Editor’s Note: I started writing this on Tuesday evening prior to the JRW parade through the city on Wednesday morning. Kenny Williams, the White Sox Executive VP, stole some of my thunder in his eloquent speech that morning. Such is life.
I don’t know how to write this post. I know what I want to say, but there’s a 93.4% chance that it’s not going to come across properly and some will inevitably be offended. To you I apologize in advance. So now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…
I got swept up in the momentum of the Jackie Robinson West story line last weekend. Never having been one to jump onto the Little League World Series bandwagon, it was hard not to find inspiration and intrigue within this collective group of 11 and 12 year olds hailing from the Southside of Chicago. They brought a style and panache to the diamond that was reminiscent of Michigan’s Fab Five. Sporting neon colored bracelets and wrap-around sunglasses, these boys pulled off the impossible – they made it look good. If I tried to pull off a similar look it would have turned out something like this.
I was not alone in the draw to this team. Stories of Dick’s Sporting Goods selling out of JRW apparel filled the nightly news casts and viewing parties moved from living rooms to public parks, eventually escalating to the city blocking off State St. in front of the Chicago Theatre before the weekend was over. In so many ways this team represented a beacon of light & hope to a neighborhood that oh so desperately needed something positive to embrace.
While these young men took the nation by storm in playing their own brand of baseball, twice in the past week the B block of the nightly news informed the Chicagoland viewers of the passing of two young children under the age of ten who were shot by stray, gang-related bullets. This information was not particularly presented as news. News by its nature is 75% constituted by the word “new” and unfortunately there was nothing new about this message.
I hate to admit this fact but I don’t see the nightly reports of shootings in Chicago as particularly noteworthy anymore. It’s redundant and repetitive and my fear is that the rest of Chicagoland has joined me in growing numb to the seemingly stock footage of police tape dimly lit by flashing red and blue lights in my living room each evening. It’s terrible to admit, but I don’t feel like I’m the only one that feels this way. When it’s anticipated and expected is it really news? That’s the state of things in Chicago these day.
Four hours to the southwest a very real news story has been unraveling for the past two weeks. Ferguson, MO has become the 2014 version of 1960s Birmingham, AL in terms of serving as the stage for America’s civil rights discourse. There’s no value to my recapping the events in this St. Louis suburbs these past fourteen days. I couldn’t do them justice and from my perspective I believe everything has already been said (I particularly liked this piece by Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight.com).
Ferguson has become a cultural magnet, drawing the eyes of the nation and the voices of the vocal minorities. Given a microphone and a camera, this is society’s most recent opportunity to bring to light just how much we’ve quietly swept under the rug.
This article is not about recapping the events in Ferguson. What I want to focus on is the reaction of a nation to the tragic death of an innocent young man while similar scenarios play out seemingly on a nightly basis in our own fair city without drawing as much as a second glance. Why the disparity in social outrage?
The Jackie Robinson West little league team has shown that there is a strong, healthy, and vibrant community within the neighborhoods that we’ve learned to categorically dismiss as “unsafe” or “dangerous.” There are families that raised these young men to be everything we could ask of ambassadors of the city of Chicago. There was pride for these boys from the grandstand in Williamsport to the streets of Chicago as unknowingly they inspired a nation to achieve beyond anyone’s wildest expectation.
Celebrities such as Uncle Spike (Lee) and Chicago’s own hip-hop artist Common stepped forward in vocal support while professional athletes such as Carl Crawford of the Dodgers, BJ and Justin Upton of the Braves, LaTroy Hawkins of the Rockies amongst others, provided financial assistance to the families of the players so they could be on hand and their children achieved their dreams. Even the White House got caught up in the exuberance over the weekend. The common theme throughout was the inspiration that was found in the play and conduct that thirteen twelve-year olds displayed on basic cable over the course of two weeks.
Everyone loves the flower that grows between the cracks in the sidewalk, which is essentially what Jackie Robinson West was. While they showed the world – and particularly inner city youth across the country – that there is a way out, a way to succeed, when the environment around you appears to be inescapable. These kids also showed us that there’s a community that wants to get out as well.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the Chicago gang culture and the community activity to address it specifically – which is why I was reticent to write this column in the first place – but I know the perception that exists about Chicago’s south and west sides. In your mind it’s a war zone right? Well it turns out there are families there to that raise proud young men and buy them mitts and take them to the ballpark every Monday and Wednesday night. They have folding chairs just like you too. These people don’t want to live with in a world where bullets replace lightning bugs in the summer air.
I can only presume they want what many of us have in a relatively safe community where their kids can play in the front yard with the fear of a skinned knees topping the risk scale. Assuming I’m right, (assumptions can get you killed in online Comments sections) what I haven’t seen is the effort to make that dream a reality. Why does a teenager getting wrongfully shot by a police officer create national outrage, but two children under the age of ten being struck by stray bullets in less than a week not move the social consciousness needle at all?
Again, I cannot sit here and write this column proclaiming myself as an expert on the activities and efforts that are underfoot within these communities to address their gang-related problems. What I can do is note that as an outsider, I cannot see any progress being made in these efforts. While I know there are community organizers hard at work to improve these environments, aside from Joakim Noah’s Noah’s Arc Foundation Peace Tournament there is no sense of awareness in the greater society at large that anything is being done to remove the violence from the streets.
The African American community in Chicago and across the country is a proud and tight-knit family. They have shown that they can band together to create an entity that is stronger than the sum of its parts to fight for the greater good in Ferguson. I would hope that they can find inspiration within these remarkable young men who took the field in Pennsylvania last week to show that the community as a whole can achieve more than is expected. Their salvation will be found not in outside government and police force intervention (while both will undoubtedly be needed), but rather amongst themselves to take control of their community, show that there is a brighter path to success, and strive to achieve it.