Alderman Willie Cochran says a change in the mentality about guns is a leading cause of violence.
  • John H. White/Sun-Times Media
  • Alderman Willie Cochran says “a change in the mentality about guns” is a leading cause of violence.

Alderman Willie Cochran has been trying to get to the roots of the violence battering the south and west sides since long before the latest carnage—14 people killed and 68 others wounded over the three-day weekend, and more in the days since, including a fatal shooting on the Dan Ryan Expressway Wednesday morning. At least three of the shootings happened in Cochran’s ward, the 20th.

For decades, officials have reacted to spates of violence with promises and politicking that did little to address the causes. When I recently surveyed some of the aldermen representing hard-hit areas, most admitted they were grasping for answers themselves.

But Cochran, a former police officer, stressed that the causes were complicated—so much so that he wanted to show me some things firsthand. “You need to come and see,” he said.

So on a warm afternoon a couple of weeks ago I rode with the alderman as he offered his thoughts on the dangerous mix of joblessness, neighborhood decline, health needs, and failed public policy that keeps exploding in areas such as the 20th Ward, which includes parts of Woodlawn, Washington Park, Englewood, and Back of the Yards.

First, though, the alderman needed to get some gas. He pulled into a station on 63rd. It took him a minute to find his credit card. When he finally jumped out, someone was already removing his gas cap—a man in his 20s with braided hair, wearing a T-shirt and low-hanging jeans.

“What’s up, man!” he said to Cochran.

The alderman smiled at the sight of an old acquaintance. “Hey, how you doing?”

The two chatted as Cochran topped off his tank. “I want to talk to you next week about keeping order out here,” Cochran said.

“OK, man.”

“Be safe,” the alderman said. He started laughing. “And get yourself a belt!”

He pulled onto 63rd. “That’s one of the shot-callers on the street,” Cochran explained to me. “I’ve known him since he was about this tall.” He held his hand up to indicate a shorty. “We need to offer the tools to people to make changes, and we absolutely need the help of people on the street. He’s someone with the capacity to go into anyone’s job training program. Will he do it? I don’t know.”

Cochran began working in Woodlawn in 1977, when he was a patrol officer assigned to the area. He liked it enough to buy a home and raise a family there. He also invested in it as a landlord and the owner of a laundry. In 2007 he was elected alderman.

Ideally, he said, more police officers would be enticed to live in the areas where they work, perhaps with the help of public subsidies. Other city workers could also participate. He gestured toward several weedy, vacant lots. “We want to repopulate our neighborhoods.”

But the city’s financial problems have led to the opposite result—thousands of public-sector jobs have been slashed over the last few years, with the losses concentrated in some of the same neighborhoods that are hit continually by violence. Aldermen have signed off on those cuts.

Cochran didn’t dispute it. “But it’s an issue broader than our city,” he said. “It’s an effort that has to be funded by the federal government, because of the lack of city resources. Do we spend all our money fighting foreign wars? You know, they call them antigovernment militias over there. They call them gangs over here. How long will it take us to understand we’ve got a war right here to deal with?”

The alderman said he’s counting on private investment in the meantime. He showed me a boarded-up three-flat on Ingleside and 62nd that’s being rehabbed; new homes on Woodlawn Avenue, just south of the University of Chicago, that are selling for nearly half a million dollars; lots along Cottage Grove where private investors plan to build a new athletic facility and a new hotel; and a nearby subsidized housing complex that will be demolished—though he stresses that its residents will be offered the opportunity to live elsewhere in the ward.

“We want balanced development,” he said. “But it does no good to put poor people on top of poor people. We know what the outcome will be.”

Cochran was talking about the disaster of Chicago public housing—decades of concentrated poverty, followed by the hasty dispersal of longtime tenants into distressed neighborhoods like the ones we were driving through. He argued that former Chicago Housing Authority tenants were “forced to create their own economic base, after generations of sexual abuse, violence, and poverty,” and many of the opportunities they found were not in the legal economy, which created new rounds of conflict and violence.

“It’s a factor in what’s going on out here,” he said. The CHA transformation “should have been done better.”

We drove across the Dan Ryan Expressway and into Englewood, where, on 63rd, a public clinic offers pediatric mental health services. Mayor Emanuel, with the approval of aldermen, has shuttered or privatized many of the city’s health programs, and the Englewood clinic is now run by the University of Illinois and a private agency. The public mental health clinic in Woodlawn, closed two years ago, was recently reopened, also by a nonprofit provider.

Though Cochran voted for the budgets that closed mental health clinics, he said he lobbied health officials to keep them open. Communities struck by violence need more services, he said—not fewer.

“We know that when a Northwestern student dies, they send in trauma teams. Someone gets killed out here and we put up yellow tape. We have not given people coping mechanisms.”

On the way back to Cochran’s office, we cruised down a block in Woodlawn where young men were sitting on their stoops watching us.

“Then there’s the false concept that you control a block, or two or three, and you do that with violence—instead of working together.” Cochran said that’s why business and community leaders need to create more programs to introduce young people to new environments.

Still, he said, there remains a culture of aggression and violence that has to be addressed. “I grew up in Blue Island. My dad was from the south. My father started showing me how to use a gun when I was five years old—a .22 rifle, shooting cans out in the country. We had six guns in the house. But there’s been a change in the mentality about guns. Now, in certain communities, they’re just used to harm people.

“So this is what we need to do: give people a ladder of opportunity,” Cochran said. “And those who refuse to be participants and prey on the community, the bad guys—they have to be locked up.”