CHICAGO — As the country grapples with two more shootings of black men by police, Chicagoans are hearing a refrain by people skeptical of police bias against black people: “Where are the protests for the alarming rate of gun violence in the black community against other African Americans?”
When people issue blanket criticisms about a perceived lack of response to such violence, they often point to Chicago, citing the levels of violence here disproportionately affecting communities of color. One study found that for every 100,000 people, an average of one white, 28 Hispanics and 113 blacks were victims of nonfatal shootings annually in Chicago.
But activists say these condemnations are not just hurtful and uninformed — they're also dangerous.
Segregating "black on black" crime into its own category fails to address the institutional roots of violence in certain communities, according to Rashanah Baldwin, a community activist and host of the radio show Good in Englewood.
"It's another form of racism," Baldwin said. "You say 'stop the violence' but then what? Stop the health disparities in our community? It's the lack of funding, the closing of our schools. When I see those [black on black violence] comments, I say, 'Look at the bigger picture.' "
Baldwin is among a growing number of young, black activists taking to the streets (or the airwaves) to speak out about black oppression, violence and other issues facing her community.
She said one of the biggest obstacles in publicizing the plight of urban black communities is pushback from other communities.
"When you try to improve the quality of life in your community, the naysayers will try to bring you down. They say 'all lives matter' and 'end stop snitching,' " Baldwin said. "I combat the negativity by doing the work.
"Why argue with somebody from the North Side? Somebody from out of town or somebody who has never set foot in Englewood? I don't respond to that."
'They Are Not Listening'
Charles Preston, an organizer/activist with Black Youth Project 100, says his activism didn't start when Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald, addressing critics that these movements appeared out of nowhere.
For Preston, it started when Blair Holt, an elementary school friend of his, was gunned down on a CTA bus back in 2007, along with the beating death of Fenger High School student Darrion Albert that took place three blocks from his home.
Black men were charged in connection with the murders of Holt and Albert.
"I remember when Blair got shot," Preston said. "I knew I wanted to do something about it. I started to pass out flyers making people aware of the gun legislation that was being passed. The kids that jumped Derrion Albert lived in our community. I saw what black-on-black crime and 'inter-communal' violence could do."
The legislation that Preston speaks of was H.R. 45: Blair Holt's Firearm Licensing and Record of Sale Act of 2009. This bill was introduced in the 111th Congress by U. S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), a former member of the Black Panthers, on Jan. 6, 2009.
The bill, like other gun control efforts before and after it, died in Congress.
Preston has been involved in activism ever since.
More than a hundred people showed up at a street corner meeting in West Englewood after two children were shot over the 4th of July weekend. Some speakers urged that the community turn in criminals.
"When our grandsons and nephews do the shooting, we run into the house and lock the door," Devry Graham, president of Graham Funeral Directors and Cremations Services, told the gathering. "It's time to step up and say, 'This will not be accepted.'"
Page May, co-founder of Assata's Daughters, a group that supports black women, said that activists fighting black-on-black violence have been focused on addressing the roots of violent crime for a long time.
"If that's their critique, then they are clearly not listening. We helped organize a response when Tyshawn Lee was murdered," May said, referring to the November, 2015 killing of a 9-year-old child allegedly at the hands of a black gang member.
"When Mayor Emanuel closed the schools, we saw an uptick in violence. When people don't have enough food to feed their families, you see an uptick in violence," May said. "We're constantly thinking of how we can improve the lives of black people. Hurt people hurt people, and we have to ask why this is happening."
'We're Not Looking For Someone To Save Us'
Lamar Johnson, 26, the youth services coordinator for BRAVE (Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere) at St. Sabina, is not only a violence prevention counselor: he's an alumnus of the Auburn Gresham parish's school. That's why he says it's been important to him to reinvest his activism in his community.
"Father Mike [Pfleger] calls me a lot to do a lot of things because of that. I help kids become agents of change," Johnson said. "I love being in the streets helping young people. We're working from the inside out."
Pfleger, who is holding one of his weekly Peace Walks Thursday, said "people who say we don’t care about shootings in the community are living under a rock."
"Rarely a week goes by when a march doesn't happen," he said. "When they say that, they are ignoring what’s going on.”
Jahmal Cole, community activist and founder of My Block, My Hood, My City, an organization that helps Chicago kids explore neighborhoods outside their own, says everyone has a role in fighting against injustice in Chicago, and people make progress in their own way.
"There are a multitude of protestors which have different agendas and tactics addressing issues," Cole said. "The challenging thing is that they all have different ideas on how to identify the problem and what solutions they propose. This has always been the case with movements as big as the Civil Rights Movement and as small as getting Whole Foods in Englewood."
Pemon Rami, a film producer and Director of Educational Services and Public Programs at the DuSable Museum of African American History, became an activist when he was 16 years old. It started, he said, when a teacher was fired from Englewood High School (now Urban Prep Academy) for teaching black history in the 1960's.
"We wanted the school system to be more beneficial to the black community," Rami said. "There was very little being taught about us back then. Those teachers who began to step up were under attack."
Rami, who has done casting for local movies such as "The Blues Brothers" and "Cooley High," said his activism focused on a long-term plan to get people of color working in the fields of education, law enforcement and journalism.
"Many of the black politicians back then were a part of the Daley machine. We didn't have a direct relationship to them," Rami said. "Due to that, many black organizations sprouted up, like the African-American Patrolmen's League and the Chicago Association of Black Journalists. Due to the movement, a lot of people got jobs."
Baldwin said instead of attempting to blame black people for deaths at the hands of police or anyone else, people should educate themselves.
"We're not looking for someone to save us," Baldwin said. "If someone wants to help, impact policy. Change laws. Shame on you for being brainwashed by the media."
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