The Epidemic of Violence in Freedmen Communities

Summer in Chicago has arrived, and with it comes elevated incidents of gun violence. On July 22, 2020, reports came in that 15 people were shot outside of a funeral home on the South Side of Chicago. According to , “An unknown number of people inside a vehicle shot at a crowd attending a funeral on West 79th Street in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood around 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, police said. The individuals on the street then exchanged gunfire with the people in the vehicle, according to authorities.”

This particular story is not the only incident of gun violence reported. On July 31st, a 9 year old boy named Janari Ricks was also killed. According the Chicago Tribune, “On Friday evening, Janari was playing with friends behind the Cabrini Green townhomes in the 900 block of North Cambridge Avenue when a gunman opened fire into a parking lot around 6:45 p.m., striking and killing the boy, an unintended target, Chicago police said. Police officials said they did not know who the target was. He was rushed to Lurie Children’s Hospital, where he died.”

The same news story reported that this killing happened as the city experiences the highest number of criminal homicides in any given month since 1992.  “In July, Chicago recorded 105 such homicides, more than double the 44 the same month last year, according to the Police Department. The city last saw a higher monthly total in September of 1992, when 109 homicides were recorded, the data shows.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot posted a series of tweets about this latest homicide. “Gun violence is every bit a public health crisis as COVID-19,” she wrote. “It’s well past time that we as a nation begin aggressively treating it through wraparound services, mental health supports and street outreach interventions, support for our community police officers, and — yes — federal gun control to keep firearms from falling into the wrong hands.”

Gun violence is not a new phenomenon in Chicago. President Donald Trump likes to frequently remark about Chicago and its issues with violence. During a briefing with reporters at the Oval Office, Trump said, “How about Chicago? I read the numbers where many people killed over the weekend. We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York. Look at what’s going on. All run by Democrats. All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left. But, we can’t let this happen to the cities.”

So does Chicago’s violence stem from the city being primarily run by Democrats like President Trump says? While it is true that the majority of cities that are considered the most violent have Democratic mayors, it is important to note where the most violence occurs in these cities have a tendency to be the poorest. Looking at Chicago, the most reported violent neighborhood is West Garfield Park, which is located on the city’s West Side. According to, the largest population by race that occupies this area is Black, non-Hispanic which is around 15,888. White non-Hispanic is 358, Hispanic or Latino is 447, and Asian non-Hispanic is 55. According to CMAP, Black non-Hispanic holds about 93% of the population. The Median Income is $24,591 and about 2,706 households have an income less than 25,000 a year. About 18% of the total population is unemployed and 43% of the population live under the federal poverty line.

I would argue that the demographics like these are reflected in the most violent neighborhoods in America. This leads me to believe that high unemployment and rampant poverty is a recipe for unbridled violence.

So how has America handled unbridled violence in the past? Let’s look at the era of Prohibition. Prohibition in the United States (authorized by the Volstead Act) was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933. Following the ban, criminal gangs gained control of the beer and liquor supply in many cities. By the late 1920s, a new opposition to prohibition emerged nationwide. Critics attacked the policy as causing crime, lowering local revenues, and imposing “rural” Protestant religious values on “urban” America. It has been argued that organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. Mafia groups and other criminal organizations and gangs had mostly limited their activities to prostitution, gambling, and theft until 1920, when organized “rum-running” or “bootlegging” emerged in response to Prohibition. A profitable – often violent – black market for alcohol flourished. Prohibition provided a financial basis for organized crime to thrive. In one study of more than 30 major U.S. cities during the Prohibition years of 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%. Additionally, theft and burglaries increased by 9%, homicides by 12.7%, assaults and battery rose by 13%, drug addiction by 44.6%, and police department costs rose by 11.4%. This was largely the result of “black-market violence” and the diversion of law enforcement resources elsewhere. Despite the Prohibition movement’s hope that outlawing alcohol would reduce crime, the reality was that the Volstead Act led to higher crime rates than were experienced prior to Prohibition and the establishment of a black market dominated by criminal organizations.

 According to Harvard University historian Lisa McGirr, prohibition had a disproportionately adverse impact on African-Americans, immigrants and poor Whites, as law enforcement used alcohol prohibition against these communities. Criminal gangs had run amok in American cities since the late 19th-century, but they were mostly bands of street thugs running small-time extortion and loansharking rackets in predominantly ethnic Italian, Jewish, Irish, and Polish neighborhoods. The underworld power dynamics shifted dramatically with the onset of Prohibition and the overnight outlawing of every bottle of beer, glass of wine and shot of booze in America. With legitimate bars and breweries out of business, someone had to step in to fuel the substantial thirst of the Roaring Twenties. And no one was better equipped than the mobsters. The most famous bootlegger during this time was Al Capone. Kingpins like Al Capone were able to rake in up to $100 million each year thanks to the overwhelming business opportunity of illegal booze.

