Nowadays, some call America’s third largest city Chiraq—an urban war zone. Its poor black neighborhoods are awash in handguns, many imported from a neighboring state. There have been more than 450 homicides this year, most resulting from gun violence.
The city has paid out some $660 million in judgments, settlements and legal fees in the past 15 years involving police misconduct cases. Just last month, one of its officers was convicted of murder and aggravated battery for firing 16 shots into a black youth who was walking away.
Chicago won’t choose city leaders until next year, months after this week’s midterm elections nationwide. But one political issue is already settled. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel decided not to run for a third term, in part fearful, observers say, that his handling of police- and gun-related matters would be too much to overcome.
Not that long ago, another American city—one that did pick city leaders this week—had a similar nickname. Many called the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., the murder capital of the nation. A crack cocaine epidemic and the easy availability of guns fueled a homicide rate of more than 400 per year.
The mayor at that time, Marion Barry, chose not to seek a fourth term. Neither guns nor police misconduct were the deciding issues. Barry abandoned his campaign after an FBI sting captured him lighting up a crack pipe in a local hotel room.
As D.C. voters went to the polls Tuesday, the homicide rate was way down, and so was the number of handguns. Police misconduct was not an issue, and economic redevelopment was revitalizing several of the neighborhoods once buffeted by crack wars and death. Mayor Muriel Bowser coasted to a second term.
So Washington is back to being just D.C. And Chicago? It’s Chicago.
Police there recovered 7,000 handguns between 2013 and 2016 that were in the city illegally or were associated with a crime. Many came from other, more gun-friendly parts of the state. One of every five came from Indiana, which has some of America’s weakest gun laws and is less than an hour’s drive from Chicago’s city center.
Police conduct has been a continuing concern all year. Chicago spent more than $20.3 million on police-related legal fees in the first eight weeks of 2018.
Some already were portraying Chicago’s finest as the nation’s worst when Officer Jason Van Dyke went on trial in the fall, charged with shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald four years earlier, and setting off a chain reaction of political consequences.
In January 2016, a top lawyer in the office that defends Chicago city employees resigned following a judge’s ruling that he had “intentionally concealed” key evidence about the police killing of a suspect during a traffic stop.
In the Democratic primary two months later, a political newcomer defeated Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who community activists had criticized for being slow to indict Van Dyke.
Finally, in August of this year, on the eve of Van Dyke’s trial, Mayor Emanuel cited personal and political reasons as he announced that his current second term would be his last.
Among the issues he would have faced, The Chicago Tribune reported, were “rampant gun violence…and the Laquan McDonald police shooting that led to a federal investigation of the Police Department and sagging support among African American voters.”
Both Chicago and the District of Columbia have police forces whose numbers closely resemble the cities’ racial make up. Chicago’s population is about one-third black, and so is its police force. Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department is just over 40 percent black. About half of the DC citizenry is black.
“A lot of Chicago’s problems with police conduct and gun violence stem from segregation—segregation of people and resources such as shelter and transportation,” the Rev. Gregory S. Livingston, a community activist and interim pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, said in a telephone interview.
Most of those killed during the worst gun death years in Washington fell in nearly all-black neighborhoods where open-air drug markets flourished and many city services were in limited supply.
Middle-income blacks had begun moving out of the District following the 1968 riots, and that trend accelerated as once staple neighborhoods became increasingly unsafe and underserved.
As the District “bottomed out,” BBC Magazine reported in 2014, quoting the Urban Institute’s Peter Tatian, neighborhood reinvestment kicked in, taking advantage of cheap land and creating new housing opportunities.
The city began paying more attention, and policing and some public schools got better.
Now in various once-ravaged parts of town, there are more businesses down the street, around the corner or nearby; more dining, more shopping and more places to play, for young and older, alike.
Still, an ongoing concern is whether this revitalization, based largely on economics but also represented in large part by the different complexions of those coming in compared to those moving out, is good or bad for the place also once popularized as “Chocolate City.”
In Chicago, some black activists and community leaders insisted after Van Dyke was convicted that the verdict did not end their deep concerns about how cops behave. The buck won’t stop in city hall, they warned, and others tend to agree.
“If Rahm Emanuel hadn’t pulled the plug on his own re-election bid, the guilty verdict against Officer Jason Van Dyke might have had a huge impact on the crowded race for mayor of Chicago,” wrote Fran Spielman, longtime political columnist of the Chicago Sun Times.
“But now that Emanuel has removed himself from the equation, the question is what, if any, impact will the verdict have on city elections?”
Another unknown is the impact on Chicago’s national image. Livingston has his doubts. After all, he reminds, this is the city where Al Capone’s criminal crews did their dirty work.
So, after Chiraq?
Perhaps more of the same.
“It’s a part of Chicago’s DNA,” Livingston says. “Chicago has that reputation.”