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Words, words, words …

We’re having quite a debate over language in Chicago.

Mayor Brandon Johnson warns us, “We have to be very careful when we use language to describe certain behavior.”

You know me, I’m all for clarity, crispness, and maybe a bit of pizzazz when we choose the words we use. And I think the mayor, along with some of his allies, are muddying the waters with the language they use.

Johnson was reacting to a reporter’s question about a mob of young people rampaging through city streets, breaking store windows and damaging vehicles.

“To refer to children as, like, baby Al Capones is not appropriate,” he scolded.

Okay, come on. Those individuals in the street are not children. Teenagers, some, and young adults. Old enough to know better, as our mothers used to say. Calling them children confers a mantle of innocence they don’t deserve.

Beyond that, the mayor’s Al Capone reference misses the point, intentionally. The conversation had nothing to do with Chicago’s most famous mobster.

These big destructive get-togethers meet the text-book definition of a mob. “A large crowd of people, especially one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence.”

It could hardly be more accurate.

Call them what you will, for now those huge crowds seem to have dissipated. And journalists are instead hoping to find out what the city will do about rampant robberies. Crews of please-don’t-call-them-children are roaming the city in stolen cars, holding up pedestrians and often beating them for good measure.

And what is the city’s response? The mayor’s office says they’re “committed to building a better, stronger, safer city.”

They’d best get on with it, don’t you think?

In the meantime, the Alliance of Local Social Organizations says young people are turning to crime and violence out of a feeling of desperation. They’re in survival mode, see. “Because they feel they have nowhere else to go. They feel they have no future.”

Oh, please.

And an alderman whose ward has seen plenty of these sidewalk hold-ups wonders, “When someone is robbing someone, what are they seeking to achieve?”

I think we know the answer to that. They’re seeking to achieve cash, credit cards, a mobile phone, maybe some car keys. They often get what they want.

Alderman Jessie Fuentes pleaded for understanding at a community meeting, suggested the juvenile justice system hasn’t done a good job of steering kids away from criminal behavior, and insisted the real issue is years of disinvestment in the neighborhoods where these poor, misunderstood robbers grow up.


Bottom line?

I agree with the mayor. We do have to be careful when we use language to describe certain behavior.

I’d suggest government officials and do-gooders frequently use language very intentionally to minimize problems, divert our attention, and dismiss criticisms. They do that because it so often works.

Increasingly, though, Chicagoans are fed up with feeling vulnerable. We want to leave a restaurant and make it safely to our car, take the CTA to work, or walk the dog and arrive home still carrying all our belongings.

We want our public officials to be on our side for a change. The language we’d like to hear? The city will protect your person and your property and take vigorous action against those who threaten them, no matter who they are, or where they grew up, or what tale of woe they might tell.

Otherwise, there are a lot of Chicagoans who’ll be using one word. “Moving.”