Misplaced Rhetoric, Misplaced Focus: Why Treating Chicago Gangs as Terrorists Will Not Solve the Problem

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Yesterday, CNN columnist LZ Granderson posted a piece on the Opinion column titled “Treat Chicago gangs as terrorists.”

Yup.

I view this as problematic for a good amount of reasons. While we definitely want to create a sense of urgency in the nation much like there was urgency in the Boston bombings and subsequent manhunt, I believe Granderson’s mechanisms and focus are misplaced. They only address part of the issue.

1. Terrorist rhetoric is already used in some form or fashion, with no preferred “results.”

As I state earlier in my piece “Stop Calling Chicago ‘Chiraq'”, terms like “Chiraq” began as terms that communicated the dire need for change and the urgency of the matter, but quickly became sensationalized, glamorized, and normalized within our society. Now it is a term that, when heard, largely gets a proverbial shrug and a “that’s Chicago for ya,” not a “we need to make change in this city.” And this is rhetoric that directly connects to terrorism.

Secondly, let us not forget that terms like “gangs”, “thugs”, “hoodlums”, the list goes on, have been used for decades and developed its own negative, demonized connotation that Granderson is somewhat seeking, just now it lacks urgency. It now follows a certain phenotype, just as “terrorist” carries: Thug (cue Black/Brown, poor, young male) as to Terrorist (cue Middle Eastern/Arab Muslim). We some of the same effects. We cross the streets when we see them the same way. We tug our children closer. We target them first. We fear them. It’s not like it isn’t already happening because we aren’t using the same term.

2. Terrorist rhetoric is alienating, and that is the LAST thing we need.

Most visible representation of gang violence or just criminal acts in general in communities in Chicago are teenage boys and young men. And they are not like the occasional “terrorist”; it is a massive demographic that is involved here. By alienating them even further, we perpetuate this stereotype of Black/Brown men and boys to a higher degree, instilling more fear in America for this demographic, and justify the same useless acts we have been fighting tirelessly to eliminate (i.e. racial profiling, stop and frisk, etc.). We would like to believe, in a perfect world, that this would not happen, but it already does, and it would not get better.

4. We have seen the horrific effects of such rhetoric on an entire demographic.

When the Boston bombings occurred, I quickly sent a prayer up for the victims and families, but also for my friends in the Muslim community, that they are kept safe from discrimination and violence. Stories arose of men and women being attacked because they looked Arab and Muslim. Heba Abolaban was punched in the shoulder. Abdullah Faruque was beaten outside of an Applebee’s. Valerie Kaur wrote an entire piece about the fear Sikhs and Muslims experienced when the suspects were presumed to be Muslim. It does not pinpoint the perpetrators at all but casts an entire community into hatred in the country’s eyes.

5. If the result Granderson’s seeking is more people off the streets and in the jail cells, it’s already happening.

In 2008, 58% of those incarcerated were African-American and Hispanic. I do not want to make misplaced assumptions, but I presume this number has not decreased since then. Filling our jail cells with them, the major demographics involved in crime in Chicago, is already on the up-and-up. And what is the community doing in response? Organizing against it. Why? Because it is not solving the root problem, but only eliminating the visible residuals.

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I do not want to spend this entire post bashing Granderson. I believe he had great intent. We all SHOULD be concerned about the 53 school closings and how that affects children travelling across gang territories or even interaction with rival gang representations in the schools themselves. Let us not forget the horrific death of Derrion Albert in 2009, a product of what happens when you redirect students to rival territories. An entire brawl ensued, leaving Derrion dead after being beat up by a 2×4. And we should ALL be concerned about the Hadiyas and the Jonylahs that tugged at our souls so deeply. But we need to be concerned about every lost life as well, even the ones that “seem” not so promising.

Provoking empathy in the nation for this issue is something I would love to see, and spoke about it extensively in “Stop Calling Chicago ‘Chiraq’,” but I believe there is a difference between empathy within these communities and demographics and empathy from the entire nation. As a Black woman and a Chicagoan, I do not need CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, NONE OF Y’ALL to create a frenzy over what going on in my ‘hood or any other ‘hood in this country for me to care and want to act. The support is appreciated, but not necessary. For my people, I know we are in a crisis because it is in my face every day. It is my reality. And this should go for any person that is connected in some kind of way.

