Reclaiming ‘Chiraq’

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

By Robert C. Koehler

I felt the music and the fire as the civil rights movement rose from its slumber.

“Repair . . . justice!” went the call and response last week, in the basement of an old Chicago church at the corner of Ashland and Washington. “Restore . . . life! Rebuild . . . community!”

There was Gospel music and hand-clapping, passion and politics. The Reclaim Campaign launched and the Rev. Alvin Love said, “This is just the beginning. It’s going to take all of us. We’re going to leave this place mobilized, energized and activated. The work begins NOW.”

Reclaim “Chiraq.”

The kids are dying. That’s what they call Chicago: “Chiraq.” The situation has to change; the community has to rebuild.

“Why is so much violence acceptable?” high school senior Keann Mays-Lenoir asked the audience of about 300 people. “Why are adults sitting back and allowing it to happen? We’re in fear of our lives at school. We don’t know who will be shot down next. It is not OK for any child to die senselessly.

“It is not OK that my friends and I have already planned our funerals.”

Maybe this a tipping point. The Reclaim Campaign, which has been organized by two venerable human-rights organizations in the city, the Community Renewal Society and Gamaliel of Metro Chicago, in partnership, a la the civil rights movement, with numerous churches and everyone else who wants a better future, has one of the clearest agendas I’ve seen about curtailing Chicago’s — and America’s — plague of violence.

The campaign is more than just an angry assault on what’s wrong. Violence is far too complicated to be seriously addressed by nothing more than passionate despair. But the campaign begins with a blatant wrong: a legal “reality” as deeply embedded in the social infrastructure as segregation and other Jim Crow policies once were. It begins with the overflowing cells of Cook County Jail, the largest jail in the country with an ever-shifting population of more than 10,000 detainees, who are overwhelmingly African-American and Latino. Most of them are awaiting trial. They wait an average of nearly two months, and sometimes far longer, for their moment before a judge. Some 70 percent of the detainees are charged with nonviolent offenses, such as drug use, but they can’t make their bond so they sit in jail indefinitely as their lives on the outside fall apart.

Cook County spends $143 per day per detainee, according to the campaign organizers. The jail’s annual budget is half a billion dollars. This, as I say, is where the Reclaim Campaign begins, at a legally embedded obscenity. Our retributive criminal justice system is eating the black and Latino communities alive, spending enormous sums of money to warehouse primarily men and women of color, who have not been convicted of anything and for the most part have been charged with nonviolent offenses, for long periods of time. The system wastes money, wastes lives and keeps certain communities perpetually shattered.

In contrast with the half billion dollars wasted on incarceration, Cook County spends a paltry $1.9 million a year on preventive measures, Rev. Cy Fields, another of the pastors helping facilitate the event, pointed out.

Here’s where the Reclaim Campaign steps into sanity. It is demanding that the county reduce the population of the jail to the point where it can close one wing, then use the money saved to fund badly needed violence-prevention programs in troubled neighborhoods, specifically: the establishment of “Restorative Justice Peace Hubs,” set up in local churches and other sites, along with an expansion of neighborhood-based mental-health and substance-abuse treatment programs.

This is about changing the world. Oh, yes. Restorative Justice is an idea spreading around the globe. This is justice based on healing, and so much more. “Police sweeps and massive arrests don’t make anyone safer,” Fields said. “Restorative Justice Peace Hubs do!”

Exhibit A is Chicago’s Fenger High School, “once one of the most violent schools in Chicago, now one of the most peaceful, because of restorative justice.”

This was Robert Spicer speaking, indeed, rocking the event. Spicer is the Culture and Climate coordinator at Fenger. He, along with principal Elizabeth Dozier, began introducing restorative practices at the school in the fall of 2009, in the wake of the beating death of one of its students, Derrion Albert, who was caught in the middle of a gang melee near the school as he was heading home. Derrion’s tragic death, captured on someone’s cellphone video, stunned the nation for one news cycle. But now Fenger is a role model for the city’s public schools.

I’ve written about Fenger a number of times. It’s a school with many students empowered to serve as peacekeepers. The young people hold regular peace circles, which are about eye contact, listening and telling the truth. Peace circles have been convened when gang violence is on the verge of erupting, calming the sudden rage, ending in understanding and hugs.

“No one in this room wants to see another child die on the streets of Chicago,” Spicer told the Reclaim crowd. Kids “kill each other over a stare, a look, a single act of disrespect. No more! This campaign means life or death.”

Most significantly of all, the Reclaim Campaign is not on the outside of Cook County politics and power. Two county board members and the representative of a third, along with Board President Toni Preckwinkle, were present at the meeting. All four expressed solidarity with the Reclaim agenda and agreed to co-sponsor a County Board resolution calling for its implementation. Three more board members sent letters of support to the campaign, which were read at the meeting. Oh rarity! This is politics shaped by the will of the people.

And so it begins. As the meeting ended, the music cut once more to the heart. We left knowing it’s time to rescue our young. It’s time to reclaim Chiraq.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.