Updated: July 24, 2013 5:50PM
Forty-two years ago this week, I was abducted from the street outside my Chicago office, driven to a Far South Side forest preserve, shot twice in the head and left to die.
I didn’t die, although I do live with blinding headaches thanks to the half-bullet that’s still in my head. But as an African-American woman who has spent almost her entire life in one of the United States’ most violent cities, I consider myself pretty lucky. Luckier, certainly, than the 74 people shot in Chicago over the recent five-day holiday weekend – with 34 of them shot on July 4 alone. A lot luckier than the 39 people, including 33 African-Americans, murdered here from June 24 through July 13. (Those dates correspond to the trial of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, roughly three weeks during which people in Chicago and across the country ignored what was happening in their own backyards and sat glued to their television sets.)
An astounding figure, widely reported a year ago, is that Chicago has seen two and-a-half times the number of gun deaths as were sustained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since 2001.
What are we supposed to do about this? I don’t have all the answers, but I do know we need to do something — very soon and with great determination.
During the early part of my life, Chicago was the ultimate segregated city. African-Americans (or blacks or Negroes, depending on the year) lived south of Madison Street and white people lived north of it. Contact between the groups was pretty much limited to shopping side by side at downtown stores and the exchange of seats on what we now call the Red Line, as South Siders and North Siders headed in opposite directions for their racially defined neighborhoods. Except, of course, for the South Side women who headed north to clean the houses of their white counterparts.
That changed several decades ago, as one neighborhood and then the adjoining ones became what we term diverse. So we now have mixed housing and all racial and ethnic groups riding in the same cars on public transportation. But it seems we have yet to create communities out of our neighborhoods.
I’m thinking about the kind of communities that people feel responsible for. The kind where people actually know neighbors other than those who live next door — people who don’t look like them, who may not eat the same kinds of food or even send their kids to the same schools. But people who also care about the community and want to find answers.
We are very far from that point. I’ve noticed that every Monday, announcement of the just-past weekend’s murder figures draws complaints and, often, protests directed at police and city officials who are seen as putting little effort toward curbing gang violence and illegal gun sales.
Impassioned as they are, the complainers aren’t likely to change anything. Complaining isn’t activism. It doesn’t involve pulling together people from throughout the community, listening to ideas, setting reasonable goals, doing the research, devising possible solutions and meeting with the right people — those are the things that need to be done. And no matter how easy it is to say that no one in government cares what his or her constituents want, just remember who voted them in. Choosing responsive representation is a basic part of organizing and activism.
At a time when the role model for so many Chicagoans is a community organizer who we helped send to the White House, we need to realize that confronting our problems — the city’s murder rates, educational deficiencies, infrastructure problems, job losses and more — requires that we all become activists on behalf of our own communities.
Merri Dee is a veteran Chicago news broadcaster. Her memoir, Life Lessons on Faith, Forgiveness & Grace, was released in April.