2020 was a year of murder. Murder rates were up across America’s major cities. In some places they reached horrifying peaks. In Los Angeles, over 300 people were murdered, a height not seen in a decade. In New York, the homicide rate increased by 40%, from 312 in 2019 to 436 in 2020. Meanwhile, in Chicago, the homicide rate increased by a staggering 55%. In 2019, 495 were murdered; in 2020, that number had jumped to 769. With 50 homicides in December, Chicago ended the year with more homicides than Los Angeles and New York combined.
Tragically, Chicago’s reputation as America’s homicide capital is nothing new. It became a favorite talking point of conservative doyens throughout the Trump era. However, murder in Chicago is not a dire problem in need of a desperate solution for America’s rightwing media channels. Instead, it is a political bludgeon against the liberal boogeyman of “Democrat-run- cities.” For the right, there is a war on crime, and the liberals are losing it. Anyone who approaches the situation with a degree of nuance is a moronic apologist for gangs. The answer to the high homicide rate is always the same failed policies: harsher sentences, tougher law enforcement, and less tolerance for “thugs.”
Taking cues from national leaders, Chicago’s conservative blogosphere dutifully escalates the rhetoric. Throughout Chicago’s conservative corners of the internet, news of gun violence is always mixed with a volley of childish insults toward any politician nominally left of center. Kim Foxx is a “nitwit.” Mayor Lori is called “Groot” or “Beetlejuice.” The socialists on the council are all “cranks.” While the right gets giddy over its ability to come up with clever aspersions—another facet of the Trump era—the rapid detour into juvenile name-calling exposes the conservative opportunism. For them, a child’s murder in East Garfield Park is not a moment of sorrow. There is no sense of grief for the family or reflection of the conditions that give rise to a situation where adults recruit teenagers to kill kids. Instead, for rightwing online trolls, southside murders are welcomed as a chance to engage in sanctimonious and racially motivated bullying.
Online forums are known for their toxicity, but how homicides bring out people’s inner vigilante is revealing. The high murder rates experienced in 2020 is a sign of a societal sickness undergirding contemporary capitalism in America. Online conservativism is just a blatant example of the affliction. The hustle-and-bustle of a society consumed with individual wealth extraction leaves little room for solidarity. Slowly, through rapacious consumerism and a dog-eat-dog labor market, Americans lose their collective sense of joy, of celebration, and, in times of tragedy, grief and sorrow. What is left is their collective sense of fear, and with it, anger. These are the two emotions that America’s right feels comfortable expressing. Yet, because the wealthy are always protected under capitalism, that sense of fear and anger, regardless of political affiliation, is inevitably directed at the poor. Self-centered vigilantism within and against marginalized communities is the result. It becomes both the cause and the outcome of high murder rates, hence the cycles of violence it inspires.
COVID created a perfect storm of desperation. In it, fear and anger took hold. Guns sales in the United States increased dramatically when the shutdowns started. For many people, panic buying included toilet paper, toothpaste, and firearms. People felt a sense of social breakdown and believed they needed to defend themselves. The anxiety that others would attack them inspired some to go on the offensive. With the massive unrest over police brutality over the summer, the anxiety escalated to a fever pitch. A blasting refrain from the president’s party that the solution to this violence was less gun control, more punitive police officers, and for armed militias to roam the streets made the entire situation worse. For a while, the only shared sentiment among residents of America’s major cities was that we were all on our own.
The saddest part is that the situation was entirely predictable. In his classic, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, Fredrich Engels—knowingly riffing off of Thomas Hobbes—described capitalist urbanity as a “social war, the war of each against all.” Unemployed, under lockdown, and under the jurisdiction of unresponsive and unaccountable police forces, America’s poor and marginalized neighborhoods entered this “war of each against all.” The grisly body count is evidence of that. Still, the great injustice of Engels’ “war of each against all” is that while the losers are many, the winners are few. Engels’ goes on to describe capitalism’s urban neighborhoods has places where “people regard each other only as useful objects; each exploits the other, and the end of it all is that the stronger treads the weaker under foot, and that the powerful few, the capitalists, seize everything for themselves, while to the weak many, the poor, scarcely a bare existence remains.” This is America, and Chicago’s southside especially. This year in Chicago, 769 families grieved because a relative was murdered, while also dealing with a global pandemic and an economic collapse. Meanwhile, Walmart, with 22 stores in the city, posted profits of $40.7 billion. Amazon, with its warehouse in McKinley Park, made over $75.6 billion. And of course, let us not forget that the firearms industry, which had a transformative year with over 17 million guns sold. After a year of murder, the industry is now valued at around $30 billion.
It has been said that under capitalism, the rich steal from the poor and the poor steal from each other. Profit-maximization and petty theft are, essentially, social phenomena differing in scale, not in degree. While true, the phrase does not capture the totality of horrors for neighborhoods where a “war of each against all” has become the norm. Under capitalism, the rich do not just steal from the poor; they murder them. They murder them through a lack of nutritious food, healthcare, housing, and other necessities. They murder them through polluted communities, poor working conditions, and unemployment. But, most importantly, they murder them through despair. Capitalism’s brutality is its subtlety; it inconspicuously convinces the vast majority of people that the poor are solely responsible for their situation. The poor, especially in communities of color where social neglect is most extreme, inevitably internalize this message. Frustrated and alienated, they turn to destructive coping mechanisms to deal with their sense of defectiveness. The coping mechanisms include drug addiction, petty theft, suicide, and, yes, murder. To disprove their supposed defectiveness, these coping mechanisms are attempts to model themselves after the heroes of capitalism. Motiving all gang leaders is the entrepreneurial ambition to be the next Jeff Bezos or Walton family member within the context of their neighborhood. They want their neighborhoods to know that they are somebody in a world that thinks nothing of them. Instead of making online sales, they are selling rock on the corners. The tragedy of this pursuit of affirmation at all costs is that they are willing to step on others to get it. In turn, asinine conservatives call for sending in a militarized police force to step on everyone in the neighborhood. The cycle continues until an event like COVID causes it to explode.
The harsh reality that Americans—especially Chicagoans—must come to accept, the one that makes the rightwing punditry on violent crime so nauseating, is that ending community violence will require breaking the cycles of fear and anger, not constantly feeding into them. That will only occur when the people in those areas do not have to resort to murder as a coping mechanism because they no longer need to cope with the horrors of their existence. People who commit violent crimes are of course responsible for their actions, but they are not responsible for the conditions that lead to their actions. That responsibility belongs to the halls of power. An inability to hold the powerful accountable will mean more years of desperation, and desperation will create more violence. The lesson that we should take from a year with so many murders is not more “tough on crime” nonsense, but that neighborhoods starved of resources, including a sense of dignity, eventually eat their residents.