How a history of segregation contributes to an epidemic of violence in Chicago

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CHICAGO — Eight people are shot every three hours on a typical day in Chicago, and yet police will tell you crime is trending down and things are getting better.

“You know we’ve had challenging weekends over the past month, but the overall crime, we’re seeing double digit reductions,” Chicago Police Department Superintendent Eddie Johnson said.

The number of shootings and homicides has dropped each of the past three years. But still, Chicago had nearly 400 murders over the first nine months of 2019. That's 400 lives cut short, 400 families left to mourn.

Have you ever stopped to wonder: how did we get to this point?

Let’s go back in time to 1957, when 296 people were murdered in Chicago. The number rose steadily until 1965, when there were 395 murders. That number exploded the following year to 510, spiking by 29 percent.

As Martin Luther King and other activists fought for racial equality in the 1960’s, the exact opposite was happening in many communities in Chicago where the African American population was growing.

“After touring this city in two whirlwind days of activity, I must report that Chicago is far from being the promised land,” MLK said during a visit to Chicago.

Author and historian Rich Lindberg literally wrote the book on Chicago’s long, sad history of street violence.

"Chicago has always been economically, ethnically and racially segregated," Lindberg said.

Lindberg said he thinks Chicago hit a turning point in 1960. Black homeowners watched the city pour money into the downtown area over their neighborhoods. They found themselves with fewer resources, or fell victim to housing discrimination.

"This started in the late 1960s when a lot of store owners in the Woodlawn neighborhood were terrorized. They had to pay large amounts of extortion, sooner or later they moved out," Lindberg said.

Once-thriving neighborhood factories moved elsewhere, taking their jobs with them. Unemployment rates soared.

The quality of schools dropped. The jobless and directionless often turned to gangs and drugs. Children had no one to guide them. And the cycle repeated.

"You have younger and younger kids who don’t respect any kind of authority or command. The value to living has essentially disappeared," Lindberg said.

And the result: 716 murders in 1969, 811 murders in 197 and a staggering 970 homicides in 1974.

While the murder rate has fluctuated over the years and decades, the fact remains the same: Chicago has a big problem. Segregation and poverty left an ugly toll that continues today in many sections of the city.

Many neighborhoods remain poor, with too few economic opportunities. And street gangs have broken into smaller factions, creating more territories, more feuds, more violence.

"The analogy is a giant meteor heading toward earth. You shoot the meteor, it explodes into a million pieces and still falls on you. That’s essentially what happened with the street gangs," Lindberg said.

Easy access to guns only furthers the bloodshed. While the court system is criticized for giving easy passes to gun offenders, the divide remains far between police and residents who don’t trust them.

There are simply too many tales of violence to comprehend. People get shot while they stand outside with friends, sit on their porch, or drive their cars, even on crowded expressways. Children get caught in crossfire while walking home from school, sometimes by a stray bullet inside their home.

Gang violence claims victim after victim, while police detectives struggle to keep up.

All of this leads us to an important question, with an uncertain answer: how can this be fixed?

"One must never lose hope that it can be ended, but it’s going to take a social restructuring of society in neighborhoods... to install job opportunities, education, a stronger role on behalf of the parents, to make sure their children are observing rules of everyday living," Lindberg said.

In the coming weeks and months, we at WGN will do our best to search for solutions. We’ll speak with experts and leaders, visit troubled communities, and engage with people who have seen enough.

Otherwise we’ll get no closer to the vision of hope that Dr. King had for our city more than half a century ago.

“We are here to issue a call to conscience that Chicago may forsake her shame, and rise to the challenge of our age, and creatively pursue the path of glory,” King said.

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