On May 22, a crowd of at least 100 block club members, police officers, city officials, pastors, young people and eventually Mayor Emanuel converged on the parking lot of the Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson Blvd., for the second annual Summer of Faith and Action. The Austin event was hosted by the Chicago Police Department’s (CPD’s) 15th District Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (C.A.P.S.) program.
Last May, the city-wide event corralled residents into dozens of locations to pray, feast and hope that their collective vigil would ward off the violence, at least for a spell. Last year, it seemed to work, with multiple media outlets and Mayor Emanuel noting that in the 24 hours following the event, there were no reported cases of gun violence.
This year, however, was another story. Several hours after Friendship’s parking lot cleared, a 20-year-old man was wounded in a South Austin shooting that happened at around 1:45 a.m. — just one among at least 16 casualties of violence since the day before that Friday’s Faith and Action gathering, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
On one level, this year’s evening festivity was an extension of the kind of community outreach and engagement embodied in CPD’s C.A.P.S. program. Larry Merritt, the director of community outreach and engagement for the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), said events like this one are necessary to educate residents on, and dispel the myths perpetuated about, IPRA — the body responsible for investigating police misconduct.
“One of the misconceptions about who we are is that we’re a board,” Merritt said. “We’re a completely separate department of investigators. We have subpoena power and officers are compelled to cooperate with our investigations,” he said.
And the mere image of 15th District police officer Alphonso Townsend grilling hot dogs in full uniform in the sight lines of about a dozen area teenagers may be a powerful policing tactic in itself.
On another level, the night’s Faith and Action event was an extension of Mayor Emanuel’s sudden sermonic pivot away from neoliberal pragmatist to moralistic champion of the city’s disadvantaged youth — an about-face that was unveiled in the mayor’s second inaugural address delivered May 18.
The mayor surprised media pundits and policy experts when, less than a week after Moody’s downgraded Chicago’s credit rating to junk status, he devoted most of his speech to waxing poetically and preacher-like about the plight of the city’s disadvantaged youth.
The mayor said that the faces of the city’s “lost and unconnected young men are often visible — until we see them in a mugshot as the victim or perpetrator of a senseless crime.”
But Emanuel didn’t labor on concrete policies or programs as solutions to the problems of joblessness, gang violence and rampant juvenile crime; instead, he went with much more ethereal prescriptions.
“Be a role model for the young people in your life,” he said. “Share the values that made you who you are with someone who wants to grow up to be like you. Give an adolescent who was born without a prayer his first prayer at getting ahead,” the mayor said.
The speech drew both praise and criticism. Chicago Sun-Times pundit Neil Steinberg called the speech “Rahm’s zenith of cynicism” for what he believes was the mayor’s attempt to get the media’s attention off of the city’s deep financial crisis.
“He didn’t address kids who’ll be lost because their schizophrenic parents can’t go to the mental health clinics that the city closed, who suffer living in an economically collapsing city, or the disabled kids who’ve had their support kicked out from under them by his buddy Bruce Rauner in the name of making Illinois a more hospitable place to run businesses,” wrote Steinberg.
“Perhaps the first step in saving youth is to stop killing them,” wrote Curtis Black for the Chicago Reporter in an article entitled “If youth are really on Emanuel’s agenda, here’s what he can do.”
Black’s article, published a few days after Emanuel’s address, cited a report by the advocacy organization We Charge Genocide that noted, “While African-Americans comprise about 33 percent of Chicago’s population, they represent 75 percent of police shooting victims.”
“In the first half of 2014, 23 of 27 people shot by police were black, as were 146 of 186 Taser victims,” Black wrote. “The report also discusses the ‘alarming rate of impunity,’ with police officers rarely disciplined for misconduct.”
During the May 22 Faith and Action event, Emanuel doubled down on his inaugural themes, but he was much more explicit about the central role of churches in the fight for the lives of disadvantaged youth.
“Across the city, communities are getting together reminding everybody what happens in our church is love, what happens in our church is compassion, what happens in our church is building our neighborhood,” Emanuel said.
“We are going to be as strong and safe as we take that love and compassion and our sense of community out of our church and bring it onto the streets of the City of Chicago,” the mayor said, prompting the kind of call-and-response often reserved for Sunday mornings.
When asked about what has seemed to some as a newfound emphasis on disadvantaged youth, the mayor said the subject isn’t new to his mayoralty.
“I’ve been saying a lot of this stuff throughout my tenure, but with that said, I wanted to speak about something [that’s often] a very difficult subject,” he said. “It’s easy to push aside and I thought if I could use my platform at my inaugural to make us focus on something we often try to shun, it would give us a chance to remind us what public service is about. It’s about serving those who come after you to give them a better future.”
Newly sworn in 29th Ward Alderman Chris Taliaferro, who in April’s election was aligned with Emanuel’s challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, said he supports the Faith and Action event and the mayor’s public stance of late.
“I think this is a really good event,” Taliaferro said. “It has a great purpose and I’m out here to support it. It’s good to see the mayor out here as well. It shows his commitment to want to keep the violence down in the city.”
Rev. Reginald Bachus, Friendship’s pastor, said the mayor’s rhetoric is “good so far,” but he hopes the mayor “sticks with it, because it’s much needed.”
“I think time will tell,” Bachus said. “I think the mayor understands that if Chicago is going to be a great city, we’ve got to catch our youth.”
Rev. Robbie Wilkerson, pastor of New Kingdom Church on the West Side, said he thinks the mayor’s rhetorical pivot may be something of a political ploy, but is also a genuine reaction by the mayor to the pressure brought on him from grassroots community leaders.
“I think he’s now trying to hear the voice of the community,” Wilkerson said. “He’s so used to trying to create programs for us instead of with us. I’m excited about his [new approach]. I think our community has now become so unified that instead of hearing so many small voices, he’s hearing a big voice. The other thing is him being challenged so heavily in the last election. That really opened his eyes to his vulnerability.
Father Tom Walsh, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Church on the West Side, said he appreciates the mayor’s efforts, “but we know as a community we have to take control.”
Walsh said residents “need to see” the mayor and “feel his presence, his power,” which the pastor hopes can be leveraged toward building social programs and creating job opportunities for young people. He also said he’s playing a game of wait-and-see.
“A person’s legacy is based on what they setup and what keeps going — not one time appearance,” Walsh said. “I’ve got to see where we’re going. Are we just saying, ‘I wish you have a safe summer’ or are we going to make sure this is a safe summer. That’s how I’ll judge that.”