On Friday, the New York Times published a survey showing Chicago to be a fiercely divided and unmoored city, unsure of itself and seemingly faltering toward some kind of calamity. It’s not hard to see why: unearthly violence has torn apart huge swaths of the city, while other areas go unharmed. Outlandish, Syrian-like police brutality, extrajudicial black sites, and of course murder covered up at the highest levels all add up to simmering racial resentment.
In addition to this, basic institutions seem to be crumbling. The CPS has been battling much-loathed Mayor Rahm Emmanual, in what seems to be an actual liberal revolt against an entrenched system (Chicago has always been Democratic, but only the most blinkered partisans would ever say it has been an actual liberal city in any real sense). Governor Rauner is trying to starve out any union activism by destroying the schools. Hell, we can even look over at the chaos in Brazil and reflect that a large number of people thought that was a better place for the Olympics than Chicago. It’s not a great feeling.
So then why are things better? The shoots of hope come from the actual survey.
Read more on this mind-blowing bit of counter-intuition, especially if you are a hiring manager at Slate…
To understand why things are a little bit better we have to go back to 1968, that hot summer of violence, culminating in the Democratic Convention. There’s no real need to rehash all the events: just the aftermath. After the police riot, the media- local and national- painted the story we are all pretty familiar with: the police went mad, and reacted with enormously disproportionate violence, like shock troopers doing the bidding of some mad dictator.
But then (as chronicled in Nixonland), they started hearing from actual citizens. The Chicago American estimated that 80-85% of letters it got were in favor of the cops. Bumper stickers started popping up saying “We Support Mayor Daley And His Chicago Police.” Of the 64,000 letters that City Hall received in the mail, a full 90% were in favor of Daley’s actions. In short, the public- and here you can imagine a largely white, largely working-class, New Deal union type- was firmly behind police brutality, as long as it happened to “others”. Even if, as the majority were, the others were white kids.
That was the majoritarian belief, because that’s how the system worked: the cops were there to protect the solid citizens from the irritating hippies, but that was a new phenomenon. The police were there, by and large, to make sure the black belts didn’t buckle and spill into the white areas. They were there to defend the solid citizens from the animals lurking nearby. The idea that they should serve and protect the lower classes was ridiculous. The lower classes, especially blacks (and increasingly Hispanics) were a source of bribes or arrest numbers, or a way to let off a little steam. Twas ever thus.
The Times survey shows how much things have actually changed.
- A mere 33% think the police are doing a good or excellent job, with only 47% of whites thinking so.
- Only 25% think that Rahm is handling oversight of the CPD. Granted, that number may be partly skewed by people who think he is giving in to reformers, but there are a lot of people in the city who think that Rahm is a wild-eyed liberal stooge, simply because he’s a Democrat who worked with Obama. There’s nothing that can be done for those types.
- Perhaps most striking, a full 59%, including a plurality of whites, approve of the CPS threatening the strike. This includes 66% of blacks and 62% of Hispanics, populations that would be most affected by disruption to public schools.
What does this tell us? The first two are amazing: we’ve gone, in 40-some years, from a city where the vast majority approve of a mayor who encourages police brutality, to a city where if it isn’t encouraged, no one gets angry, to a city where how the police treat the poorest and most vulnerable actually reflects poorly on the Mayor. That’s real progress.
It wasn’t inevitable that it would be this way. I know anecdote is the worst form of analysis, but I know I’ll never forget talking to a girl I worked with, back in the early aughts, who lived in Lincoln Park, in a nice apartment. She had literally zero idea that she was only a few blocks from the Cabrini Green housing project, which hadn’t been fully torn down to make way for luxury apartments. There were people in Roscoe Village who didn’t know that they were a half-mile of so away from a sprawling compound of low-income housing (I didn’t until I walked by one day). The pockets of North Side poverty were essentially invisible unless you deliberately went there, or got lost. The South and West side were different planets, wholly unconnected to daily life.
Thankfully, we no longer have that luxury. Awareness and the fierce urgency of activism has opened all our eyes. There are still people who get angry when Black Lives Matter has the temerity to inconvenience their shopping, but for the most part, as a city, we’ve come to realize that things aren’t right. We’ve come to understand that comfortable lifestyles on the northside can’t be sustained forever on the backs of the poor.
I don’t know how much of a difference it will make. But for the first time, there is serious political pressure to make changes, to make genuine reform in a city that Paddy Bauler famously saidsaid “ain’t ready for reform.” There is weight, not just from the usual activist fringe, but from the businesses that are flocking into Rahm’s friendly utopia.
The amount of businesses coming in also gives lie to the weird notion that Chicago is the next Detroit, or is actually falling apart. Business is booming, the near-Loop areas are developing too-expensive, but still admirable transit-and-hub-based lifestyles, and real estate is growing. It could be doing so in a kind of moral vacuum, exacerbating the differences between rich and poor. And to be sure, it is, to an extent. The economic growth is pricing out lower-income families for young tech kids. But as the pressure on Rahm, from unexpected as well as expected quarters shows, there is a new Chicago. One that understands that the gleaming skyscrapers don’t mean as much if you can see the lake and the skyline, but then looking west and south out the windows shows a city drowning in its own blood. That bleak survey shows that there is a chance for a real change in Chicago, if pressure keeps up, and if we refuse to draw the curtains again.