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Hope Reese | Longreads | April 2019 | 11 minutes (3,002 words)

In recent years Chicago has had more homicides than any other city in America. From 1990-2010, roughly 14,000 people were killed there — more than the combined number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving a horrifying legitimacy to the city’s infamous nickname Chiraq. It’s not clear, exactly, why this is so — the rest of the country is experiencing a period of historically low crime. In fact, Chicago contributed nearly half of the country’s overall uptick in homicides in 2016.

Veteran reporter Alex Kotlowitz, author of the bestseller There Are No Children Here and producer of the award-winning documentary The Interrupters, has been chronicling the effects of violence on the city’s neighborhoods for decades. Kotlowitz, whose recent book, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, presents the cumulative effects of violence on the city through 14 vignettes. “For reasons I don’t fully understand, we just seem to be in the place where we have this extraordinarily tragic [violence],” he tells me. “Anybody who tells you they found the answer is just lying to you. Because nobody really knows.”

The book documents the complicated relationships between victims and perpetrators, the nature of the killing — how it is often cyclical and retributive — the way that violence scars communities, and his awe at surviors’ resiliency.

I spoke to Kotlowitz — currently a contributor to The New Yorker and the radio show This American Life — at his home in Oak Park, a near suburb of Chicago. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Hope Reese: You title your book “An American Summer” — does this mean that the violent neighborhoods in Chicago represent the rest of America?

Alex Kotlowitz: One of the things that’s always troubled me is this notion that we’re talking about these “other” people — that somehow, it’s not us. It’s not in our neck of the woods. Yet the truth of the matter is, the gun violence that takes place in the west and south side may be very peculiar to those neighborhoods, but the aftershocks are not dissimilar from what you see in places like Las Vegas, Parkside.

The book is focused on one particular summer in Chicago — the summer of 2013. Is this because there’s more crime in the summer? Because school is out?

Summer’s always worse here in the city. Usually because of those reasons you mentioned. One, kids are out of school. And because of the weather. When I began the book, I needed some structure, so one summer seemed like a natural boundary. I also thought, foolishly, that it would make the reporting easy. That the reporting would be done in six to eight months, and then I could start writing. And of course, most of the stories just kept on unfurling.

How does gun violence in Chicago relate to mass shootings, like in Parkland, as you just mentioned?

In the aftermath of a Parkland or Newtown, or Las Vegas, there’s a lot of conversation about how people move on. On the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting, there are all of these stories about how that day has stayed with people. How people kind of reckoned with it in one way or another.

There’s a story about a cop who’s going around the country speaking about his experience of the Las Vegas shooting. There’s counseling. And yet, there’s virtually no conversation in a place like Chicago — or virtually, most cities — about the aftershocks of the violence. When I sat down and began to count up the number of homicides and shootings over the past 20 years in south Chicago, the numbers are just staggering.

What I really wanted to do in the book was try to understand what that does to the spirit of individuals. One of the books I read, and reread, was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s one of the most powerful books about the ugliness and nastiness of war. But it’s really about how the violence gets in your bones. At the end of the book, I always remember this line: “But this too is true: stories save us.”

So in some ways he was telling us stories for himself, right? I hope that by telling the stories in this book, [we will] reckon with the effects of the violence.

In a war, there’s a sense that some day there might be resolution to the conflict. Somebody’s going to win or lose. And that’s not the case here. Nobody sees a way out.

You write about the way that some of these issues are framed by politicians. Do you see a certain cynicism in creating “safe passages” in the city? Can you talk about that a little?

For me, there is both a cynical quality on the part of political leadership and also a kind of glibness when they talk about the violence. So for the cynicism — there was this moment in time during that summer when they created what they called “safe passages” to and from school. And, as the reporter Pete Nickeas says, “What the fuck does that mean? Does that mean that nowhere else is it safe in the city? And what does it really mean to have a safe passage?” You know there is something terribly amiss when you have to pronounce these two streets as a safe passage for kids. Because what it suggests is that you go off of these two streets and you’re not safe.

And the other part is the idea that people, I think, have this great certitude about what works and what doesn’t work. And that every time the numbers go up or down there’s either people decrying the fact that the violence is getting much worse, or that it’s much better. Nobody seems to have a handle on it.

At the end of summer, the mayor and the police chiefs kind of declared “mission accomplished” — and then there’s this terrible shooting at Cornell Park where nine people are shot. And then, within two years, the violence just skyrockets.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s some really promising programs out there. But it’s a mistake to think we have the answers.