But I know this does not always happen. And I know this definitely does not happen if you do not feel connected and have the privilege to not have to be connected. Someone on Facebook commented, “Why aren’t we told about the hundreds of deaths caused due to gang violence, and why do people seem not to care?” Because you do not DEMAND it. These communities can demand it all they want, but until the country demands to put a spotlight on it, it will not occur. Which is what I see Granderson trying to do. The method is just misplaced.

It is misplaced because it does not fully take into consideration those affected by the violence. We want to see peace, not more war. Creating the image of tyrants ravaging our communities does not solicit any kind of peace. We want to build uplift. We understand that part of the problem is systematic. It is perpetuated through generations. It is more complex than we would like to think. It does not follow the dominant narrative of what America views as terrorist.

We need to be in control. Not media powerhouses. Not the government. We, the communities, need to lead the conversation on how to view this issue. When we look back in history, the greatest advancements toward justice for us occurred when we took a stand and demanded we be viewed in the way we preferred. When we leave it up to mainstream media to write that narrative, we are asking for trouble. I know there are allies out there like Granderson advocating for us, but we have not come fully to that sense of public trust just yet. Turn to your local news branch of a major broadcasting company, and you see it firsthand.

I am not trying to have people believe that just because our communities have become war zones in many ways, that militant action is the best route to go because of how we understand the issue. I’m trying to save my community, not exterminate them, and you cannot say that is not a possibility because: 1) it happens already, and 2) we react in the same way when we label something “terrorist.”

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We, the community, never needed national headlines to start the movement before, and we definitely do not need them now. Keyword: start. We have to start first. We have to mobilize, organize, build solidarity. We have to collectively feel the sense of urgency and not be afraid to act. Empathy was never something given to us; we had to demand it on our terms. That process is much better, in my opinion, instead of perpetuating a narrative we have little say over that will probably present a result we did not anticipate or desire.

Stop Calling Chicago “Chiraq”: Addressing our Territorial Empathy

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Really?! (I did not make this. This was found on Google Image search)

Really?! (I did not make this. This was found on Google Image search)

This week was very tough for me. With the senseless murder of 6-month old Jonylah Watkins still stinging the city of Chicago and the nation, as well as the murder of 16-year old Kimani Gray in Brooklyn, New York, every day met me with intense conversations about the bleak path Black America is heading if our communities do not climb out of this despair of violence. I am currently feeling the most militant I have ever felt regarding these issues, and I have not censored myself from my peers. I do not care if people believe I am being overly serious, militant, passionate, etc. I cannot stomach these tragedies happening to my people across the nation.

Speaking from the vantage point of a Chicagoan, “Chiraq” in its glamorized form needs to be rejected within our nation. In the beginning, it was a powerful tool to stir emotion and extract concern from the nation regarding the atrocious amount of murders in Chicago in recent years, but now it has become a term that people outside of Chicago jokingly throw around as well as a term that people from Chicago have tried to reclaim and boast shamelessly about regarding their own love for Chicago. This is just one symptom of the sickness of territorial empathy plaguing Black America. Outside of the deaths of youth that we conceptualize as tragic because of their life prospect (which I dig into later), often we neglect to empathize on a national level, stepping back like it is not our issue if we do not have a personal connection. For those within these cities and communities, the lack of strong, continual support from our own people has caused people to fight this issue on their own or just accept it as normal (cue the “I <3 Chiraq” T-shirts). This vicious cycle is getting us nowhere, and if we do not begin to band together as one movement pressed to save our communities, I do not even want to fathom our future.

During this week, I witnessed a flurry of emotions from my hometown peers: many of grief, some of defense, and some of retreat. We are all embittered and heart-broken that the barrel of the gun has swallowed up the most precious, innocent, and seen-to-be immune of lives: our babies. And when I say “babies”, I do not mean the term of endearment, but literally our infants. While we may have predicted this was the course of the violence swirling our neighborhoods, none of us could have fathomed this to occur. But some of us were met with challenge. Some of us were forced to defend our city in the midst of our peers, and frankly, we are tired of doing so. The simple fact is this: Chicago as a whole is not suffering from this issue, but Black and Brown communities are. One pocket in Chicago can have an atrocious crime and murder rate, while the pocket directly adjacent to the former community has a rate that is slim to none (see homicide rate map here). We are suffering on our own, and this city could not frankly give less than a damn about it. And the same is true in other cities. Gentrification has done a powerful job of structurally encouraging poverty and encapsulating crime and violence in certain areas, the media of dehumanizing the slain, the government of skirting around the issue. When all of this trickles down to the “common person”, the fear is instilled and the empathy stripped away, and it becomes nearly impossible to rally concern. There are times when we feel national support (i.e. most recently the deaths of Jonylah Watkins and Hadiya Pendleton), but often, Black and Brown Chicagoans can end up feeling like the hopeless town crier in the middle of the town square. These are not issues that are contained to Chicago. Cities across the nation are suffering from violence, and we know this. We see the tweets. We watch the news. We talk about it. But often we shrug it off. That needs to end.

