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How Spike Lee's Chiraq Can Help Chicago Deal with Youth Violence - Part II

Here, for what they're worth, are six thoughts (mostly about media) for Spike Lee and 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 master storyteller. And knows the story of gang violence: that this "unsolvable" problem 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 the multiple pungent storylines that Lee will conjure up to get all of 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 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 the beauty of this insight is that it's common knowledge to many and perhaps most Americans. It provokes outrage and outrage. Lee will have a field day with it.

But it also requires careful handling: sensitivity to competent presumably non-racist policy makers at local, state or national levels who truly see youth violence as fundamentally unsolvable: as a problem will always be with us. Like poverty. And racism. 

And up to now, it's worth noting, history has been on their side. The trend, however, may be on Lee's side.

Will policy makers like these flock to see Chiraq? Will the film open their minds to the possibility and feasibility of solution? 

And will it prompt policy makers from the White House on down to abandon the mindset that equates youth violence with gun violence?

And will wake its viewers to the fact that gangs and drugs are distinct problems that must be addressed as such?

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? Those are major challenges for any viable solution to youth violence.

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've always had doubts 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 but enormously dedicated bureaucrat named Harry Anslinger.

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

That said, I am convinced that legalization alone, even if carefully staged and strictly regulated, will not come close to solving the nation's youth violence (gand and drug) problem. 

Another component is needed. As a filmmaker, Spike Lee already lives in it. It's the public, community and commercial media that either connect or disconnect us when it comes to defining and solving systemic problems like youth violence

This insight takes us to uncharted territory: to a question about media which, paradoxically, our media-driven society has yet to ask itself:
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 Chicago media "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 understands 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 has polarized races, estranged young people and adults, and sown 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.

Among other things, Lee's Chiraq could be a film about media. It could remind its audiences that while Americans live the most connected age in history, our interactive media are doing next to nothing help us shape best futures of our cities and nation. 

I note that in 2013, one member of Chicago's mainstream media - the Chicago Tribune made an effort to treat Chicagoans not as passive, dumbed-down bystanders but as active, intelligent problem solversBut the Tribune's initially promising New Plan of Chicago project unaccountably went silent a year later. 

I wish I knew why. But I do know that the Tribune never sount to explore 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 always been hidden in plain view. Ironically, It's been staring us in the face whenever we were glued to our TV sets watching some news anchor drone on about the latest horrific episode of youth violence in Chicago.

The solution? It's easy to see. Spike Lee could nail it in a single 90 second scene set, perhaps, in Mayor Emanuel's office on the fifth floor of City Hall. Imagine the Mayor, hand on chin, listening to a trio of hoody-wearing teenagers who had just led a protest of several hundred Englewood kids that made the evening news. The kids demanded to see the mayor. They were protesting the behavior of police who put their hands on their guns when are merely talking with young people

What, they wanted to know, was the Mayor going to do to stop this behavior? And when

At the end of the meeting, one of them - a round-faced kid, perhaps, with big thick-rimmed glasses - might hang around long enough to make another point:
Chicago won't solve youth violence problem until all Chicagoans - citizens of all ages and City Hall - are working together to solve it in Chicago's media.  
There's your fifth thought. It's a dream, of course, a vision of a community that's learning to trust itself sufficiently to solve the "unsolvable". 

Sound like idle fantasy? Look hard at the mess we're in now, icould be Chicago's best and 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 is currently 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 commerical 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 blossom, or rather 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.


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