Monday, August 18, 2008

Violence on the Streets of Chitown: beginings of an anti-authoritarian analysis

Recently the Illinois governor made comments about sending both State Police and National Guard onto the streets of Chicago to help "de-escalate rising crime". The story made national news. As we organize in our region we see the need to highlight and examine stories that deal with our various communities.

The following is a short interview conducted between a member of S&D and a member of the new class struggle anarchist group, Four Stars Anarchist Organization (four stars representing the four stars of the Chicago city flag).Q & A were conducted in personal capacities and do not necessarily reflect the views of either organizations.

Q: In the July 16th, edition of the Chicago Tribune (CT), the Illinois Democrat Governor Rod Blagojevich suggested sending in State Police and National Guard as “a constructive way… to do everything that we possibly can to help… end” Chicago’s street violence and shootings. The Governor said the violence “is out of control”. And the August 6th CT edition cited the murder rate up 18 percent with sixty-two slayings in July alone. It seems so bad its making the national news, too. What’s going on here? Is this a real issue? Is Blagojevich playing political games, trying to embarrass Mayor Daley? Or IS there mounting violence and rise in crime?

A: Well, the issue is real, and serious, but Blagojevich’s statement was largely posturing. It reminded me of when Hugo Chavez offered to send Venezuelan troops to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Maybe I’ve just seen too many episodes of The Wire, but I’m not convinced that the actual murder rate is dramatically higher this year. There are at least a couple different political factors that could play a role in shifting the statistics. The new police chief is a former FBI agent who has no previous ties to the Chicago Police Department (CPD). It seems at least plausible to me that old guard cops who want to embarrass the new chief are inflating the rate relative to previous years. Alternately, it could be that the new chief is inflating the stats in order to demand more thorough reforms to CPD that would enhance his limited power base. Finally, I think local and eventually national media pick up on a story that sounds hot. That’s what happened with the student killings (your question #4) last year, and now this year with the overall level of violence. Regardless of the statistics, however, violence is and has been a serious issue in a range of poor and working class communities for a long time. What seems different in the last couple years is that the violence has increasingly intersected with neighborhoods that are being gentrified on the south, west and northwest sides of town.

Q: If there is a spike what are the reasons behind it and how does it compare to the recent past’s history of violence in the city?

A: I’m not an expert on this, and I haven’t looked closely at the statistics, but it seems at least anecdotally that the spike in violence, especially gun violence, has been localized in particular neighborhoods where three factors intersect: gentrification, the slumping economy, and changes in the structure of street gangs. For more than a decade, gentrification has continued its advance across Chicago, transforming previously poor and working class neighborhoods into dramatically whiter and wealthier communities. This process has frankly brutal effects on the lives of families and especially young people, forcing frequent changes in living situations, jobs, and schools. One result has been a series of shifts in gang boundaries and periodic flare-ups in border areas, where a gang’s membership has been displaced and forced to move to a new neighborhood that already has an established gang structure. In the past year or so, the rate of gentrification has slowed as a result of the economic downturn and especially the mortgage/credit crunch, but this has only exacerbated the problems facing poor folks in the city. This has increased the appeal of gang activities, especially drug dealing, for people whose economic prospects in the legal economy are extremely limited. Finally, over the past two decades the CPD and the FBI have largely succeeded in crippling the traditional gang hierarchies that previously held strongly centralized power over the vast majority of gang activity in Chicago. The creation of the supermax prisons at Tamms (Illinois Department of Corrections) and Florence Colorado (Federal Bureau of Prisons) a decade ago finally severed the links between the incarcerated gang leadership and the mid-level leaders still on the streets. The result was predictable to anyone who followed the trajectory of the Basque or Kurdish armed struggles in Spain and Turkey during the same period: a spiraling decomposition of the gang structure into smaller and less cohesive segments, with less central control and a greater tendency toward spontaneous and often counter-productive violence. The average street gang in Chicago now is fully autonomous and in total control of a few blocks of terrain, and the long-standing grand alliances known as “people” and “folks” have almost completely deteriorated. The old guard leaders who could have prohibited revenge killings, for instance, no longer hold power. These three factors have combined to heighten the trends toward violence in certain neighborhoods over the past few years.

