The question is asked repeatedly with each recurring and escalating incident involving gun violence.
Whether a mass murder, a street altercation between individuals, confrontations between individuals and law enforcement, the question remains: Are guns really the problem, or is it something deeper than that?
A “Let’s Talk” community forum on gun violence, sponsored by the Lake County-based organizations Switch Lanes and Ant Mound Consulting, Inc. was held Nov. 4 seeking an answer to come away with viable recommendations for elected officials, and more importantly, the general population. The event also streamed live on social media outlets.
“I’d have to give it a ‘C’ grade overall, for a number of reasons,” said moderator, and forum organizer, Anthony McIntyre, several days later. “We counted about 92 people, coming and going. It got off topic, people were expressing their opinions rather than engaging in a discourse. There were invitees that did not attend … elected officials, like Ill. Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-60th), and members of various street organizations.
“There were suggestions like more jobs, educational opportunities, but for the overall turnout, we had expectations of 150-160 people,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good, if you have great speakers and no one wants to hear what’s going on.”
However the success of the meeting in Waukegan’s Christian Faith Fellowship Church was grounded in providing shelter, and not only from the rainy damp weather outside. It was a safe, warm place where concerns were expressed by individuals in attendance with stories about themselves that would otherwise never would have been heard.
The dais panel encompassed a widely thrown net: Jennifer Witherspoon (Lake County Jail Programming), Sarah Knixhnik (Mothers Demanding Action), Matthew King (Illinois Department of Corrections Outreach Coordinator), College of Lake County Board Trustee Matthew Stanton (Attorney-Constitutional Law), Jed Stone (Criminal/Civil Attorney), Vance Wyatt (Lake County Board-14th District), Deputy Chief Gabe Guzman (Waukegan Police Department), and Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran.
Waukegan School Board member Anita Hanna, Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham, Lake County Assistant State’s Attorney Reginald Matthews, social activist Keith Turner, former Lake County Coroner Dr. Thomas Rudd, and musician “Ace” Banks also attended.
McIntyre opened the discussion by noting how the lack of jobs for lower-income individuals could feed a life of selling drugs and carrying guns into the neighborhoods to protect territories.
“Supply jobs, and what have we done to the gun problem?” McIntyre asked.
Witherspoon replied, “This is urgent and deeper than just guns … it’s a combination of employment issues, and coming from homes, now without male role models to emulate. Kids turn to gangs, they see strength. And that violence will help them become a man.”
Legally obtained guns and the easy access gun laws for “people who shouldn’t have them” was identified as an endemic problem not only for the country but the local counties, according to Knixhnik.
Stanton implied, “Gun ownership, if we’re looking at constitutional law, and the right to bear arms was drafted during colonial times and how it’s viewed today is a different definition. “There was no standing army, and the right to bear arms was meant for a citizens’ militia. That reasoning has been usurped today.”
Stone related of being “tired reading about young men shooting young men … if it was an easy answer, don’t you think it would be done? We have to control access … shut down the flow of National Rifle Association money to legislators, and stand up, to stop it. Poor people, black, brown … legislators don’t respond because they don’t care. They’re expendable. Our president is hot about the opioid problem because white kids are dying.”
The matter of keeping illegally obtained guns “off the streets” is one area that law enforcement apparently has no ability to enforce. “No one here would buy a gun illegally. Street thugs get them from each other, steal them, and share them, and they’re shooting each other,” said Guzman. “Instead of a fist fight, they jump to guns, not caring about the targets, as well as rising in a hierarchy by whom you shoot.
“The roles between police and the community are adversarial, and it shouldn’t be that way. You need to take advantage of us, as a resource, it’s an open door … I want to learn about these things, invite me to the neighborhood, show me what I need to see,” he said.
The disintegration of the nuclear family was also a primary topic, and Curran noted that many social programs eliminate them.
“Racism still exists in our country. My perspective is through a faith lens, and the greatest single common denominator is the absence of a nuclear family. Public housing requires that the father couldn’t be there … were they out to destroy the family? God didn’t tell Moses follow this party platform.
“We have a shared humanity. If a gang leader is a big shot in the neighborhood, they will gravitate to him, so do you wonder about that problem?”
McIntyre commented that the demeanor of law enforcement agencies toward poor people automatically veers into an adversarial situation. “Perception is reality. Street organizations feel the need to be armed to protect themselves against you.”
Curran replied, “This is coming from street gangs. They feel the need to arm. Street gangs are not good. Police shooting innocent people? Yes. Laquan MacDonald, the New York City cigarette seller … cops are responsible and we’re trying to filter out the bad ones. But gangs are not good.”
The language of law enforcement agencies also came to the fore, as the term “thug” was deemed offensive and perpetrated a stigma with its continued usage, making it more difficult to “reach” people affiliated with street organizations.
“Please stop referring to them as ‘thugs’ … gangs are not good? Years ago, one of my clients was the Chicago El Rukns and they owned a building. Despite the crime, women could go to the store and come back home without trouble because people knew who owned the building. An Italian man, I represented, could sit on his stoop, while people would congregate less than a block away. Gangs are not good?”
The contention of rap music glorifying and fueling the “gangster lifestyle” was addressed by Banks. “There’s racism in Waukegan, the United States … black on black, black on white … it’s been going on a long time. There’s good people and bad people … nothing’s going to change. If thugs get stereotyped, then cops should be too. Nothing happens against them. Give police, and state’s attorneys the punishment for what they did.
“It’s a big circle of nonsense and madness, people do what they do. I consider myself a good person, but I’ve made bad choices too,” he said. “Glorifying a thug lifestyle? I take all the music I need and it never made me do anything.”
Hanna spoke from the audience in reinforcing one unifying concept: Family disintegration.
“The nuclear family is the biggest issue facing the community. The system drove the father out of the home. Black communities were always family oriented. There is a difference between a ‘house’ and a ‘home.’ Priorities are mixed up, and the spiritual order and element has been taken right out of it.
“We need to change … our minds. We can’t deal with what happens nationally, but we can work with what we have here,” she said. “We have to push for the family, push to sit and eat together, we have to push for education … we have to change our minds.”
Rudd spoke at last year’s forum, and noted, “This isn’t short-term … it will take money for employment and education, and giving hope.”
McIntyre’s assessment of not reaching a consensus to the question was tempered by encouragement in the future, and subsequent forums.
“It was said that employment and education are prime areas to consider,” McIntyre said. “Our future is what we do now. This forum was a step in the right direction to continue that dialogue, and keep it open, in a climate of respect for each other. We need to find an answer.”
—Community forum discusses causes of gun violence–