Why aldermen are mum about Chicago's violence: They're not sure what to say



Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer says violence would drop if he and other aldermen were put in charge of a city jobs program.
  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
  • Sixth Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer says violence would drop if he and other aldermen were put in charge of a city jobs program.
Last week Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed tough new regulations for gun shops in Chicago, including a requirement that they videotape all sales. The mayor framed the plan as part of his ongoing attack on the violence that continues to shake the city and make international headlines.

"The city of Chicago does not have too few guns on the street," the mayor said. "Gun control is essential to our public safety."

It's certainly been essential to Emanuel's political strategy for responding to bloodshed. Like his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, Mayor Emanuel has continually blamed weak gun laws—and the officials deemed responsible for them—as the primary culprit in Chicago's violence epidemic.

Emanuel's remarks were followed by a beautiful, warm weekend, which meant that more people ended up dead. By Monday morning, the tally had reached at least seven killed and 23 others wounded. Eleven others were shot Monday, including six at a south-side laundromat. Since the beginning of the year, Chicago has averaged nearly a murder and six shootings every day.

The vast majority of the violence has happened in neighborhoods on the south and west sides that also happen to be overwhelmed with joblessness, poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and struggling schools.

But with few exceptions, the elected officials who represent these areas haven't been nearly as vocal as the mayor. This has been especially noticeable in the City Council, where most black aldermen have been quiet, loyal mayoral backers even as their constituents grow increasingly distressed and discontented.

It turns out there's a good reason for the silence: many aldermen aren't exactly sure what to do about the violence, politically or otherwise. That's what I heard repeatedly when I surveyed them on the same day Emanuel made his latest gun control proposal.

In other words, when it comes to stopping the bloodshed, aldermen say your guess is as good as theirs—and they're right about that last part.

"I don't know," said Latasha Thomas, the longtime alderman of the 17th Ward, which includes parts of Auburn-Gresham and Englewood. "Do you have any ideas?"

She wasn't being facetious.

Thomas is a lawyer who serves as chairman of the council's education committee. She said she agreed with the mayor on the importance of gun control. As her voting record shows, she agrees with the mayor on almost everything that comes up in the council.

But she was also quick to add that she doesn't buy Emanuel's claims that crime totals are dropping. "I don't spit out the statistics like the mayor and police superintendent do. To us it doesn't seem that different. I still won't let my kids run around outside."

Like many of her colleagues, Thomas stressed that her ward desperately needs more jobs. She noted that she and other aldermen had just proposed an ordinance that would give more work to black firms on city bond deals. "We need to make sure we're giving experience to the next generation of professionals," she said.

Great—but is the kid on the corner going to get in on the next city bond sale, even if the ordinance passes? "It's something," Thomas said.

Her neighbor Roderick Sawyer had a different idea for putting people to work: give money to aldermen to hire as many as 50 people each to clean up their wards. "I guarantee it would have an impact," he said. "That's what I hear over and over again: 'Alderman, I just need a job. I just need a chance. I don't want to be out here in the streets.'"

Sawyer's ward, the Sixth, includes the middle-class Chatham neighborhood, which was hit by at least five murders last month, second-most in the city. The alderman is a member of the progressive caucus who's criticized Emanuel for privatizing city services and closing health clinics.

The city already runs some summer jobs programs for youth, but Sawyer says it should be expanded to older residents and routed through ward offices. "I know who I should give a job to—I know who's going to work and who's going to hit somebody over the head. I grew up with a lot of these guys."

He swears he's not proposing a new patronage system. "This is about opportunity. They don't have shit else to do."

Sawyer insists it's a viable idea, but I haven't heard any citizens clamoring to put more taxpayer dollars in the hands of aldermen. And there's little chance that the city will go on a hiring spree of any sort, since it's been slashing positions—most of them on the south and west sides—for much of the last decade.

The police ranks have even shrunk under Emanuel—a point that doesn't sit well with many aldermen, though they've been reluctant to bring it up publicly.

"It's the old adage—everybody wants to get to heaven but nobody wants to die. Well, everybody wants more police but no one wants to pay," said Jason Ervin, alderman of the 28th Ward, which includes much of East and West Garfield Park.

Ervin says he wishes police already on the street would be more aggressive in making arrests, especially for drug offenses—yet the police department is already using so many resources on low-level drug busts that the mayor and other aldermen have demanded changes to focus on violent crime.

Fellow west-side Alderman Michael Chandler (24th) also believes the police could be doing more with the officers they already have. "They get paid for eight hours of work, but if they just did six hours of work, that would be an improvement," he said. "You see them sitting on the side of the road."

But Chandler said he was impressed—and residents were thrilled—when police leaders in North Lawndale responded to a spate of recent shootings by ordering cops to walk beats in the community.

Sustaining that sort of police presence would require a major boost in personnel that isn't likely to happen. Aldermen are already fretting aloud over Emanuel's proposal to hike property taxes this fall to raise tens of millions of dollars for the city's pension funds.

Chandler says volunteers could step up to help police. "In my ward, we have 180 churches. If only half of them adopted a block, that would be something. We should teach life skills right out on the streets."

It's a feeling shared by many aldermen: if only they could boost the number of both beat cops and churchgoers. "I don't think a lot of people are going to church anymore," said 18th Ward alderman Lona Lane.

Lane's ward has struggled to bring in new jobs and businesses, and she'd like to see more police. But Lane believes that basic immorality is at the heart of the violence, though she's not sure what can be done about it.

"Parents need to take more responsibility with their children, to make them feel loved and wanted. It's embarrassing to me to see young African-American men walking around with their pants hanging down. It's like a lost generation."

Deborah Graham, the 29th Ward alderman, agrees that things used to be different. When she was growing up in the west-side Austin community, there were more programs for youth, she said. Plus, neighbors helped take care of at-risk kids in the community. "Our block club president took us on field trips. We went to the Lincoln Park Zoo. We went to Great America!"

Community residents need to band together to solve their own problems, Graham said, and it won't be easy. Last month six people were murdered in Austin, tops in the city.

She says it feels like "this is the worst it's ever been."

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