Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1407, (30 August - 5 September 2018)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1407, (30 August - 5 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Do not blame Al Capone

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who does not know the name. Yet when you mention Chicago, people would pretend to hoist a gun at you and rat-a-tat-tat away at the days of Al Capone.

It is indeed a shame, for Chicago has been blessed with heavenly natural vistas, sprawling beaches, breathtaking architecture, a captivating skyline and one of the world’s most beautiful lake fronts, yet violence has haunted it through the ages.

American Indians lived there 5,000 years ago near a river called the Checagou, where the name Chicago comes from. It was discovered by French Canadian fur traders and in 1770 Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a black fur trader established a prosperous business there. A series of wars broke out between the Indians and US troops. The Indians finally gave a tract of land at the mouth of the Chicago River to the troops. Peace did not last long. In 1812 Indians attacked again and killed half of the settlers and burned down the fort. Survivors of the massacre rebuilt the fort but wars continued. In 1837 Chicago was incorporated as a city.

The city was capable of great things. Immigrants from Germany, Poland etc, built railroads, stockyards, grain, livestock and lumber markets and the population grew from 4,000 to 300,000. But that too did not last long. As legend has it, on a dry summer day in 1871, a cow of a certain Patrick O’Leary kicked over a lighted lantern in the barn… and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started, lasting 24 hours, killing 300 people and left 90,000 homeless. In her movie Gilda, Rita Haworth claims that Mame was to blame.

Besieged by bad luck, Chicago rose once again from the ashes to become the second largest city in America by 1890. During WWI thousands of blacks moved from the Southern States to Chicago, but were not allowed to live in most sections of the city so they moved to the South Side.

Then came the Roaring Twenties, the years of crime and creativity, poets, novelists, writers such as Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Andersen, jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and a thriving movie industry. It also brought about the prohibition of manufacturing and sale of alcohol. Crime came to play. Gangs took over the illegal distribution of liquor, or bootlegging. Competition among gangland resulted in murders and the notorious St Valentine’s Day Massacre, depicted in the movie The Untouchables (1967). Gang members dressed as policemen shot seven rival gang members in broad daylight.

The gangster era began. It never ended, making Chicago “the Corruption capital of America”.

The seven-year reign of Al Capone, a New York gangster founded a culture of crime that took hold of the city. Capone was cheered whenever he appeared in public. He donated to charities and was considered a modern day Robin Hood. No one could touch him. In fact, people bragged about being connected to the Mob, the Outfit, the Syndicate or very innocently, the Boys. Prosecuted for tax evasion he died in prison after eight years.

This journey through the decades of a troubled past may help us understand this crime-plagued community. It is the result of the evolution of street gangs and organised violence endemic in Chicago.

Black on black violence leaves researchers and analysts at a loss. Someone in Chicago is shot every two hours and 27 minutes and murdered every 12 hours and 50 minutes.

In 2018 there have been 722 murders and 3,658 shootings already.

Intra-racial homicides more than doubled. Who is to blame? Unemployment, poverty, hopelessness?

 They are indeed the untouchables by police, neighbour or innocent victim for fear of retaliation.

 There are 78 gangs of 100,000 members involved in drug trafficking.

Historian Andrew J Diamond attacks two of Chicago’s prominent mayors the Daleys, pere et fils, for actively working against their advancement by keeping them strictly segregated.

Both Latino and black gangs work for South American drug lords, competing against each other. Is drug trafficking likely to decline?

The present mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who took over after Richard M Daley, does not seem to fare better. Once the chief of staff of Barack Obama he resigned his post in order to help his home city of Chicago. It is faring worse than ever.

Jazz and The Cotton Club, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, the finest foods, arts and sports, can that be the city synonymous with crime?

Five-hundred songs, 284 books, numerous plays and endless articles were inspired by this once great city. In the 100-year-old song Chicago written by Fred Fisher, recorded by hundreds and made famous by Frank Sinatra says “You can lose the blues in Chicago”; now it is the reverse.

Yet on the North Side the city’s cultural and artistic activities, institutions, museums, theatres continue unhindered. It is as though there are two cities. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra directed by the great Ricardo Muti is busy preparing the next season’s concerts, while on the South Side of Chicago gangs are selling drugs and killing off one another.

In his book Great American City Robert J Sampson writes: “We need a surgical-like attention to repairing and removing existing situations, rather than simply designing escape routes.”

Indeed something must be done. Blacks have to do it on their own.


“Non-violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed.”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

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