Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) recently called those who commit violent crimes “terrorists.” But what does that word mean in the context of people living in low-income communities of color? Does he mean a small group of black men and boys who are disaffected, discouraged and angry? Does he mean black youth who have given up on finding a place for themselves in the broader society? Does he mean young black people who simply feel they have no options but the illegal and often unsavory alternative economy that they neither created nor ultimately control?
Each death due to violence in our community is a cause for grief. It is tragic enough that a life is cut short because of behaviors and actions of those who are hopeless and lost. It is also pitiful, because the perpetrators too are victims of a system that has historically employed racist methods to deny our people a chance to take advantage of the broader economy. This makes us all victims of the wider program to establish, maintain and enforce ghettos to stymie the hard work and modest aspirations of generations of black people on Chicago’s West Side.
Boykin uses the word “terrorist” in talking about crime in our community. But how does Commissioner Boykin presume to represent an angry, misguided and oppressed black man (and, increasingly, woman) by comparing him or her to an ISIS terrorist? He makes no explanation or apology and perhaps has used the phrase for its media value.
Nevertheless, I can help the Commissioner understand critical differences between the black “gangbangers” and ISIS militants. A terrorist is a person who uses extraordinary and extrajudicial violence, or the threat of violence, towards his or her clearly identified targets in the pursuit of political aims. Examples include the Klu Klux Klan’s long history of lynching and voter intimidation. The open and scarcely contained violence that greeted Dr. King here in Chicago during his open housing campaign is another example. The 1919 attack on black people and black property throughout Chicago during a race riot sparked because a black boy swam in white section of the 12th Street beach would be another example.
A gangbanger on the other hand is a member of a street gang. There’s nothing political about his behavior. Maybe Commissioner Boykin would be more careful about calling young black men terrorists if they became political in their actions, because those terrorists could vote him out of office. No worry there for the commissioner. Maybe that’s why these gangbangers are such easy pickings.
“Taking guns off the street” has been a battle cry for decades. Yet it solves no problems. Indeed, violence seems just a pervasive today as it did when this was a “new” policy for the second Mayor Daley. And remember, that was a rationale for the murder of Fred Hampton under the administration of the first Mayor Daley. Such meaningless talk simply creates more negative ideas that black boys must confront as they compare the world they learn about in school with the reality they see around them.
While personal responsibility and initiative can provide an escape value for some, we must not forget that the road to our present tragedy is long and was guided by government policies and actions. Did you know that the New Deal’s Public Works Administration led to the creation of the segregated ghettos? The Housing and Urban Development agency’s resources were used explicitly to create segregated housing. Both agencies supported policies that permitted housing resources to be used only to benefit people who located in a community populated by members of their own race. Ironically, a lot of public housing built in the early years was built in integrated neighborhoods. These were razed and then rebuilt as segregated public housing in those neighborhoods. So public housing created racial segregation even where none existed before. That was an intended policy outcome.
So commissioner, who’s really the terrorist? Is it our democratic government that implemented policies for short-term, one sided political gain? You are now in a position to fight these injustices. What will you do for the next four years?
Ronald Lawless is a West Side political consultant and former candidate for 1st District Cook County Commissioner.