Lurid headlines have been blooming in my fair city, Chicago, along with the daffodils. A dozen dead, 40 injured in less than a week. The mayor calls a gun summit. The police chief promises to send SWAT teams in full battle dress to troubled neighborhoods.
“If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up re-creating fundamentally the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction.” — Eckhart Tolle, “A New Earth”
Like the war on terror, violence in the ’hood is mostly a macabre abstraction. It’s a game that others play, a spectator sport — unless, until, we’re affected personally.
But I’m thinking about the vigil I attended a year ago in my neighborhood: a small memorial service — a dozen people were present — under the auspices of an organization called CeaseFire, at the spot where a teen-ager died after being shot (he drew a gun, he fired first) by a police officer. Our purpose was to acknowledge our connection to the tragedy as residents of the community, people who had walked this sidewalk in the small purposes of our daily lives. A hole had been torn in the trust and invisible connections that make daily life possible.
As we stood in reverent silence at the spot, I couldn’t help but notice two, maybe three, police cars drive past, very slowly. Once when I looked up I saw a female officer crane her neck to stare back at us, not in that intimidating, “we mean business” way of cops but in simple, gawker’s incredulity. Who are these people, standing in some ritual circle around a piece of blood-stained sidewalk just as cops in the district had stood a couple days earlier, when the spot was cordoned off with yellow tape?
I felt like a trespasser. I think what I was instead was a visitor from the future — from a possible and, I hope, near future, in which healing is part of what we think of as justice, and in which “crime” is understood in a context larger than headlines and fear.
Meanwhile, details wash up from the crime wave:
“A 14-year-old boy and an 36-year-old man were shot Sunday while leaving a bus dropping them off for 3 p.m. services at First Baptist Church of Roseland, near East 113th Street and South Edbrooke Avenue, said police and church officials. The two were taken in stable condition to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, police said.
“The church bus was about a block from the church when a man or teenage boy came out of a house and flashed gang signs at a teenager on the bus.”
I take another moment of silence, now, and feel a brief, overwhelming shudder of futility. Then I think about a bump in a hallway . . . and there it is again, that possible future.
The speaker is Tysha, a student at Chicago’s Dyett High School. We’re at a crowded conference table in the city’s Juvenile Court complex. Tysha is one of a half-dozen high school students present, along with lots of energized adults — skilled peacemakers — who hang on her every word.
This is a meeting of the Citywide Restorative Justice Committee. Ideals, common sense and empathy form a vision in the heart of the law-and-order bureaucracy. I feel almost unprepared for this phenomenon. The byword here is: “Power with instead of power over.” The talk is of peace circles and peer juries and other programs that are causing peace now, in dozens of city and suburban high schools.
“If we think the child can be saved, that’s the beginning,” someone says.
This is not the court system I’m familiar with. And, indeed, the chair of the meeting, Administrative Presiding Judge Sophia Hall, pleads at one point: “We have to learn to speak in non-adversarial terms.” There is a problem, she says, with words such as victim, offender, witness, prosecutor, delinquent, gang, which pigeonhole and isolate participants who need to form a whole. “It’s hard to talk about embracing the community when we have to chop up our language and deal with all these roles.”
Tysha has just given a report on how things have been going at Dyett since the implementation this year of a peer jury program, in which students hold one another accountable without judging or marginalizing them. There were 70 arrests at the school last year, she said. This year: zero.
She talked about peace consciousness. Two people bump each other in the hallway. “Hey!” And there’s tension, the sudden, looming possibility of violence. “But it’s not about the bump,” she said, the exhilaration in her voice rising. You bombed a test in your last class or had an argument with your girlfriend/boyfriend — that’s what you’re upset about, not somebody accidentally bumping you. “Conflict is often a personal issue.”