Editor’s note: This is the sixth in an occasional series of opinion essays, produced in cooperation with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, exploring solutions to the scourge of gun violence in Chicago. The Crime Lab released a report this month about the historic surge in gun violence in Chicago last year, providing insight into what happened and why. Silencing the Guns continues the conversation. Lori E. Lightfoot, an attorney, is president of the Chicago Police Board.
How many more have to die?
This phrase has come to me many, many times over this very sad and tragic year.
I first heard it in New York City in the early 1990s. I was a young woman then, in New York for a gay pride parade. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic. Coming from a small town, the sheer magnitude of people flooding the streets was both mystifying and magnificent.
And then the chant started. It swept through the crowd and echoed off those high-rise canyons. Both a plaintive plea and a call to action, the chant ignited the huge crowd.
New Yorkers – gay and straight – had borne witness to the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic. They were united in fighting against indifference and at times the hostility of a government that for far too many years essentially ignored the AIDS epidemic that felled thousands. The deaths of so many galvanized the living to take action – to educate themselves, to organize, to demand accountability from government officials at all levels, and, importantly, to advocate against any risky behavior that facilitated the spread of AIDS.
How many more have to die, Chicago?
The violence that engulfs way too many of our neighborhoods is a public health crisis. It demands widespread public activism. In particular, we need to focus more attention on those who undermine the peace and safety in our neighborhoods.
We know that the vast majority of violence occurs in public places, by young men between the ages of 20 through 29. This cohort of young men is both at risk and engaged in dangerous behavior that has a corrosive ripple effect, spreading harms far beyond the immediate victims to touch every family, every block and every neighborhood literally and figuratively felled by every bullet.
No one can afford to be numb to this conduct and the resulting violence. These young men are known – by their families, their friends, schools, social services, the police. We need to reach them with love and support in an effort to avert more violence. But when the violence comes, we need to take action. We should follow the recent example of activist Andrew Holmes and others who went door to door to generate tips and other information that led to the arrest of Takiya Holmes’ killer.
People who choose violence as an acceptable method of resolving disputes should never find safe haven anywhere, ever. In this city, over the last 18 months, many people, myself included, have decried the violence and abusive behavior by the police now and going back decades, particularly against people of color. We have been right to demand accountability for these harms. But we need to have the same level of anger and outrage against the civilian-on-civilian violence that claimed almost 800 lives in 2016 alone. The young men who participate in the cycle of violence must be reached, helped and, where necessary, exposed.
We have a long history of uniting to demand our civil rights. We have called upon that activist history to spotlight injustice, hold elected officials accountable and identify wrongs that needed to be righted. This moment demands no less and perhaps more of our individual and collective effort. We need to do more to educate our children at the earliest ages about the perils of violence. We need to teach them that the sanctity of life should be their north star. We need to constantly urge that no matter what the circumstance, violence is not the answer.
These and other words and actions are essential if we are to stop the pipeline of violence.
Yes, government at all levels can and should do more. And yes, the private sector, particularly the business community, needs to be more heavily invested in our neighborhoods and to also lift its powerful individual and collective voice to demand more of government. But as individual citizens, we have an essential role to play as well. Allowing the perpetrators to be anonymous fuels the violence. Our silence will continue to equal death.
Father Mike Pfleger is right. Our faith has to be greater than our fear.
How many more have to die, Chicago?