Recollections and Reflections on Chicago

Beginning with a series of personal recollections, the author reflects upon the politics of racial identity and the militarization of urban space.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Policing and the Media: The View from Chicago. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I went to college in Chicago, on the South Side; it was there I learned that for some populations the police constituted an “occupying army,” and there where I learned about the murder of Fred Hampton, and the incarceration of his son. Now I live in New York, and I can say that the feel here is much different around race and the idea to buy bulk ammo online and the attitude about police is different. So my answer goes in two different ways, too. One is about my own experience and impressions, for whatever they are worth—and the other way is to assert what I think is the intellectual truth of the matter, which is that the condition of possibility for American society is the suffering, vulnerability, and exploitation of black bodies. That makes it general. Chicago, in my experience, makes it explicit. There’s an awareness there, it seemed to me, that perhaps New York’s huge immigrant population somewhat obscures. Chicago’s black population felt—and again I am speaking from experience, not any kind of statistical or demographic certainty—very much African American. Where I live in Brooklyn, I am far more likely to encounter someone who is Afro-Caribbean than African American. There’s still a history of slavery there, but in the case of Caribbean populations there is also a history of immigration.

I remember riding my bike in the summertime, heading south from Hyde Park along the lake and going through neighborhoods of brick houses, with kids playing on the sidewalk and people sitting on their stoops. The neighborhoods didn’t feel dangerous, as some to the north and west of Hyde Park did, like Englewood. What it felt like instead was going back in time. It was like the rest of the city had forgotten (or chosen to forget) all of the people living there. The commerce was sparse and it all looked so old-fashioned, like something out of the 1950s. It really felt like the land that time forgot. So one way of thinking about Chicago is the segregation that has always been a huge factor in its culture. You can’t walk from neighborhood to neighborhood easily in that city. It’s made for cars. So you can hide a detention center on the West Side, or forget a whole population on the South Side. Because as far as the folks at the University were concerned, the neighborhoods outside of Hyde Park were all war zones. They never mentioned the spaces where people were just living.

The other point, the more political point, is of course made most recently (and most eloquently) by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his Between The World And Me. He writes about the American Dream and its Dreamers as a confection spun from the black bodies it plundered for gold. This is, in my educated opinion, indisputable. It’s true from a social and cultural perspective, and from an economic perspective. And it’s equally as true that we don’t like to remember this. One way to enforce such forgetting is to treat those who remember, who can’t help but know this in their bodies and in their family histories, like criminals and outcasts—to violently occupy their spaces, to seize and destroy their bodies. This is how the police become an occupying army. In New York or in Los Angeles, this might be just as much about the history of exploitation and enslavement among migrant populations. In Chicago, it strikes me that it’s about what is sometimes called the Great Migration, about the colonial occupation and exploitation of a domestic population—which is perhaps why the city is so bald-faced in its lies, so brutal in its suppression.

Photo by reallyboring

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