Monday, April 13, 2015

Six Thoughts for Spike Lee and his Chiraq Film

So along comes acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee from the Big Apple to make a film, Chiraq, that's gonna show the Second City how to deal with youth violence. OK by me. We need all the help we can get. 

Here we have the worst youth violence problem of any big city in the country and what are we to solve it? Nothing! 

Instead, we struggle to contain it or to reduce a problem that over the past 50 years we've been unable to contain or reduce. Indeed, youth violence today is "as bad as it's ever been, or worse", according to a former senior Chicago FBI agent.

We're told that Chicago is turning the corner on youth violence because homicides were down (slightly) in 2014 over 2013. And because homicides are half of what they were 20 years ago.

But homicide stats are poor measures of youth violence. A better measure is size of city's drug-dealing street gangs. In 2012, the respected Chicago Crime Commission, using Chicago Police Department statistics, asserted that Chicago has "over one hundred thousand gang members", with 15,000 more operating in the suburbs.

Spike Lee says that black on black violence is being swept under a rug. At critical points in the civic life of Chicago - like during our mayoral campaigns - youth violence itself is swept under a rug. In the major debates of the recent mayoral campaign, for instance, youth violence was a non-issue.

Chicago needs a wake-up call. And who knows, maybe this savvy, socially conscious, super-connected dude from New York will rouse us from our 50-year nightmare of violence. 

So how do we know that Lee is looking for solutions? The Sun-Times' Michael Sneed, in her useful account of Lee's multiple visits since last January to St. Sabina to learn about violence, says that "the film will not only focus on violence but how it may be handled effectively, in Chicago.".

That's good enough for me. But already Lee is taking flak. Heavy flak. Although his reception on the ground at St. Sabina has been warm, it's getting colder by the hour in the blustery stratosphere of Windy City media and politics. Google "Spike Lee Chiraq" and what pops up is piece after piece about the film's controversial Chiraq title, which links the war zones of Chicago and Iraq. 

The Chiraq title strikes me as quite appropriate. Over the years, Chicago, like Iraq, has lost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives to violence.

But many Chicagoans are protesting the Chiraq title as an insult to the city. As a glorification of violence. As a blow to tourism and the city's efforts to attract jobs. 

And now along comes Mayor Emanuel, applying serious muscle to get Lee to drop it  through his superagent Hollywood brother, Ari. Ari's clout in Tinseltown could hurt Lee. This is bad news. The sight of Mayor Emanuel and Spike Lee going toe to toe in Chicago's fight-friendly media would fuel racial tensions which are already high due to recurrent recent shootings of unarmed blacks by white police. Chicago's long, hot summer hardly needs to get longer and hotter. Certainly not over a move title.

Bottom line, when Lee's film finally hits the theaters, I'll be surprised if anyone charges it with glorifying or condoning youth violence. And what would attract jobs and tourists would be a bold, firm, citywide commitment to solve a problem that's scared away jobs and tourists for years.

I'm hoping that's what Spike Lee would like to see. I think he's chosen Chicago because he see the city - Murder Capital of the USA, in the FBI's 2012 verdict - as ground zero for defining and solving a national problem, one that's spread like a cancer throughout American towns and cities from coast to coast.

Youth violence has destroyed millions of American lives, black white and Hispanic. It's cost the nation trillions of dollars in lost wages, productivity and tax revenues. To say nothing of the $80 billion spent each year trying to deal with it. Yet nowhere do we see concerted, visible efforts to solve it.

So I say, let's give the guy a chance. If youth violence can be solved here, it can be solved anywhere. To this end, here are six thoughts for him and anyone who wants to see real change.

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 have to be malignant. At some point in Lee's Chiraq, this map might be seen as a huge chart hanging on a police department wall.

