We Need to Talk About Gun Violence in Chicago

Over the summer I went to see Straight Outta Compton. The very first time I saw a trailer for the movie I said, “Oh, they’re doing Jersey Boys for my generation.” Turns out that I was 100% correct. The movie was a brilliant look at how N.W.A. members lived in and spoke about an America that we weren’t willing to talk about in the ’90s but that was plastered all over our TV screens the last two summers as Ferguson and Baltimore and so many other places exploded into protests and fury over the inherent racial divide that has split America since its founding.

The thing that strikes me the most now, though, is how familiar the Compton of the first few scenes of the movie were. I’m white, in my 30s, and from the suburbs of Chicago but I recognized the Compton where we first met Eazy-E, Dre, and Ice Cube. I’ve walked and driven those streets. I’ve participated in their culture. After a fashion. Video game developers at Rockstar stole those streets when they created Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto V. It was almost impossible to watch the first half hour of Straight Outta Compton without occasionally hearing Carl Johnson yell, “Grove Street needs yo car!” in my ear.

N.W.A. has passed into the realm of safe history. Dre pushes terrible, overpriced headphones to hipster douchebags. Ice Cube does stupid kids’ movies. Snoop Dogg has become a combination of Michael Jordan and Tommy Chong. The heirs of that movement have gone on to marry Kardashians and do reality TV shows and shit. Suburban teenagers play video games based on the excesses of that world and the hysterics of the news anchors broadcasting tales of those excesses to suburban white people tucked safely in their enclaves.

Yet the scene in Detroit where N.W.A. was banned from playing “Fuck tha Police” but did it anyway and started a riot still resonated. It resonated because the same scenes from Compton have played out in Ferguson and Baltimore. It resonated because while N.W.A.’s world has now become safe for the consumption of sheltered white suburbanites it still isn’t safe for poor black people all over the country.

It’s why we need to talk about Chiraq.

I have never lived within the city limits of Chicago but I consider myself a Chicagoan. I love Chicago. I am convinced that there is no city in America that is better than Chicago and precious few that are of equal importance. As a history major I know that the westward expansion of America never would have happened without Chicago. I know that that very westward expansion brought about the terrible conditions of Packingtown and the Pullman Village and those conditions, in turn, gave us the workers’ rights movement. I am proud to say that the rest of the world celebrates May Day as the International Worker’s Day because of the Haymarket Riots. I used to work a couple block from Haymarket. There’s nothing quite like ordering a Revolution Anti-Hero from the Haymarket Pub if you know why and how both of those businesses pay homage to Chicago’s history.[1]

Chicago’s story is the story of America. America’s story cannot be told without Chicago.

My mental map of Chicago, however, is incomplete. Chicago, to me, is a map of The Loop branching out into River North and various locations along the Brown and Red Lines. It’s The Vic and the Beat Kitchen and the Riviera. It’s the Museum of Science and Industry and Millennium Park and the Magnificent Mile. It’s Hyde Park and the view of the skyline from the Eisenhower.

It’s why my map of Chicago has no place for the news reports of violence in Chicago. It’s why I’m so utterly baffled that much of the rest of the country considers Chicago synonymous with flying bullets and dead bodies. That’s not the Chicago I know. That’s not the Chicago I love.

That Chicago is the reality for far too many people who live within its borders.

That Chicago is also used by far too many people as proof that gun laws won’t change the reality of gun violence. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” the gun advocates say, “Look at Chicago. It has the highest levels of gun violence in the nation and the most restrictive gun ownership laws. That just proves that you can’t regulate guns because criminals don’t care about laws. That’s why they’re criminals.”

There’s usually an unsavory racial commentary built into that sort of commentary, too. Chicago is filled with “those people.” You know, blacks, liberals, various and sundry people who voted for Barack Obama, who only made it into the Oval Office because of Chicago-style machine politics. Chicago is, to many in the conservative, gun-totin’ side of the American political divide, synonymous with everything wrong with America. There’s an unmistakable glee with which statistics about gun violence in Chicago are trotted out alongside Chicago’s historically restrictive gun regulations.


Let’s say you live next to a river. You also, for some reason, have no indoor plumbing. So every morning you walk outside of your house and take a shit in the river because, hey, the shit washes away. You have a neighbor a mile downriver who also takes a shit in the river every morning. That neighbor’s neighbor also shits in the river. And so on and so forth.

One day you take a trip down river because you need to get something from a town one hundred miles away. As you get closer to that town you start to smell something rather unpleasant in the air. When you hit the town limits the smell is overpowering and you’re forced to plug your nose. Finally you get to the downtown business district, which is located right on the river, and you look out across the river and all you see is a stagnant mire of shit, stretching as far as the eye can see.

You do your business in town and beat feet back up river to your home as fast as you can. When you get home you say to your family, “Those idiots in the town live right next to a vast, stagnant river of shit. I don’t know what’s wrong with them.” You then laugh at the idiots who live next to a river of shit.

The next morning you go out and take a shit in the river.


I woke up this morning and saw this article on my Facebook feed.

I actually came up with the river of shit analogy a couple of weeks ago while thinking about Chicago and guns and all of that other stuff. All of those stories in the news about violence and guns in Chicago pretend that Chicago is a closed system. They pretend that the restrictive gun laws in the city and the overabundance of gun violence exist in a closed system. They pretend that guns can’t reach Chicago from outside of the city or outside of the state which means that Chicago’s gun laws have failed which means that gun laws as a concept have failed.

The strange thing about that is that most arguments about how we can’t possibly stop gun violence with laws come from people who want to build a wall along the border with Mexico and keep the War on Drugs from ever ending. Laws can’t possibly stop guns from reaching Chicago because criminals don’t obey the law but laws can stop people from crossing the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico and Texas and southern California with condoms full of cocaine in their asses.

It’s a strange disconnect, this lack of realization that guns from Indiana might have made their way to Chicago coupled with this belief that drugs from Columbia can be kept away from Dallas. The War on Drugs has been in a constant state of failure since it began but when Obama releases a bunch of non-violent drug offenders from jail it indicates the end of the world while we literally cannot be allowed to do anything about guns even after someone shoots up an elementary school.


Human civilization is all about attempting to move upriver from the shit. Laws exist to regulate the amount of shit that can be dumped into the river. That’s really all there is to it.

Drugs are shit. Guns are shit. Oil is shit. Plastic is shit. Inflation is shit.

Someone is always living downriver. Someone is always living at the confluence of everyone else’s shit. Laws exist to say, “Hey, don’t shit in the river.”


I really wanted to be pissed at Spike Lee for making Chiraq. I went to the video of his latest joint ready to work myself up.

Spike Lee is trying to remake Lysistrata in Chicago in 2015.

It works because we’ve been telling the same damn story for as long as we’ve had civilization. Lysistrata made it’s way to Rome and that made its way to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and that made its way to Spike Lee’s Chiraq.

Why does that happen? Because we keep insisting on shitting in the river.


[1]Also, seriously, Revolution Anti-Hero might just be the second best IPA in the world. Only Dogfish Head 90 Minute is better. I used to hate IPAs. Then I learned of Dogfish Head. At this point the only four IPAs I will drink are 90 Minute, Anti-Hero, and Two Brothers Outlaw and Heavy Handed. But even Two Brothers takes a distant 3rd.

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