In the 1920s, Charles “Lucky” Luciano was famous for bringing together some of New York’s biggest Italian and Jewish mobsters to dominate the city’s bootlegging business. In Chicago, Johnny Torrio kept a fragile peace between his Italian-run bootlegging operation in the city’s South Side and the Irish and Polish gangs working the North Side. But it didn’t last. By the time Torrio’s protégé Al Capone took over, it was an all-out turf war. In the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, Capone’s men dressed as police officers and gunned down seven of the rival gang’s henchmen.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president. Prohibition ended and the Roosevelt championed initiatives like the New Deal that was able to put millions of Americans back to work. During his first two terms in office, Roosevelt pushed legislation through Congress that set a new standard for government intervention in the economy.  Despite vigorous action, the economy did not respond as Roosevelt had hoped.  On the eve of World War II, unemployment rates still hovered around twenty percent and industrial production remained stagnant. Although the New Deal did not end the Depression, it was a success in restoring public confidence and creating new programs that brought relief to millions of Americans.

Fast forwarding to the 1990’s, some of the same conditions that bred organized crime in the predominantly ethnic Italian, Jewish, Irish and Polish neighborhoods were reflected in the predominately urban Black American neighborhoods. Instead of alcohol fueling the underground market, the new cash crop is drugs. American legislation did not respond the same way it did during Prohibition. Instead we had the announcement of the War on Drugs in the 1980’s and the 1994 Crime Bill that helped ramp up mass incarceration. The Brennan Center succinctly summarized that legacy on the 20th anniversary of the bill’s passage:

“It expanded the death penalty, creating 60 new death penalty offenses under 41 federal capital statutes. It eliminated education funding for incarcerated students, effectively gutting prison education programs. Despite a wealth of research showing education increases post-release employment, reduces recidivism, and improves outcomes for the formerly incarcerated and their families, this change has not been reversed.

And the bill created a wave of change toward harsher state sentencing policy. That change was driven by funding incentives: the bill’s $9.7 billion in federal funding for prison construction went only to states that adopted truth-in-sentencing (TIS) laws, which lead to defendants serving far longer prison terms. Within 5 years, 29 states had TIS laws on the books, 24 more than when the bill was signed. New York State received over $216 million by passing such laws. By 2000 the state had added over 12,000 prison beds and incarcerated 28 percent more people than a decade before.

All types of questions could be asked about why America has responded to violence in primarily Black communities punitively rather than dealing with it socio-economically. The fact is that America is still a highly racist society and has based its policies in that way. Lee Atwater, American political consultant and strategist for the Republican Party, said this when speaking about the Republican Southern strategy:

Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger”. By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger”. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back-burner.

The coding of the Southern Strategy is so pervasive that it has entered into the political structure in liberal cities such as Chicago yet the real change needed has not been attempted.

I argue it is now time to approach violence in a holistic sense and declare it as a public health crisis.  In an article entitled The Public Health Approach to Violence Prevention published by the CDC, it says:

“The focus of public health is on the health, safety and well-being of entire populations. A unique aspect of the approach is that it strives to provide the maximum benefit for the largest number of people.

Public health draws on a science base that is multi-disciplinary. It relies on knowledge from a broad range of disciplines including medicine, epidemiology, sociology, psychology, criminology, education, and economics. This broad knowledge base has allowed the field of public health to respond successfully to a range of health conditions across the globe.

The public health approach also emphasizes input from diverse sectors including health, education, social services, justice, policy and the private sector. Collective action on the part of these stakeholders can help in addressing problems like violence.”

The article also outlines a 4 step approach to Violence Prevention:

  1. Define and Monitor the Problem
  2. Identify Risk and Protective Factors
  3. Develop and Test Prevention Strategies
  4. Assure Widespread Adoption

Step three and four are exceptionally crucial because it would use findings from the research literature and an evidence-based approach to program planning and then implement and adopt them more broadly.

Freedmen Descendants of Chicago along with Illinois Representative LaShawn Ford and Avalon Park Community Church is advocating for House Resolution HR0433 to become law in Illinois. This current resolution is outlining measure to declare violence as a public health crisis.

Full Text of Bill attached below:


We cannot continue to use punitive measures and expect non-retaliatory results. Violence needs to be declared a public health crisis because it is a disease. It is mainly a disease that directly correlates to rampant poverty and systemic depression of Black Communities that are primarily Freemen Descendants in population.

Please visit  and sign the petition to show your support in making HR0433 into law and support an Executive Order to be signed by the Illinois Governor to release rapid relief in Black Communities ravaged by Covid-19 and violence. We need to put the kibosh on gun violence in Black communities. The only way to do that is to insist on legislation that gets to the root of the problem. Also share the website on your family, friends, and social media platforms. Together we can make a real difference to end the challenges of racism and poverty that have plagued our nation for centuries.

Still we should advocate for reparations for the Freedmen Descendants.

Still we should advocate for local equity in our states and municipalities.

Still we should advocate for the resources to make Black people that descend from Chattel Slavery a whole people.

Cynthia McDonald – CHW and ADOS Advocate

Published by Cynthia McDonald

Hi There! I am a Social Worker certified in Community Health. I currently write a blog concerning the social determinants of health that primarily affect Black Americans that are descended from American chattel slavery,

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