But youth violence is so much more than gangs. Spike Lee is a smart man and a master storyteller. Youth violence, he knows, has deep roots in all kinds of "unsolvable" problems: poverty, joblessness, poor schools, broken families, a broken criminal justice system and, in most cases, racial discrimination or segregation. And he knows 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 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 storyline that he will cook up to get all this stuff across in, say, 90 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 violence, especially black-on-black? Speaking of absurdity, the film at some point could get laughs with a scene that highlights another absurdity:     
 Chicago has never even tried to solve youth violence
This insight presents an opportunity. It's the water that nourishes my bouquet of thoughts for Chiraq. It's blossom #1 (at long last). From it, the bouquet takes shape. For starters, it 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.
This insight is a wake-up call. Call it blossom #2. It's also an insight into the obvious: into something - America's utter befuddlement on the matter of youth violence - that's common knowledge to most of us. It provokes justifiable outrage. And also, ridicule and laughter. It's a blossom of many colors. 

As such, it requires careful handling. Sensitivity. To any competent non-racist policy makers out there 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 it's the minds of policy makers like these that Lee's solution-focused film needs to open to the possibility and feasibility of solution. It matters also because the red-herring equation of youth violence with gun violence is coming to us from the White House on down. And the nation's media have towed this line

The gun violence mindset blinds the nation to the fact that gangs and drugs are two distinct problems. Each must addressed separately. 

About gangs: many years ago, a South Side resident opened my eyes by pointing out 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 blossom here - a book this time that's full of insights into drug prohibition and drug legalization. I have big doubts about legalization whenever I think of profiteers in Colorado making marijuana candybars or Big Tobacco salivating over the huge marijuana market. 

But these doubts vanish into thin air as I follow the devastating logic of Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari's harrowing account of the pathetic origins, sordid history, and horrific outcomes of the War on Drugs, which, as Hari fully documents, was created, nationalized and globalized almost singlehandedly by a paranoid bureaucrat, largely forgotten today, named Harry Anslinger.
The reasons for the strange title of this essential but hard-to-stomach book become clearer and clearer as you read it.
Far from reducing addiction or violence, drug prohibition - the War on Drugs - has exacerbated both exponentially. 

But 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. It's the public, community and commercial media that connect residents of our cities and citizens of the nation. 

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

This question is the blossom #4 of my spring bouquet. In 1992 a former Mayor of Chicago raised it out of frustration as an attack on Chicago's media. Richard M. Daley charged that Chicago's 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

Lee's Chiraq could (among other things) be a film about media. It could remind filmgoers that while we Americans live the most connected age in history, our interactive media aren't doing much 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. In a single three minute scene sety in the office of a Chicago network TV General Manager Spike Lee could get it across. Let's say the GM has agreed to meet with a group of media-savvy high school students from Englewood.  Students, perhaps, who attracted several hundred community members to protest the TV station's inaccurate reports of police conduct in Englewood.  

OK, so one student might open the meeting with a reminder that media are always free to continue reporting youth violence news as they see fit. Another might add, however, that TV news audiences have been shrinking for decades in part because viewers have lost interest in endless mind-numbing media media reports of youth violence.

And a third - perhaps a kid with big thick rimmed glasses, sitting at the back - might call on the station to give young a chance to be problem solvers of violence instead of perpetrators or victims of it
Youth violence, this kid might say,  is the kind of problem that can only be solved collectively: by the people whom it affects. Its solution will result only from a lengthy, citywide search for solutions conducted in media.   
There's your fifth blossom, the beauty of the bunch. 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 may well 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 attitudes fostered in media.

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 but also to serve as  mediators of information and ideas generated by an active public interacting with the city's leaders. The task, in short, is to create a mediating media

This process must needs 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. Blossom #6 is 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. On the same occasion in 1992 when he addressed 50 YMCA Youth Aldermen, Mayor Daley stated that "Chicago has lost two generations of young people to gangs and drugs". Today the total is three generations and counting. Hundreds of thousands of lives lost. At least a million.  This does not include the tens of thousands of young 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.

Well, so much for this bouquet. Happy spring. I have no idea what Spike Lee will make of it, but I want him to see it. It's not just youth violence or black-on-black violence that needs to be addressed, but media's capacity to help Chicagoans of all races secure the futures of Chicagoland and its children. 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

I will follow this bouquet with two others. The first will be about the "newly calm Rahm", as Michael Sneed calls him. And the second  will be about recent about fatal shootings in the back of unarmed blacks by white police, shootings that have occurred in Chicago and nationwide. Taken together, these three bouquets suggest that the time may be right for Chicago - for its media, its leaders and its people - to radically rethink the city's approach youth violence.

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