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#CHIRAQ: More Than Just a Nickname, a Shameful and Tragic Reality for Many




A new movie, second term for mayor and summer approaching has all eyes on Chicago’s politicians, police, people, and body count

by Ashahed M. Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call


Filmmaker Spike Lee speaks at a press conference in Chicago after he came under fire for the working title of his next project is “Chiraq.”Photo: Haroon Rajaee

CHICAGO (FinalCall.com) – On Monday, May 18, Rahm Emanuel stood on stage at The Chicago Theatre, a landmark located on State Street in the famed Loop, to take the oath of office beginning his second term as mayor.

To all the pomp and circumstance—and with a heavy police presence throughout the entire area—the city’s political elite gathered in the city’s business center, to hear Mayor Emanuel’s vision for the future. In striking contrast to that scene, during the previous weekend 49 people were shot in Chicago. The vast majority of them in what are considered high-crime areas on the city’s South and West sides.

“Building a future requires us to focus on a difficult subject that is too often ignored during our civic conversation. It is ignored precisely because it is so hard to talk about,” said Mayor Emanuel seeming to have been stung by criticism during the most recent election painting him as a snobbish mayor responsive only to the rich and powerful with business interests in the city. In fact, his vanquished opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia described Emanuel as the mayor of “the big money guys” which struck a nerve with many voters.


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

“I want to use this moment to shine a spotlight on preventing another lost generation of our city’s youth,” Mayor Emanuel said. “We all know who they are, although it is easier sometimes and more convenient to ignore them. Many are born into poverty, many come from broken homes, many have been on their own from very early on, and as a result, many of them drop out of school and therefore are jobless.”

He said many of these disconnected youth “lack the spark of hope” in their eyes and find lack of opportunity at every turn.

“The faces of these lost and unconnected young men and women are often invisible until we see them in a mugshot as a victim or the perpetrator of senseless violence. Their existence is avoided rather than confronted. They live in the shadows of our cities and in the recesses of our minds, but we must make them ever-present in our conversation. Too many of them become the victims of their circumstance,” Mayor Emanuel said.

Nice sounding words, but many are asking what he is planning to really do to change those circumstances. Can the mayor responsible for the closure of dozens of public schools—mainly in neighborhoods populated by Blacks and Latinos—really be responsive to the needs of the  youth in areas where their support group is a street organization, and where praise from parents and teachers is almost non-existent?


Many mothers who have lost their children to gunfire in Chicago joined Spike Lee and Father Michael Pfleger of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina to discuss the issues facing Black youth. Photos: Haroon Rajaee

Over the past few years, many have begun to refer to the city of Chicago as “Chiraq” comparing it to the war torn nation in the Persian Gulf.  Hip-Hop albums and documentaries dealing with crime in the city have used it in titles, and for many of the youth, it has become something of a badge of honor to describe the strength it takes to survive in areas that resemble war zones.

Many believe “Chiraq” is a shamefully dishonorable designation with only negative associations and impact. Chicago Alderman Will Burns has even attempted to block tax breaks for acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee’s company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, because an upcoming film he is shooting in Chicago has “Chiraq” as its working title.

Eric Wilkins is president of the Broken Winggz Foundation, an anti-violence support group for those who have been paralyzed by gunshots. Mr. Wilkins said there is the Chicago represented by the lights and tall buildings of downtown, then there is the Chicago made up of infamous areas with names like “Terror Town” and the “Wild Hundreds” that make up “Chiraq.”

“That’s exactly what it is. It is out here and ain’t no use in trying to get around it, you can sugarcoat it all you want to. You got kids that can’t cross the street! It’s saddens me that this is what we’ve become but it didn’t happen overnight,” said Mr. Wilkins. “You got these kids that get guns like you get Jimmy John’s (sandwiches), so if you never leave a four block radius and you never run out of bullets—what’s the real plan? And that’s the part they don’t want told,” Mr. Wilkins added.

Militarization & targeted surveillance


Anti-police brutality activists are of the opinion that the Chicago Police Department is one of the most highly militarized departments in the country.

