The Body Counter

The Body Counter

by Mae Rice

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Michael Lansu has been a crime reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times for the past decade. Since October 2013 his role has been more specific: editor of the Sun-Times’ Homicide Watch blog, where he reports on every homicide in a city which had five hundred murders in 2012.

Each victim receives a landing page on Michael’s blog. Some are bare-bones, just a news brief on their death. Others — where the victim’s family was more talkative, or the prosecution more successful — are elaborate, Facebook-like pages, with in memoriam posts and updates on suspects’ court dates. The overall effect is strangely human: part crime reporting, part obituary.

Summer is the busiest season for Michael — there were and eighty-two shootings over July 4th weekend — but he made time to meet me at Starbucks and share his thoughts on his work and violence in Chicago.

Your blog’s mission is to humanize Chicago’s murders, as opposed to lumping them together into statistics. Can you talk a little about homicides that have deviated from the typical, statistics-driven Chicago crime narrative?

Well, first I want to say that statistics are good. They give you a good idea of which neighborhoods are seeing the highest volume of murders, like Austin, South Shore, Grand Crossing. Really, any murder that happens in the lower-crime neighborhoods is one of the outliers.

Age is another dimension — people outside the eighteen-to-twenty range are kind of outliers. Michael Sullivan, he was an older guy who was walking to work when someone shot and killed him in a robbery. Others that were unique: Endia Martin this year, a fourteen-year-old girl, was shot and killed by another fourteen-year-old girl in a fight over a boy. That was out of the ordinary, because of her age and because she was a girl. Shamiya Adams, an eleven-year-old girl, was killed by a stray bullet a couple weeks ago on the West Side, while she was at a sleepover.

But I really try not to think, oh, just because this one goes against the numbers, I should focus on it more than the others. That goes against what I want to do. Homicide coverage in Chicago has gotten much better, especially with social media making it easier, but it’s still really hard to know which murder is interesting when you’re not making an effort to talk to people. Just because somebody was nineteen years old and in an alley at 3 a.m. doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting story.

What do you think makes the homicides you see Chicago homicides? Or, to put it another way, what makes violence in Chicago unique, compared to violence in other cities?

First of all, I think the perception and the reality of Chicago are totally different. The perception, nationally, that Chicago is this violent city where you can’t walk down the street without being shot — I think we all know that’s not the case. Even in some of the worst neighborhoods, it’s not the entire neighborhood. It’s corners; it’s blocks. Take Austin: North Austin is fairly nice. South Austin has a lot of murders.

I also think it’s really unfair to compare Chicago to other cities, just structurally. Chicago is a segregated city to begin with, but in a lot of these neighborhoods, there are fairly natural barriers or divides. The Expressway. Where the train lines are. Where the train lines aren’t. The Red Line only runs down to 95th Street here. Altgeld Gardens, the housing project, is down at 135th Street. That’s forty blocks where there’s only bus. It’s hard to compare that to New York, where everyone can move around so easily; being stuck in your neighborhood changes the dynamic a little bit. It’s not like we’re LA, either, where it’s so sprawling.

Another big problem in Chicago, that I’m not sure other cities are dealing with as much, is social media. Gang cliques are making rap videos calling out other gang cliques — challenging them. They go back and forth on social media, and it drives up tensions, and that can lead to shootings. Reality, art — it’s a little bit of both.

Are there any particular incidents where social media was a big factor?

Ahbir Sardin is known in his neighborhood as Derrick Rose. In a lot of these local rap songs, when they talk about shooter Derrick Rose, they’re talking about shooter, gun-shooter, Derrick Rose. Ahbir Sardin’s been referenced in a lot of songs, some Chief Keef songs. That all made him more of a public figure, more recognizable, and that was probably a factor in him getting charged with the Venzel Richardson murder.

We should talk about gangs outside of their social media presences, too. Could you talk a little about what you’ve seen of Chicago gangs on the job?

A lot of the high-ranking gang members have been arrested over the last ten to fifteen years. That’s where this all started. The power structure in the gangs kind of fell apart. They have a lot of factions now. The number that I’ve heard recently from police is up to six hundred different gang factions in Chicago. Some of them have ridiculous names. Faceworld is one.

There’s still bigger groups, too. Gangster Disciples, Latin Disciples, Vicelords — the major gangs are still here. It’s just that within Gangster Disciple territory, say, there can be multiple different groups, almost like cliques of high school kids, holding down their little territory within the bigger one.

It’s not like a sports team where there’s a roster. If you live in the 7900 block of South Ashland, and you’re a fifteen-year-old kid, and you’re not in a gang, everybody on your block knows you’re not in a gang. You’re also a fifteen-year-old kid, who’s hanging out on his front porch with his neighbors, playing basketball on the corner, doing kid things. Your neighbors are in gangs. When you leave your block and go two, three blocks down, other people don’t know that you’re not in the gang. There’s no way they can check, either — it’s just, we see you over there. We know.

