Analyzing Helen Shiller’s Response to the Uptown Riot Controversy

December 3, 2010: Welcome to readers from Uptown Update. I’m happy to have helped preserve this piece of Helen-ism for posterity. Also…Happy Chanukah!

(This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.)

Yesterday afternoon, Alderman Helen Shiller posted a lengthy response on the 46th Ward website regarding the widely viewed August 13th Uptown riot video and the firestorm of controversy surrounding it. Given the gravity of the situation for Uptown residents, it’s a response worthy of a line-by-line analysis by a communications strategist. Being one, myself (how useful is that?), that’s exactly what I’ve done. Read on to learn why I think Shiller’s response doesn’t fit the crime.

As has widely been covered, on the evening of August 13th, a large gang riot lasting several minutes broke out on residential Sheridan Road in the Uptown neighborhood that was videotaped by neighborhood resident Joe Gray. During the riot, only a small police presence arrived and most rioters left the area with impunity. (View the video on Gray’s Vimeo page.)

After avoiding the issue for several days, Shiller was confronted with a surprise protest from 46th Ward constituents at an August 17th Olympic Bid press conference at Truman College. After deflecting criticism, she walked out of the press conference and remained relatively silent on the issue for ten days until yesterday’s web posting.

During the intervening time, Uptown police commander Kathleen Boehmer went on record saying the riot was “not the everyday standard” for the area. However, as a review of events by ChicagoNow’s Joe the Cop (of the Arresting Tales blog) and ongoing discussion on the Uptown Update blog show, many Uptown residents are unconvinced of the area’s safety.

(Regular readers may remember Uptown Update as a major thorn in Shiller’s side from my coverage of the Wilson Yard controversy.)

In yesterday’s response, entitled “A Statement from Helen Shiller on Recent Events”, the alderman attempts to convince residents that statistics show their perception of safety is wrong. Here’s why I think that was a bad approach to take. Below is Shiller’s entire statement, in italics, followed by my comments…

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A Statement from Helen Shiller on Recent Events

Just because it took so long to come up with a response doesn’t make a riot that happened 14 days previously and a protest and walkout that happened 10 days previously all that recent. Actually naming the riot video controversy in the title would have shown more confidence.

“On the night of Thursday, August 13, an altercation broke out between a couple dozen young men at the intersection of Sheridan and Leland in Uptown. There were no guns or knives used, but bottles were thrown and there was yelling and attempted fisticuffs. Most of the event was videoed by a neighbor.”

An obvious attempt to downplay the riot and describe it as something less than it was. Anyone viewing the video would be hard-pressed to call the event–characterized by mobs of screaming men chasing each other up and down Sheridan Road in the middle of moving traffic–a mere “altercation”. Citywide media and Shiller’s own constituents have already correctly named the event for what it was: a riot. Couching it as anything else is disingenuous. Moreover, how in the world does the alderman know that guns and knives weren’t in anyone’s pocket that night?

Within minutes of receiving the 911 call, officers arrived and the youth dispersed.   There was one arrest, one police officer suffered a minor injury and there was a little property damage. No one else in the area suffered any injuries. Because of the subsequent media frenzy, this incident has come to symbolize safety in Uptown.  In general, the recent discussion about crime and violence in our community has been emotional, high-pitched and polarizing.”

Again, Shiller pointedly downplays one of the central controversies surrounding the event: the small response from the Chicago Police Department. As the video shows, few squad cars showed up–and even fewer police actually got out of them. That’s part of the basis for the “emotional, high-pitched and polarizing” discussion going on in Uptown right now. Refusing to address the community’s concerns regarding the modest police response is a polarizing move on Shiller’s part. And when you think about it, besides the CPD, Shiller seems to be the only one out there suggesting that the riot and police response were no big deal. So the only real polarization here seems to be between Shiller and her constituency.

“Crime and violence is unacceptable.”

There are no bonus points in P.R. for stating the obvious. Tell me something I don’t already know. And run a grammar check, while you’re at it. In fact, judging by the sentence that is about to follow, you might want to run a spell check, too.

My office spends more time and resource fighting crime and violence than dealing with any other issue. My staff and I regularly exchange information with the 20th and 23rd District police regarding potentially dangerous situations and how to prevent violence or crime from occurring. And today crime and violence in the 23rd and 20th police districts is among the lowest in Chicago. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out at www.chicagopolice.org. Whether you search by district, ward and/or individual beat – you will find this to be true. This is a great accomplishment within a community as diverse as the 46th Ward, and the credit goes to our residents and the leadership of our police commanders.”

The work to coordinate with the CPD is commendable. However, it’s also Shiller’s job as an alderman to keep on top of things in her ward, so no applause necessary here. More useful might have been to actually share specific statistics, demonstrate a declining trend among specific types of crime using concrete numbers. And you’re going off message. First you imply your office is responsible for the reduction in crime. Then you credit Uptown residents–except, they’re the ones telling you they don’t feel safe in the first place. I doubt that’s a shout-out that went over well with disgruntled constituents. 

