Hundreds of well-heeled, mostly white attendees filled the swanky Venue SIX10 auditorium on Michigan Avenue Wednesday evening for an event called “Chicago at a Crossroads,” dedicated to exploring the causes of and solutions to Chicago’s gun violence. The series of rapid-fire presentations and panels with researchers, elected officials, and journalists was hosted by the New York Times and the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab and sponsored by Chase Bank, a handful of philanthropists, and the Chicago White Sox. “This is like a TED talk,” a young man in the audience mused as we waited for the lights to dim.
After opening remarks by Times senior editor Adam Bryant, who organized the event, and Marc Lacey, the national editor who oversaw the paper’s Memorial Day coverage of Chicago’s gun violence last year, the Crime Lab’s Jens Ludwig got the audience caught up on the city’s grim homicide statistics and offered a series of possible causes for the trend-breaking rise in gun crimes that began in December 2015. Over the course of last year there was a 61 percent rise in gun homicides, a 43 percent rise in shootings, and a 26 percent rise in gun robberies.
What could have happened in December 2015 that could explain such dramatic changes in crime rates? It’s a question that has preoccupied and even vexed academics, journalists, politicians, cops, and the general public for the past year and a half.
Ludwig offered a number of possible explanations, rejecting them one by one. It’s not that winters have been warmer, or that there’s been a sudden decrease in spending on social services, Ludwig explained. Indiana hasn’t gotten any closer to Chicago, so there’s no reason to suspect a sudden increase in the flow of illegal guns to the city. A decline in arrests? No, because while drug-related arrests have fallen, gun-related arrests haven’t. CPD pulling back on stop-and-frisk tactics in light of looming civil rights lawsuits? That doesn’t seem likely either, Ludwig said, given that New York has also scaled back such “proactive policing” yet hasn’t seen an accompanying rise in gun crimes. Ultimately, Ludwig concluded, researchers don’t really know what’s been causing this rise in shootings since December 2015, but he warned that we should be skeptical of too-simple explanations.
It was about 30 minutes into the event before anyone mentioned Laquan McDonald or alluded to the video of his killing by officer Jason Van Dyke, which was released at the end of November 2015. Times Chicago bureau chief Monica Davey brought it up with the event’s law enforcement panelists: Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx, CPD Seventh District commander Kenneth Johnson, and Sean Malinowski, the chief of staff of the Los Angeles Police Department, who came to Chicago six months ago to help the city implement “data-driven violence reduction strategies.”
Foxx acknowledged that “the relationship between the community and law enforcement has been fractured,” but neither she nor any of her copanelists, nor any of the other speakers at the evening, mentioned a new theory reported on by WBEZ earlier this week: that the video, broadcast almost nonstop since December 2015 and proliferated far and wide on the Internet, may have dealt a severe psychological blow to young people in the city, hammering in both the feeling that young black men’s lives don’t matter and that in Chicago it’s possible to kill with impunity.
This is just a theory, and probably one too simple and reductive to be a complete explanation for a complicated social phenomenon like gun violence. But when grappling with the question of “what could have happened in December of 2015 in Chicago that had wide-reaching social consequences in poor, African-American and Latino communities?” it seems strange to overlook the most significant scandal to rock the city in decades.
Though Ludwig wrote off explanations about social-service spending early on, signaling that nothing specific happened in the last year to make poverty any worse than it has been, the panelists spoke at length about the effects of the city’s divestment from poor communities of color. The closing of mental health clinics and public schools, high unemployment, food deserts, homelessness, drugs, and other pressures contribute to toxic stress, especially for young people, and can lead them to seek safety and security among gangs and cliques, the panelists opined. “Once law enforcement is involved, it’s too late,” said Foxx to mounting audience applause. “If we are continuing to wait to intervene once someone has shot or been killed, it’s too late.”
During the “Solutions From Social Services” panel, former U.S. Secretary of Education and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan touted his work with the Emerson Collective to create jobs for at-risk youth, alongside Autry Phillips, who works on street-level violence intervention on the south and west sides, and Anuj Shah, a behavioral scientist from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Here too, there was a strange disconnect. No one asked Duncan whether he thought the city’s mass school closure of 2013—a strategy he pioneered in the early 2000s—had anything to do with the violence, even though community organizers throughout the city have repeatedly pointed to the closures as a serious contributing factor to neighborhood instability and gang feuding.
That last conversation of the evening was between Lacey and Dr. Selwyn Rogers Jr., a surgeon who moved to Chicago in January to lead the U. of C.’s development of a new trauma center. Rogers marveled at how divided neighborhoods are throughout the city, how neighborhoods separated by a mere eight miles have a 16-year difference in population life expectancy. And yet the issue of residential segregation, which has cemented inequality in the city for decades and continues to be reinforced by both the public and private sectors, was scarcely addressed.
At a reception following the two-hour event, waiters served the mingling attendees bottomless glasses of free wine and beer, as well as trays of fanciful finger foods, including tiny bites of seared ahi tuna, mini crepe pouches filled with duck, and skewers of deconstructed chicken and waffles.
Asked by the Reader whether he thought the school closures had anything to do with the violence, Duncan said “not much,” in a barely audible voice. “It’s much deeper than that. It’s not—relative to other challenges, that’s not the issue.” But he quickly punted the question to 24-year-old Brendan Taylor, one of the young men he works with at the Emerson Collective.
Taylor, who hails from Roseland and whose 16-year old brother was shot and killed in 2010, said the Collective’s social support system and job training have been invaluable to him: “This is the best thing I’ve ever been in, honestly, since I’ve been created.” Yet he was also frank that the evening’s event wasn’t the sort of thing that can really make a difference to the youth living amid Chicago’s gun violence.
“Events like this are great, but the only way it will actually make a change is if the potential at-risk men were here,” he said looking around at the crowd—mostly older and white, the men in tailored suits and expensive loafers, the women holding designer purses. “I feel like that’s the only way we can see a change and some progress—if we invite the potential at-risk youth, the guys going through this stuff daily, who have to watch their back in their neighborhood.”