This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action
Written by: Shengxiao "Sole" Yu
A few weeks ago, I read the public letter written by the mother of Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng. Shaoxiong, 29 years young, recently completed his MA degree at the University of Chicago and was shot and killed on November 9 during an armed robbery. In the public letter, Shaoxiong’s mother wrote “My son’s bright and playful smile still lingers in front of my eyes. I can still faintly hear my son calling out to mom…Son, where is the future that we once looked forward to together?” Reading the letter, I felt my insides churning, being torn apart.
On November 9, 2021, just before 2pm, Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng was walking on the sidewalk near Ellis and 54th Place in Hyde Park, Chicago. In my mind’s eye, I can see the brownstone apartments lining that street. I am an alum of the University of Chicago and lived in Hyde Park for about six years. I can imagine Shaoxiong wearing a heavy fall coat, breathing in the dense, cold autumn air, preparing himself for the oncoming winter. But he wouldn’t live to experience this winter. Instead, Shaoxiong would see a vehicle pull up from the corner of his eye. Someone would get out of the vehicle to ask for Shaoxiong’s possessions and then proceed to shoot Shaoxiong in the chest. Shaoxiong would be transported to the UChicago medical center, where a doctor would pronounce his time of death shortly after.
54th Place in Hyde Park, Chicago. Source: The Chicago Maroon.
Across the Pacific Ocean, I imagine a phone would ring. I imagine Shaoxiong’s mom in the wee hours of the morning, awakened, disoriented. I imagine her receiving news that would collapse her entire world. Her pain must be suffocating, her grief deeper than the ocean.
Shaoxiong’s family and community are experiencing shattering heartbreak and unimaginable trauma. The road to healing will be long and difficult, and many of them will not have access to spaces that acknowledge their pain and center their healing. Many of us in the larger Chinese diaspora community are also experiencing vicarious trauma and feeling the collective pain. Many of us will not have access to spaces that acknowledge our pain and center our healing.
Responses in the aftermath of the tragedy
Since the tragedy, several events and policy initiatives have taken place.
On November 11, UChicago held a webinar committing to installing more police cameras as well as temporarily increasing UChicago Police (UCPD) and Chicago Police (CPD) patrols in Hyde Park.
On November 12, CPD Superintendent announced that the suspect, Alton Spann, an 18-year-old Black man, has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, and two counts of unlawful use of a weapon.
On November 15, over 300 faculty members primarily from the medical and business schools signed on a letter requesting the President and Provost to make anti-violence “a top priority.” Among many demands, they requested enlarging UCPD patrol borders, increasing surveillance in Hyde Park, placing a security guard at every road crossing in Hyde Park, and they called for the arrest and sentencing of “every criminal.” The letter stated that “the reputation of [the] university” was at stake. In a section that is arrogant and reckless at best, the author[s] of the letter implied that the lives of University affiliates were more important than the lives of others, urging “University leaders to…promote quantifiable long-term plans to mitigate criminal activities, particularly those targeting University students, staff, and faculty members.”
On November 16, over 300 students, alumni, faculty, and community members attended a rally on campus under the slogan “We are here to learn, not to die.” The rally was intended to express grief and fear among the community. The rally organizers demanded that the university provide more transportation options, real-time security alerts, and life insurance for all university members. The organizers did not officially support the demands in the aforementioned faculty letter, though some attendees held signs that indicated support for increasing policing and surveillance. There were several speakers at the rally who held differing views on policing. Jasmine Lu, a graduate student in computer science, told WBEZ that after the rally, some organizers were disappointed that some folks took advantage of the event to “pit Asians against Black people in the community.”
On November 16, over 300 people attended a rally on UChicago campus. Source: The Chicago Maroon.
On November 17, UCPD and CPD leaders announced a set of new strategies including the creation of a new 24-hour strategic operations center, installation of additional security cameras, coordination between UCPD and CPD, and permanent increase of CPD presence in Hyde Park.
Overall, there has been a rise in anti-Black sentiments at UChicago, especially on social media, with users on Twitter and Weibo posting heinous anti-Black statements.
Recently, I spoke with Jenny Liu, Mis/Disinformation Policy Analyst at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, who has been monitoring news media and social media and has seen a lot of negative stereotypes and anti-Black hate speech. “I’ve honestly not seen much that has given me hope,” said Liu, “and I think that is partly because it is so easy to respond quickly out of anger and fear on social media.”
Across social media platforms and during in-person events, a large body of narrative has been constructed around how the University and the city should respond in the aftermath of such tragedy. Yet, little of this narrative is focused on true justice and healing. Little of the narrative talks about healing the pain for Shaoxiong’s family and community, the pain for Alton’s family and community, the pain for the Chicago southside community and the UChicago community, and the collective pain among all of us impacted by systemic oppression and violence. Much of the narrative is focused on increasing investment and reliance on policing, surveillance, and prison systems. To understand why this does not work, we must understand this tragedy in a broader context.