Every day individuals and organizations are engaged in anti-gang and anti-violence initiatives just by creating other paths for young people to walk down and create a life for themselves.”

Huh? I had to read that run-on sentence twice to catch its meaning. While true, it would have been more effective to actually name a few individuals, organizations, and programs working in Uptown to reduce gang activity. As the local alderman, Shiller–or whoever wrote this statement on her behalf–should be well versed in this information.

But until we find that magic bullet to stop violence that continues to elude us all, there will always be more to do. In recent days I have had several conversations with community leaders about more creative and progressive solutions. To a person they have started with “Violence is not acceptable,” and followed that up with, “We have to do more about this and blaming you is not it. What more can we do together?” There have been a number of positive suggestions, and we are going to work on all of them.

Talking with those community leaders is a positive step. But Shiller likely did unnecessary damage to herself by not coming out and talking to the community-at-large sooner. Furthermore, there’s little point in announcing aldermanic work will begin on “positive suggestions” to stem violence in the ward without actually announcing what those suggestions were. Leaving them to the imagination could lead constituents to wonder whether those “suggestions” actually exist. After all, in just a few paragraphs Shiller will say in no uncertain terms that she has no idea how to react to the situation. (See: Solutions.)

When I was first elected alderman in 1987 the 46th ward had some of the highest crime in the city, some of the highest number of buildings in housing court for hazardous and dangerous conditions, some of the highest infant mortality rates in Chicago, had a dysfunctional grid of street lights resulting in dark and dangerous streets, and had some of the poorest performing public schools in the city.  To day we have among the lowest crime, the fewest buildings in housing court, lower infant mortality rates, improving schools and new street lights and sufficient lighting on every block in the ward.”

All true. I’ll leave it to others to research the true proportion of those improvements for which Shiller was responsible, versus various citywide–and largely mayoral–initiatives, an improved economy (prior to the current recession), and a move to cheaper drugs of choice on the part of potential petty criminals.

“In each of my five re-election campaigns, the strategy of my opposition has followed a now familiar pattern: attack my efforts at preserving affordable housing and engaging in a goal of development without displacement by repeating a mantra that affordable housing equals crime, and polarizing the community at every opportunity in spite of evidence again and again that each day has brought improvements to the safety of our community.”

Most of the paragraph is a red herring or not germane. Shiller is trying to tie the groundswell of community ire over the Uptown riot with the anti-affordable housing argument of the Wilson Yard opponents. Of course, it isn’t a Chicago election year, and housing is completely irrelevant to the issue of a Sheridan Road gang riot. Shiller will attempt this label-and-reject strategy further down in the document. It appears to be her central response tactic. She will use it against Chicago media in the next paragraph and, effectively, any of her constituents who do not agree with her, further below.

The media coverage of the Leland/Sheridan event was intensely and overtly personal coverage. With the exception of one television reporter, not one outlet bothered to check the police statistics to actually determine if this fight represented typical or atypical activity. Instead, they ran the video over and over, labeling the fight as a full riot and focusing on my political opponents hounding me at a Chicago’s 2016 Olympic meeting.”

Shiller seems to want it both ways with the media. Here, she’s annoyed that reporters called her out personally on crime statistics in her ward (and again blithely ignores that perception of safety matters more than mere statistics.) Yet in a few paragraphs you will witness Shiller taking personal credit for improvements in safety, parks, and schools–in the very same document.

In addition, first it’s an “altercation”, now it’s a “fight”. Or at least not a “full riot”. Except, as the court of public opinion has already determined, it is. Saying it isn’t yet again just makes Shiller look painfully willful. (And again–”Chicago’s 2016 Olympic meeting?”–did anyone actually proofread this?)

At that meeting, media and protesters stood together as I made a statement and took questions.  When it became clear that some were not interested in my answers but rather a confrontation I left.”

I don’t know which is worse here: that Shiller felt justified in turning her back on the angry voters who were yelling; or that Shiller felt justified in turning her back on the non-angry voters who were listening. Both groups put her in office–in effect, hired her. It’s generally not a good idea to walk out on your boss, no matter what mood they’re in. In doing so, Shiller made it clear to her constituents that her personal opinion of her job performance was the only one that mattered to her.

As bad as the Sheridan fight was, on any given week, there are far more violent events, including far more arrests by police, in other Chicago communities that have received far less attention – even when there was ample video. What is it about this particular video that caused such great fear in so many people?  Clearly it is important to the community because this is where we live.  The importance to the media however is more difficult to understand, unless it is driven by other motives.”

