Ihadn’t heard from Sel Dunlap for years when he reached me by phone on Monday.
Dunlap, 67, is a sort of spiritualist.
Where most of us see discarded cigarette butts, food wrappers and other trash, Dunlap sees filthy spirits.
“White folks run from us because of filth and we run from each other because of filth,” Dunlap, who is an African-American, told me.
The Vietnam War veteran and former West Sider has worked in urban development and run for public office several times. But mostly, he has devoted his efforts to trying to show that there is a connection between the litter-strewn lots and streets in some neighborhoods and the amount of crime occurring in that neighborhood.
In 2010, Dunlap supported the city’s anti-littering amendment. In 2013, he championed Ald. Howard Brookins’ (21st) sponsorship of an ordinance that increased fines for the obnoxious behavior, even though the ordinance was actually a watered-down version of Brookins’ intentions since it did not mandate police officers tow the litterbugs’ vehicles.
Obviously, police officers have their hands full trying to get illegal guns off the street and chasing down suspects responsible for the alarming number of shootings that happen every day.
Still, Dunlap sees his “War on Filth and Fear” 20-year campaign as part of the crime-fighting equation.
“I’ve got a six-minute video [on YouTube] and I’m going to the [Mayor Rahm] Emanuel administration to ask for some help to clean up our neighborhoods. We can’t take back the streets until we can clean up the streets,” he said.
As weird as that sounds, Dunlap actually makes a lot of sense.
There’s only so much an ordinary citizen can do to reduce the violence outside of their homes. We can set good, law-abiding examples for our children. We can call police when we see a crime occurring. We also can report suspicious activity in our neighborhoods and get involved in grass-roots anti-violence efforts.
But when 14- and 15-year-old children are getting fatally shot in broad daylight on the streets that we pass every day, we can feel overwhelmed.
Yet, Dunlap is onto something.
When you pick up litter, you feel like you are taking a stand against the negative forces all around you.
“Our children act the way our community looks. They see nobody is in control, and that just encourages the bad behavior,” Dunlap said.
Unfortunately, what was already a horrific littering problem has gotten worse in some communities because of the large number of foreclosed and abandoned properties where it seems literally no one is in charge.
Frankly, I’ve never understood how people can drop their trash in the street or toss it out of car windows.
But I witness littering every day.
These aren’t children carelessly discarding candy wrappers; these are grown-ups tossing their fast-food containers like a brigade of street sweepers is following them.
My husband tried to explain this rude behavior to me by pointing out he knew some well-meaning litterbugs who thought they were helping street sweepers keep their jobs.
Of course, there aren’t enough of those jobs around anymore to keep up with the mounds of trash piled up in the gutters.
So, Dunlap is still on his crusade.
Besides tapping into social media, he is calling on his former military colleagues to help pick up trash.
“I’m especially appealing to black veterans to come and help me do this. I’m pointing out that whatever amount of time we have left, there is still something that we can do for our communities,” he said.
Anyone and everyone can help by putting trash where it belongs.
While getting rid of litter may not be the answer to ending the violence, cleaner streets will at least give residents in crime-ravaged communities a little peace of mind.