This week, President Donald Trump held a morning meeting with African-American supporters to celebrate Black History Month. Reading stiffly from a piece of paper, he allowed how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was someone whose “incredible example is unique in American history,” and described Frederick Douglass “as an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job.” The conversation soon pivoted to the present day. As those gathered around the table introduced themselves, Pastor Darrell Scott, of the New Spirit Revival Center, in Cleveland, told Trump that he had been contacted by “some of the top gang thugs in Chicago,” asking him to come meet with them so that they can “lower the body count.” Trump seemed to perk up at the mention of a city he has singled out before. “Chicago is totally out of control,” he said, a reference, no doubt, to last year’s seven hundred and sixty-four homicides and the nearly four thousand people wounded by gunfire. “If they’re not going to solve the problem,” he went on, “then we’re going to solve the problem for them.”
This is a recurring theme for the President. Last week, he tweeted, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on . . . I will send in the Feds!” In his first interview as President, he told ABC’s David Muir that Chicago’s leaders are “not doing the job. Now, if they want help, I would love to help them. I will send in what we have to send in.”
Trump’s statements on Chicago’s violence have been ambiguous, leaving observers to discern his intent, or, as Kellyanne Conway has suggested, to discern what is in his heart. Is President Trump extending a hand, and offering to increase resources for federal agencies already working with the Chicago police, perhaps by providing more agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives? Mayor Rahm Emanuel told reporters that Chicago would welcome that sort of continued help. But many in the city suspect that in the words “I will send in the Feds!” Trump really meant deploying the National Guard. The President has made his tough law-and-order views clear, and his tweet—exclamation point and all—read more like a threat than an offer of assistance.
This would not be the first instance in which the National Guard has been invoked in Chicago. In 2010, State Representative La Shawn K. Ford, who is African-American and represents a part of the city where violence was particularly rampant, told a gathering of constituents, “The same thing we’ve done in Iraq we can do in our own back yard.” He was shouted down. One older gentleman roared, “You’re endangering the lives of all of us”—and reminded him of the moment, in 1968, when Mayor Richard J. Daley called in the National Guard to help quell the riots that rose up after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Daley issued an order to “shoot to kill arsonists . . . and shoot to maim looters.” (The next day, Daley’s press secretary said that the resulting controversy was the fault of reporters, and, in a statement that echoes eerily in the present, said of the press, “They should have printed what he meant, not what he said.”)
Trump’s rhetoric aside, the explosion of violence in the city—a fifty-eight-per-cent leap in homicides from 2015—is a source of genuine concern and fear for people living there. Last week, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, in an address to the city council, likened the violence to the Great Chicago Fire. “Today, another fire is ravaging our city, our neighborhoods,” he told council members, suggesting a parallel not just in crime’s spreading conflagration or historical significance but in the urgency with which he believed it should be met. A group of researchers at the University of Chicago Crime Lab conducted research to explain the steep increase in violence, but in the end conceded that they were confounded. “What caused Chicago’s sudden surge in gun violence in 2016 remains a puzzle,” they wrote. The city is off to an inauspicious start in 2017. The day after President Trump’s tweet, six people were shot at a vigil for a murdered twenty-year-old, among them a twelve-year-old girl who suffered a graze wound to the head and a sixteen-year-old boy who was shot in the neck.
Still, if Trump is urging an iron-fisted approach to the violence, the people of Chicago are not likely to welcome it. The city’s long and harrowing history of police misconduct toward the African-American and Hispanic communities has led to suspicion of law enforcement. For nearly twenty years, beginning in the nineteen-seventies, a group of police officers on the city’s South Side, led by Commander Jon Burge, routinely tortured suspects into giving false confessions, using cattle prods and electrically charged alligator clips attached to men’s ears and genitals, covering their heads with typewriter covers, and placing guns in their mouths. Two years ago, Mayor Emanuel publicly apologized; the city set aside reparations for the scores of victims and ordered that the Burge case become a part of the public-school history curriculum.
Despite the lessons of that history, abuses continue. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice issued a report cataloguing the Chicago Police Department’s excessive use of force and systematic mistreatment of the city’s minority community. The report, which was precipitated by the shooting, captured on video, of an unarmed black teen-ager named Laquan McDonald, cited many cases of the police shooting fleeing suspects, and of officers dropping young people off in rival gang territories, or “displaying” them, suggesting that they had coöperated with the police, which put their lives in danger. The Justice Department stated that the trust between the police and minority communities “has been broken by systems that have allowed CPD officers who violate the law to escape accountability.”
If the Justice Department report made anything clear, it was that tough-on-crime, no-holds-barred policing has done nothing to staunch violence in the city. An agreement reached between the D.O.J. and the city would implement a wide range of reforms. It is now up to Trump’s expected Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to enforce this agreement. He may not be inclined to do so. He has criticized consent decrees in the past, and, when he was asked at his confirmation hearing about federal investigations into local police departments, he responded that “there’s concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Justice Department when you just have individuals within the department who have done wrong.”
This past November, a fifteen-year-old boy named Javon Wilson was shot and killed over a pair of sneakers. Danny Davis, a congressman whose district includes the city’s West Side, was Javon’s grandfather. At his grandson’s funeral, Davis, in a remarkable display of forgiveness, asked friends and family to think about the shooter and his family. “Not only do I grieve for my family,” Davis, in a deep baritone, told those who had assembled, “but I am so grateful the Lord has given me the spirit to grieve for the young man who pulled the trigger. So parents, family, and friends, let us be able to reach out.” He said that he received calls of condolence from many public officials, including Trump, who was then the President-elect. I spoke with Congressman Davis the other day, and he seemed unfazed by Trump’s tweet directed at his city. “I’m not a Quick Draw McGraw,” he told me, suggesting that Trump was looking for a quick fix to a complicated problem. “He is what he is. He likes to tweet.” Davis then took a detour, telling me how he had come to Chicago from a small town in Arkansas, in 1961, a month out of college and in need of work. “I came here with the idea that I’d arrive on Saturday and be working on Monday,” he told me. This personal history was his way of suggesting that the root of violence in the city is its profound generational poverty, and that the federal government could do well to address that distress.
More jobs, better housing, adequately funded schools—it is a refrain heard for years, and yet never truly acted upon. Those communities that experience the bulk of the shootings remain isolated and neglected. A radio documentary by Linda Lutton, a reporter for WBEZ, the local public-radio affiliate, describes how, in 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., in an effort to take on poverty and to promote open housing, moved into an apartment in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood because it was one of the nation’s poorest slums. But back then, Lutton reports, the neighborhood had grocery stores, department stores, dentists, and night clubs. Most of those are gone. Moreover, the neighborhood’s poverty rate is higher today than it was during the time of King’s stay. The University of Chicago Crime Lab report noted the intersection of violence and those who lack opportunity: “One key implication of these data is the importance of a policy response that is focused on the core problem: violence concentrated largely in a moderate number of our most disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
Virtually all of Chicago’s leaders, from the Mayor to the Cardinal to the city’s police superintendent, have decried the possible use of the National Guard. “I mean, the National Guard, give me a break,” Davis told me. “What would the National Guard have to do with poverty and lack of opportunities? I say: Mr. Trump, come and let us reason together. . . . The approach that’s being talked about would only create more tension.” In effect, Davis suggested, by calling in the National Guard we’d be declaring war on our own.