Recently, while I was on my way to meet a friend for coffee, I drove by one of the shuttered CPS school buildings being demolished.
It was not long after the 4th of July weekend of heartbreaking gun violence, and I couldn’t help but make connections as I watched the Bronzeville school named after Crispus Attucks — a Black man whom historians believe was the first person shot and killed in the Boston Massacre — get torn down.
Think about it: An epidemic of shootings and the closure of a school that, along with dozens of other schools shut down in 2013, could have played a role in educating children and preventing all that violence.
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Those connections are clear, pointed out by community activists, as well as by research on the impact of school closings on a community.
Yet the public institutions tasked with curbing violence just keep pointing the finger at one another, in a blame game that does nothing to solve the most pressing problem facing our city.
In the ongoing blame game, marginalized communities of color blame City Hall, the police, the criminal justice system, their neighbors and ongoing systemic racial inequity. Cops blame elected officials, parents in those marginalized communities and the court system. Elected officials blame the police and the parents — mainly Black parents. And some Chicagoans point the finger toward Drill, a hip-hop subgenre known for dark and violent lyrics.
In the aftermath of brazen shootings and social unrest, social media chatter reveals —in no surprise to anyone who knows better —suburbanites are gonna suburbanite, with plenty to say about a city they don’t live in. And unfortunately, elected officials, police unions, conservative media and upper-middle class people of color are adept at finding a boogeyman in the most unlikely places, such as Critical Race Theory.
Supt. Brown’s prophetic words
In one of my weekly recaps for the Sun-Times of the Showtime series “The Chi,” I quoted the words of our Chicago Police Supt. David Brown — who blamed the courts after last weekend’s violence — when he was police chief in Dallas.
“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown said at a 2016 press conference. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding? Let the cops handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding? Let’s give it to the cops.”
What if we took Brown at his word and provided enough funding for this broader approach to tackling the causes of the gun violence that is plaguing our city? Has Brown — or Mayor Lori Lightfoot — lobbied for the reopening of shuttered mental health facilities, for instance?
Give young people a safe space
While I was watching the demolition of Attucks Elementary, I thought of the old South Shore High School. It was repurposed as a police facility. Instead, it should have been converted into a community center that could give young people a safe space for recreation, after-school activities and just hanging out.
When teens from marginalized communities have no place to go because the safe spaces that existed for years are gone, where do we think they’re going to end up? On the street, where they run a high risk of becoming another number in that week’s tally of gun violence victims.
Why not turn those shuttered schools, such as Attucks, into places where teens and young adults can learn financial literacy, conflict resolution, photography, how to tie a tie, the nuances of consent or a trade?
Never mind. Let’s continue to allow the city to be a place where the marginalized are shunned instead of offered help, even as so many of us laugh at videos of teens twerking on police vehicles.
I remember a 2018 Chicago Reader column by Matt Harvey, now with The Triibe, who described his visit to his elementary alma mater, Uptown’s Stewart Elementary School. Stewart School was turned into a luxury apartment complex after it was closed in 2013.
“For nearly a decade of my life, this building was like a second home, and I had more seminal experiences here than in any other place I’ve ever stepped foot in,” Harvey wrote. “Today, I wouldn’t be capable of calling this place my home even if I wanted to.”
Astute observers can see what’s going on here; they don’t even have to try hard. Chicagoans, meanwhile, are caught in the middle of a blame game and a budget war — how to pay for public safety, schools, social services, parks and everything else — and citizens are the ones catching strays, as in stray bullets.
Maybe the powers that be, the public officials and other decision-makers who operate above my pay grade as a newspaper reporter, ask themselves the same questions when they see a shuttered school being demolished. Who knows?
But after what we witnessed over the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, if they — or you — think closed schools have no connection to violence, well, they and you are deaf, dumb, blind and suspended in time.
Evan F. Moore covers culture and entertainment for the Chicago Sun-Times.
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