Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve: Chicago needs help but not the kind Trump tweets about
Murderous violence has no simple solution, she writes; it requires resources in many forms
Editor’s Note: Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Temple University and an affiliated scholar with the American Bar Foundation. She is the author of the book, “Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America’s Largest Criminal Court” and a nominee for an NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary work by a debut author. The opinions expressed here are hers. This article has been revised and edited from a version that was published earlier.
On Friday morning Donald Trump repeated his Twitter assertion that he would take the increase of violence in Chicago into his own hands. “More Crime and killings in Chicago have reached such epidemic proportions that I am sending in Federal help. 1714 shootings in Chicago this year!,” he tweeted. What President Trump’s tweet really means for the city is anyone’s guess.
As with many of the President’s tweets (and threats), we are forced to speculate as to the content of that federal “help,” but certainly Trump’s campaign rhetoric gives us plenty of evidence to understand his approach to criminal justice policy and more broadly, his views of people of color. Thus far, he has proposed a crackdown on communities that have suffered gravely from violence as well as a crisis of confidence in policing. This tough-on-crime strategy is fueled by Trump’s own ignorance of the communities most impacted by violence and his inability to account for the political and social causes that create violence. As a Chicagoan and a researcher who has written a book about Chicago’s criminal justice system, I can attest that this is not the type of “help” Chicago needs.
Experts in violence prevention agree that suppression, punishment and Trump’s punitive approach are insufficient to address criminal groups and activity. As David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, argued in a piece for Crain’s Chicago Business, “No thinking police leader wants to go backward; the field has fully taken on board that locking up and locking down minority neighborhoods is disastrous, and that there is simply no alternative to building new relationships with angry communities.” Suppression tactics need to be integrated with social interventions including job training and placement, medical care and support networks.
In a recently released book, “Wounded City,” Notre Dame sociologist Robert Vargas shows that Chicago’s violence has been exacerbated by local political gerrymandering. This political infighting means that some blocks within neighborhoods receive resources for violence prevention services while other streets in the same neighborhood are denied the infrastructure to prevent violence. The effects have been devastating. In addition, Vargas shows in startling detail that residents who come forward to report violent gang members suffer gravely for helping their communities. Gang leaders often respond by setting the informants’ homes on fire, with the Chicago police failing to pre-emptively protect these victims from retaliatory arson.
With an insult to all this injury, in March 2015, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner suspended violence prevention funding as well as gutted social services for the poor. In a sense, poor communities of color have been hit by a stream of violence on the one hand, and have been neglected by the local politicians elected to help them.
In contrast to this research, Trump’s campaign promises show that his approach to violence prevention is fueled by political posturing rather than empirical evidence. Throughout the campaign, Trump used Chicago as a political pawn to communicate his notion of law-and-order criminal justice policy and consistently conflated the notion of people of color with the inner city. He promised during the second presidential debate that he would be a president “for all of the people, African-Americans, the inner cities.”
Make no mistake, when Trump focuses on the “Chicago problem,” he is suggesting that black people, and the communities they live in, are “out of control.” This conflation becomes all the more disturbing when considering Trump’s approach to solving these issues. On June 29, 2015, Trump sat down with the Chicago Tribune editorial board to discuss his approach to curbing violence: “Crime in Chicago is out of control. … You’re not going to stop it by being nice. You’re going to stop it by being one tough son of a bitch.”
Chicago is politically convenient for him. Trump uses it to stoke white fears about the specter of supposedly “dangerous” black people and uncontrollable city streets, positioning himself as the heavy-handed authoritarian who can reclaim order.
On the campaign trail in August 2016, Trump promised that he alone could stop the violence in Chicago “in one week” by being tougher. This rhetoric translated to a concrete policy recommendation to reinstate stop-and-frisk practices known to be racially biased and inefficient in stopping violent crime.
In New York, for example, (a case study that Trump inaccurately believes is a model for success) 90% of the people stopped by police were blacks and Latinos who had committed no crime. Of the few who were arrested, officers charged offenders with nothing more serious than possession of marijuana. These data reveal little about how such practices violate the rights of law-abiding people of color and erode trust between law enforcement and communities.
We all need to care about Chicago, but President Trump’s misguided get-tough approach to violence prevention reduces Chicago to a type of pawn for his political self-interest. If Trump is serious about providing federal assistance, it must come in the form of social services, improved education, job training, counseling and violence intervention services that supplement the work of police officers, the type of “help” that researchers agree will curb violence without denying people their dignity or rights.
This article has been revised and edited from a version that was published earlier.