Monday, March 1, 2010

Uptown's Positive Loiterers: Useless

"Positive loitering," a theoretical way of "fighting crime" and "taking back the streets," failed yet again last week in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. For all the overblown attention it has gotten, and all of the hyperventilated praise, "positive loitering" did not prevent a near-tragedy last Thursday, nor has it prevented a number of other violent incidents in a neighbor where positive loitering promoters claim to have made a difference.

In short, "positive loitering" - as practiced in Uptown, anyway - is a useless social activity that accomplished nothing more than an occasional social event for a handful of frightened gentry commendably trying to diminish crime, albeit with misguided and futile tactics and strategy.

On Thursday, February 25, at least two reputed gang members, both male, were standing on a very busy street corner in Uptown at 4:15 p.m. In broad daylight, with at about 100 people walking through or near the intersection of N. Broadway and W. Wilson, at least one of the men aimed his gun across the street and fired five or six bullets. One of those bullets hit a woman in her leg as she stood at a bus stop, her baby next to her in a stroller.

The following day, there was no "positive loitering" group hanging out at that dangerous intersection. That's significant, because Friday is the favorite day for Uptown's "positive loiterers" to attend to their self-appointed duty of cleaning up a neighborhood that is dire need of a good sweeping-out. Not only did the positive loiterers not prevent a crime at Wilson and Broadway, they chose to stay away from the intersection the following day. Quick review: There were dozens of people, perhaps 100 or so, standing around, walking around, and some loitering on that intersection during daylight. A number of other people were inside shops. Hundreds more were driving through in all directions. A police squad car was parked across the street from the shooters, sitting in front of the Wilson CTA station entrance. And yet, despite dozens of potential witnesses, despite the cop in plain view, despite the many who were simply loitering, two men felt bold enough to fire bullets while standing on the curb in plain sight.

I've been critical of "positive loitering" (PL) in the past, and I'm going to lambast them again now. There were no self-proclaimed "positive loiterers" at Wilson and Broadway at 4:15 p.m. last Thursday.

The positive loitering group in Uptown is sponsored by the Uptown Chicago Commission. It's the group that has gotten so much press is headed by Richard Thale, who is the CAPS facilitator on police beat 2312. Mr. Thale and fellow loiterers have been busy - when convenient - committing their "positive loitering" in Uptown.

Problem is, Thale's group doesn't loiter positively very often, and when they do it's only for an hour or two. The group's favorite hangout is the relatively safe intersection of W. Leland Avenue and N. Sheridan Road, even though there are a number of corners where their attention would be better spent. Furthermore, the positive loitering group only seems to fight crime on Friday evenings. Apparently, they think that crime on week nights is not serious enough to warrant an hour of standing around counting out of state license plates.

Leland and Sheridan is halfway between two much more troubled intersections, and three short blocks east of another. One block to the south is Wilson and Sheridan. One block to the north is Lawrence and Sheridan. Three blocks west is Leland and N. Broadway. All are the scenes of gang activity far more often than is Leland and Sheridan, which gained notoriety last year because of a minor riot on Sheridan that passed by Leland and was videotaped. That video went viral, and still gives the false impression that the intersection is a vortex of gang activity. Sure, Leland-Sheridan sees the occasional drug deal or trick turned by a prostitute, but intersections such as Lawrence-Sheridan, Wilson-Sheridan, Wilson-Broadway and Wilson-Magnolia are much "hotter" spots for gang activity and crime in general.

Thale is the public safety chairman of the Uptown Chicago Commission. He has even acknowledged that the positive loitering efforts have not been as effective as desired. “It gets very frustrating, but at least I know we have made some effort,” Thale told Josh Newkirk of ChicagoTalks. “I know when we’re out there, things are calm. I’m not telling anyone that we are stopping crime, but we are having an impact.”

Huh? If they're not stopping crime, then what is the "impact?" Isn't the whole point, the desired impact, to stop crime? Richard Thale means well, and I am acquainted with him. He's one of the good guys, make no mistake. However, he and his well-intended fellow positive loiterers are fooling themselves and only reinforcing their self-deception with statements like the one above. He says he knows "things are calm" when "we're out there," but there is no evidence to show that it's quiet because they are there. It's a tenuous correlation. As I said earlier, the group stands on a corner that is almost always "quiet" to begin with. Thale says he's not telling anyone that they are stopping crime, yet he says in the same breath that they are "having an impact." Again, no evidence, unless you count a few calls to 911 to report suspicious activity. Okay, that's "impact," but it's so minor and has such a minimal effect on the overall criminal subculture of Uptown that it would be laughable if not meant so sincerely.

