This doesn’t happen here


Six people were killed and more than two dozen others wounded when a gunman used a high-powered rifle to fire from a rooftop on people attending the Highland Park Fourth of July parade Monday.

Authorities continued to hunt Monday afternoon for the shooter, and “the offender still has not been apprehended so far,” Christopher Covelli of the Lake County sheriff’s office and the Lake County major crimes task force said at a news conference hours after the shooting.

The gunman used “a high-powered rifle” that’s been recovered, Covelli said, and he fired from a rooftop. “He was very discreet and very difficult to see.”

“It was a quiet, peaceful, lovely morning, people were enjoying the parade,” [Adrienne] Drell [a former Sun-Times reporter] said. “Within seconds, to have that peacefulness suddenly ripped apart, it’s scary. You can’t go anywhere, you can’t find peace. I think we are falling apart.”

Eric Trotter, 37, who lives blocks from the shooting, echoed that sentiment.

“I felt shocked,” Trotter said. “How could this happen in a peaceful community like Highland Park.”

As police cars sped by on Central Avenue, sirens blaring, Alexander Sandoval, 39, sat on a bench and cried.

“I saw a little boy who was shot being carried away,” Sandoval said. “It was just terror.”

He found his partner and stepdaughter, safe, inside a McDonald’s nearby.

“This doesn’t happen here,” he said. “It shouldn’t happen anywhere.”

Don Johnson, 76. who lives about two blocks from the shooting scene, thought at first the gunfire was a car backfiring. He said he ran with several other people to a nearby BP gas station and described the scene as “surreal.”

“It’s just a terrible thing,” he said. “I never wouldn’t thought this would’ve happened in downtown Highland Park.”

Johnson said his daughter lives in Chicago with her son and that he’s been urging them to move to Highland Park, telling her recently, “It’s safe.”

Now, he said, it’s clear that “it can happen anywhere.”

Highland Park is a well-to-do suburb of Chicago. Highland Park is 90% white. Chicago is more than 50% nonwhite. The median household income in Highland Park is nearly $150,000, compared to Chicago’s $62,000. 82% of housing units in Highland Park are owner-occupied. Only 45% of those in Chicago are.

I remember hearing the name “Highland Park” for the first time when I was in high school. I competed in high school debate, and once or twice attended a national tournament. Invariably at least one team from Highland Park would make it to the elimination round, if not win outright. According to U.S. News and World Report, Highland Park High School is ranked #688 for high schools in the U.S. (there are more than 25000 high schools, putting it in the top 3%). I noticed, even in my hometown, that the best schools at debate were richer and whiter, the ones who had parents who could afford to send their kids to debate camp for the summer, and I assumed Highland Park was no different.

When residents of Highland Park say things like, “I never wouldn’t thought this would’ve happened in downtown Highland Park”, or “This doesn’t happen here”, or “How could this happen in a peaceful community like Highland Park”, what they mean is that gun violence is a Chicago problem, not a Highland Park problem. Violence is a problem of big cities, of indulgent mayors, of urban decay, of renters, of high-rise apartments, of the teeming masses, of black people, of Hispanic people, of gangs, of crumbling schools, of poverty. So, if you are able to escape the big city, you should be able to escape its associated problems. (”He’s been urging them to move to Highland Park, telling her recently, “It’s safe.””)

It is undoubtedly true that violence, poverty, and other social outcomes are geographically concentrated and ghettoized. The map of gun violence in New York City, shown at the top of this post, is representative. The swath of land in Manhattan below 110th Street is almost entirely devoid of markers; the part of Manhattan above that dividing line, and the borough of the Bronx, which lies wholly above it, is the opposite. The former area is largely white and rich, and the latter area is neither. The idea that geography matters permeates ordinary discourse. We talk about nice and not-so-nice neighborhoods, neighborhoods with good and poor schools, and areas of town where we are afraid or unafraid to walk at night. These conversations are often racialized, even if race is never explicitly mentioned. If someone says that being in Crown Heights or Flatbush or East New York makes them nervous, they don’t need to mention that these are some of the blackest and poorest areas in Brooklyn. There is even usually a shy regret involved — progressives know better than to criticize those groups of people directly, and so there is a well-established way of speaking that evokes common tropes without uttering them explicitly. (Whether this is healthy or useful, I somewhat doubt.)

One way that America “works”, or at least ameliorates the fact that it so often does not “work”, is by offering geographic escape as a solution for its ills. You needn’t live in Chicago; you can live in Highland Park instead. In one city, you would suffer from pollution, crime, poor housing stock, lack of green space, subpar schools, and so on. In the other, you wouldn’t. Of course, something about this bargain feels gross: it is as if you are condemning anyone without the resources with which to escape to a cruel and unhappy existence. But the reason the bargain exists is precisely that: America provides a better option, for a price, and, in return, you don’t complain, or at least not too much, that not everyone has the same opportunity.

Is this agreement breaking down? There are some signs, although I’m not sure. What is clear is that the Republican commitment to federalism, if it ever existed, has dissolved entirely, and Republican policies are becoming increasingly nationalized. According to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bruen, states and localities have limited ability to regulate gun ownership or use. (This was a problem before — most guns used to commit crimes in Chicago were bought out-of-state, in places with less restrictive gun laws — but the problem has become much worse as a result of Heller and Bruen). Anti-abortion policies are also extending beyond state borders. In the aftermath of Dobbs, some Republicans have talked about passing a national abortion ban if they regain Congress and the presidency; others, at the state level, are trying to forbid their residents from traveling out of state to receive an abortion. If, as Clarence Thomas hopes, more of the Court’s right-to-privacy decisions are reversed, like Obergefell, Lawrence, and Griswold, the fights we’re witnessing now with abortion may be repeated with birth control and gay marriage. In the future, it is plausible that, even for a well-to-do red state resident, there may be nowhere to escape to get an abortion or Plan B. And the scourge of gun violence respects no geographic boundaries, as much as the residents of Highland Park may want to deny it.

Whether this will be a salutary development for our politics remains to be seen. The possibility of escape allows America’s citizens to inhabit two different realities: Highland Park vs Chicago, or Manhattan vs the Bronx. If these realities are pushed closer together, if people in Highland Park are made to feel just as afraid and unhappy and angry at America as they would be if they lived in Chicago, then perhaps there is an opportunity for a political movement that spans socioeconomic and racial divides and confronts right-wing power in a way that the Democratic Party seems incapable of. That is the positive gloss, the optimistic outlook.

The darker outlook involves two observations. The first is that, as I have written before, Republican areas of the country have grown accustomed to shockingly high levels of death, and their politics have changed almost not at all. In that essay, I was talking about Covid, but the same is true for gun violence, drug abuse, car accidents, and other “accidental” deaths. Highland Park is a very Democratic suburb in a very Democratic state; even if its denizens look down on Chicago, they are not, by and large, the ones who need to be persuaded to vote differently. In one bleak vision, the rural Americans who have fully embraced the “death drive” impose their nihilism on the rest of us, and the government is too undemocratic and malapportioned to respond to popular will. The other observation is that solidarity is not the only, or even the most probable, response to seeing what we thought was impossible “happen here”. It seems superficially that even the problem of gun violence can be solved with money, that the rich can flee guns in Highland Park the same way they fled them in Chicago. They can buy body armor, private security, fencing, and guns, and try to create a new bubble within the old one. (The Supreme Court escaped the consequences of its own decision in the same way.) This vision of society is perhaps even bleaker: that the point of accumulating money is to buy your way out of the American nightmare of not knowing, on the Fourth of July, whether the sound you heard was a firework or a gun.


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