Lupe Fiasco | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times
‘America is violence.” This trio of words was recently spoken to a crowded theater on Chicago’s near South Side. The words in and of themselves are vitriolic, meaningful, debatable, sacrilegious, fitting, unpatriotic, baseless and many, many other things, depending on one’s own particular perspective of each word: “America,” “is” and “violence.”
While the words themselves can be mathematically philosophized or childishly disfigured into some motionless oblivion, what cannot is the person that said them: A 17-ish, unassuming black male attending King Academy on Chicago’s South Side. What was also peculiar and noteworthy was the crowd’s reaction to this combination of man and words — affirmative silence peppered with mild ovations. What he said was received not with shock and not even with awe, but with more of an appreciative, “What else is new?” kind of tone.
“I don’t know who has my back, so everyone is my enemy.” This paranoia-shaded announcement was delivered a short time later from an 18-ish black female attending another one of Chicago’s high schools. While “America is violence” was expressed in a muted but certain, sniper-like casualness from a seated position, “everyone is my enemy” was from up on two feet and passionately thrown into the audience like some pinless grenade. The response was emphatic.
The performance from the 15 or so other young adults in this summit varied in temperament and execution, as did the complimentary crowd reactions, much as you’d expect them to. The cadence and force tailored to the physical appearance and disposition of the person. Each one with his or her own special power of impact or persuasiveness. What we were truly witnessing as these kids were answering the only three questions asked of them at the summit, “What is violence? Where does it come from? How do we stop it?” was tantamount to veteran combatants living in a war zone. Those who have had a direct audience with death. And not the natural, explainable version of death, but that violent, senseless death that requires one to grow numb, as senselessness is the only natural response in the search to reconcile oneself with the irreconcilable.
In these high-tech times of great leaps forward, some and most all are still dealing with the basics at their most basic. Violence. A fine-tuned, well-distributed, socially accepted, highly sensitive yet highly desensitized form that the world has never seen before because the world has never been so connected, so green, so “forward.” So without the need for backwardness or for brutality. There are so many examples of what one can become. A world of no ceilings and floors made of trampoline. A world that can say, “no reason for this,” and with the sugarcoated rebuttals to go with it. And yet, “When I look up at the people, presidents and my country, telling me violence isn’t the answer and then they seem to only be able to solve their problems around the world with violence, how do they think I’m supposed to act?” can still fluently come out of the mind and mouth of a 17-year-old embedded in the violence plaguing our fair city. It seems things aren’t as sincere as they want themselves to be.
“Maybe the babies just can’t go outside no more.” My 4-year-old niece spoke these words to my mother in response to the recent shooting death of 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins. My mother remarked to me that it’s too late and that her exposure to violence has already put her at a certain disadvantage, seeing as how now my niece has to devise strategies for the survival of people even younger than her as opposed to an unobstructed immersion in coloring books and museum visits.
The amount of violence that the youth of Chicago are facing presently and have faced historically is at immeasurable levels of saturation. The byproducts of this supersaturation are not only a skyrocketing murder rate, but also a crippling hopelessness and impervious layer of numbness and self-hate in the overexposed communities which are predominantly African-American and Latino.
None of this is new, but what is new is the reaction of this particular group of Chicago youths that were a part of that community summit. They decided to form an organization to combat the violence in their lives in whatever form the violence came in. They are calling themselves “Project Orange Tree.” And their goal is to raise awareness about all forms of violence that come into contact with them and their communities and more so to remove it. They are using the color orange as their symbol for the same reasons deer or duck hunters wear orange vests when they go hunting — so as to not be targeted and shot by other hunters.
April 1 is when they are planning to launch their first series of campaigns, which revolve around awareness, solidarity and education. On that day, they are asking everyone in the city of Chicago to wear or display something colored orange to show that this issue of violence affects the entire city and not just the neighborhoods they live in. In a move quite a bit more demanding, they are also asking everyone in Chicago who’s physically able to fast from sunup till sundown, starting the morning of April 1 through the evening of April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The idea behind the fasting being that we would be eating with those who cannot eat because they have lost their lives to violence.
The youth of Chicago are at war. A war being waged not only for their lives but also for the life of our fair city as a whole. The future leaders and caretakers of Chicago must know and be secure in the fact that we, as the teenage grenade-thrower so passionately put it, do indeed “have their backs.”
Lupe Fiasco donated his fee for this column to Project Orange Tree. For more information on Project Orange Tree, follow@Pro_OrangeTree or email