Illinois is one of the states, according to the Department of Defense, to have received several Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles (MRAPs). Additionally, The American Civil Liberties Union has identified 52 agencies in 21 states—of which Illinois is one—that own stingray tracking devices. Stingrays are also known as “cell site simulators.” The ACLU reports they “are invasive cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information. When used to track a suspect’s cell phone, they also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby.”

It is believed this technology has been used in an overly broad manner in cities that have seen large protests, such as Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Maryland, and New York, to keep track of protest organizers, eavesdrop on their plans and conduct warrantless surveillance on those using cell phones for voice or text communication in the targeted area. According to court records it was noted by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that stingray devices can also cause dropped cell phone calls, and disrupt other mobile devices that use the same cell network. The EFF called use of the technology tool an “unconstitutional, all you can eat data buffet.”

Black sites & torture—in Chicago

After September 11, 2001, the United States government stripped civil liberties, changed laws and created others with the publicly stated goal of preventing another deadly terrorist attack. During the administration of George W. Bush, he and his powerfully influential vice-president Dick Cheney used the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe what most would refer to as torture.


Police don body armor as authorities negotiate with two men who are barricaded in a home and holding a woman and five children hostage in Harvey, Ill., Aug. 19, 2014, south of Chicago. Officials say two Harvey police officers were wounded by gunfire Tuesday afternoon in the incident after responding to a call about a burglary.

‘You got these kids that get guns like you get Jimmy John’s (sandwiches), so if you never leave a four block radius and you never run out of bullets—what’s the real plan? And that’s the part they don’t want told.’
—Eric Wilkins,
President of the Broken Winggz Foundation

These techniques were used at many “Black sites” which are secret prisons located in various spots across the globe. Those determined to have knowledge of logistical information regarding the whereabouts of “high value targets” or potential terrorist operations became victims of “extraordinary rendition”—essentially kidnapping—and would be taken to these black sites and subjected to torture, in violation of international laws. A classified 2001 presidential directive granted these wide-ranging powers to the Central Intelligence Agency to detain individuals and take them to undisclosed locations.

If that is objectionable, then what about the recent revelation that the Chicago Police Department operated what activists say effectively could be considered a black site at a location known as Homan Square? After all, it is widely known that members of the Chicago Police Department have used “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the past. A $5.5 million reparations package, was approved unanimously by the Chicago City Council delivering a measure of justice for the approximately 120 Black men and women subjected to torture, which included electric shock to the genitals, mock executions, suffocation, and brutal beatings directed by the notorious former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and carried out by his henchmen from 1972 through 1991.

Forced confessions resulted in many young Black men in Chicago being implicated in crimes and sent to the penitentiary for crimes they did not commit. In the same manner, the argument rages as to whether torture of suspected terrorists yields “actionable intelligence” or simply results in an individual saying what his captors would like to hear in order to end the physical pain and mental anguish.

In many homicides in the city, the suspects are overwhelmingly Black, the victims are overwhelmingly Black, and their deaths are seen in areas considered fratricidal conflict zones, another uncanny similarity to the sectarian violence seen overseas.

What’s in a name? Economics

Many reacted in disbelief when the Chicago Urban League reported in 2014 that 92 percent of Black males between the ages of 16 and 19 were jobless. So far, in the first few months of 2015, homicides are up from the same period the previous year, and now, as summer approaches, many fear the worse. It is almost considered an irreversible reality that Memorial Day weekend—the unofficial start of summer—would result in widespread shootings and war-zone like casualty numbers.


Eric Wilkins is president of the Broken Winggz Foundation, an anti-violence support group for those who have been paralyzed by gunshots

The predictions came true. Over the holiday weekend, 12 were shot and killed while at least 56 others were wounded. Many of them teens, the youngest victim, a 4 year-old girl.

It is into that atmosphere that acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee faces criticism related to his upcoming project with the working title: “Chiraq.” Mr. Lee faced so much criticism he was forced to hold a May 13 press conference to address concerns of community members and politicians that his film would paint an unflattering view of Chicago, focusing only on crime.

