Two months before alleged killer James Holmes stormed a Colorado movie theater, murdering 12 and injuring dozens more, police and politicians in a different place were trying to squelch the tremors from their own mass killing. It was in Chicago, over Memorial Day weekend, when police responded to more than 40 shooting victims in about 72 hours. Ten of those victims were shot dead, including four teenage children. Alas, despite the fact that more people died that weekend than in both the August 5 Sikh killings and yesterday's College Station shootings combined, there will be no flags at half-staff for those 10 Chicagoans. It's likely you didn't even know those people were dead, just like most of your friends and family. In a summer of now three much-lamented shootings with multiple victims, Chicago's murdered are the forgotten ones.
Because people in the media like to compare and contrast things in order to add perspective, there are now dozens of ways to look at Chicago's murder rate: In May, it was up 49 percent from last year. For a time, more Chicagoans were getting killed than soldiers in Afghanistan, a literal war zone. It's worse than New York, a city three times its size. And trumping them all: It's the worst murder rate out of every so-called "Alpha" city in the entire world, a grouping that includes even historically rough locales like Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Los Angeles, and New York.
Some people, especially the police, like to blame the violence on gangs, but Berkley law professor Franklin Zimring told the Daily Beast last month that saying Chicago violence is mostly gang-related is "both helpful and extremely mysterious." "Because there is no sense that Chicago has a gang profile which is vastly different from that of Los Angeles, and yet [the murder rate in] Los Angeles has continued [to be] low," he said.
I emailed Chicago Tribune crime reporter Peter Nickeas to ask him how the lack of attention given to Chicago's violence makes him feel. President Obama, I pointed out, had visited Aurora and made calls to the Oak Creek temple members just after the respective shootings. But his last visit to Chicago, on a weekend in which seven people were killed and 35 wounded by gun violence, was for a wedding and a round of golf. Here's what Nickeas wrote:
I love my job. It matters. I don't see any other reporters, most nights, at the crime scenes I visit. I don't see anyone else standing next to crying family members or cops who are desensitized to it because it happens every shift, like clock work, across the city. Someone has to put these shootings into context, and make people realize that the nightly stories are more than box scores, even if we can't get out to a crime scene to illustrate it that night.
Everytime someone gets shot, someone in the neighborhood has to hear the gunfire, kids in the neighborhood see the police and hear the screaming relatives, they have to find out what happens as word trickles out into the community. So, that needs to be covered. I do what I can, and I'm proud of my organization's coverage. My editors give me wide leeway to go out and chase these stories overnight and I'm thankful for that.
Overall, the general lack of media coverage of Chicago violence bothers me. I wish more people paid attention. I feel like people just say "oh well, that's Chicago," with its 450 or so homicides a year. No other big city in the country would tolerate this. New York City is three times the size and is on pace for about 400 homicides this year. Chicago is looking at a real possibility of passing 500, if trends in both cities hold.
Regarding the presidential visit - I don't know why there's no visit. You'd have to ask his PR shop, I can't speak for him. I would note that if he visited after every weekend where 30+ people were shot, he'd be here every summer weekend, it seems.
I absolutely am not comparing the shootings in Aurora or Milwaukee recently to Chicago violence - they are two totally different things. I think part of the media coverage in those two places is that it was unexpected, it's a crazy outburst of violence by a single offender targeting people who have no reason to be targeted.
I think people here are numb to it. There are parts of the city where it's normal to hear gunfire. I've heard gunfire standing next to crime scenes and waited for someone in the neighborhood to call it in, only to hear silence on my portable scanner. I've listened to the scanner and heard cops calling in gunfire while they're guarding a crime scene from earlier in the night, only to hear the dispatchers keep saying "no tickets yet," (which means nobody's called 911 to report shots fired calls).
The reality is, Chicago was clocking 800+ murders 10 years ago and was down to about 440 last year, might be more than that this year (we're up about 30% year over year at this point, though the Superintendent has noted, the rate of the increase is decreasing. We were up 60% at one point this spring. I think we're at 320 or 330 this year compared to maybe 250 or 260 last year). A lot of the shootings here are gang related, and a lot of times the people shot are mutual combatants. It's a matter of people settling scores with each other, often times, and not someone walking into a random crowded place and shooting.
So what I try to do is show that the violence ripples out, even when it's confined to gang members and the people shooting hit only their targets. Nobody lives in a vacuum. The only thing we can do is keep visiting crime scenes, talking to families, talking to neighbors, talking to cops, and piecing together stories that show what the violence does to the city.
For his part, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has responded to the killings with his unique brand of tough love, saying that he doesn't really care if gang members kill each other, just as long as they do it away from children and other innocents. "Take your stuff away to the alley," he told a press conference in early July. "Don't touch the children of the city of Chicago. Don't get near them." In Emanuel's words is the tacit understanding that it's not kids committing these crimes—at least not very small ones. It's young men committing these crimes, and the vast majority of those young men are black (though blacks make up only 33 percent of Chicago's population, they're 78 percent of the murder victims).
Wherever and why-ever and whomever is doing these shootings, it's been interesting to juxtapose them with the recent spate of mass killings that has America rapt. Chicago is on track to have 504 homicide victims by year's end, or about twenty-five times more than the casualties in the Aurora, Oak Creek, and College Station shootings combined.
To be sure, there is a problem of false equivalency here in that tragedy befalling people in one fell swoop—as it did in Aurora and Oak Creek—is jarring in a way that a consistent barrage of little tragedies is not. It's the difference between a home being flooded and a home suffering a steady leak in the ceiling. But that doesn't explain away why we as a nation care less when it's Chicagoans dying in their neighborhoods instead of Batman fans in a movie theater.
New pieces in the New Yorker and the New York Observer have pointed out the differences in how people have treated the Aurora shooting versus the Sikh temple shooting. The Observer's Hunter Walker noted that some Oak Creek Sikhs are disappointed Obama hasn't yet paid them a visit. In the New Yorker, political science professor Naunihal Singh wrote, "Unlike Aurora, which prompted nationwide mourning, Oak Creek has had such a limited impact that a number of people walking by the New York City vigil for the dead on Wednesday were confused, some never having heard of the killings in the first place."
When a hospital is overwhelmed with people in need of care, they perform triage to decide which patients to see first. Those hemorrhaging blood and on the verge of death take precedent, and those with headaches are told to wait. Society institutes triage, too, though it's mostly unspoken. Tragedies like the Aurora shooting get months and years of press, and Americans of all stripes cry together over the preciousness and loss of life. After that, tragedies like the Sikh shooting and the College Station shooting get political statements, and maybe some people wonder what went wrong. But as Naunihal Singh lamented, there simply isn't the same level of interest as there is other times, perhaps because the victims were less in number or of an esoteric religion. Then, after all of those, comes Chicago, and the 100 or so people mowed down by gunfire there every few months.
Maybe if everyone killed annually by guns in Chicago was executed at the same time on Wrigley Field, the world might decide to pay attention. Life, for whatever reason, seems to be valued more when a lot of it is snatched away unfairly all at once. Also possible, and far more chilling, is that maybe people don't think it's so unfair for young black people to get killed in Chicago's ghettoes.
This post has been updated to note that, for a time, more citizens were killed in Chicago than U.S. soldiers were killed Afghanistan, though the murder rate wasn't higher.