homebuyers with the removal of the FHA mortgage insurance premium cut. If this administration seeks to support Chicago beyond tweeting, then it should advocate the creation of a homeownership empowerment zone to invest in infrastructure in Chicago’s three most challenged neighborhoods, plus an expansion of the FHA loan program in distressed communities.
Instead of federal troops, let us create federal opportunities to move thousands of people in Englewood, Roseland, and Garfield Park into the hallmark of the American dream – homeownership. If Mr. Trump truly desires to help those “huddled masses yearning to be free …,” then unfreeze the grants flowing from the Environmental Protection Agency and direct those funds to those depressed neighborhoods in Chicago. As strange as it may sound, local gardens sitting on abandoned lots, along with farmers markets, actually decrease incidents of violence. This theory is backed by the creative work of Grow Greater Englewood, Green Lots, Black Oaks, the Sustainable Englewood Initiative, Imagine Englewood, God’s Gang, Faith in Place, and The Endeleo Institute. All of these excellent, community-based, but underfunded programs, have curbed violence, increased access to fresh foods, redesigned abandoned lots, and trained youth for educational success. “Greening the Hood”, to coin a phrase, creates quasi block clubs, develops tighter bonds with residents, and creates unique opportunities for youth to expand their imagination.
If Mr. Trump truly desires to help Chicago, a top priority of his administration must be to stop the alarming recidivism rate in cities such as Chicago. The current federal and state incarceration policies punish not only individuals, but families and communities. The formerly incarcerated are not given full citizen’s rights once they serve their debt to society. This system reduces their economic opportunities and employability, forcing them to permanently swing from the lower rung of America’s ladder of success. The formerly incarcerated (at Trinity United Church of Christ, we prefer the term, “returning citizens”), live in a civic purgatory; not full citizens, nor physically in prison, but cheated by policies that refuse redemption and restoration. The one institution hiring masses of local, returning citizens is the street, where an underground economy offers immediate employment.
Chicago is a city of big shoulders founded by a Creole of African descent named Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. Chicago is a great city, and her African-American community is an historical roll call of brilliance combined with tenacity. Before you tweet about “the Chi,” have enough sense to learn the stories of the people, the triumphs of our ancestors, and barriers we face. Maybe this administration should do more reading and less tweeting.