2015 Six Thoughts about Solutions and Media for Spike Lee and Chiraq


Continuing Part I: here, for what they're worth, are six thoughts for anyone who wants to see youth violence brought out into the open so Chicago can deal with it effectively.

Where to begin? How about with gang territories. This Chicago Police Department map, taken from the Crime Commission's 2012 Gang Book, defines them:

If Chicago was a body, and this map an x-ray whose colored portions represent cancer, the diagnosis would be malignant. At some point in Lee's Chiraq, perhaps during a meeting of the mayor and his senior police officers, this map might appear as a flip-board chart.

Spike Lee is a smart man. He knows that the "unsolvable" problem of gang violence is rooted in all kinds of other "unsolvable" problems: poverty, joblessness, poor schools, broken families, a broken criminal justice system and, in most cases, racial discrimination or segregation. 

He knows also that gangs recruit kids from broken families who need powerful leaders to look up to and troubled peers to identify with. All this, we can be pretty sure, will figure in his account of black-on-black violence in Chiraq.

So how might the film's story take shape? Myself, I'm no master storyteller, so far be it for me to dream up the quixotic cast of characters and pungent, multiple storylines that Lee will conjure up in order to get all this these concerns across in, say, 120 minutes of pure, magical entertainment

Lee's film, by one report, may have elements of comedy. Dark comedy. Presumably very dark, given its subject matter. A comedy, perhaps, about the absurdity of approaches to solving youth violence, especially black-on-black? The core absurdity might be this:     
 Chicago has never even tried to solve youth violence
This thought - the first of my six - puts into an appropriately ludicrous context all of Chicago's efforts, past and current, to deal with youth violence:
  1. Chicago's police have tried (and failed) to contain youth violence within poor non-white neighborhoods. 
  2. In recent years, our public health professionals have tried to reduce youth violence with elaborate, data-driven programs which, even when successful in their pilot tests, have never replicated citywide (a shortage of funds, goes the lament). 
  3. Over the years, our leaders have swept youth violence under a carpet. Past mayor campaigns have been no different from the recent one
Given that no one in Chicago has come up with a solution to youth violence, what's the use of insisting that a solution be found?  The answer isn't hard to see:
Youth violence is the kind of problem that you either solve or you don’t. And when you don’t, it only gets worse. That's been the history and also the lesson of youth violence in Chicago and other cities since the late 1960's, when the problem first erupted.
That's thought #2. A wake-up call. It's a dark insight into the obvious: America's utter befuddlement on the matter of youth violence. And it's common knowledge to most Americans. It provokes outrage. Also ridicule and 

It requires careful handling. Sensitivity, among other things, to competent non-racist policy makers at local, state or national levels who truly believe that youth violence is fundamentally unsolvable: that the problem will always be with us, like poverty or racism. 

Note that up to now, history has been on their side. 

Sensitivity matters because Lee's Chiraq needs to open the minds of policy makers like these to the possibility and feasibility of solution. 

Sensitivity matters also because the red-herring equation of youth violence with gun violence comes to us from the White House on down. 

And it matters because this mindset dominates media coverage of youth violence
This mindset blinds us to the fact that gangs and drugs are two very distinct problems that must be addressed separately.

About gangs: many years ago, a South Sider opened my eyes to the fact that if I could wave a magic wand on a Sunday night to make all drugs in Chicago vanish overnight, I'd still wake up Monday morning with a hundred thousand unemployed gang bangers standing around looking for a way to make money

So: how to determine who belongs in jail and who is capable of building a decent life? And how to help the latter group build decent lives? 

That's a challenge for any viable solution. If it's a blossom, it comes with a huge thorn attached, so I won't count it. 

About drugs.  A third thought here: Chasing the Scream, a history of drug prohibition and legalization in America by journalist Johann Hari. 

The reasons for the strange title of this essential but hard-to-stomach book become clearer and clearer as you read it.

I have
about the wisdom of legalization. I think about the profiteers in Colorado making marijuana candybars. Or about Big Tobacco salivating over the huge demand for marijuana. 

But these doubts vanish into thin air as I follow the irrefutable pro-legalization logic of Hari's harrowing account of the pathetic origins, sordid history, and horrific outcomes of the War on Drugs. 

As Hari documents, this war was created, nationalized and  globalized singlehandedly by a single paranoid and largely forgotten bureaucrat named Harry Anslinger.

Hari demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the War in Drugs, while intended to reduce drug addiction and drug-related violence, exacerbates both, and does so exponentially. 

It also seems to me that legalization alone, even if carefully staged and strictly regulated, will itself not come close to solving the nation's youth violence problem. 

Another component is needed. As a media person, Spike Lee knows it. It's the public, community and commercial media that connect (or disconnect) residents of our cities and citizens of the nation. 

This insight takes us to uncharted territory: to a question about media that our media-driven society has yet to ask itself in our media-driven electronic age:
What roles will the media that comprise America's public communications system play in addressing systemic problems like youth violence

This question is thought #4. In 1992 a former Chicago Mayor raised it out of frustration with Chicago's media. Richard M. Daley charged that they "glorify trouble makers and neglect problem solvers." Huge insight, succinctly put.
Mayor Daley saw that youth violence isn't just a public safety or police problem or a public health, or medical problem. He saw that it's always, and equally, been a public communications, or media problem.   
As a media man, Spike Lee has seen how decades of sensationalized, if-it-bleeds-it-leads news coverage of youth violence have spread fear, apathy and mistrust throughout America's cities. He understands how this coverage polarizes races, estranges young people and adults, and sows mistrust between citizens and government.

