Crime in Chicago is a hot story, especially for assignment editors in New York. Press inquiries are flooding the city, especially after a page one story in the New York Times, now more than ever a cheat sheet for insecure and under-resourced media operations.
There is a painful spike in homicides, despite an overall drop in other crimes. It's too early to assess how significant it truly is and whether there's a bonafide, longer-term trend. But, for now, mayhem in the Windy City is a handy hook and easy story, especially if the focus is on victims, overworked hospital emergency rooms and the perhaps facile explanation that's generally taken at face value, namely that it's all the fault of gangs.
The CBS Evening News has now weighed in with two pieces within a week. The first came on July 5. Then came another on Monday. One need not be a pedantic academic criminologist to have find both lacking. A bevy of important factors, including an awful public schools system, insufficient social support services for neighborhoods, insufficient prosecution of gun offenses and debatable reallocation of police, go unmentioned.
And, in all the stories so far, the city's political hierarchy gets a de facto pass. That was true, too, with a Monday CBS package in which anchor Scott Pelley interviewed Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Emanuel has had an impressive first year, inheriting a raft of problems, notably financial, and has brought a needed energy and generally unsentimental analysis of what was left behind by Richard M. Daley, his longtime predecessor. He may feel like a one-man Army Corps of Engineers poking around a giant, sludge-laden version of the Bates Motel in "Psycho," finding skeletons hanging everwhere.
But the Pelley interview was confounding, even startling. In particular, there was this exchange:
Pelley: When seven-year-old Heaven Sutton was killed last month, caught in the crossfire, you said, "It's not about crime. It's about values" What did you mean?
Emanuel: We've got two gang bangers, one standing next to a kid. Get away from that kid. Take your stuff away to the alley. Don't touch the children of the City of Chicago. Dont get near them. And it is about values. As I said then, Scott, who raised you? How were you raised? And I don't buy this case where people say they don't have values. They do have values. They have the wrong values. Don't come near the kids---don't touch them."
Where does one start with a response that comes off as if uttered by a judgmental, upper middle-class suburban product who doesn't quite get life in the city? For starters, those gang bangers are all too often kids themselves, certainly in the minds of most psychologists and pediatricians. At minimum, they were just like those victimized youth just a very short time ago.
By casting blame on them, he fails to recognize the extent to which they, too, are victims; of broken homes, dangerous neighborhoods and a public school system that is a mess. The maintenance of the values the mayor apparently holds dear can be a bit complicated when dad is in prison and mom is peddling drugs.
A leader of a big city might have a better understanding of the underlying conditions in which a teen may face a choice between being a victim or being in a gang, rather than blaming the "values" these young people have supposedly chosen for themselves and proceeding to cast virtually all blame on them. What's his own power to try to change the situation?
He is, after all, in charge these days, especially of a schools system he aggressively oversees in valiant pursuit of a turnaround amid dispiriting absenteeism and dropout rates. Nearly incoherently, he told Pelley that we adults will take care of problems like violence so that "You [students] think about your studies," seemingly losing sight of how the violence around them can make it woefully difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn.
Listen to this public radio report and learn of the 9 students at Harper High School who were killed by gun violence with another 28 shot. Good luck in thinking about your studies, boys and girls.
So the ultimate suggestion is that the gang bangers' own moral failing is their decision to transact business in the open, in the presence of blameless and younger folk. It apparently expalins the mayor's suggestion Monday that they should take "their stuff" to the alley and not "touch" the city's children.
It's as if a former chief of staff to the president of the United States had suggested that Iraq's ills could be solved by the Shias and Sunnis taking their stuff to Saddam Hussein's old underground bunkers.
Emanuel is the right guy for a tough job at the right moment but should know better. And bigtime reporters, like Pelley, should do their homework more diligently and inquire about, say, resources and what may be lacking for the police and city agencies which are mandated to provide a variety of family and other support services to impoverished neighborhoods. There is, after all, a guy in City Hall who's been getting the final call on cuts and, given a generally cowed City Council, getting his way.
What is the mayor actually doing, besides opining about "values" as if he were some disembodied voice from a faraway think tank?
Monday's CBS interview included his bringing up plans to close liquor stores and boarding up buildings where gang bangers hang in bad hoods. It fell short of convincing. He could have mentioned what he's doing effectively---or not doing---about the prodigious numbers of guns on the streets and a court system that takes a virtual pass in dealing with them. Real change might make what's going on in alleys not quite so perilous.
Values come in many forms. They also include taking responsibility. When it comes to crime in Chicago, the shrewd fellow at the top at least briefly came off Monday as if copping out.