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How And Why Chicago Violence Became Conservatives' Favorite Talking Point

By Stephen Gossett in News on Aug 29, 2016 5:00PM

Chicago gun violence is the new "Willie Horton" ad and “Abraham Lincoln was a Republican” rolled into one.

For a certain segment of conservative politicians and pundits—far from all, to be sure—pointing out what is often referred to as “black-on-black crime” in Chicago has become the preferred shorthand for castigating ineffectual liberalism, reinforcing racial wedges and feigning a concern for crime victims—even when their voting records paint a different picture of their priorities.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's recent comments about crime in Chicago epitomize this phenomenon. In an exchange with Bill O’Reilly last week, a vague Trump advocated “being very much tougher” with police policy—an open-ended enough comment to give pause in the land of Laquan McDonald, Homan Square and Jon Burge. Hot on the heels of these comments, Trump tweeted about Chicago violence again on Saturday to casually exploit the death of Nykea Aldridge. But the use of “Chicago gun violence” as a conservative talking point of choice extends back further. In an attempt to wrap our heads around how and why our city became the butt of this regrettable habit, we put together the following rough timeline. Looking over the myriad examples, a pattern emerges: The ploy often becomes a distracting agent against larger social and political discussions—and sometimes it’s just good old-fashioned gratuitousness.

Prologue: 2008-2011
On the April 23, 2008 episode of Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto, Floyd Brown said: "[I]n Chicago, we saw six people killed and over 31 injured. People were stabbed. This is, you know, like Baghdad. And [Barack Obama] was the state senator there, and he didn't do anything to clean it up, and I think it's a legitimate issue."

There is a very simple two-part explanation as to why this happened: President Obama’s adopted hometown is Chicago; and Chicago struggles with gun violence. So its not surprising to find an example that stretches all the way back to Obama’s first presidential campaign—a good four years before Chicago crime panic reached its fever pitch. This proto-“Chiraq” comment comes from Floyd Brown, the very man responsible for the Willie Horton ad.

The practice appears to have spread by the fall of 2009, when the horrifying murder of Fenger High School student Derrion Albert became national news. “Community organizing has not stopped Chicago’s teen violence epidemic. The Olympics will not solve this long-festering problem, either,” conservative commentator Michelle Malkin wrote in late September that year. “Flying to Copenhagen isn’t helping,” she added, referring to the Climate Change Summit. In fact, the Albert vs. Olympics fallacy proved a hot trend. As Media Matters pointed out, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Fox contributors S.E. Cupp and Kimberly Guilfoyle all referenced either the Albert video or the panic it inspired to portray Chicago as a den of “lawlessness” unfit to act as host city. (Yes, there are many legitimate reasons to have resisted a Chicago bid. This isn’t one.) Still, these were just embers for the three-alarm blaze ahead.

Ne plus ultra: 2012-2013
As so many headlines alarmed back in September of 2013—when the FBI released official crime statistics for the year prior—Chicago was the “Murder Capital of America” in 2012. The city’s 500-plus homicides had far surpassed the more populous New York City (419) and Los Angeles (299). But less-often noted was the fact that no fewer than a dozen U.S. cities had higher murder rates, per capita, than Chicago, including Philadelphia, Kansas City and Memphis. Nevertheless, the narrative of the president’s hometown as a Death Wish 3 hellscape in need of a Charles Bronson was too irresistible, and the floodgates tore open.

Around the same time, President Obama was pushing for more stringent gun-control legislation, in the wake of Sandy Hook and other mass shootings. As Gawker points out in a great 2014 piece called “Stop Hating on Chicago, Conservatives,” conservative radio host Dana Loesch said “many Sandy Hooks take place every month in Chicago.” It proved something of an ur-text, inspiring similarly phrased backlash from TheBlaze, Red State, Newt Gingrich, the Wall Street Journal, and the Drudge Report’s infamous (and ongoing) "CHICAGOLAND" series, Gawker points out.

Aside from generally high homicide numbers and mass shootings, another event entered—and obscured—the picture: the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in February 2012, in Sanford, Florida. As it happens, Illinoisans don’t have to look particularly far for the prototype of how conservatives pantomimed racial concern while sidetracking genuine racial justice. After Rep. Bobby Rush wore a hoodie in House chambers and sought to discuss the Martin killing, Tea Party-sanctioned Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) reprimanded his colleague.

"I hope Congressman Rush will be as outraged with all of the black on black crime going on in the city of Chicago weekend after weekend," Walsh said. "This is where our outrage has got to be as well.”

In the wake of the “not guilty” Zimmerman verdict, Bill O’Reilly pulled a similar card. “It was wrong for Zimmerman to confront Martin based on his appearance,” he said. “But the culture that we have in this country does lead to criminal profiling because young black American men are so often involved in crime.”

“The many Holocausts in Chicago” provided “damning evidence,” he added. That obfuscating chorus was repeated ad nauseum, from the like of Chris Wallace, Newt Gingrich (again), O’Reilly (again), and the Editorial Board of Investors Daily, according to Media Matters.

It’s brutally ironic that the very tactic used to sidestep the killing of a young black child was a fixation on an oversimplified, over-generalized narrative of that very problem. The gambit was employed again when 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was fatally shot in January, 2013, just a week after performing at Obama’s inauguration. Rush Limbaugh chided First Lady Michelle Obama in April that year for ignoring Chicago crime—one week after she spoke out against that very scourge while also discussing Pendleton’s tragic death. (The “black-on’black” murders of Pendleton and Derrion Albert were indeed racially motivated, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that year, but in the neglected sense that racist segregation policies, long sanctioned by federal and local governments, foregrounded the violence.)

The Long Tail: 2014-present
Chicago saw a “legitimately stunning” drop in homicides between 2012 and 2013, falling from 516 to 415. The figure fell again in 2014, to 410. Correspondingly, the conservative media obsession also diminished a bit. But as we know, the impulse never fully subsided.

Right here in Chicago, Tribune columnist John Kass unfairly criticized a perceived lack of outrage over the fatal shooting of 9-year-old Antonio Smith. Breitbart followed the exact same narrative. (There was in fact plenty mobilized anger.) On the national level, commentators once again rolled out Chicago crime as a digression from a controversial killing of a black man: In December 2014, Glenn Beck read a long list of black men killed in Chicago over the months prior. But the motivation seemed more political than moral, directed in particular at Tavis Smiley’s vocal frustration with the grand jury’s failure to indict an NYPD officer in the choking death of Eric Garner.

When Chicago crime does spike, the tactic returns, sometimes to the level of its Murder Capital/Zimmerman zenith. As Media Matters pointed out, a host of rightist media figures used last year’s particularly violent Fourth of July weekend as an opportunity to once again rebuke gun control. And there are plenty more stones that clear a path to Trump's current moment: Ted Cruz ally and radio agitator Michael Berry continuing his snarky “Chicago Weekend Crime Report” segments; NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre mentioning Chicago crime in an anti-gun control video; and Breitbart following Kass's lead by going after the Black Lives Matter movmeent in the wake of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee's shooting death. (Former Brietbart chairman Steve Bannon is now CEO of Donald Trump’s campaign.)

Time and again, when the Chicago violence motif reemerges on the right, it functions less as motivated outreach, and more as conjurer’s trick. It’s a studied misdirection, designed to keep the eye off the other hand, be it gun control, Black Lives Matter, racial justice, policing tactics, or something not directly related, like Chicago's Olympic bid. And even though it emerged during Obama’s administration, the tactic appears potent enough to endure beyond it. Chicago’s gun-violence epidemic is horrifically real, but as recent history shows, far too much of the conservative outrage around it is an illusion.