The more I see Laquan McDonald’s shooting in the headlines, the more concern I hear about gang violence. What about the brutal murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee?, people ask. Why aren’t protesters confronting gangs on the Southside of Chicago? Why don’t black people show more concern for black-on-black crime?
The people asking this question are white; they are usually not from Chicago. But suddenly, in the magnanimity of their compassion, they are concerned for gang violence on the Southside. They are concerned about black people killing each other.
The idea that Laquan McDonald and Tyshawn Lee deserve “equal airtime” because every black death is worth the same amount–it’s condescending and misleading. When white people ask about violence on the Southside, usually the question they are asking is either “How come nobody talks to me about violence on the Southside?” or “Why doesn’t anyone tell me about the protests on the Southside?” What they mean is, “tell me about a violence I’m not complicit in.”
Gang violence is, by definition, localized violence. And local communities–in Auburn-Gresham, in Englewood, in Garfield Park–are working to address the violence, it just doesn’t get media coverage because it’s economic development and peacebuilding is not flashy and it is hyper-local. While it is very considerate for suburban Salt Lake City to take pity on Chicago, it’s also an exercise in emotional deception: “look how bad I feel for these black children dying on Southside Chicago–you can’t ask me to feel bad about police shooting black teenagers, too.”
The question of equal airtime also fundamentally misunderstands the role of police in society–or the role of gang members in society. Police have an explicit social contract with the city in which they serve to protect and serve. Police have made a moral commitment to the community that gang members—they just don’t. By definition, gang members limit their loyalty only to the geographical constraints of the gang boundaries. Police promise to help the whole municipality. Saying police violence is equivalent to gang violence is saying that clergy abuse should be treated with the same outrage as Jared from Subway. All pedophilia is bad. All murder is bad. But there is a clear distinction between the moral expectations of working for Subway and the moral expectations of working for God. If you are a clergy member who has abused children, you have not only committed an immoral act, you have violated the community contract you made when you were took on a priestly status.
The underlying assumption is that police should be held to the same expectations as gang members. We protest because the Chicago Police Department seems to think “protecting and serving” includes “unprosecuted murder with impunity, now and then a dozen times or so every year.” When the institution charged with public safety becomes a public safety threat, that is a cause for the general public to march in the streets. That is a reason for the general public to change their daily routines, even to shut down stores and disrupt traffic.
Gang violence is a huge problem in Chicago. It is. If you want to come to Chicago and talk about economic development, underfunded public schools, food deserts, lead poisoning–there are people who can explain very clearly how these things are related to gang violence. There are people who can tell you about anti-violence initiatives throughout the city.
But if you’re wondering what the difference is between Tyshawn Lee and Laquan McDonald is, the answer is this: both were murdered; one’s murderer was arrested within a month of the shooting, the other’s murderer was arrested 13 months after the shooting.