Contextualizing the tragedy
It is important for us to contextualize the geography of the tragedy. There is a long and oppressive history between the University of Chicago and the Southside Chicago community.
A deeply segregated city, Chicago’s geographical history is heavily shaped by racially restrictive housing covenants and redlining. In the first half of the 20th century, Chicago saw a large increase in the Black population due to migration from the American South. However, Black residents were restricted to an area known as the “Black Belt” on the Southside of Chicago due to racially restrictive housing covenants, which were legal contracts that blocks of white homeowners collectively signed agreeing to not sell or rent their homes to Black families. Black families were systematically excluded from buying homes in many parts of Chicago, resulting in overcrowding and unsafe housing conditions in the “Black Belt,” including deadly fires and rodent infestations.
The University of Chicago played a big role in supporting racially restrictive housing covenants by indirectly funding them under the guise of “community interest projects.”
While the housing covenants were local agreements among white families in a neighborhood to keep their neighborhood white, these efforts were aided by the federal government. In 1934, the United States Congress created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The FHA offered mortgage insurance to decrease down payment and mortgage interest, making homeownership a reality for so many more families - specifically white families. The FHA used maps that rated neighborhoods on desirability. An “A” rating indicated that the neighborhood did not have any “foreigners” or “Black people.” A “D” rated neighborhood would be colored red on the map, or redlined, and it meant that Black residents lived there and the neighborhood was thus ineligible for FHA-backed mortgage insurance. The mortgage industry also adopted these maps and used them to deny Black residents access to mortgages.
A “Residential Security Map” created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1939 showing the “redlined” neighborhoods in predominantly Black and Brown parts of the South and West side. Source: The Atlantic.
Because of these systems of exclusion, most Black families were cut off from homeownership - a pathway for many white families to build exponential intergenerational wealth throughout the 20th century.
In 1948, the Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer ended the practice of housing covenants. Though redlining and other forms of discrimnation continued, an increasing number of Black families gained access to housing in Hyde Park, Kenwood, and Woodlawn, neighborhoods that contain and border the University of Chicago. University officials, however, wanted to keep these neighborhoods white. The 1959 Federal Housing Act gave eminent domain powers to private universities and huge financial incentives to their cities to seize land near campuses and “rehabilitate” them for “educational purposes.” Using these powers, the University of Chicago undertook “Urban Renewal” projects in Hyde Park, Kenwood, and Woodlawn to demolish hundreds of buildings, destroying Black cultural centers, and displacing thousands of Black families. This cemented another painful chapter in the long oppressive history between the University and the surrounding neighborhoods.
In the decades that followed, the University continued its efforts to encroach on neighborhood lands and displace families while treating communities as disposable. Today, this legacy continues. During the pandemic, the University finished building the Woodlawn Residential Commons on land acquired during “Urban Renewal” decades ago. With the construction of the Obama Presidential Library, community members have been working to organize and advocate for the University to support and for the Obama Foundation to sign a Community Benefits Agreement to guarantee jobs and to keep housing affordable. These efforts reflect the deep history of oppression, pain, and mistrust between the University and the surrounding neighborhoods.
As an 18-year-old entering the University of Chicago for my first year in college, I had no idea of this history. I had attended high school in a predominantly white Chicago suburb and the demographic makeup of the Southside of Chicago was new to me. It took me years to slowly learn about the history of the place - a history that contains harms perpetrated by the University in a larger context of structural racism of the United States - so that I can now contextualize the geography of this tragedy.
In addition to geography, it is also important for us to contextualize the policing, surveillance, and prison systems in U.S. history and understand that their creation, growth, and function in the United States are vastly different from policing in China and other countries.
I lived in Mainland China until my middle childhood, which meant that I first learned about the moral concepts of “good” and “bad” in China. I learned that the police, or as I was taught to say “jing cha shu shu,” literally uncle police officer, were people who protected us by catching “bad people.” I was also told that if I got separated from adults in public, I would find safety in a jing cha shu shu who would help me.
When my family moved to a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, I continued to receive messages that the police would protect our community and keep us safe. I remember the show Cops was often on TV, with its opening theme song taunting “bad boys” and setting up the dichotomy of cops being good and “criminals” being bad. This was the prevailing message in China and in white America.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned Black children growing up in the U.S. are given a talk about the police that sounds very different. Black children typically have to learn that the police do not give them safety; in fact, they are often taught that an encounter with the police is incredibly dangerous. Among the biggest fears for their parents is whether their children would survive encounters with the police.
