Editor’s Note: Robert Vargas is an assistant professor of sociology and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the forthcoming “Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio.” The views expressed are his own.
Nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee was killed Monday in Chicago
Robert Vargas: Killing is part of a troubling pattern in the city
The brutal shooting death of a 9-year-old boy is just the latest headline-grabbing act of gang violence on the streets of Chicago.
According to police, Tyshawn Lee was “lured” into an alley on Monday and deliberately killed. It was, Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said, “probably the most abhorrent, cowardly, unfathomable crime that I’ve witnessed in 35 years of policing.”
It’s hard to disagree. Unfortunately, Tyshawn’s killing is simply another part of a troubling pattern in the city in which conflict between rival gangs results in a shooting that in turn ignites a series of retaliations as gang members avenge their fallen friends and family.
Police reportedly suspect that Tyshawn’s death was tied to a lingering conflict between factions of the Gangster Disciples and Black P Stone gangs in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood of Chicago. These retaliations have been going on since at least August, and police believe Tyshawn may have been targeted because of his father’s alleged membership in a faction of the Gangster Disciples.
Policymakers and social scientists have worked hard for decades to prevent these kinds of tragedies from occurring. Programs like Ceasefire, YMCA Street Intervention, and BUILD use violence “interrupters” to mediate conflicts, squash beefs, and prevent retaliatory shootings among gang members in Chicago’s violence plagued neighborhoods. Interrupters develop relationships with gang members, arrive at the scene of shootings, and work continuously to prevent retaliations from occurring.
Does it work?
Certainly, studies have shown that these programs reduce violence in many of Chicago’s gang lands, and the success of these interventions have been documented in films such as Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s “The Interrupters.”
But in a city with programs aimed at preventing retaliatory violence, it is reasonable to ask where these programs were when Tyshawn’s death occurred. And how could retaliatory conflict between two gangs be allowed to linger from at least August through November?
Unfortunately, funding cuts have been hitting these programs hard.
In March, Gov. Bruce Rauner suspended violence prevention funding for Ceasefire Illinois, which dramatically reduced its budget (the organization operated in Auburn-Gresham, the neighborhood where Tyshawn was killed). Violence prevention workers throughout Chicago were forced off the streets as a result of this massive funding reduction. Meanwhile, Rauner’s proposed budget cuts will gut services for the mentally ill, the homeless and health care providers to the poor.
True, tragedies like a 9-year-old’s shooting death bring national media attention to Chicago’s violence problem. But what’s missing from this coverage is an appreciation for the implicit violence that government leaders (both Republican and Democrat) inflict upon Chicago’s poor communities through gut-wrenching budget cuts.
The reality is that communities plagued by violence don’t need more policing, nor do they need more community involvement. In my own research in some of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods, I found that the overwhelming majority of residents in violence plagued communities make extraordinary and successful efforts to keep their children and communities safe. Instead, violence plagued neighborhoods of Chicago need consistent support from government leaders to provide resources for violence prevention programs. It is not enough for political leaders to hand out resources only in election seasons.
More broadly, as a society, we need to resist the temptation to blame individual members of low-income communities for these tragedies. The problem is much bigger than that. We can’t assume that all neighborhoods in Chicago have access to the resources and political ties necessary to acquire the resources to address violence. Instead, preventing violence in Chicago requires collaboration among citizens, police, neighborhood leaders, and government leaders to come together and create a political will to fight the problem.
When violence breaks out in more affluent areas of the city, local government leaders respond and provide resources. Tyshawn Lee’s death forces us to ask ourselves, as a society, why our government leaders lack the will to consistently address violence in communities like Auburn-Gresham, Englewood or Little Village?
To prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future, organizers and activists working in Chicago’s gang lands need violence interrupters not only on the streets, but also in the halls of government buildings. And Chicagoans need to interrupt the implicit violence government leaders inflict through the scaling back of programs and services vital to the health of low-income communities.
Tragedies like Tyshawn Lee’s brutal shooting are preventable. But stopping the cycle of violence in Chicago requires holding government leaders accountable for effectively dismantling programs that work.