Interestingly, from April 30 to May 2, Chicago’s Grant Park was transformed into “Draft Town.” National Football League executives, players and football fans traveled here to participate in several days of festivities in the middle of downtown. Police were visible, but not overbearing, and the event was fun for all ages. In terms of economic impact, financial analysts estimate the three days of activities brought in over $200 million.

“This has nothing to do with Chicago losing tourism. This is not about Chicago losing business,” said Mr. Lee. “Let’s not put property and profit over human life,” he added.

Chicago Bulls’ All-Star center Joakim Noah who was honored with the National Basketball Association’s 2015 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his anti-violence work through the Noah’s Arc Foundation expressed support for Mr. Lee’s continued peace efforts by other organizations.

“I realize the title Chiraq could be perceived as a glorification of violence, but the reality of what is happening in the city of Chicago is not something any of us should hide from,” Mr. Noah said in a statement.

Kublai Toure, executive director of Amer-I-Can’s Illinois chapter, said what happened with Draft Town shows the different realities experienced by those that have the resources and have investments in the stock of the city and those who need resources and investments. Mr. Toure supports Mr. Lee’s  efforts but said he has to bring in the peacekeepers and violence interrupters who work with the street organizations to make sure the full story is told.

“He’s got to get some men in there that’s actually been involved—and that’s who I represent,”  said Mr. Toure.

Clearly, Gun manufacturers are profiting, security companies are profiting, and speedy gentrification efforts are seen in some of the most economically starved areas of Chicago, with real estate speculators making a killing, just  like private contractors in global conflict zones overseas became rich receiving no bid contracts to rebuild that which was destroyed. America’s leading defense contractors such as Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and BAE Systems are experiencing healthy profits resulting from seemingly endless wars.

Father Michael Pfleger, leader of the Faith Community at Saint Sabina stands with many mothers who have lost children to gun violence. As of May 25, there have been 883 shootings in 2015.

“We must face the reality of what’s going on not just in Chicago but going on across America,” said Father Pfleger. “Violence is real in America and we must face the reality. We must face the reality of guns in America where it’s easier in so many neighborhoods to get a gun than a computer. We’ve got to deal with the reality of guns and the proliferation of guns in this country and those that are making money off of guns. We can’t ignore this reality. This is proof of the reality” he added.

Although the subject is painful, Father Pfleger said there is value in dealing with it directly, and in his view, Spike Lee is the man for the job because of his proven track record in making thought-provoking films that courageously confront community issues.

“We’re not painting a city, we’re painting a reality that’s difficult, and it’s hard,” said Father Pfleger. “A man who is an African-American director and one of the best directors in America, who did casting in an African-American community, who is hiring from the African-American community, dealing with African -American issues, sounds real right to me,” he added.

Many of the mothers were critical of politicians who seem to care more about the city’s image than the lives of Black youth. The mothers all told tragic stories filled with pain. Instead of going to graduations, many of them are going to cemeteries to visit the graves of their dead children.

“I hear a lot of energy being put toward (discussing) the movie but place that same energy behind our children and their lives,” said Pamela Bosley, whose son Terrell was shot down in the parking lot of his church while unloading musical equipment. She leads an organization Purpose Over Pain which is a support group made up of parents who have lost children to violence. “No grounds are safe in Chicago. There are so many stories …I know you are saying ‘this is not a war zone’ but in my neighborhood, it sounds like a war zone to me!”

Brenda Mitchell also works with the organization. She had two sons. One son, Kelvin, actually fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom and survived three tours of duty. He is still alive, however, her other son Kenneth was killed in Chicago.

“For me, that is my reality. It is an irony that I would send a son to settle someone else’s freedom and lose my other son in a free country—it’s real,” said Ms. Mitchell.

“When I made ‘Doing the Right Thing’ there were people who said this film would cause riots all across America. That Black people were going to run amuck.  People wrote that this film would stop David Dinkins from being the first African-American Mayor of New York City,” said Mr. Lee. “They wrote a whole bunch of things, but those people ended up being on the wrong side of history and the same is going to happen here in Chicago. They are going to look stupid and be on the wrong side of history. We’re here for peace, and we have to stop this,” Mr. Lee said.


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