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For Residents, Chicago Violence Is 'Very Personal'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to begin today in Chicago. Last night, a 19-year-old woman was killed and at least eight others were injured in shootings throughout the city. Now that was just Monday night. Those shootings came after the Fourth of July weekend, during which more than 80 people were shot and at least 14 people were killed.

While most of the violence took place between Chicago residents, there were five shootings where police were involved, including one involving a 14-year-old boy who was shot and killed after allegedly pointing a weapon at a police officer. We wanted to hear more about how the city is responded to this violence. So we've called on Robert Wildeboer. He's the criminal and legal affairs reporter with member station WBEZ in Chicago. Rob, thanks so much for joining us.


MARTIN: Also joining us is Charlene Carruthers. She's National Coordinator for the Black Youth Project 100. That's a Chicago-based group that works with young people to get them involved in addressing community issues that affect them, including violence and criminal justice. Charlene, welcome to you as well. Thank you for coming as well.

CHARLENE CARRUTHERS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Rob, I'm going to start with you. I'm going to get into the substance of what's happened and what people are saying about what to do about it. But I just wanted to start by asking you, what's the mood there? Does it feel like a crisis?

WILDEBOER: You know, we get these weekends, unfortunately, more often than we'd like, right? And to be honest, to put it in perspective, we have half as many murders as we did in the 1990's. So while it often feels like it's never been worse than it is today, that's just not true.

The perception out there is that it's more violent than it's ever been when you talk to people on the street. But that's just not the case. Nonetheless, I mean, when I was - you know, I've been covering criminal justice here for, like, 10 years now. And reading through the paper again, you know, it's something I've seen so many times, you know, 82 shot in the course of a weekend.

And as someone who's, you know, participated in lots of conversations like this where we're trying to figure out, OK, what's the cause of this? And the numbers are down from last year. Good, are they going to go down next year? It's just depressing to see those numbers again because it's dozens and dozens of young people driving around the city shooting at other young people. And it is mostly, you know, young people under the age of 35, young men. And it's just hard to fathom, like, how do our young men think this is a good idea? And when faced with that kind of thing, it's, like, what do you do?

MARTIN: Let's hear from Charlene here. Charlene, what about you? What are you - I'm asking - we can get into the - a lot of what Rob was talking about - what people are saying about what to do. And so I just want to ask right now, how are you doing? How are you doing? And how are the young people that you're working with - how are they doing?

CARRUTHERS: I live in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. And for us, whenever these numbers are reported, it's much bigger than just numbers. They're people. They're families behind these numbers. They're people of all colors behind these numbers. But we know that our community - we have - being the black community here in Chicago, it's very personal for us. You know, we have a lot at stake. And when we think about the young people who are actually involved in violence in our communities, we also have to really look at why - like what's the root cause of which happening here? These are young people who don't have access to quality, consistent public education. These are often young people who don't have access to good jobs. And if it's not them, then folks in their families who don't also have access to good jobs, so the problem is it's much bigger. And for us and for me and the people that I work with, it's another moment of this narrative about black and brown people, this so-called destroying themselves and so-called destroying the city. And it really pushes the narrative that we - that we don't necessarily know what to do. And that's not true.

MARTIN: We'll talk about that. Let me play a clip from Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. And there was a press conference Monday morning, I believe it was, about the violence. And this is what he says about it.

GARRY MCCARTHY: It all comes down to these guns. There's too many guns coming in and too little punishment going out. Our officers would not be forced to use their weapons if the offenders were not armed with illegal weapons.

MARTIN: So he goes on to say he thinks there needs to be stiffer gun laws. And he thinks there needs to be more aggressive prosecutions of crimes involving guns. Charlene, I take it you have an opinion about that so I'll go to you first on that.

CARRUTHERS: Yeah, absolutely. So what we do know is there's a lot of profit in the trafficking of guns in the Chicagoland area. And that those who traffic guns are not actually held accountable. So who's looking at the corporations and the individuals that profit from the tracking of guns in the city? And who's also accounting for the guns that go missing from the Chicago Police Department? More punishment has never been the answer. What we do know, very factually - there was a study out of Northwestern University - what prevents gun violence is good jobs for people, folks who feel like they have a stake in the future and a secure future and access for supporting their selves and their families. What the officer said is really grounded in a - it's not new. But it's something - it's been done over and over again and it's not working. And we know if you continue to do something - we punish, punish, punish, punish - it hasn't changed a thing. We have some of the highest incarceration rates in the world, specifically in the Chicagoland area - the concentration of it. In crime, it's not reduced from incarcerating or publishing more people. But I have - you know, I take it personally what the police officer said...

MARTIN: You do?

