After 90 homicides and more than 2,300 shootings made August the city’s most violent month in roughly 20 years, many Chicagoans are understandably shaken, saddened, and fearing for their safety.
At a protest last week outside of Saint Sabina Catholic Church—where imitation blood was poured out onto the streets in the form of an SOS—Father Michael Pfleger called for Governor Bruce Rauner to issue a state of emergency in response to the city’s violence. The move would free up federal resources to address the issue, including the deployment of the National Guard.
Rauner dismissed those calls. He noted that although it’s been considered before, deploying the National Guard in this case “wouldn’t make sense” and “may exacerbate other problems.”
He has a point.
National Guard deployments have historically occurred during natural disasters or other emergencies. For instance, Rauner called upon the state’s National Guard in January to respond to flooding in downstate Marion. After one of Illinois’s biggest-ever blizzards, in 2011, then-governor Pat Quinn activated more than 500 members of the state’s guard to assist in response and recovery efforts. Various state national guards deployed to Louisiana to offer aid after Hurricane Katrina.
But some recent deployments of the National Guard have been more controversial, particularly those that occurred after police fatally shot black people.
After 23-year-old Sylville Smith was killed by Milwaukee police in August, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker activated the state’s National Guard to support local law enforcement if needed. The decision caused a public rift between Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke—a conservative figure who notably shouted “Blue Lives Matter” at the Republican National Convention—and Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn, who openly acknowledged the city’s racial problems. Clarke asked the governor to deploy the guard, whereas Flynn worried that its presence would inflame tensions. After a few days on call, guard members were sent home without acting.
And when protesters took to the streets in Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed there two years ago, Missouri governor Jay Nixon called in the National Guard to “[restore] peace and order.” In addition to local police brandishing assault rifles and tanks and unleashing tear gas to disperse activists, CNN found that the Missouri National Guard referred to Ferguson protesters with militarized terms such as “enemy forces” and “adversaries” in documents related to the deployment. Headlines from that August questioned why Ferguson was being treated more like a “war zone” than an American suburb—a question that was repeated that November when guard troops were again called in to deal with the fallout after police officer Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted for Brown’s death.
Chicago’s no stranger to war-zone comparisons; we’ve been dubbed Chi-Raq, after all. But within the context of urban violence, Rauner was right to dismiss the idea of a National Guard deployment in Chicago. (As was former mayor Richard M. Daley, who twice rebuffed offers and calls to bring in the guard to deal with Chicago violence.) Calling in the guard at this point would only inflame tensions between black communities and law enforcement already at a fever pitch.
Although the National Guard has been activated in the past to aid black communities—particularly during the civil rights movement—it was done to support specific actions, not as an attempt to resolve more ongoing, systemic issues. In 1957 President Dwight D. Eisenhower took federal control of the Arkansas National Guard to provide a safe entry for the Little Rock Nine to racially integrate Central High School. When Martin Luther King Jr. led a third successful march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson called in that state’s National Guard to help supervise.
But today I’m not sure Chicagoans in neighborhoods hardest hit by gun violence would feel any safer with guards posting up in helmets, holding rifles and dressed in camouflage. For residents in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods—those affected by the racial disparities that undergird crime statistics and still working to achieve the equality envisioned by the social movements of the past—a deployment in Chicago might feel more like a military occupation. It would undoubtedly further black and brown neighborhoods’ disproportionate exposure to policing and surveillance. And when young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, according to ProPublica’s analysis of federal data, reluctance to bring in the guard isn’t just about a temporary inconvenience. It’s also about the very real fear of law enforcement that persists in black communities, a fear rooted in potentially violent or deadly encounters with police.
Sometime this month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will give a “major address” on gun violence that will outline a comprehensive plan. In an interview with WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, Emanuel noted that he wants to have a discussion “where the police are part of the solution in making changes.”
Perhaps we’d be better off seeing just where this next phase of the conversation could take us, and thinking things through before prompting an unnecessary escalation.
With activists launching policy platforms to address systemic racism, and community organizations working to reduce crime in their neighborhoods, there are many solutions waiting in the wings—solutions that don’t come in boots and camouflage. v