Hyde Park was one of Chicago’s most wonderful and special neighborhoods. It was a potpourri of humanity who walked its streets in all colors, sizes and variations. The neighborhood was racially so-well integrated that few of us ever thought about that issue.
In 1944, Gunnar Myrdal had published his book “An American Dilemma” – citing the neighborhood as the best-integrated community in America. The book was an exhaustive study of black-white race relations. It was so well-regarded that Chief Justice Earl Warren cited it in writing the majority opinion in Brown v. The Board of Education, striking down segregation in public schools.
But Hyde Park had a problem. It was a socially-liberal and generally middle class neighborhood bordered by Lake Michigan on the east and on the other three sides, surrounded by economically impoverished black communities. As a result, Hyde Park was a logical and consistent target for the nearby unemployed to take what they couldn’t earn – through thefts, burglaries and stick-ups.
In order to counter-act what was becoming an alarming problem, the merchants in the neighborhood came together and developed a citizens-action plan. It was called, “Operation Whistlestop”. The concept was simple.
They would arm the citizenry with whistles. Should one of us see a crime in progress, we would begin blowing our whistle – to be joined by others who would blow their whistles as well. The theory was that all this whistle-blowing might deter the criminal (realizing that the police would soon be there to apprehend them) – and it would provide the law enforcement authorities a frame of reference so they would know where to drive their squad cars.
The plan was unveiled one night in a large community meeting – attracting over 200 of us. One of those was a lady by the name of Annie Warshawski. I had gotten to know her as she was a parishioner at the church where I held the post of organist. I sat next to her that night at this meeting.
Annie was a very tiny lady, just over five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds. She was of Polish extraction – but her paternal grandfather was a Jew. While under Jewish law she would not have been considered Jewish – apparently the Third Reich had a more liberal definition. She, her father and mother, two brothers and a sister had been interred in one of Adolph Hitler’s camps – a place called Dachau. (I guess that “guilt by association” was the basis for this).
Fortunately for Annie and her family, their interment didn’t occur until early 1945 – so they were only subject to this abasement for a few months before the camp was liberated in late April of that year. Nevertheless, that was sufficient time for one of her brothers to succumb to the filthy and over-crowded conditions in the camp and die.
As the merchants concluded their presentation, they asked the audience if they had any questions.
Annie rose to her feet. Because of her diminutive size, she realized that the only way people would be able to see or hear her was if she stood on her chair. I helped her up.
Through her still-thick Polish accent she said, “Yes. Yes. I think this is a very good idea. But I think that the women should also carry a pistol in their purse. Then when the bad robber comes to steal their money, they pull the pistol out and shoot him dead. Then they blow the whistle and the police can take away the body.”
A few people applauded Annie’s statement – perhaps four or five. The rest of the audience was stunned.
I do not believe that violence is ever an appropriate answer – but I understood her statement.
My own experience with the crime wave was that over a 16 month period I had to replace my car radio (and a side window) 12 times. But as annoying and costly as that was, it paled in comparison with what Annie and her family endured in their short time in Dachau.
If we do not begin educating and empowering people; if we do not provide a climate where companies are willing to create good jobs and hire; we will voluntarily expose ourselves to those who see no alternative but to employ violence as a way to get what they want.
And we all will be the victims.