It was a kneejerk reaction to a kneejerk reaction. That’s my assessment of Rep. Bobby Rush’s incendiary assault on Sen. Mark Kirk’s gang-fighting proposal.
Rush, a Chicago Democrat, slammed suburban Republican Kirk’s proposal to round up all of the estimated 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples, Chicago’s largest street gang.
In a telephone interview with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet, Rush denounced Kirk’s plan as an “upper middle-class, elitist, white boy solution to a problem he knows nothing about.” Gee, Bobby, tell us what you really think.
Rush’s remarks were reckless, impulsive, ham-handed and racially inflammatory, but they accomplished their mission getting our attention — nationwide. Rush’s remarks immediately turned into honey for talk shows and properly outraged commentaries. Tossing the race card into the political media swarm is like tossing catnip to a basket of kittens.
At least Rush brought our attention to a serious perennial problem: surges in gun violence and youth homicides. Every decent citizen wants to do something about it, but it’s too complicated to be corralled by kneejerk solutions.
And kneejerk is what Kirk’s proposal, such as it is, appears to be. Despite good intentions, it sounds like the sort of half-baked idea that cranky callers phone in to radio talk shows. (“...Why can’t we just lock ’em all up and throw away the key?!”)
Sorry, folks, but it’s not that simple.
Among other hurdles, Kirk would have to get the $30 million that he wants for the plan from Congress at a time when states are trying to reduce their prison population, not increase it. More police and prison guards would be needed to handle the mass roundup. Identifying 18,000 gangbangers would not be easy. They don’t exactly turn out and line up for roll call ever morning.
In fact, Kirk’s vision makes the common mistake of treating Chicago gangs like a monolith. The Gangster Disciple is like a brand, an umbrella for hundreds of small factions, each of which increasingly has been at war with others in recent years — partly as a result of police success at putting the kingpins in jail.
Kirk discussed his plan with Illinois’ Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. attorney nominee Zachary Fardon. But he did not run it past any of the three members of Congress, all black Democrats, whose districts would be most affected: Rep. Rush, Rep. Robin Kelly and Rep. Danny Davis. All three have called for more comprehensive solutions than Kirk’s proposal offers, although only Rush injected Kirk’s youth and whiteness into the debate.
Fortunately, Rush’s quickly tried to get off that ugly racetrack. In a statement he e-mailed later to the Sun-Times, he explained his complaints: He called Kirk’s plan “elitist” for leaving out any effort to create jobs, safe housing, affordable health care or improved schools, just “a plan to incarcerate 18,000 black men.”
“Why is incarceration the sole option,” Rush asked, “instead of rehabilitation, which is proven to work and not locking young men up?”
Rush is on the right track, judging by what urban violence experts have told me. Gang crimes are a complex problem that calls for comprehensive solutions, not only to arrest the bad guys but prevent good kids from becoming bad guys.
Unfortunately, Rush’s constructive remarks were largely overshadowed in most eyes by his “white boy” crack. A lot of white politicians might well say he got off easy, considering the blowback they’d receive if they criticized Rush for “black boy” ideas.
Yet, even as chatter about his racial slur still raged over the weekend, Rush invited Kirk to meet, talk about the gang issue and perhaps see the problem first-hand in Rush’s district. Kirk accepted and suddenly a bitter narrative turned rather sweet.
Suddenly, I was reminded that Rush was there to greet Kirk when Kirk returned to Congress after his stroke. And Kirk sent the Rush some thoughtful get-well notes, the Democratic congressman says, when Rush was receiving cancer treatments.
Who knows? It is pleasant to think they might help to bring real peace to Chicago streets, once they restore peace with each other.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.