This drastic difference has to do with the creation history of the policing, surveillance, and prison systems. In the United State, the police was created to protect wealth and property, and ultimately, to uphold the existing social and economic hierarchy. Because enslaved Black people were considered property, the first official patrol was created in 1704 in the Carolinas to serve as slave patrol. During the Civil War in the 1860’s, the military in the South, who fought to protect the economic order of the South, including chattel slavery, served as the primary enforcer of law. During Reconstruction, many local sheriff departments were created from the legacy of former slave patrols and they were responsible for controlling and surveillancing Black people in order to uphold segregation and ensure the disenfranchisement of Black people. This evolved into enforcing black codes during the Jim Crow Era that lasted roughly from 1870-1950, where many policies set the institutional foundation for entrenched harm and oppression of Black Americans.
Prior to all this, in 1865, at the end of the Civil War, the United States Congress passed the 13th Amendment Constitution. The 13th Amendment is often simply described as the Amendment that “ended slavery.” It is how this history is typically taught in schools. However, the text of the Amendment actually states: “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In order words, the Amendment ended slavery except for in prisons.
The 13th Amendment set the foundation for the growth and explosion of the police and prison industrial complex post Jim Crow to present day. In the 1960’s, Black Americans were gaining more access to civil rights and citizenship, fundamentally challenging the social order of white supremacy. This resulted in a series of governmental efforts termed “war on crime” and “war on drugs” in order to protect white supremacy by imprisoning Black people, essentially remaking them into enslaved people. Since 1965, the police in the United States underwent a process of militarization and the U.S. prison population exploded, targeting and incarcerating Black Americans at extremely disproportionate rates.
The prison population in the United States exponentially exploded after the Civil Rights Era. Source: The Sentencing Project.
Black Americans are six times as likely as white Americans to be incarcerated. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Compared to other countries, the incarceration rate in the United States is quite literally off the charts.
Incarceration rates among founding NATO countries per 100,000 population show that the United States is literally off the charts. Source: Prison Policy Initiative.
Even if we single out Illinois, the state where Chicago is located, it is clear that its incarceration rates are still off the charts. Source: Prison Policy Initiative.
The U.S. accounts for only 4% of the world’s population but as 22% of the world’s prison population. Source: International Centre for Prison Studies.
These days, I often hear from folks living in China asking “Why is there so much violence in America? In Chicago?” The answers to these questions are complex. But if the above charts and figures tell us anything, it should be that policing, surveillance, and prisons, at least in the United States, do not make our communities safer. They do not reduce violence.
It took me years of learning to understand the difference between policing in the United States and the jing cha shu shu I learned about in my childhood. The creation and evolution of the policing, surveillance, and prison systems in the United States are fundamentally in place to control and oppress Black communities. They are also in place to perpetrate violence and harm on immigrant communities. It is because these systems are in place to protect the existing social order: white supremacy. These systems are not in place for us. This historical context helps us to understand that we will never be able to find safety by increasing policing and surveillance.
Asking Big Questions about Safety and Justice
With our deeper understanding of geography and history, it is time for us to ask big questions about safety and justice. All of us deserve safety. Many folks who are calling for an increase of policing and surveillance in Hyde Park are doing so because they want safety. Yet, it is essential for us to understand that policing, surveillance, and prison systems do not create safety.
Shaoxiong lost his life not because there were not enough police officers to respond to the 911 call. The tragedy had already happened by the time the police showed up. In fact, the vast majority of police response happens after the harm has already been done. A 2020 New York Times study used data from 10 cities to conclude that police departments spend only 4% of their time handling violent crimes.
In mainstream media, places like the South and West side of Chicago are often portrayed as violent and dangerous; places like tree-lined neighborhoods of quiet suburbs are often portrayed as peaceful and safe. Interestingly, places like the South and West side of Chicago have way heavier police presence compared to the suburbs. The places that we think are safe don’t have the most police and surveillance; they have the most resources. They have well-funded schools and libraries, well-maintained roads and parks, easy access to grocery stores and food pantries, and much more. The places that we think are dangerous are places of “organized abandonment,” a term coined by geographer and prison scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Gilmore explains that both the state and capital have structurally abandoned certain neighborhoods by not providing them with community resources and investments and structurally abandoned certain people by seeing them only as an underclass of people only fit to be workers in the service industry. On average, communities with fewer resources and investments have a poverty rate of 29%, more than double the national average of 13%. The residents of these communities are also predominantly people of color, at 52%, compared to 27% of all U.S. residents. In Chicago, communities with higher rates of homicide also experience higher rates of premature mortality by other causes, including chronic disease, AIDS, maternal and infant mortality, and more, indicating a negative correlation between rates of violence and access to community health and resources. The overall life expectancy difference between residents of downtown Chicago, an area with high resources and investments, and residents of West Garfield, a neighborhood just seven miles west of downtown with low resources and investments, is an astonishing 16 years. This kind of structural abandonment is state violence that has been done unto people for multiple decades, and it is one of the root causes of the interpersonal violence that we see.
