UChicago Is Not an Island

No amount of policing will change the economic conditions of the people of the South Side or undo the decades of division engineered by the University between its own community and those surrounding it.

By Dominic Robolino

Last quarter, Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago, was shot and killed in a robbery on 54th Place and Ellis Avenue one block from the University’s main campus. Many of the people I spoke to in the days following the shooting expressed reasonable concerns about campus security, and understandably so; after all, fearing for one’s safety in the immediate aftermath of an incident like this makes sense. A man was killed for $100 worth of electronics, and there’s nothing more devastating than a senseless, random tragedy which could’ve happened to anyone. 

The University acted swiftly in response to student concerns, expanding student access to free nighttime Lyfts for the next two weeks and hosting a safety webinar for members of the UChicago community. On November 12, the University of Chicago Medical Center joined in, highlighting its own efforts to improve safety, which include increased police presence, newly installed lighting around the hospital, weapons screenings in the Emergency Department, the distribution of wearable panic buttons throughout psych wards, and expanded emergency phone access across campus. While I value the fact that the University recognized the need to support its student community, none of these initiatives address the root problem. No amount of police, surveillance, or safety training will change the economic conditions of the people of the South Side or undo the decades of division engineered by the University between its own community and those surrounding it.

The murder of a student is tragic. That much is undeniable, and I’m not looking to diminish the magnitude of what happened. It is also, however, a symptom of a much larger problem: extreme inequality. Hyde Park residents earn nearly double the median income of the surrounding neighborhoods (save Kenwood) which will inevitably attract people experiencing economic desperation. But this is not just a problem of unequal wealth. There also exists a stark inequality in the valuation of human life. Violence affects those in our local communities, including Hyde Park, with greater frequency than it affects the UChicago community, but we are less often made aware of it. An elderly man was assaulted at Kimbark Plaza in an attempted carjacking this past summer and subsequently died, but there were no safety discussions held at that time. Another man was stabbed and killed in Hyde Park the same day Dennis was, but numerous articles about the violence that occurred on November 9 don’t even mention him. Was his life any less important? Of course not. But we tend to treat societal issues such as violent crime as more pressing when they affect communities we inhabit, such as our neighborhood or university. This can be innocuous, but the University’s ability to police and define clear borders between the University community and the rest of the South Side contributes to a growing disparity between the people with whom we can and cannot empathize. The disproportionate vicarious victimization we feel for UChicago affiliates is emblematic of our alienation from surrounding communities, and emblematic of an enduring, persistent effort to fortify our ivory tower and demonize the people we perceive as threats to our unearned health and wealth.

An increase in Hyde Park violence is worrisome, but the University community’s response is even more disturbing. The administration’s response is nothing short of militarized capitalism—it appears the University would prefer to use its money to seal itself off from the reality of the South Side rather than deal with the issues of structural oppression and inequality it is so heavily implicated in. And though an understandable emotional response, a campus rally organized under the slogan, “We are here to learn, not to die” is insensitive to the reality experienced by people across the South Side, including our non-UChicago-affiliated neighbors in Hyde Park, on a daily basis.

On Tuesday, January 18, 2022, Rhysheen Wilson was shot and critically injured by a UChicago police officer while experiencing a mental health crisis. This shooting inevitably draws comparisons to that of Charles Soji Thomas in 2018, primarily because the same officer was involved but also because both cases highlight the insufficiency of leaning solely upon law enforcement to ensure safety and security. Law enforcement is a downstream solution, and however you feel about the justifiability of this most recent shooting, you should not be content with the outcome. A bullet should not be our only solution to mental illness. Having to shoot someone experiencing a mental health crisis is traumatic for all involved: the victim, the officer, the witnesses, and everyone else in the local community. Mental health first responders are a start, but even then, harm may be unavoidable by the time a crisis begins. This latest incident should remind us that inequality and inadequate healthcare access experienced by the surrounding community will inevitably affect the residents of Hyde Park.

As an institution and a student body, we must radically change our approach to the way we engage with the South Side. If our goal is safety, it should be safety for all people of the South Side—not just members of the University community, and not even just residents of Hyde Park. University resources should be opened to and invested in South Side communities. The blatant inequality between Hyde Park and surrounding communities was achieved by taking slave money, generating harmful ideas, and displacing residents. UChicago, therefore, owes reparations to the people of the South Side.

If we should take anything away from this tragedy, it should be that, as South Side Chicagoans, our destiny and our experience is inextricable from the community we exist within. We should realize that what happens in surrounding communities matters to Hyde Park and what happens in Hyde Park matters to the University of Chicago. We can’t police away inequality or mental illness, and we can’t police away the violence that may accompany it. If our goal is to reduce gun violence in all South Side communities, the University should collaborate with and provide resources to grounded community organizations such as GoodKidsMadCity, NeighborScapes, and Southside Together Organizing for Power, which are already doing this work and are best equipped to make the most meaningful interventions.

A year and a half ago, many of us made commitments to educate ourselves about the police and the harm they do to communities of color. We will never cease our complicity in these systems of oppression until we give up our privileged dependence on its pillars, like police-based security. We can’t abandon our values at the first sight of danger or discomfort, and if we seek to defund the police, we can’t afford to let institutions stoke our fears in moments like these or dispel the consciousness we have developed around the consequences of state-sanctioned violence against people of color.

Dominic Robolino is a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine.