I grew up in Englewood, a neighborhood plagued with violence. My journey to school included a game of dodgeball, except the opposing team had bullets. Our morning announcements at school consisted of a rundown of students who were “no longer with us.”
This was my reality. Sadly, it hasn’t changed.
I am fortunate enough to have escaped the chains of the ‘hood, but many of my childhood friends can’t escape the despair of their surroundings through a door marked “Exit.” Every day I hold my breath and pray for their best, only to see them fall victim to the worst. Last week, my friend Brittany Hill was gunned down while shielding her baby girl.
As I mourn her, I think back to our year as high school freshmen. We sat near each other in music class. She laughed at my jokes. She supported me as I consoled families of gun victims, and now I struggle to find the words to say to hers.
Over Memorial Day weekend, Mayor Lori Lightfoot added 1,200 police officers to the streets to “Flood The Zone.” Yet the level of gun violence remained the same. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Police can’t prevent crime, they can only react to it. Bullets don’t have names, and police can’t use magic to make guns disappear. We spend hundreds of millions a year on police, including overtime and misconduct lawsuit settlements, and in return we have a 15% murder clearance rate. We’re spending money in the wrong places.
We look at our neighborhoods and think, therein lies the problem. I say, therein lies the solution. It’s time to take a new approach.
The first step to reducing violence is to give our communities a collective voice by appointing key neighborhood leaders to the mayoral cabinet. The city must set a standard of inclusivity and trust by breaking down the walls in both the neighborhoods and the police department, to create a true partnership. The community needs to see faces that have been in the trenches, doing the work that the police department can’t. These people can provide the kind of insight that the city will not hear from people who have never lived in the community.
Next, the city must reform institutions with innovative solutions. Schools are under-resourced, mental health facilities are non-existent, park districts have few programs that low-income families can afford. Poverty causes problems that end up being criminalized. Let’s explore, learn, and try new options. Year-round schooling would provide children with a more balanced schedule of activities throughout the summer. Mental wellness programs would reduce the post-traumatic stress caused by ongoing violence. There are other viable options that would improve the quality of life in these communities, but the city must be willing to seek them out.
Third, our criminal justice system must focus on rehabilitation. Instead of spending money to prosecute low-level crimes, spend it on more diversion programs that provide mentoring or other alternatives for arrestees. Citizens returning home from prison need jobs, training or other support to get them back on track. Employers need more incentives to hire ex-felons, at a faster rate.
Communities plagued by violence have a host of economic issues to tackle, but we cannot build on a shaky foundation. We must clean up before we can build up, and that means tackling the social ills that contribute to violence in the first place.
We can do this, Mayor Lightfoot, but not by busing in advisors from other cities, or from neighborhoods that are already robust and thriving. More than likely, they will give you a jaded view that seeks to paint our communities as hopeless, filled with ruffians and thugs. You must empower those who live here and have the partnerships to do the work. You have the heart to change the state of our communities — now you just need the people and innovative ideas.
You said we elected you to get things done. You’re in. Now do it.
Ja’Mal Green is an activist and former Chicago mayoral candidate.
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