Why are so many murders unsolved?

It’s really troubling. That summer, the closure rate — the number of murders that were solved — was around 25%. It’s now lower than that. And it seems to me that if I were the head of the police department, every ounce of my energy would be directed to figuring out what we can do to increase closure rate. And with shootings, it’s below 10% at the moment. Which means we have a pretty good chance here of getting away with murder — or at least getting away with shooting somebody. And it leads to this, if not distrust of the police, a lack of confidence in the police. And so it’s no wonder on some level that people refuse to cooperate with the police. Or take matters into their own hands.

For This American Life, you produced a story on the “Doppelgängers” podcast — juxtaposing an Afghanistan War veteran with a man in Philadelphia who had been treated for PTSD after spending time on the streets. The veteran is able to live in a situation, an environment, outside of war. But for the other man, the feeling of being in a conflict zone never ceases.

Right, [the veteran] comes home. Puts it physically behind him. But there’s no physical separation for Curtis, and for all the people in this book. They’re still living in the same community. They’re still reminded of what’s happened, and gripping themselves for what might await them.

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Do you consider certain neighborhoods in Chicago to be a kind of a war zone?

I’m really careful, cautious, about using that analogy. Just to be perfectly frank, in places of war, in Afghanistan, the violence is certainly worse. [Chicago] may have lost more than [the number of] American soldiers [who died] in Afghanistan. But in a war, there’s a sense that some day there might be resolution to the conflict. Somebody’s going to win or lose. And that’s not the case here. Nobody sees a way out.

The other thing with war, is, I think, there’s a sense of community. It’s “us against them.” And again, that doesn’t happen here. So I think there’s some significant differences.

Speaking of the “us versus them” mindset — many of your stories illustrate a complexity, where a killer may also be a victim. Where the sides don’t even know what they are really fighting for.

Some people in the book are victims. And there are people who are both victim and perpetrator, like Marcelo. There are people who are perpetrators, like, Eddie, who kill somebody. And then there are people who are bystanders, who are witnesses. For me, that’s the story of these neighborhoods. And it does get really complicated. There’s a story about Bobby Rush and Mark Kirk. Kirk wants to arrest 18,000 gangster disciples. And part of the response of the community, outside of the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever, is not really practical, is that: that’s us. That’s my uncle and my brother. You’re talking about arresting us. So it becomes really blurred as to who is who.

One of the beauties of stories is that when you tell your own stories, it feels real — it gives some affirmation to your experience.

You also write that many young men aren’t necessarily intentionally wanting to affiliate with a certain gang or group, but end up in one kind of by default — by virtue of the neighborhood they grow up in.

Right. So things have changed dramatically here. When I worked on There are No Children Here, the gangs were these very hierarchical organizations. Organized mostly around the drug trade. And so they were there, very practically, to protect their turf. And protect their business. And it was very violent. Frankly more violent than it was now. But the violence was more directed. It was really gang versus gang, and began over sort of protecting their enterprise.

In the late ’90s or early 2000’s, the police and the feds went after those on top, and kind of cut the head off the snake. I think the unintended consequence of that — and this is often the case with public policy; there are unintended consequences — is that the gangs became incredibly disparate. So now we have estimates of anywhere between 600 to 800 different gangs or cliques. Crews in the city. And they’re just organized block by block. So just by virtue of where you grow up, you become associated with one of these gangs.

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Police aren’t a central part of your story. But we’re currently having a lot of conversations about reforming police departments, in light of racial profiling and the fact that black men are disproportionately killed by police officers. How does your work inform your thinking on these issues?

I think one of the mistakes we’ve made is thinking that this is a police problem. As a result, it’s put undue pressures on the police to somehow be the solution to what’s going on out there, when we’re unable or unwilling to invest in all of these communities. And the police’s primary [concern] is the back end. Once the crime is committed, they’ll come in and try to investigate and make arrests.

But look — we’re in a city where there’s been a really difficult relationship between the police and communities of color. And there is the one story in the book of Calvin Cross [an unarmed black 19-year-old who was shot by the police]. When I was working on the book, I did a short piece off of that story for the New Yorker‘s website. So it ended up becoming, as a result, a lead example in the Department of Justice’s report about the police department. That is a perfect example. I’m still kind of astonished that there’s been no consequence to what happened to Calvin. And I’ve read the depositions of the police in that [case]. Their memory has either failed them or they’re lying. About him shooting at them.

I mean, that for me, is really distressing. And there’s a long history of that. And it’s just led to incredible distrust.

