The Problem with “We Have to Do Something”

Black and white photo of a row of police cars.
Photo credit: Chris Yarzab via flickr, CC BY 2.0.

This summer, Eve Ewing, a sociologist of race and education at the University of Chicago, wrote an article called “The Chicago Negro and the Warsaw Ghetto: Antiblackness at the root of gun violence ‘solutions.’

In that article, which I strongly recommend everyone read in its entirety, Ewing discusses the ways in which the sentiment “Well we have to do something,” is used as an excuse for supporting rights-violating, dehumanizing steps to “combat crime” such as invasive surveillance, sending in federal troops, or placing concrete barriers around a neighborhood experiencing high amounts of gun violence, literally echoing the creation of the original ghettos.

“Trust, I know we have to do something,” she writes. “The profound insult of it all is that Chicagoans, especially Black Chicagoans, know this very well. I know it better than, say, Donald Trump. I do not believe Donald Trump skims every new headline to see if the person killed is a student, a family member, or a friend.”

And yet, she continues, “ I worry that the urge to fence in Chicago, to police us, to punish us as the merchant whips the slow mule, may be an area on which the self-identified ‘reasonable people’ find ample common ground.”

Her column has stuck with me, because it was so familiar. “Well, we have to do something,” is something I hear quite often. I heard it just recently from my city council person, who had knocked on my door during our primary election. She was saying it to deflect my question about the handling of a police killing in our community, which began with an unconstitutional stop. The implication was holding the police department to too high a standard would prevent us from being able to do “something” about crime in certain neighborhoods. I don’t believe that is true.

I’ve heard it from community developers too, often as a reason why support for even the most troubled police departments is required, or why they support rights-violating or dehumanizing tactics like those Ewing described—anti-gang crackdowns, no-knock raids, anti-loitering ordinances, anti-homeless sweeps, or invasive surveillance. (Often this comes with the defense that some residents support those measures.)

As Ewing acknowledges, when the community you serve is experiencing high crime, that is not ignorable. But just like the community development field refuses to accept that displacement or continued deprivation are the only two development options for neighborhoods that have been disinvested from, so too should we refuse to accept that “do nothing about crime” and “support an overbearing and invasive police state” are the only two responses to crime.

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


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