But Mayor Daley wasn't saying only that media have exacerbated youth violence. He was also implying that media can help solve it. How? Quite simply by focusing more on problem solvers. To this I would add: by using their powerful interactive tools to make problem solvers of all Chicagoans.

Lee's Chiraq could (among other things) be a film about media. It could remind Americans that while we live the most connected age in history, our interactive media are doing little to help us shape the nation's best future. 

It's worth noting that in late 2013, one member of Chicago's mainstream media - the Chicago Tribune, with its promising New Plan of Chicago project - began treating Chicagoans not as passive, dumbed-down bystanders but as active, intelligent problem solversBut this initially promising Tribune project unaccountably went silent last October. I don't know why. But one thing is certain: the Tribune never explored the enormous profit potential of treating Chicagoans as smart problem solvers.

The Tribune's New Plan aside, the missing link in the search to end youth violence in Chicago has been hidden in plain view all these years. It's been staring us in the face whenever our eyes were glued to our TV sets listening to some news anchor drone on about the latest horrific episode of youth violence in Chicago.

The solution? It's not hard to see. Spike Lee could convey it in a single 90 second scene set, say, in the plush corner office of a Chicago network TV General Manager. Imagine the GM parked behind his desk with his hand on his chin listening to a trio of media-savvy high school students from Englewood. Say these kids had just made the TV evening news by leading several hundred community members to protest the behavior of police who put their hands on the guns when the talk with young people in Englewood.  

One student might say that media are free to continue reporting youth violence news as they see fit. Another might say, however, that his friends are tired of seeing funerals, empty protests and the rising body count on the evening news.

And a third - a round-faced kid with big thick rimmed glasses, perhaps - might say its high time the station gave Englewood residents a chance to develop solutions to the violence
Youth violence, this kid might point out, is the kind of problem that can only be solved by the entire community. And the only way this will happen is when community members are connected in the media.  
There's your fifth thought. It's a dream, of course, a vision of a community that's learned to trust itself - its people, its leaders and its media - sufficiently to undertake and complete the search for solutions to seemingly insoluble problems like youth violence. 

Spike Lee might dismiss this dream as idle fantasy. I see it as Chicago's best and perhaps only chance to secure its future. To realize it, a transformation is involved, a sea change. The destructive attitudes fostered in media must become constructive.

Chicago has been crippled by destructive attitudes. The task for media is not just to serve the community as suppliers of information to a receptive public. It's also to serve as  mediators of information and ideas generated by an active public interacting with the city's leaders. The task for media, in short, is to act as a mediating media

This process must be gradual one. Media need time to explore and develop credible, trustworthy ways of connecting Chicagoans and their leaders. And of connecting children and adults, city and suburban residents, liberals and conservatives. 

And because commercial media exist to make a profit, these ways would be profitable. Thought #6 is therefore a thought about profit:  
  • Media will be tapping an as yet untapped and undiscovered market. Potentially it is the largest of all possible large markets: the Market of the Whole of all members of any sized community: the market of all citizens interested in the betterment of their own lives and the health of the communities they live in.
  • The model for connecting Chicagoans and their leaders will evolve from the extraordinarily effective and profitable modle that media have developed over the years to connect Chicagoans with their pro sports teams: the Bears, Bulls, Hawks, Cubs and Sox.
  • The profit potential for media is suggested in this ten-point analysis by communications expert Dale Peskin 
  • The gradual transformation might begin with Chicago Civic Media's low-cost, high impact Full Story project before moving on to more exiting and more interactive ways of engaging Chicagoans in the search to end youth violence. 
One last thought, or a bunch of 'em. Chicagolanders won't be motivated to solve youth violence unless they can clearly see the need to do so. 
  1. Chicago's city planners agree that in a global economy Chicago and its suburbs are increasingly sharing a common destiny. As never before, what impacts one area impacts all areas.
  2. Youth violence afflicts Chicago's suburbs in ways that are often overlooked by Chicago's newsmedia.
  3. Chicago has lost hundreds of thousands of lives to gangs and drugs. At least a million.  This does not include the tens of thousands of lives lost in Chicago's suburbs.
  4. As for the economic costs, the chart below shows that youth violence has cost Chicago billions of dollars in lost wages, lost productivity and lost tax revenues as hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans fled the city for the safety of the suburbs. While indirect and difficult to quantify, the impact on the suburbs of losses on this scale are substantial.

For Chiraq to point Chicago towards a solution for youth violence, it cannot overlook the roles to be played by modern interactive technologies in empowering Chicagoans of all ages to define and solve the problem. Sound impossible? Not if Spike Lee is the storyteller I think he is. And the one Chicago needs. 

 And not if he can nudge Chicago to look back at its historic "I Will" spirit in order to reinvent itself as a "We Will" city unified by, and dedicated to, its commitment to not some but all of the children who are its future.