The uptick in murders in 2021 represents a national crisis. In 2020, the FBI counted 21,750 homicides in the US, a 30 percent increase over 2019 and the largest percentage increase since 9/11. The total number of murders rose slightly in 2021. While police killings like the murder of George Floyd have drawn the most attention, only an estimated 1,126 of these murders were at the hands of police in 2020, with the number falling slightly to 1,117 in 2021, according to the Mapping Police Violence website. Murders by police are an outrage, especially since more than 25 percent of those murdered were Black in a country where Black people comprise only 13 percent of the population. But homicide and gun violence are about more than police killings, particularly if we look at the local context. Here murders have skyrocketed, with homicides in Urbana jumping from 2 in 2020 to 15 in 2021, and an increase in Champaign from 9 to 16. The vast majority of those killed were Black.
Why the Jump in Homicides?
The underlying causes of violence are structural inequalities. Largely based on race, these systemic inequities have blocked people of color from opportunity and prosperity for many years.
But the obvious immediate explanation for the increase in murders is the pandemic. COVID-19, with its accompanying lockdowns, closure of businesses, and the trauma of the virus itself, impacted people on many levels. Speaking to the Champaign City Council on December 14, Marlon Mitchell, Executive Director of FirstFollowers, noted that things have “escalated really quickly and it’s like a wildfire . . . If you don’t put it out and you don’t section it off, it’ll spread and it’ll keep spreading.”
In the past authorities have tended to search for quick-fix solutions. Such quick fixes rest on two false assumptions. First, that if you lock people up you will eliminate the violence. Cage the killers. But mass incarceration has been operational since the early 1980s and has not produced peace. The other assumption is that some magical technological device will capture the perpetrators. But according to the Lucy Parsons Lab, a collaboration of data scientists, activists, artists and technologists, Chicago is “one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world.” It has more than 50,000 cameras and 240 license plate readers and shot spotters which allegedly detect gunshots. Yet the city finished 2021 with 797 murders, the highest number in 25 years and more than any other city. Clearly technology is not working either. So what is the solution?
Police or Community?
In a lengthy interview with the New Yorker, sociologist Patrick Sharkey argued that two forces can reduce violence: the police and the community that is impacted by violence. Sharkey stresses that increasing resources for policing—moving toward stop and frisk, more technology, heavier sentences and arresting people for petty offenses, as in the so-called “broken windows” model—can lead to a reduction in violence. But Sharkey emphasized that ramping up the police actually undermines the potential power and impact of the group that can actually put an end to violence once and for all: the communities who are impacted by that violence. This population, disproportionately Black, brown and sitting at the margins of the working class, has the potential power, but needs resources to provide services and infrastructure lacking in communities where violence has the heaviest presence.
Now let us turn to Champaign-Urbana where, as noted, we have seen an unprecedented rise in murders by gunfire—all too often carried out by very young Black boys, armed with handguns modified to produce automatic fire from extended clips that leave 40 or 50 shell casings at the site of a drive-by incident.
The American Rescue Plan, a federal COVID relief package, has promised to deliver over $80 million to this county. So far the decision makers seem to be aiming to put a good portion of that money to projects that will stem community violence: to provide housing for the unhoused, extend broadband into rural and poor urban households, and open up mental health services and job opportunities for marginalized communities. In fact, the city council of Champaign approved a $6.4 million anti-violence package on December 14. They plan to support community groups like FirstFollowers, Youth Family Peer Support Alliance, the DREAAM project and CUTrauma and Resilience Initiative, all of whom who have experience in dealing with the individuals impacted by gun violence. Final contracts for this funding will be signed in early 2022. The Champaign County Board has also approved a healthy allocation of more than $1 million to address community violence, though the details have not yet been finalized.
While there is great hope that interventions led by community members can make a difference, some complex questions remain. First of all, there is the question of guns. Where do they come from? How can their supply be cut off? Someone is making a mint by facilitating murders. Surely there should be some way to unearth the trade routes and the profiteers that bring these guns to town.
Second, when will the powers that be and the residents who live in surrounding suburbs fully acknowledge what a racially and economically segregated community this is? In Illinois as a whole, just 11 percent of the population falls below the poverty line. In Urbana, that figure is 31.9 percent, but 33.8 percent for Black people; in Champaign, it is 26.9 percent overall but 36.8 percent for Black people. Any meaningful “rescue” needs to address these inequalities and inequities.
Those interested in social and racial justice would do well to keep an eye on the elected officials in charge of doling out that $80 million-plus, to make sure it goes where it belongs and not to pad the investment accounts of the University of Illinois or Carle. Eighty million dollars can make a difference in this county, can shake the foundations of poverty, racism and inequality and open the doors of opportunity through job creation, culturally responsive mental health services and massive upgrades of housing for people with low incomes. This kind of transformation is long overdue. It is a tragedy that it took a pandemic to get resources flowing in the right places but let’s hope the promises become a reality.
James Kilgore is the Director of Advocacy and Outreach for FirstFollowers Reentry Program in Champaign as well as a writer and researcher on issues related to mass incarceration. He is the author of six books, including Understanding E-Carceration (The New Press, 2022).
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