Aspects of Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin's 7-point plan to curb gun violence received mixed reactions at a summit the West Side politician held Saturday. The most contorversial part of the plan involves charging individuals who commit gun crimes as domestic terrorists.
The summit, held at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, was attended by city and county officials as well as academics and community activists. Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel were invited to the summit, but did not make an appearance. Boykin says the purpose of the summit was "to put meat on the bones" of his plan.
Boykin unveiled the gun violence prevention plan in May after he became concerned about the increasing number of shootings in his West Side district. Since the plan's release, Boykin has come under fire for the concept of charging individuals that shoot a gun, and their accomplices, as domestic terrorists. Boykin did not escape that criticism at Saturday's summit.
Clifton "Booney" McFowler took offense to labeling youths as "terrorists." He says he would be labeled as a domestic terrorist under the plan due to his former gang involvement, which eventually led to him serving a 27-year sentence in prison for first-degree murder. McFowler now works as a case manager for BUILD, an Austin neighborhood nonprofit serving at-risk youth that have had contact with the criminal justice system.
"I work every day with the youth - the people who you call terrorists and I don't see [a] terrorist in them. I see our kids that need some guidance; some support; some opportunity," McFowler said.
The violence plaguing the city and claiming many young lives stems from poverty, he added.
"The root of our issue is not violence. It comes from poverty," McFowler said. "We do not control the economics in our community. Until we control the economics in our community, that's when we alleviate the problems in our community."
Patrick Sabaitis, a former Latin King gang member, who now operates a Northwest Indiana-based mentoring program, Reclaim Our Kids, supports Boykin's idea with one minor adjustment. He said there should be a "white flag clause" for kids who want to get out of the gang.
He noted that majority of kids that get caught up in gangs do so because of their circumstances. Sabaitis says he joined a gang because of the domestic violence taking place in his home. The proposal, he said, should come with programs, resources and help for kids seeking to get out of gangs.
"You have to have the solution too. You can't just dub it that, because if that's the case you're going to blanket [everyone] and then it becomes oppression," Sabaitis said. "If you don't give [kids] the option to get help, that's not accomplishing anything."
Boykin defended his position. With 1,100 people shot in Chicago since Januarym including 16 people during the weekend of the summit, Boykin made no distinction between someone joining Al Qaeda or ISIS to kill Americans and someone joining a gang "to control and coerce certain areas" through violence.
"People should not have to live in fear and in terror in their communities -- not in America, not in Chicago," Boykin said. "Five percent of the community should not be able to control and terrorize the other 95 percent."
Boykin understands the concern, but said safeguards will be put in place to ensure the charge fits the crime. He wants to set up an independent panel to review cases to determine if the terrorism charge is necessary.
"The status quo is not working," he said. "We've got to send a strong deterrent from this crime."
Other aspects of the commissioner's plan include leveraging city and county resources in order to offer parenting classes, increasing enforcement of the city's curfew law and expanding drug courts and other alternative sentences. The plan also calls for county sheriff officers to patrol high-crime areas, stricter penalties for illegal firearm possession and job training.
"This is just an outline of what we think needs to happen," Boykin said. "We use the 7-point plan as a starting point so we have something [with which] to look forward."
Deputy Chief of Police Eric Washington agrees with Boykin's plan. He said stiffer penalties for illegal gun possession are a must. Guns, he noted, end up on the streets through theft, illegal transport of guns and straw purchases, which take place when guns are re-sold on the streets.
"Chicago recovers seven guns for every one gun recovered in New York and every three guns for every one gun recovered in L.A. That's an issue," Washington said. "I'm not saying you as a legal upright citizen cannot own or possess a gun, but there are people out here that do not and cannot possess [a gun]."
Boykin's plan did have its supporters. Newly-elected Chicago Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) said there are several initiatives the city could support including boosting curfew patrols and partnering with the sheriff's office to patrol high-crime areas. Taliaferro was among two city aldermen attending the event. The other was 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran.
"I think City Hall needs to look at supporting some of these endeavors from a financial perspective," Taliaferro said.
Westside NAACP Youth Council President Janeicia Williams, 16, thinks the plan should add a component that fosters better relationships between police and young people. Williams said the relationship is frayed, which prevents youths from coming forward with any information they may have on a crime. Gang members, she noted, see police as another opposing gang.
"They don't see them as people who are in place to keep the community safe. They see them as people who are trying to put them behind bars," the Lane Tech High School student said.
Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County Timothy Evans praised Boykin for tackling the issue of gun violence and recognizing the role the courts have in the effort. While Boykin's plan calls for expanding alternative sentencing for non-violent offenses, many of those efforts are already underway.
The Cook County State's Attorney's Office in April announced it will no longer prosecute misdemeanor marijuana offenses, instead referring offenders to drug treatment. The idea is to provide resources, counseling and services to help rebuild lives and reduce recidivism, Evans said.
"I believe that we can never punish our way out of the problem," he said. "We have to have an approach that is compassionate."