Kimya Barden’s daughter goes to day care in the Kenwood neighborhood. She’s on a group text with some of the mothers and one day got an urgent message that another mother was carjacked while transporting her child.
Barden was outraged because an act of violence hit close to home. “A mother was carjacked. She was violated,” Barden said.
Many Chicagoans have been gripped by anxiety over the city’s dramatic rise in carjackings the past several months — and in neighborhoods all over the city. There were more than 200 carjackings committed in Chicago in January, more than triple the amount from the previous year and the most in any month during the past 20 years.
The alarming number of people who’ve been forced to give up their vehicles at gunpoint have local police and federal agents increasing patrols and seeking harsher penalties. And the spike has residents taking extra precautions whenever they go out or stop for gas. I, too, have gone through a period — before the heavy snowstorms — of feeling a bit of paranoia while driving. I, too, am a Black mother who has felt scared and looked over my shoulder more while parking my car.
But there’s a deeper conversation to be had. Rage and fear aren’t the only emotions sparked by the carjackings.
Barden wrestles with complex feelings. She’s conflicted on how to deal with criminal behavior.
“Who are the carjackers? Black children largely. That’s what the data is suggesting, and yet I’m a mother of four and I have two sons. I understand what police presence, though I want that to happen, may mean in terms of deadly force and fatality,” said Barden, a professor of urban community studies at Northeastern Illinois University whose area of research is adolescent identity. She teaches a class called “Motherhood in an Urban Context” that uses Black feminist readings to rethink the concept of motherhood in terms of power, survival and identity.
“So what’s the Black mom to do? Amplify our voices, bring light to this idea that Black moms are really scared,” Barden continued.
The personal and political are colliding for Barden as she wonders how to be socially justice-minded while also feeling like a police car should sit near the day care during pickups and drop offs to thwart a potential carjacking.
But she does reenvision what punishment or accountability should be for youth convicted of carjacking such as, say, a rites of passage program.
“If we really do care about these youth then some type of accountability should be there to prevent them from acting out — not just in this moment but when they get older,” Barden said.
Ebony Muhammad is in Barden’s motherhood class. As her 6-year-old plays in the background, Muhammad describes the life-altering encounter she endured on a sunny winter morning in 2018.
Muhammad went to get gas in Hyde Park. She went inside to pay and as she returned she saw her car moving. Muhammad thought she’d left the vehicle in drive. But there was a man inside her car. Muhammad said, as she approached, “he pulls a gun out and says ‘back up’ ”
She froze, and he drove off.
“That carjacking did something to my spirit and my life, and I’ll never be the same,” Muhammad said.
As scary as that moment was — she continues to work through it with therapy — Muhammad said she doesn’t know what the solutions should be.
“The mommy in me wants to say kids make mistakes. I see people say they need to lock the parents up. You can raise your kids amazingly, and they can still make poor choices. That has nothing to do with parenting,” Muhammad said.
That sentiment plays out all over social media without thought that maybe some youth don’t have parents. Also flush on social media are tips for women on how to stay safe from carjacking. For mothers like Barden and Muhammad, criminal justice is not a zero-sum game. They understand that the community includes both victims and offenders. Responding to crime requires a delicate balance that doesn’t compound the harm.
But the lock-them-up mentality presents itself at virtual carjacking community meetings. Chicago Ald. Michael Scott represents the 24th Ward, which had the second-most carjackings in the city last month. There were 15.
“In this day and age about defunding police officers, that is not the cry in my community. In fact, they want more police officers,” Scott said. “If they could have police officers on every block to deter crime, they probably would.”
But he said people need to remember the bad public policy that stemmed from the War on Drugs and led to mass incarceration “because there was overwhelming fear about drugs in the 1980s and early ‘90s, and we’re reaping now the repercussions of those [policies]. So we can’t overreact, but we have to thoughtfully think about restorative practices.”
Such as the city’s first restorative justice community court in North Lawndale. It’s an effort where crime victims and nonviolent perpetrators work out agreements that focus on restitution and community service.
But those messages of calm and caution are hard to get across when people are fearful. The city is still reeling from the killing of a retired Chicago firefighter during a botched carjacking in December. Police have arrested and charged four individuals — ranging in age from 15 to 20. And some officials have called for stronger sentences to help send a message that committing a carjacking comes with a hefty penalty.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, of the Austin neighborhood, said the violence shouldn’t be normalized. “What we’re experiencing here all over Chicago and Cook County is the manifestations of abnormalities,” he said.
Johnson, too, cautions against using a simple law-and-order paradigm. Arreresting our way out of carjacking won’t work, he said.
“If locking people up made us safe, or safer, we wouldn’t be experiencing what we’re experiencing right now,” Johnson said.