I do not want to make this post without addressing the death of Kimani Gray, which I have noticed has not been discussed as often regionally, and that is not surprising nor shameful because Jonylah’s death has ripped the Midwest in a manner I have not experienced before. Nonetheless, Kimani’s story is something that requires our attention. Kimani was shot seven times by New York Police Department officers (three in his back), and while the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg himself defend the actions of the officers without a full investigation complete, many witness accounts and family testimonies deny the possibility of Kimani having a gun, pulling said gun out, or even appearing like a threat to the police. He was even reported by a witness screaming “please don’t shoot me.” While this is a situation that has similarities to Trayvon Martin (which also swept the nation), it is the progression of the vigil (which there is dissension on whether a “riot” broke out), protests in the days following, and the police action that followed that is stunning. The attempts to smother the voices of the people are astonishing. Protests in East Flatbush, the community where Kimani was from, have resulted in 46 arrests. Young black men are being forcefully contained by police, reminiscent of Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing. People are standing up for their community, speaking out on the injustices in an overwhelmingly peaceful manner (as Michael Skolnik notes on a HuffPost Live segment), and are subsequently being forcefully silenced right in front of our eyes. It is as if I am being thrust back into the Civil Rights Era the more I investigate the story of Kimani Gray. Not much has changed, and best believe, this does affect communities across the nation just as much as it affects East Flatbush.

If you have not already noticed, this is a post to Black America specifically. I understand that for broader America, they need a moral connection to ever conceptualize that African-Americans being slain is a terrible thing. We needed stories like Hadiya or Jonylah or Kimani or Trayvon to receive our soapboxes and speak about the despair in our communities, about police brutality, about sanctioned silence. But for Black America, we need to realize that the prospect of Black excellence (as noted in this podcast) or the sanctity of infancy should not be prerequisites for us to get publicly outraged on a national scale. I am tired of hearing “oh that’s just Chiraq” or “oh that’s just Brooklyn” or “oh that’s just Philly” whenever we hear of murders of youth that’s stories are not so beautiful from Black people, but when we hear of an infant being murdered, we get publicly and unashamedly outraged. Apathy needs to be thrown away. You think this does not happen often, but I hear this so often in Minneapolis. I see this on the Internet. I hear this out of the mouths of young Black Chicagoans. It has got to stop. Because by doing this, we indirectly allow the rest of this nation to do the same thing, which further dehumanizes our struggles in their eyes.

This goes out my Black sisters and brothers whose upward mobility enabled them to flee the neighborhoods that need them the most. This goes out my Black sisters and brothers who mistakenly walk around with a “force field” that disables them from being fully concerned. This goes out to my Black sisters and brothers who are ride-or-die for their own ‘hoods but could care less about anyone else’s. Please here this plea: we must cause a riot over the “Bigger Thomas” figures who lose their lives just as much as the Hadiya Pendleton and the Jonylah Watkins figures if we ever want our communities to be saved. We must cause a riot of young Black boys being killed in South Central Los Angeles and Detroit and Cleveland and Chicago and New York just as quickly as we do in our own hometowns. We must cause a riot over the presumed “thug” or “gangsta” just as much as the honor student. We must cause a riot over the deaths on the West Side as quickly as we do for the South Side. I have faith in us. I really do. My Black brothers and sisters do not just extend my city limits; they are across this nation and across the globe. If we take agency not just for those in our proximity, but those afar, we could then begin to mobilize in a manner that will be revolutionary. I am not saying we have to be perfect. Lord KNOWS I have fallen into apathy, especially in my high-school years. I am not saying that we cannot hold anyone accountable in our communities and not instill some elements of personal responsibility in our youth. But we have to eradicate these territorial notions of safety, security, and who receives our empathy the most.

I leave you all with the song Lupe Fiasco just released in honor of the life of Jonylah Watkins. Stay strong Queens and Kings.