Once more, Shiller attempts to label her detractors and ascribe to them hidden motives. In this case, she goes as far as overtly suggesting Chicago media is conspiring to get her out of office. That’s ludicrous on the face of it, though judging just from the foregoing paragraphs I wouldn’t wonder why anyone might make the attempt. At every turn in the document, Shiller seems immune to accepting criticism or responsibility for any negative things that occur in her ward.

This specific passage also portrays Shiller as immune to good sense. What makes this video of a riot on a residential street in Uptown particularly frightening to Uptown residents? Because it’s a video. Of a riot. On a residential street. In Uptown. (Hello? Is this thing on?)

Solutions
“Again, I do not have the solution to urban crime and violence. If someone out there has the magic bullet I’d like to know what it is. But having said that, while guns, and the requisite anger to use them, seem to be in never ending supply, there is no excuse for violence. And it is incumbent upon us to do all we can to curb violence and to give our young people the future they deserve and crave.”

I tried and tried to find a charitable way to describe Shiller’s words here. I couldn’t. This paragraph is a blunt surrender, a pathetic admission of fecklessness. It’s as much as to say, “I, Alderman Helen Shiller, have absolutely no idea how to handle this situation.” If I were a disgruntled Uptown voter, I’d put this paragraph on a tee-shirt. If I were Shiller’s P.R. strategist, I’d be drinking right now.

“My staff and I will continue to work closely with the Chicago Police Department to prevent crime and violence.”

Again, informational coordination with the CPD is part of an alderman’s job. So all Shiller is saying here is that she intends to do her job.

We will continue to get the minutes from our CAPS meetings and continue to insure appropriate responses from my and other city offices to issues raised.”

I’m sure “ensure” is meant here, unless the Alderman intends to take insurance out on various city officials. Of course, the rest of the sentence is a grammatical train wreck anyway, so why quibble? Well, maybe one quibble–minutes? You mean 46th Ward aldermanic staff doesn’t attend CAPS meetings in person?

“We will continue the improvements that are underway at our local parks.”

Non sequitur, party of one, your table’s ready. What on earth does this have to do with a Sheridan Road gang riot?

“All of our public schools have improved and continue to improve. Support of their efforts will always be a priority.”

Whose efforts? Any why is this germane to the issue of a gang riot, either? In fact, it isn’t. It’s irrelevant self-puffery.

We have no fewer than 25 educational, recreational and not for profit organizations that serve youth and families in our community. They will continue to get my support and advocacy. There is no reason for someone to be fighting on the street threatening the lives of others and their own lives when just a few blocks away they can become a star or a scientist or an athlete or anything they have the talent to be but just don’t know it yet.”

More than likely, those “educational, recreational and not for profit organizations” deserve a local alderman’s advocacy, anyway. It isn’t as if Shiller would curry any favor by walking away from them. (Hey, there’s a theme!) The balance of the passage could have been lifted from the script of one of Shiller’s detractors. The fact is that youth are out there causing mischief–and worse. In a crisis communication such as this one, it’s generally not a good idea to make your opposition’s points for them.

For years we have fought for a safe community for everyone. Nothing said by political opportunism can change this. Nevertheless, even with all the improvements we have seen in our community, that it is still necessary for us each to be vigilant is a fact of life we must embrace. I continue to believe that it is possible to maintain a truly diverse community that is safe for all its residents and my staff and I will continue work towards that goal on behalf of all of our residents.

Political opportunism? Are any of Shiller’s detractors running for office? This closer drives home the suspicion that the foregoing paragraphs set up: Shiller seems to refuse to accept any criticism whatsoever. What could–and should–have been an opportunity to apologize to her constituents, accept responsibility, open an honest dialogue on the issues to find innovative solutions, or (ahem) promise to listen better in the future, in the end, is completely squandered.
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At the heart of it, crime’s a red herring here. The real story is Shiller’s largely miscalculated and altogether tardy response. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me when the people who elected you have a desire to yell at you for doing a bad job in their opinion, it’s your job to stand there and suck it up, no matter what your personal opinion is of your job performance.

Walking away only demonstrates contempt for the folks who hired you in the first place. Waiting ten days to speak about the matter, then reiterating to your own constituents that you felt perfectly justified in walking away from them, just makes matter worse.

Perception is everything. Uptown residents are frightened–wouldn’t you be if you saw a riot like that occur in your own neighborhood? More to the point, when was the last time you were able to calm someone’s fears by simply telling them to stop being scared?

That approach doesn’t work, at least not very well. In fact, telling 46th Ward voters that their very palpable perception of danger is a fantasy may very well worsen their perception of Shiller’s job performance. That may be fine in a non-election year, but don’t think those video cameras are going away between now and 2011.

Memo to Alderman Shiller: if there’s a P.R. strategist involved here, fire them. If there isn’t, hire one. Because if Chicago loses the Olympics, that alliance with Mayor Daley may not be powerful enough to push you past the finish line the next time disgruntled Uptown voters head to the polls.

At least, that’s my perception of things.

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