The police are an actor of the state, and more policing will only increase state violence and produce even more interpersonal violence.
In the aftermath of violence and harm, one of the main things that survivors and families want is for this kind of violence and harm to never happen again. They say, “I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I had to go through.” In order to prevent violence and harm from happening again, we must address the root causes of violence and harm. As we have seen, policing, surveillance, and prison systems are not capable of doing this.
Not only are policing, surveillance, and prison systems incapable of creating safety, they also do not give us justice.
In our collective imagination, justice may look like arresting the harm-doer, going through trial, getting a conviction, and sentencing the person to jail time. This is because we equate punishment with justice. Our society operates on a punitive justice model, meaning the purpose of justice is served through punishing offenders. Ever since we were little, we were taught to equate punishment with justice. If child A punches child B on the playground, it is completely acceptable, and even encouraged, for an adult to put child A in “time-out.” Child A is to sit in a corner, removed from the community. This is justified on the basis that child A has caused harm through the act of punching, and has violated the agreements of the playground community. However, in “time-out,” child A is typically not supported by the community. Child A typically does not have access to have a facilitated conversation with child B to talk through what happened, to hear from child B how the punch hurt, to truly come to terms with their actions, to sincerely apologize to child B, to go through a supported process to understand the emotions and motivations that led to the punching, and to be taught the tools to manage these emotions next time so that they don’t cause community harm.
This punitive logic is applied as kids grow older in the forms of school detentions and suspensions, and ultimately in the forms of jails and prisons.
Just like the time-out corner, jails and prisons are not sites of support, healing, and justice. In jails and prisons, the person serving time does not learn about the pain and suffering of the people harmed. The person serving time is not asked to center the needs of the people harmed. The person serving time does not have to come to terms with their actions. Furthermore, the person serving time is often treated with more violence and harm. The person serving time does not have their humanity seen and affirmed. The person serving time has no possibility of transformation.
All of us deserve safety and justice. And by “all of us,” I also include the people serving time. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “where life is precious, life is precious.”
Policing, surveillance, and prison systems will never deliver us the kind of safety and justice that we all truly deserve.
Moving Towards Transformative Justice
The geographical and historical context I laid out earlier in this article is to help us understand that violence does not happen in a vacuum. The Southside of Chicago is one of the sites of organized abandonment and interpersonal violence in this context is deeply rooted in state violence.
“It’s really important that we don’t think about violent incidents in isolation,” said Jenny Liu. She went on to say that when we are able to step back and see these incidents as connected, we can start to see the root causes. Liu said that building a stronger social safety net and investing in community-based initiatives would get closer as the root causes of violence.
Our critical examination of punitive justice is also an invitation for us to move towards transformative justice. Transformative justice recognizes the connection between different kinds of violence and seeks to change the underlying conditions that initially created violence so that violence can be prevented in the future. Transformative justice is both a response to immediate needs including centering the needs and healing of the harmed people, and is a political framework to help us move towards a more liberatory space of safety and justice.
Writer and community organizer Mia Mingus teaches us that reducing violence cannot be achieved by putting “bad people” in prisons because “violence is a necessary norm in our current society and [is] actively encouraged.” Therefore, in order to truly reduce violence, Mingus invites us to ask:
What kinds of community infrastructure can we create to support more safety, transparency, sustainability, care and connection (e.g. a network of community safe houses that those in danger can use, an abundance of community members who are skilled at leading interventions to violence)?
What are the skills we need to be able to prevent, respond to, heal from, and take accountability for harmful, violent and abusive behaviors?
What do survivors and people who have caused harm need?
Why do survivors and people who have caused harm have so few options in our community?
What are some of the harmful ways that we treat each other that help set the stage for violence and abuse, and how can we change this?
All of us deserve safety and justice, and none of the current state systems of policing, surveillance, and prisons can give us safety and justice. What will give us safety and justice is actively cultivating the kinds of systems and relationships that will center healing, accountability, and community for all of us - including those who have been structurally abandoned on the Southside of Chicago and beyond, including the family and friends of Shaoxiong who are suffering in pain, including the family and friends of Alton who are suffering in pain, including the community members of Hyde Park and students of UChicago who are living in fear, including the people who are harmed whose names do not ever appear in newspapers - including all of us.
In November 2021, eight Asian American youths were attacked in Philadelphia on a train. Asian American community leaders drafted and circulated a petition to center the healing of those harmed and to work in partnership to address root causes of violence. You can read the petition and add your name here.