Steinberg: Help isn’t coming

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Controversies boil up, cool down, and are promptly forgotten.

But sometimes they offer a little clarity that lingers.

A reporter popped his head in my office late last week. The Chi-Raq flag — a red and green banner from Spike Lee’s movie — is flying above the American flag in front of St. Sabina Church. Cops are upset; one sent him this photo. He couldn’t look into it — important things to do. Maybe I was interested in looking into this flag business?

Well … that would interrupt my musing about opera. But OK.

I phoned the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the priest at St. Sabina, in Auburn Gresham, known for his fiery, not always politic, activism. It’s a miracle he’s still there. For years, he clashed with the archdiocese and it seemed inevitable that he would be cashiered to some obscure parish. But plans to banish him always seemed to get scuttled. Pfleger’s a thorn in the side of authority, sure, but so was Jesus.

“Here’s what happened,” he said. “A couple days ago, I asked a maintenance guy to put our flag at half mast, because of the horrific January. All these lives lost and, in my mind, nobody giving a damn about it getting worse and worse.”

True enough, both in the lives lost and the nobody caring parts. But the flag is different. Lots of people care about the flag. He immediately started getting calls, “You know the American flag is flying underneath the Chi-Raq flag?” Pfleger said, quoting his callers.


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Pfleger said it was an accident, not a statement. The janitor lowered the American flag and forgot that would leave the Chi-Raq flag flying high above it.

“It was an oversight,” he said.

No doubt. But that oversight led to community action, of a sort.

“The disturbing thing to me is we have more people calling outraged about the position of the flag, an oversight we corrected immediately, and nobody calling outraged that in January we had 51 murders and 300 shootings,” Pfleger said. “And I tell them: ‘Now we’ve got the flag correct, how are you going to help with the violence?”

I can answer that one: they’re not. If somebody sets up a factory in Auburn-Gresham, selling Peace Muffins, so as to give 60 people jobs and start to reverse the total societal breakdown that is both a result and a cause of our violence epidemic, well, I’ll buy those muffins, provided they were any good. Until then ….

“Nobody cares about us being the poster boy for American violence,” Pfleger said. “There is more concern about the position of the flag.”

Again true. Though I would bet the cops care less about flag etiquette than about seeing the Chi-Raq mistake as a chance to whip out their batons, metaphorically, and work over a priest far too prone, in their book, to complain about the police tendency to shoot first and then ascertain what they’re shooting at. They can’t accept criticism — kind of like the mayor in this regard. Both tend to react to being shown in a bad light by leaping to make themselves look worse.

“It’s terrible, horrific,” said Pfleger. “I can’t tell you, hundreds of calls from around the country. People saying ‘It’s a disgrace.’ Wow, it’s been a real awakening. What are our priorities in this country? Where are these calls saying, ‘What can we do about the violence?'”

What indeed. Violence in Chicago cannot be cared away. If solving violence were a matter of marshaling the public’s good intentions or sincere concern, it would have been done already. That’s what made Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” so insulting; he implied stopping violence is easy.

What’s easy is protest, outrage. Laying the blame somewhere else. Because the hard, frustrating, time-consuming, person-by-person, block-by-block work of fixing communities doesn’t provide the kind of visceral satisfaction that marching in the street and off-loading responsibility does.

“The crazy part is we’re concerned more about the flag,” said Pfleger. “We don’t seem to want to talk about violence. People ask when I’m going to stop talking about this. I’m not going to. I say, ‘Let’s stop the violence and I won’t be talking about it.'”

So expect more talk. Though talk can be just another form of inaction. No criticism of the Rev. Pfleger. He’s doing what he can. But the truth is exactly as he says: people do not care. They aren’t going to care. Help is not coming. The communities shattered by violence at some point need to stop waiting for the cavalry to come charging over the hill and fix everything. They need to start looking at each other and figure out something themselves.

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