CARRUTHERS: And I know that's not going to change a thing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the gun violence that took place in Chicago over the 4th of July weekend and actually continued through Monday - 82 people shot over the weekend, 14 fatally. There were yet more people shot since Monday evening - one fatally. My guests are Charlene Carruthers - that's who was just speaking just now. She's a community activist who works with young people. Also with us, Robert Wildeboer - he's a reporter with member station WBEZ - covers crime and criminal justice issues. So Rob, dig into this for me, if you would. The Chicago Sun-Times, as you know, has web-based publication that seeks to document every single homicide in the city, year by year. And as Charlene said, makes sure that people know that these are people - and pictures of each of them. But the department says that gun-related homicides are down this year, compared with numbers of the same time. But that the overall number of shooting incidents has increased. So Rob, do you just want to amplify that for a couple of minutes? How should we look at these numbers?

WILDEBOER: Well, the way that the Chicago Police Department is counting these is shooting incidents, because they say, you know, you can count homicides. But a more accurate indicator of where the crime is at is shooting incidents. If you have a shooting incident but no homicide victim, maybe it's because the bullet was two inches over and missed, you know, an artery or an organ or something like that. So they're counting the shootings. We're actually up in shootings compared to last year. We're down in homicides compared to last year. And in terms of the homicide numbers, again, we were lower last year than we have been in four decades. As far as kind of the city's take on this and what the police superintendent said there, in the clip you played, he says, you know, it all comes down to these guns laws and this gun trafficking. And we know that's just not true. I mean, if that was true, we wouldn't be engaged in all these policing efforts, right? And if you, you know - to Charlene's point, you know, as to whether, you know, this is about jobs and violence. She said, you know, access to jobs is important for reducing violence. And I think that's probably true and we all think it's good for people to have good jobs, right? And none of us like the issues of poverty. Nonetheless, if you look at New York City, there's all sorts of poverty there. There's all sorts of dysfunction. And yet they've been able to bring their homicide numbers down 80 percent - more than 80 percent since the early '90s. And the criminologists and researchers that I've talked to have said this is about policing. And so they were able to bring down homicides without addressing these larger factors, that are important and we want to address. But they were able to bring down homicides without, you know, giving everyone a job - just in terms of policing and particularly focusing police resources in high-crime areas.

MARTIN: In a written statement, Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, said the number of shootings and murders that took place over the holiday weekend is simply unacceptable and points out that we still have work to do. The solution does not just include policing. We also have to give our young people alternatives to the streets. So Charlene, we have a couple of minutes left. Tell us what - is the mayor saying anything that seems to resonate with the young people that you work with? And are there any, I guess, activities going on that seem to resonate with you?

CARRUTHERS: So I'm a firm believer that rhetoric has to turn into action. And the actions that you engage in speak much louder than the words that you say. And, of course, as Robert mentioned, jobs are one part of the equation in getting at these systemic issues. As we all very well know, over 50 public schools were closed in Chicago under the mayor's leadership and of course, not just the mayor, but also the leadership of aldermen in the city, as well. And those factors of young people seeing that their education is invalued, seeing that they had limited opportunities beyond, of course, a bigger issue than just what the mayor of the city of Chicago does. But all of these things - they are all interrelated.

MARTIN: But Charlene - but let me ask you about what Rob said though. What about what he said that there are other cities that similar challenges and are not experiencing this right now. Why do you think this happened this weekend, the way it did? Why do you think this happened?

CARRUTHERS: So I think that it's a combination of the long-held segregation policies in Chicago - our housing policies, displacement of people, the closing of our schools. An overall feeling that folks' individual lives are not valued by those who we pay and those who we elect to represent us in office. And it's not - this weekend, as Robert mentioned - this weekend - things like this have happened before. So it's not necessarily something brand new. Actually it's not brand new at all and just because it happens in other cities - like I'm primarily concerned with what's happening here in Chicago. And what we're doing about it to address the structural problems that exist and not exacerbating them by creating more of a larger carceral state and more punishment for people, when we know that that doesn't actually - that hasn't worked in Chicago. And if I could say one thing more about New York City...

MARTIN: Very briefly, if you would.

CARRUTHERS: Only thing more about New York City - I've also lived in New York City. And we can't glance over the fact that - how stop-and-frisk policies play into policing in New York City and also other improvements that have been made in the city. So those things don't live in silos. And even in Chicago, we have own form of stop-and-frisk...

MARTIN: OK, we're going to have to leave it there for now. Sorry, Charlene. Thanks - time is the one thing they're not making more of. We appreciate it. Charlene Carruthers is the national coordinator for Chicago's Black Youth Project 100. She was with us by phone from Chicago, along with Robert Wildeboer who's the criminal and legal affairs reporter for WBEZ. Thank you both so much for speaking with us. We appreciate it.

WILDEBOER: Thank you.

CARRUTHERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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