Over the course of reporting, you form these deep relationships with a lot of the people you write about, and often hear very personal things. How might this intersect with, or overlap with, other ways that they can deal with the issues they face?

You know, I don’t want to speak for people in the book, but I think that for many it felt like there was something cathartic about sharing their story. Sometimes, as a journalist doing these intimate stories, you feel a little bit like a therapist. You’re asking these questions that in some ways you have no business asking.

But one of the beauties of stories is that when you tell your own stories, it feels real — it gives some affirmation to your experience. The other part is, I tell [my subjects] about all the [other] stories in the book. There’s something about that that also makes you feel less alone. You feel like this is not a dissimilar experience. Veterans returning from combat feel like there’s something wrong with me, I’m unable to cope with what I’ve experienced, it’s weighing on me. It’s gotten in my bones.

Do you think your relationships with your subjects has impacted the way they view their experiences?

That’s a good question. The answer is: I don’t know. I’d have to ask them. I think the one person who I feel like I can confidently say that my interaction with them and questioning of them got them thinking in a deeper way about their own experiences is Ashara. That’s not her real name. But, I mean, you know, as a storyteller, as a non-fiction storyteller, you go in and one of the first things you’re trying to do, and it takes a while, is trying to make sense of somebody’s story, because people for the most part aren’t necessarily good storytellers. I mean there’s some notable exceptions to that. And so you’re listening to them talk about their life and talk about their story. They don’t begin at the beginning. They don’t end at the end. They don’t really have a clear sense as to why this is a story that they keep on telling.

With Ashara, she was trying to make sense of what had happened to her, and then she began thinking about these other men in her life. I worry a little bit about being too presumptuous here, but I think that our time together got her thinking in a deeper way about her experiences.

On one level or another, [the survivors] were all suffering from post-traumatic stress. Though, ‘post’ may not be quite right. Because again, they’re still in the midst of it. And, with the exception of very few, not getting much assistance or much help.

As a journalist, are you able to put up emotional boundaries? How does it affect you?

Yeah, this was a hard book to do. I kind of hit a really tough skid in the middle of it. At one point, I vowed I wouldn’t go to another funeral. I just couldn’t do it anymore. it just began to really wear on me.

The other thing that was really hard was that I was going to these people and talking with them about what was probably the worst moment in their life. I also will tell you that in reporting the book, I got stood up so many times by people. And at first, I took it very personally, or thought people didn’t want to be a part of the book.

But I realized, too, that I was there to talk about this [worst] moment [of their lives]. And if I wasn’t present, if I wasn’t asking these questions, that in some ways they could, or felt like they could, kind of put it away and give it some distance. And then I’d come there, and just ask about it.

George Spivey lost his kid. I saw George intermittently. And so, there’s this moment when he calls me and says, “You know, I haven’t heard from you in a while.” And so, I took it as an invitation to get together. And I went over. And he talked for a while, and then says, “I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

I understand that. This kind of ambivalence about, on the one hand, wanting to talk with somebody about this experience, and then on the other, just wanting to try to make it disappear, to make it go away.

You write about “complex loss,” and mothers who “live richly in mourning.” How is mourning complicated?

Well, it’s interesting. Given the number of murders in this city, there are a lot of moms, obviously, who have lost kids. Many of them have formed these groups of moms in the city. There’s no question that they get a great deal of strength from each other.

That line was something that was said to me by another reporter who had gotten to know somebody’s mom. She just thought they lived richly in their mourning, because they’ve got each other. But it’s not uncomplicated. One of the women I spent time with told me that she really relished all these moms. She knew she wasn’t alone. She knew that what she was feeling, that it wasn’t just her [feeling those things]. On the other hand, she didn’t want that to be her life. And for some of them, that becomes their life — each other.

Are there universal effects of witnessing violence, or becoming violent?

I think what I saw was, that on one level or another, they were all suffering from post-traumatic stress. Though, “post” may not be quite right. Because again, they’re still in the midst of it. And, with the exception of very few, not getting much assistance or much help.

But on the one hand, these are people who are in communities in distress. And on the other hand, these are people in communities that I look at, and I don’t mean to sound Pollyanna-ish about it, but I have such deep admiration for. Because of the fact that they’re able to still remain standing, and, in some cases, move on and have these really full and rich lives. And in the case of some, actually trying to figure out a way to use that experience to diminish what lies ahead. I’m kind of in awe.

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Hope Reese is a journalist based in Louisville, KY. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Village VoiceVox, and other publications.

Editor: Dana Snitzky