Why don’t we care more?

The nation is shocked and horrified by the recent random shooting in a Colorado cinema that left dozens of people dead and nearly sixty people injured. My sympathies go out to their families and friends. I’m also deeply sorry for us as a nation. I am sorry that we live amidst violence – daily. I’m currently based in the north suburbs of Chicago (where I grew up). Chicago news headlines frequently shout out about inner-city violence, particularly shootings. Today’s Chicago Tribune front page headline (print copy) read: “Deadly Reversal of Fortune” followed by, “Killings in a swath of the Southwest Side dropped dramatically last year; this year they’re up by 156%.” The other morning (23 July), a headline read “6 hurt in overnight shootings across the city.” The article explains that the previous weekend dozens had been wounded and seven people killed in gun crime. A spring 2011 NPR documentary reported that in summer 2010, over 700 children were hit by gunfire in Chicago, an average of almost two a day. Sixty-six of them died.  I’m wondering: “Why don’t we care more about what’s going on in our violence-plagued communities?

 I know, I know – the Mayor is working with the police and organizations like CeaseFire to try and stop the violence (CeaseFire, by the way, is struggling with insufficient funding). I could write dozens of posts on the difficulties of such partnerships. But this isn’t what is on my mind. 

Why don’t we care more about what’s going on in our violence-plagued communities? 

People do care. I know they do. People who have lost family and friends care a lot about this issue. People who live in these neighborhoods take action to show they care, like Bruce Wilson – see Dawn Turner Price’s recent Chicago Tribune article about him). People from outside these neighborhoods care – people who want to do something to provide equal opportunities for children and communities that we tend to call disadvantaged or in-need. In fact, one day last week I found out the mother of a friend – from the suburb where I grew up – is involved with an organization that supports Catholic schools in inner-city Chicago’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. Two days later, I met a young man who is a volunteer with that same organization: Big Shoulders Fund. 

Hats off to all these people – to the people who are taking time and giving energy to supporting people, of any age, to survive in these urban war zones. Respect and gratitude. Yet, I keep coming back to this question: 

Why don’t we care more about what’s going on in our violence-plagued communities?

Here’s how I arrived at this question.

In the last six months, I’ve seen the film The Interrupters twice. This documentary is about CeaseFire and its work to mitigate and mediate violent conflict in Englewood, a Chicago neighborhood. I saw this film first with my Common Ground colleagues in London, where I’ve been living for the last seventeen years.  We are community mediators and we took one of our film nights to talk about this documentary. Watching it in London, I wanted to know “Who lives around this violence-plagued community in Englewood?” I’m ignorant about it; I’ve never been there. I don’t know the lay of the land. I wondered about the area surrounding the streets depicted in the film – how mixed up is it? Are there, for example, pockets of thriving, safe, perhaps more middle class neighborhoods nearby? If so, how do people in nearby neighborhoods relate to residents most directly affected by the violence? How do people in other parts of Chicago relate to residents from Englewood’s violent streets? How do they react and respond (two different dynamics) to the violence? Are people in the surrounding areas thinking “God, I hope this doesn’t come to us” and then quietly praying? Are they watching it on the news and going “Those poor people, how horrible” and then forgetting about it, until the next headline? Are they hearing about it and asking “Why can’t the police do something?”

These feel like fairly conventional wonderings. And with them I was more or less assuming that the majority of us  – we who are not from these communities – tend to think of the violence as a problem for those people (I’d love to be challenged on this, proven wrong), for their communities.

Why don’t we care more about what’s going on in our violence-plagued communities?

I also had some thoughts/questions that felt less conventional: Do people from nearby visit the bereaved families? Bring them food? Express sympathies?  Make sure funeral expenses can get covered? Do people from outside the immediate area ask about dependents left behind who will need support, emotionally and materially? Now that I think about it, these are probably silly questions. After all, in the surrounding areas, people might not even know about a death unless it is reported in the paper.

I’m guessing that, except for those volunteers with organizations such as Big Shoulders Fund and CeaseFire, except for teachers, social workers, and other such public service figures, the vast majority of Chicagoans and those of us in the outlying suburbs do not feel very connected with Englewood residents and their struggle (again, I’d love to be challenged on this, proven wrong).  We see a headline, we shake our heads, we get on with life. We forget about the violence until we see the next headline. Repeat. I shouldn’t be surprised. Strangers tend not to get involved in strangers’ business. Especially when guns are involved.

But people are getting shot. Daily. People are dying – in one district, there were 23 homicides in the period from 1 January – 15 July 2012. I find myself thinking that maybe we – the people of Chicago writ large – should be getting more involved. 

Why don’t we care more about what’s going on our violence-plagued communities?

That first time when I saw The Interrupters, I asked a fellow mediator, “Shouldn’t we feel it when someone in Englewood dies from a gunshot – shouldn’t we feel as though our own father/son/child/brother has been killed?” I wondered: “Are we just numb?” “Is it just that we don’t think we have any power to do anything?”  More questions: “What is our responsibility – we who are not living in Englewood but are nearby – in ending the cycles of violence? What are the various roles to be played? What if we – fellow Chicagoans (if you will allow me, a suburbanite, to think of myself that way) – felt a stronger kinship, a connection with the people of Englewood? Would we be out there in droves demanding change via peace demonstrations or via a range of concrete, sustainable actions which support Englewood residents to create a healthy and safe community?”  

Dr Gary Slutkin, who founded CeaseFire, takes the perspective that violence is like a disease.  The CeaseFire method is based on this premise, with an aim to try and stop the spread of the disease (watch The Interrupters!).  While I admire the work Dr Slutkin is doing (including his more recent activity in looking at violence and brain processes –  see this article by Chicago Tribune journalist, Dawn Turner Price), I look at the situation and think:  “Isn’t violence a symptom of a disease rather than the disease itself? And isn’t our illness that too many of us are disconnected from each other and from our shared humanity?  Aren’t we who read the headlines, shake our heads and then forget about what’s happening down the road – and not just the people who pull the triggers –  plagued by disease? After all, one definition of disease is: a particular quality, habit, or disposition regarded as adversely affecting a person or group of people.   Isn’t our habit of distancing ourselves from the people most directly impacted by the violence playing a role in perpetuating it? 

One or two children shot everyday in Chicago (back in 2010 – and I’m guessing this hasn’t changed all that much, judging by recent headlines).  

Why don’t we care more about what’s going on in our violence-plagued communities?

A couple of months later, I watched the film a second time. I had a different – but related – reaction. New questions arose, but that’s for another post…




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