July 8, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Cable commentators told us all day Tuesday that the whole world was watching the wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Jackson's memorial.
But I knew that wasn't true.
Some people, no matter how much they might have admired the talents of Michael Jackson and his music, just didn't have the time.
Tio Hardiman sure didn't.
While MSNBC was telling viewers how Michael had broken the color barrier, Hardiman was out in the neighborhoods of Chicago where color is a barbed-wire dividing line between shooting zones and safe places. He was trying, with a work force now decimated by state budget cuts, to do what his organization, CeaseFire, has done with remarkable success for years now. With community canvassers and violence interrupters, a staff of about 100, it mediates gang disputes before somebody gets shot.
Right now bullets are flying fast on the South and West sides, where a majority of this city's black and brown populations live. This weekend, depending upon whose numbers you listened to, there were somewhere between 22 and 63 observed incidents of gunfire ripping through parts of Little Village, Englewood, North Lawndale, Austin, Bethany Yards and Brighton Park.
State Rep. Susana Mendoza (D-Chicago) wasn't watching the Jackson memorial, either. Though she is a self-described ardent fan whose 11th birthday party carried a Thriller theme, Mendoza is spending her time these days fighting to restore CeaseFire's funding as the summer really heats up, and more blood and bodies end up in the street.
"It's like a war zone out there," she said on Tuesday.
In a recent legislative caucus with Gov. Quinn, Mendoza said she protested slashing $6.25 million that funds CeaseFire's work in Chicago. The governor, she said, is passionately protective of veteran's benefits, something she agrees with, but not if it means failing to address the wars waged on our own streets. "We show a blind eye to what happens in our own back yard," Mendoza said.
Mourning the death of someone prominent has become as much entertainment as news these days.
And because we all know Michael Jackson's name and music, we knock ourselves out marking his passing.
If we spent a fraction of the time and money dedicated to this mega-media observance on the boys, girls, men and women who can't safely sit on their own front porch, we might produce something far more memorable and meaningful.
Dr. Gary Slutkin certainly thinks so.
Dr. Slutkin is a physician and epidemiologist who founded the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, of which CeaseFire is the community centerpiece. His groundbreaking work is now being replicated in Kansas City, Baltimore, New York City, even Basra, Iraq.
In Chicago, CeaseFire has seen it all before. In August of 2007, it was the victim of the political budget battle between then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Mike Madigan. Its funding disappeared, its workers were laid off. And shootings spiked, up by 50 over the previous September, up by another 50 in October. Across 15 months, shootings were up by 400 and killings by 50.
A month after Blagojevich was arrested by the FBI in December of 2008, CeaseFire's funding was restored.
And shootings began to dip again.
Now, our new governor is locked in the same old battle with Speaker Madigan, the CeaseFire money is gone again, and the shootings are spiking.
There were plenty of "We Are The World" moments in the Jackson memorial Tuesday. But here in Chicago and down in the legislative hell of Springfield, not nearly enough of "saving our own lives.