By Matt Rosenberg
I grew up in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, home to the University of Chicago. My Dad taught there. In our apartment building’s elevator, we’d encounter neighbors like Saul Bellow and Milton Friedman. At the university, urban affairs was central. It’s where the Chicago School of sociology was developed. Today there are special research centers on Chicago crime and education.
Epistemology too has been taught and debated here; that branch of philosophy with ancient roots, and several definitions. One has to do with the study of the limits of knowledge, including what can we actually do with it? As crime surges on local streets, the University’s president says the school’s expert policy arsenal will be deployed anew to fight violence. But we’ve long known a lot; yet done too little.
Hyde Park has had five murders in 2021 versus none last year; Chicago 715 this year by early last week, versus 496 in all of 2019. The most recent U of C student slain is 24-year-old Dennis Zheng, brutally killed for the quick $100 sale of his stolen cell phone and laptop. Arrested for the murder was an 18-year-old paroled for armed robbery and carjacking as a juvenile.
Hyde Park now suffers from emerging laws of the street due to the city’s spiraling deadly crime. There’s a temporary relocation effect as weary combatants seek less harsh climes for a breather. But their sociopathy follows.
“People in Hyde Park and downtown are easier targets,” Northeastern Illinois University urban communities professor Lance Williams told the Chicago Sun-Times. Downtown shootings by October’s end were up more than 200 percent from the first ten months of 2019, car thefts up 51 percent, and sexual assaults 35 percent higher. Business leaders are rightly worried continued crime will dampen economic growth and activity, downtown and citywide
Four years running, 80 percent of Chicago murder victims have been Black. As are most top local officials. They should elevate actual problem-solving on crime – which is Chicago’s existential threat. But they augment rather than ease the troubles.
Hyde Park resident and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle offers no more than bromides. After Zheng’s killing she pledged to “revisit my outreach to relevant stakeholders to bring everyone together and establish real world results.”
But Preckwinkle, the chair of the Cook County Democrats who presides over political endorsements for judges, helped set the course when she backed new state law removing 15-to-17-year-olds from mandatory adult prosecution for armed vehicle hijackings. Too often, young carjackers convicted as juveniles get little or no detention and then parole or probation, but are later charged with new crimes up to and including murder.
Preckwinkle heads a government with dysfunctional courts and a gun-shy prosecutor.
Under Cook County’s Chief Judge Timothy Evans, Chicagoland’s local courts are a revolving door. His “bail reform” regime set loose in 2017 has amounted to quick release on low-cash or no-cash bonds for men charged with violent crimes. All too often they’re right back at it. Carjacking, shooting, even killing.
In 2020 a five-time felon out on low-cash bond for new weapons charges was charged anew, with two counts of murder. This after allegedly losing his temper and shooting two victims at an outdoor party – Michael Mickey and his aunt Lunyea Wilson – while wounding three. A snatch of conversation was reported to have triggered him. Let’s be clear: it wasn’t for want of single-payer health care, or college tuition – claims typical of today’s causality claptrap.
Two members of a carjacking crew that killed retired Chicago firefighter Dwain Williams in Morgan Park on the South Side were out on low cash bond for pending serious offenses including carjacking.
A juvenile out on bond after smashing a suburban gun store window and allegedly stealing a large cache of weapons, then was charged with murder for fatally stabbing drugstore clerk Olga Calderon, the mother of two young children, at a Milwaukee Avenue Walgreen’s in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.
By mid-July of 2021 some 3,508 Cook County defendants, almost three quarters charged with violent crime or gun-related offenses, were free on electronic monitoring before trial, versus 503 per day in 2010. That included 100 charged with murder, versus just 19 five years earlier in 2016, before bail reform.
The mess also traces to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. An in-depth newspaper probe revealed her office had dropped 6,500 more prosecutions of serious crimes in her first three years than her predecessor in her last three years. This included charges of aggravated battery, sex crimes, shootings, and alleged murders.
Plea deals by her prosecutors are a scourge. Like Dennis Zheng, a 73-year-old Black grandfather and veteran named Keith Cooper was allegedly killed by a young offender in Hyde Park last summer who’d been previously convicted for carjacking. Cooper had been buying groceries for dinner with his daughter and granddaughters.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot blames elevated murder rates for Blacks on white-driven “systemic racism” and guns. She blames Covid for fresh looting downtown and in Chatham on the South Side after the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, and says an alderman calling for stronger crime prevention by Chicago police, is “ill-informed.” In her world, Blacks have no agency.
Yet Lightfoot’s endless tap-dance is what is racist; an institutionalizing of low expectations. A mayor must set the tone, and be the glue. A mayor must use the bully pulpit to preach on two-parent households, the vital role of police, more NGO training programs in the construction trades, more microlending to ex-convict entrepreneurs, and more and better school choice.
A mayor must also use the powers of office to enable robust police foot patrols in high-crime neighborhoods and emerging trouble spots. Manpower matters. Attrition and unfilled vacancies tell us the environment for policing in Chicago is toxic. That rot starts on the fifth floor of City Hall, and encompasses the city’s race-hustling class
Innovation can be leading-edge stuff, like the Chicago Neighborhoods Initiative microlending program based in Pullman, including ex-cons who start delivery companies to feed off the Amazon economy. Or training programs in Woodlawn for Black female electricians at Rev. Corey Brooks’ Project H.O.O.D.
But – especially in older Northern cities stuck in the failed politics of the past – it requires a return to basics. Like the gospel of engaged and accountable parenting.
America’s struggling cities, particularly Chicago, must innovate at the real speed of life. Or they will all but die.
Matt Rosenberg is the author of What Next, Chicago? Notes of a Pissed-Off Native Son.” Parts of this column are adapted from the book. He also writes at ChicagoSkooled. He lived in Chicago for 30 years, and returns frequently. He has worked in media, public policy, and communications since serving on the undercover team of the Mirage Tavern investigation in 1977. Reach him at email@example.com