By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
The stories of Chicago’s violence are known around the world via social media and news media outlets. The Chicago Police Department’s own statistics back up the narrative that Chicago is one of the most dangerous American cities, especially for young African Americans.
While the causes of Chicago’s violence are historical, cultural and economic, many would like to see the city change, and believe it can. That includes Chicagoans who live in other places now, like Jason Sole, president of the NAACP in Minneapolis.
Sole, a former Black P. Stone Nation member, who was a prep basketball star at Dunbar Vocational in the early 90’s and who spent time in prison, is now a professor of criminology at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.
During an exclusive interview with the Chicago Crusader in a Minnesota coffee shop, Sole said Chicago’s violence stems from the lack of basic things, like positive activities for the teen and young adult population, broken families, limited access to mental health treatment, a poor public school system and systemic racism, which he believes is nothing more than a population control tool.
“I think a lot of it is population control. It’s easy to swoop up a bunch of Black men and kids on the corner and throw them in jail,” said the South Side native, dressed in a maroon Hamline hoodie and tan khakis. “Sophomore year of high school, I lost hope in the city of Chicago. I couldn’t find opportunities. It was easy to get down with some guys who knew how to make money on the streets. If you really want to cut down on the crime, you have to create opportunities. I know that may sound simplistic, but at the same time, we did it here and it is working.”
The St. Paul Community Ambassador Initiative came into being after a woman was robbed at an ATM by a teenager in 2013, and local leaders took note of a spike in youth crime. The program involves 30 community ambassadors, like Sole, who have strong connections with at-risk youth, mentoring them and connecting them with employment opportunities within the community. The goal is to divert young adults and teens from risky behaviors that could land them in prison or in the grave.
During the first year of the program, juvenile arrests went down 63 percent in areas where the program was implemented, according to the St. Paul Police Department. The downward trend continued the following year. “It wasn’t rocket science,” Sole says. “People are not inherently bad. All they needed was an opportunity, and for people to support them and show them they could make it. I didn’t want to start selling drugs when I was a sophomore. Hell, I was the paperboy in my South Shore area freshman year.”
In his book, From Prison to Ph.D., Sole writes about waking at 4 a.m. to deliver Chicago Tribune newspapers, and as a 14-year-old just trying to do his route, he would routinely encounter pimps, prostitutes and drug users.
One such run-in proved to be too much.
While riding his bicycle to get a haircut, he was approached by a man in a vehicle who tried to proposition him for oral sex. Several days later while delivering newspapers, he approached a house with the door wide open in the early morning hours, which he found odd. As he walked towards the door to leave the newspaper, the man who came to the door was the same man who had propositioned him just days before. Sole decided he needed a gun, but he wasn’t a gunslinger, so instead, he quit his paper route. The experience led him to seek other ways of making money, which turned into selling drugs and joining a gang.
St. Paul’s Mayor Chris Coleman and several non-profits came together to help develop the St. Paul Community Ambassador Program that addresses some of the causes of urban violence.
Sole said one of the greatest resources the mayor and non-profits brought to the table was bus tokens for transportation. Sole said many young people could not find work in their community, but found employment in other areas of the Twin Cities with no transportation to get there.
“Something as small as bus tokens solved a lot of the problems in and of itself,” Sole said.
He went on to say, “We also had a good relationship with the St. Paul police and often they would refer us to kids they saw as potentially going down the wrong path. We wanted to interact with them before the police did.”
Sole said being able to work with youth during a time of crisis is another important tool in reducing violence. He said when young people witness or learn of a friend’s murder, their first reaction is to seek retaliation, which creates even more violence. Having had some of his own friends killed and being shot himself in a drive-by while sitting in a vehicle, Sole said he can relate to those feelings.
“I can empathize with them during those moments, but the questions I always ask them are, ‘If you retaliate, will it bring your friend back? Will it hurt your family?’ Just having conversations with real people who are saying things out of love make [sic] a big difference,” Sole said. “But we also can back up what we are saying with resources. Without that, it’s only lip service, and that can only go so far.”
Sole also believes destigmatizing mental health therapy is a key to reducing violence in Chicago and other Black communities around the country. He said Chicago is still suffering the effect of Mayor Rahm Emanuel closing six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics during his first term in office, which he believes is a big factor in why the murder rate has increased nearly every year since Emanuel took office.
Sole believes mental health counseling is needed in every public school for students K-12. He spoke of how as a fourth grader at Parkside Community School, a classmate’s mother went missing during the Christmas break and the student never returned to school. A year later, another student—a fourth grader—stabbed her father to death and then moved to another state without explanation for her classmates.
When Sole was in sixth grade, he had another classmate pass away in her sleep. He said mental health counseling was never offered to him or any of his classmates even though he knew they needed it to deal with the trauma of cumulative events.
“Some people grieve by getting high because they have nobody to talk to,” Sole shared. He knows firsthand about drug addiction, becoming addicted to smoking marijuana, and only getting the treatment he needed once he was in prison.
His father, Jackson Sole, who he writes extensively about in the book, is currently a heroin addict in the Chicago area and has been for years. In early October, Sole was in Chicago for his grandmother’s funeral and said his father’s way of coping with his grandmother’s death was by getting high.
“That’s his mental health and coping mechanism. We need to get away from that and have services readily available. I know another guy named Desmond who was shot nine times and survived physically, but he was messed up mentally, and there were no services to treat his mental anguish. Therapy needs to be encouraged, not discouraged.”
As a criminologist, Sole also believes that having classes, like yoga and martial arts introduced into the physical education curriculum of Chicago Public Schools, especially in schools in high-crime areas, will help reduce violence because they are prevention-based; whereas, peer justice programs are more based on intervention, but could also prove to be valuable.
In Chicago, Sole stated that when things are about to heat up and everybody on the block knows it, that’s when action needs to take place, not after the fact.
Sole is still disturbed by the murder of Derrion Albert in 2009, when the teen was beaten by a mob during a fight after school. He and others blame CPS officials for the forced mixing of students from two rival schools—Fenger and Carver—into one building without putting measures and resources in place beforehand for a peaceful transition. He said Albert should still be alive.
“I had a lot of fights in elementary school just because I was frustrated and nobody was there to help,” Sole said. “You have groups, like CeaseFire and others, that are doing the work needed to be done and then all of a sudden the grant money dries up.”
Sole has a message for Chicago’s political and community leadership.
“Get in these communities, invest and show people you really care. You have to be in it for the long-run. You’re going to either invest in them on the front-end with educational programs and jobs or you’re going to invest in the back-end with prisons and violence.”