Local residents spoke out against bringing the National Guard to their West Side neighborhood during a town hall meeting Monday hosted by state Rep. LaShawn Ford.
Whenever the National Guard was mentioned, an audible ripple of objection could be heard throughout Ronald E. McNair Elementary School’s gym at 4820 W. Walton St. Many said they feared abuse of power, while others wanted their tax dollars put to other uses, such as creating jobs.
Before Ford could even kick off the event, community organizations made clear their objection to bringing in the National Guard. They instead offered their own solutions to stopping violence. Saving Our Sons, or S.O.S Ministries, held signs that read, “We say no National Guard and yes to more jobs!”
Reginald Akkeem Berry Sr., founder of the ministry, believes employment will solve much of the drug and gang issues in Austin. An ex-offender himself, Berry rallied together other former inmates to teach West Side men trades like construction and home weatherization.
“We need an alternative, not an ultimatum,” he said.
He said men, especially in the 14- to 35-year-old age group, sell drugs and commit other crimes to make a living when there are no other options. If there are jobs, opposing gang members will work side by side because they no longer have to hustle drugs and protect territory, Berry insists.
Before entering the gym, participants received a program that contained a card to write down questions to Ford or panel members, which included Chicago police officers, representatives from the Chicago Public Schools’ safety office, and a spokesman from Mayor Daley’s office.
Jobs remained a hot topic throughout the night. One questioner asked why the unemployment rate for African Americans was higher than for other races in Illinois. Another questioned how many Austin teenagers were actually being hired for the Mayor’s Youth Ready Chicago program. Others wanted to know why certain resources weren’t being put to use.
Some people felt that surveillance cameras on streetlights-also know as the “blue lights”- weren’t being used to target drug dealers or other criminals. Many wanted to know why higher crime areas such as Austin had the same number of police as lower crime neighborhoods.
Walter Green, 15th district police commander, said the cameras could not be monitored all the time and that officers were distributed equally so “every Chicagoan has equal protection.” Ford suggested that community members put pressure on the mayor to get more police coverage for Austin, the city’s largest neighborhood.
Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, community members got a chance to speak. One woman pleaded with the mothers in the room to stop the enabling wrongdoing children and to kick them out of the home. S.O.S members continued their cry for jobs.
Many simply called for action, encouraging neighbors to come together as a community and take a stance against violence.
After the meeting, Ford said he filed legislation to create a “Scratch Out Crime” lottery ticket. If signed into law, net revenue from the sale of the tickets would go toward hiring more police officers. Despite protests, he still wants to bring in the National Guard until the police force can be increased.
As for jobs, Ford hopes Austin residents will take advantage of micro and small low interest loans to start their own businesses. The Illinois General Assembly on Wednesday also approved the African American Employment Plan, sponsored by Ford, that will increase the number of blacks employed by the state of Illinois.