Gangs might get blamed for more murders than they should, though. When someone dies, Chicago police oftentimes come out and say, “This shooting is gang related.” I’m very careful about that. When I run the court records of the victims, I feel like about seventy-five percent of them have criminal records. But just saying that somebody was in a gang does not mean the murder itself was gang-related. On Fourth of July weekend, you know, a lot of the shootings were not gang-related. It was people who had been drinking all night, and they got into fights, but not over what we would traditionally call gang things. They weren’t fighting over drugs and territory and money.

So I think reporters have to be really careful when talking about this. If a lawyer and a realtor got into an argument downtown, and one of them shot and killed the other, police wouldn’t call it business-related. If they’re fighting over a woman, the cops would say they’re fighting over a woman.

I want to talk about Chicago’s body count this year, too. I find it really hard to interpret. It’s fallen precipitously since 2010, but it might not be counted quite right. Some pundits say it’s egregious; Andrew Papachristos argues that when you control for population, it’s actually in the middle of the pack for American cities. I’m wondering how you personally interpret it.

I’m not going to disagree with the Chicago Magazine story about the murders getting miscounted, because I think a lot of the cases they brought up, especially the main one, there’s a lot of questions there. I know that it’s generally about ten to fifteen homicides per year that the police reclassify as death investigations, and some of those are self-defense shootings. The percent change caused by that, all told, isn’t huge, as I’ve said on the blog.

Some detectives have told me that in the olden days, though, the homicide count police reported was different. There weren’t as many ways to reclassify deaths. The police count included police-involved shootings and everything. In the past fifty years, the year-end murder total has been counted so many different ways. Today, if you’re shot in 2012 and you die now, it counts as a 2012 homicide. But in the past, they counted it to the year you died. That’s why I don’t like it when the police say, oh, it’s our lowest number since 1963. It hasn’t been counted the same all the time.

So the homicide count is basically a ballpark figure.

Even if we go up ten in a year, that number, in a way, is miniscule. That’s one person a month, basically, being hit in the heart with a bullet instead of in the shoulder. The percent change is way more important to me than the actual total. I mean, look back to the mid-nineties when there were nine hundred murders a year. Now we’re down to the low four hundreds. Some of that is that the population has gone down, some of that is advances in medical technology. We’re saving more lives now. But still, it’s half of what it used to be. Why is it that we’re the murder capital now?

I wonder that too. I can’t figure it out. It seems like murder rates are falling nationally, and Chicago’s fall might just be slower.

Yeah, it’s definitely a little slower here. And Chicago took a lot of heat for 2012, when the number jumped really high. That five hundred number that year was clearly an outlier, though, way higher than 2011 or 2013. Those years were both low four hundreds, and then 2012 was the year we had that really warm January and February. [You can see this visually in the “Chicago Homicides: Annual Totals Since 1965” graph here.]

Recently, we also took a lot of heat for July Fourth weekend. How was that weekend for you?

My weekend was alright until Sunday. That’s when it really got bad. Friday was Fourth of July, and there were one or two murders. Saturday, I woke up expecting a bunch, and there were one or two. There were a lot of shootings, but things were going better than expected. Then Saturday night and all day Sunday… I mean, even McCarthy [Chicago’s police superintendent] said, basically, “I don’t know what happened.” They were prepared for it, they had extra officers out on the street, and there were just a lot of people shot.

Then Rahm came out and had a press conference. Rahm likes to talk a lot about how the communities need to step up, and I understand what he’s saying, in that it can’t just be police. At the same time, I think it casts an overly negative light on communities as a whole. Are you talking about all of the Englewood community? Or certain blocks? And on those blocks, are you talking about everybody, or just troublemakers? What do you want the seventy-eight-year-old lady on that block to do? That’s not her fault.

Recently, at the train station in Wicker Park, I saw a white girl, seemingly from the area, wearing a trucker hat with “CHIRAQ” on it. My initial thought when I saw her was, basically, you don’t live in Chiraq. You live in safe, hip neighborhood, and you’re posing as a survivor of something you don’t really deal with. Not my most generous thought! But I’m curious what you think of Chiraq, the term. And that girl.

Well, the real expert on this is Adrienne Gibbs, the music critic at the Sun-Times. But Chiraq started as a term because the murder count in Chicago was allegedly higher than the number of soldiers killed in Iraq over some time interval in 2012. That then spiraled out to people thinking there were more murders in Chicago than there were murders in Iraq, which I believe is not true. A lot of South Side rappers then picked up on the term, which helped its spread. Lil Durk put out a mixtape called Chiraq.

There’s a big anti-Chiraq movement on the South Side right now, people making t-shirts and campaigns about how to end the term. But Chicago has lot of other nicknames, like Shotcago, Killinois, that people aren’t taking offense to. Right now, I see Chiraq as something that represents the South Side rap scene more than anything else. If I saw that girl, I’d probably just think she was a Lil Durk fan.

Mae Rice is a writer who lives in Chicago (and Starbucks).