Garrard McClendon, writing at in October, 2009 asked, "Can positive loitering stop gang activity?" His answer to his own question was, "If you turn the lights on, the roaches, rodents, and centipedes will scatter. The same goes for drug pushers and ladies of the night who are trying to solicit their wares." What McClendon - and so many others - seem to forget is that the moment you turn the lights off again the vermin come right back.

McClendon went on to say that "It looks like north siders are gearing up to run the nefarious activity out by hanging out on corners to shew away the nonsense. Good idea or window service? Are gangs and prostitutes intimidated by a few residents carrying coffee cups?"

Again, McClendon answered his own question. "I think so. Staking your claim is a matter of pride and determination, and these residents on Leland Avenue and Sheridan Road aren't going to let up."

No? What do you call it when you end your "vigil" after an hour, and only do it on Friday evening? Sounds like letting up to me. Out of 168 hours in every week, staging a vigil for one hour is hardly "making a stand." As for "staking your claim," the other 167 hours in every week is when the criminals do that. And, at the risk of sounding repetitious, the one little hour or so of the "vigil" is in one tiny little pin point of an entire gang-infested area.

If the lights are only on for an hour every week, the vermin will scatter for an hour. But they have not really gone away. They've moved out of sight and continue their foul activities there until the lights go out again. While you've fooled yourself into thinking that the roaches have disappeared, they are in fact laying their eggs, eating their crumbs and plotting the next foray across your kitchen counter.

Let's stick with the insect metaphors for a moment. It's like trying to fight mosquitoes by only putting up a tent for an hour. Not terribly effective, that, and made all the more ludicrous by declaring that the presence of the tent, even after it's been taken down, folded up and put back into its pack, is "having an effect." Technically that true, but it's literally not enough to matter.

Why aren't the positive loiterers at the "hotter" spots, the dicer intersections? The answer is obvious, simple and ironic: They're afraid to hang around over there. The group that has charged itself with a Batman-like mission of cleaning up the neighborhood is ... afraid to go where it is most needed. Instead, they gather for an hour or so at safe corners like Leland and Sheridan, dogs in tow, Starbucks lattes in hand, commending each other for making a dent in local crime.

Irony comes into play. The positive loiterers almost always do their vigilante standabouts after dark. Much of the crime in Uptown occurs in daylight hours or well after the positive loiterers have gone home, had their cups of hot cocoa, and gone to bed.

On the morning of February 1, 2010, a 15-year old boy was shot in the arm as he was walking to school with a fellow. That happened in the quiet 4200 block of N. Clarendon around 8:25 a.m. Where were the positive loiterers? On January 17, 2010, a punk entered a residential building elevator and beat down a senior citizen, then robbed him. That happened during daylight hours. On Sunday, November 8, 2009, there was a shooting half a block north of Leland and Sheridan at approximately 10:00 p.m. Ironically, this is spitting distance from the positive loitering group's favorite perch. They were not standing around, however, when this incident occurred. It was Sunday night, after all.

On October 29, 2009, a "mid-afternoon shooting in Uptown sent pedestrians near the corner of Broadway and Wilson diving for cover," reported Lake Effect News, "and bullets smashing into the windows of the Wilson-Broadway Currency Exchange at 4599 N. Broadway."

There are many more examples, and I'll admit that it's absurd to expect the positive loiterers to be everywhere all of the time. Even if they could be, it doesn't mean they would stop or deter every crime.

But that's the point: Positive loitering, as practiced, can have only minor, hyperlocal and very temporary effects. Unless there is a group of positive loiterers on every intersection, 24 hours of every day, the only effect they can hope have is to cause drug deals and prostitution to move to the next block, out of their sight. After their hour session of lattes and sharing stock tips on the corner expires, the bad guys come right back.

The danger of positive loitering is that is gives the false impression to some people that "something is being done" to combat crime. The Chicago Police Department and various other law enforcement agencies are doing what they can, within the limits of the law. Sadly, the law too often goes easy on criminals and restricts law officers. The Chicago Police Department knows full well, however, that positive loiterers make little or no real difference.

By coddling the positive loiterers and giving them lip service, CPD scores public relations points with the neighborhood. This gives the impression that CPD is going "grass roots." The positive loiterers, however, are merely a useless, unarmed, undeputized adornment that has about as much usefulness as a nose ring. It looks good to some, but is completely devoid of any truly useful functionality.

So what's the answer? There is not enough time or space for a full answer here, even if I had it. We can start, however, by urging 46th Alderman Helen Shiller to stop resisting police cameras and to give the CPD more cooperation. We can start by not voting for liberal judges. We can start by urging legislators to stop passing laws that favor criminals more than they help victims recover or police do there needed duty. We can begin by ending our tolerance of bad parents, and by realizing that more than 50 years of steady moral decay in our society - and the acceptance of it - has helped produce the vermin against which the positive loiterers now find themselves vainly trying to to stomp out by deftly tiptoeing around them.