At the dangerous Henry Horner Homes neighborhood on the outskirts of Chicago, gangs often have greater authority than the police, and the law’s capacity to protect residents is limited. It’s no wonder, then, that Horner residents regard police with suspicion. What’s more, the flawed justice system often has the opposite effect than the one it tries to achieve: it breeds anger and resentment and, in this way, often lays the foundation for greater violence. The root of Horner’s problems is not necessarily the violence itself but, rather, the lack of trust that the law generates in the very citizens it is supposed to protect. In order to function effectively, the law must generate trust in the people it works with, proving that the police is accountable for its actions and that the courts are fair.
At Horner, residents do not trust that the law effectively condemns crimes and ensures people’s safety. Instead, the law can preserve and, at times, perpetuate injustice. In a neighborhood in which gangs have near-total power and sometimes directly target police officers, few residents actually trust the police to solve their problems, since giving them information about crimes might lead to retribution from gangs. In addition, police officers only operate in the neighborhood during the day, whereas gangs exert their control day and night. The police’s limited influence and authority contributes to the residents’ overall distrust of law enforcement.
In addition, the police has perpetrated injustice in the past. Horner residents remember the late 1960s, when, during a period of intense community activism, the police killed two African-American brothers (the Soto brothers) on separate days without—according to Horner residents—any apparent motive. Barely two months after people rose up to denounce these actions, the police killed two prominent local Black Panthers leaders in a raid. The men’s deaths deeply hurt local residents, who respected the Black Panthers because of their help with community issues. Yet these unjust acts were never punished. Instead, despite evidence of malpractice, all the police officers involved in the raid were ultimately acquitted at court. The weight of these past actions prevents citizens from feeling that the police’s priority is citizens’ safety and well-being.
The larger legal system is not particularly fairer or more effective than the police. Although courts should protect innocent citizens, they often fail to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent. Overworked attorneys and judges are unable to spend time with their clients individually and to effectively determine whether they are guilty or innocent. As a result, many youths, including both Terence and Lafeyette, are condemned for crimes they never committed. The law makes people feel angry and isolated, rather than protected, creating a difficult situation in which residents stop trusting in the very agents meant to enforce the law and protect their lives.
When the legal system is considered arbitrary and unfair, it often fails to solve pre-existing problems and even breeds greater violence. Instead of reducing violence, the criminal justice system can breed more dangerous behavior. Young people who are wrongly judged by other adults—for example, those who are inaccurately categorized as criminals or gang members—often rebel against this judgment in a paradoxical way, by confirming it through violence. Terence and Rickey, one of Lafayette’s friends, both adopt rebellious attitudes. “Rickey at times felt that if they expected him to be bad, he’d be bad. He’d be mean.” Terence, too, who is wrongly accused of a crime, considers that “They didn’t listen. They didn’t understand. So if they thought he was a bad guy, if they wanted him to be a bad guy, then he’d be a bad guy. […] It was a tangled and tragic form of reasoning, but then it was a tangled and tragic life that had got him into trouble. It was his own confused method of seeking justice.” As the criminal justice system generates alienation and resentment instead of justice and trust, people lose faith in the very system that is supposed to protect them. Many young people’s only solution, from their perspective, is to take justice in their own hands.
To have a sustainable effect on the community, the law should adopt a humane approach to the accused, recognizing young people’s specific needs and potential for growth, instead of treating them as impersonal cases. During Lafeyette’s trial, both the young boy’s lawyer, Anne Rhodes, and the state attorney, Andrea Muchin, express their horror at a system that fails to pay attention to the individual lives of those accused. “We’re looking at our future [in these kids] and we’re not doing our job,” Rhodes says. Muchin admits that her job feels senseless when she sees that “such little attention [is] paid to the defendants, all of them children, who most needed it.” Both lawyers highlight the lack of sustained, individual relationships with their clients. Such a flawed, impersonal justice system can potentially destroy people’s future—and, perhaps, that of an entire community.
Therefore, rebuilding trust and accountability with local residents is necessary to modify the dynamics of crime and violence in the neighborhood. There are No Children Here argues that, without adequate credibility and without spending enough time to get to know local residents on a personal level, neither police officers nor legal staff will succeed in putting an end to criminal behavior and, ultimately, in ensuring the safety of the citizens they are meant to protect.
Justice and the Law ThemeTracker
Justice and the Law Quotes in There Are No Children Here
Lafeyette, Pharoah, and the other children knew to keep their distance from Jimmie Lee. But they also knew that he and no one else—not the mayor, the police, or the housing authority—ruled Henry Horner. The boys never had reason to speak to Lee or to meet him, but his very presence and activities ruled their lives.
Lafeyette confided to LaJoe, who tried vainly to get him to verbalize his grief, that talking wasn’t going to help him, that everything that “goes wrong keeps going on and everything that’s right doesn’t stay right.”
“To treat this as a cause célèbre, to give this man some long, long term in prison, is not going to change the narcotics problem. I wish I knew the answer—maybe some form of legalization, something to take the profit out of it. I don’t know. But I know it doesn’t stop it by giving people long terms in prison.”
Pharoah became more alert and prudent. He had never stolen anything. Nor had he ever gotten into any trouble other than talking in class. He wanted it to stay that way. The best way was to hang out more by himself. Pharoah decided he no longer had any friends. Like his brother, he just had associates.
“You don’t have no friends in the projects,” he said. “They’ll turn you down for anything.”
They didn’t listen. They didn’t understand. So if they thought he was a bad guy, if they wanted him to be a bad guy, then he’d be a bad guy. If they wanted to put him away for something he didn’t do, then he’d give them something to put him away with. It was a tangled and tragic life that had got him into trouble. It was his own confused method of seeking justice.
In preparation for the singing of the national anthem, the emcee yelled, “Don’t you love this country?”
“Nooooooo,” the crowd roared, drowning out Pharoah’s meekly spoken “yes.” Only a few in the crowd, including Pharoah, placed their hands on their hearts during the anthem’s singing.
Pharoah realized that something was terribly wrong. He didn’t want to ask. No one seemed to care about his spelling bee triumph. No one wanted to hear what he had to say. Dutt was weeping. Lafeyette, while he had one ear to the conversation, stared vacantly out the window; he didn’t even congratulate Pharoah. LaJoe tucked Pharoah’s red ribbon into her pocketbook.
It was not that they wanted the horrible bloodshed. Nor was it that they wanted to rise up in arms against the police again. It was just that they ached for a time when the community had a collective conscience, when neighbors trusted one another and had enough confidence in their own powers of persuasion to demand a better and more peaceful life. Everyone now seemed timid and afraid.
Memories for Lafeyette became dangerous. He recalled nothing of Bird Leg’s funeral. He couldn’t remember the names of any of the performers at the talent show. He sometimes had trouble recounting what he had done just the day before in school. Shutting out the past was perhaps the only way he could go forward or at least manage the present. Besides, he knew, nothing could bring Craig back.
She had seen Terence change in the year she had known him. He had hardened. The weight lifting made him look older and more menacing. He seemed more defiant. “When I first saw him he was a little kid. He was soft-looking and soft-spoken,” she said. She didn’t think a long sting in jail would do him any good.
The judge looked bewildered. “Did we have a case by that name?” Someone in the courtroom stifled a giggle. Three minutes had passed and he didn’t even remember Lafeyette. LaJoe felt as if no one cared. It was as if they were invisible. No one saw them or heard them or cared enough to treat them like human beings.