Q: Parts of Chicago really come off nowadays as being “locked down”. Police surveillance cameras on all kinds of street corners and an increase in the cop cars cruisin’ the streets. What parts of the city are getting this beefed up presence and what is their intention? I find it hard to think that all the cameras are just to keep “the Order” and an eye on the gangsters. Should we think there are deeper State motives for this surveillance? Crime, which is real and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, can also be the pretext for initiating broad population and information monitoring programs, right?

A: Mayor Daley has really pushed for Chicago to follow London, Englands lead in terms of ever expanding surveillance networks. His rationale is of course based on the “war on terror” rhetoric so common since 9/11. He also likes to position Chicago as a world city (eg. the Olympic bid for 2016) and regularly reminds people that we could be a target for international terrorists. Some of this has to do with local politics and gentrification questions, but I think the more important consideration is the broad shift since 9/11 toward a generalized. low-level police state consciousness. I don’t think there’s anything particularly sinister or conspiratorial going on, but there seems to be a broad ruling class agreement that surveillance is always useful in preventative counter-insurgency. This assumes that economically marginalized communities of color are still the primary potential source for any insurgent threat to the status quo. Given the degeneration of organized black radicalism in the US over the past thirty years, I find it instructive that this assumption is still current within ruling class circles. For instance, there’s no reason Daley couldn’t argue that the surveillance cameras are primarily needed in wealthier neighborhoods, in order to prevent crime against the middle class. That he has instead positioned the cameras largely in poor and burnt out neighborhoods (including some that have gentrification potential) says something important about the purpose of the surveillance in the first place.

Q: This year some 25 students were killed while walking to and from school. Last year it was something like 32 students – some as young as 7. Looking at the gunfights and shootings that are destroying families and their communities, beyond the police build up, what other responses have there been?

A: Beginning with the media coverage a year ago, there have been a series of responses in the communities most affected by the student deaths. A number of church-based anti-violence coalitions emerged, although it’s not clear to me that they have continued. There have been periodic spontaneous marches against gun violence, and most black-oriented radio stations in town have devoted extensive airtime to discussing the situation (including several stations with an all or mostly music focused programming schedule). At the same time, there have been a series of under-reported killings by the CPD (almost a dozen in the past year), which have led to a number of protest marches and at least one near-riot on the west side. To the best of my knowledge there has been no serious attempt to analyze the police killings within the broader context of gun violence, the student deaths, and so forth.

One other response worth looking at is represented by the group “CeaseFire,” (CF) which employs former gangmembers to deescalate tense situations and prevent revenge killings or other spirals of gang violence. CF has historically been a mainstream organization that despite its unorthodox methods didn’t really rock the boat as far as law-enforcement was concerned. For obscure reasons, the group lost almost all its funding a year ago (most of it came from the State of Illinois, and the state budget crunch was the officially cited reason for cutting their funding), and the group is now largely staffed by volunteers with only a handful of paid employees. Nonetheless, the group has attempted to respond to a series of killings in our neighborhood (a half dozen people have been killed within walking distance of our home in the past year).

Q: Considering the complex and the near overwhelming issues here, between the violence and the States response, what should radical anti-authoritarians be doing?

A: First, I think we should be talking more about the situation. There is a tendency on the left to ignore this sort of violence and focus exclusively on police brutality, but in working class communities street violence produces ambivalent attitudes toward the cops. Many people of color, especially immigrants, do not trust the CPD at all, but in the context of gang violence there is often an acknowledgement that there are only two alternatives: revenge, or police intervention.

Second, we should work to build a third alternative. In Chicago, I think that means some level of engagement with groups like CF. Especially in the current context where the group is largely supported by volunteers, a critical mass of radical anti-authoritarians could have a real impact on the organization’s work. There are multiple risks here: on the one hand, the group’s historical identity has never been particularly radical and it is possible that direct engagement with CF could be a political dead-end; on the other hand, there are real physical dangers in engaging so closely with the world of current and former gangmembers, even when de-escalation is the stated goal. These dangers would only increase if some attempt was made to politically influence the trajectory of the group in a radical direction. Nonetheless, the potential of a group like CF is real, and we should examine it in more detail.

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