In the first six months of this year, 329 people were killed in Chicago, most of them by firearms, only three at the hands of police. This death toll was a 34% increase over the first half of 2019. In one 24-hour span -- May 31, 2020 -- 18 Chicagoans lost their lives. According to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, it was the city’s single most violent day since it began collecting crime data in 1961.
“We’ve never seen anything like it at all,” Max Kapustin, senior research director at the lab, told the Chicago Sun-Times. But gunfire in the city is unabating: 16 Chicagoans were shot Thursday, July 24, three of them fatally, in a cycle of violence and suffering that has continued all summer. As I write these words, there have been 440 homicides in Chicago so far in 2020. By the time this column is finished, edited, and published, that grim total will almost certainly be higher. More Windy City residents will be wounded as well: Non-fatal shootings in this first six months of the year increased by about 42% -- from 978 in 2019 to 1,384 in 2020.
Many of the injuries suffered in those shootings are grievous, and the victims exceedingly young: Among those wounded recently was an 8-year-old boy shot in the back. A 10-month girl was shot at 11:30 a.m. on July 27 while strapped in her car seat in a vehicle on the freeway. She was the fourth Chicago child under 10 fatally shot in a five-week span. “Here we are again, praying that this baby makes it through the night,” said Christopher Scott, who is active in of one Chicago’s anti-violence groups. “I’m in shock,” added the baby’s mother.
She’s hardly alone. The city’s cops feel under siege. Three were shot last week by a carjacking suspect being transported in a police vehicle to a police station. Privately, the police are also reeling. Ten Chicago officers have taken their own lives in the last two years. The most recent was Dion Boyd, who turned his gun on himself last week after 30 years on the force. Boyd had recently been promoted to deputy chief. Chicago’s top police official, David Brown, has been on the job for only three months. He has said he knew the Chicago job would be hard, but not this hard. He is, quite obviously, desperate for answers to the city’s murder wave.
He’s not the only one. The Chicago Sun-Times has begun entering every killing on a publicly available data base. Tow truck operator Early Walker has started a new organization called I’m Telling, Don’t Shoot. Known in the community as the kind of guy who delivers food for free to shut-ins during the pandemic and raising money for violence victims’ families, Walker has decided that Chicago’s culture must change. “We’re no longer subscribing to the NO SNITCHING rule in our communities,” his group proclaims. “If you SHOOT A GUN, WE ARE TELLING!! We are fed up with losing our children and innocent bystanders to senseless violence.” The organization’s solution? Offering large cash rewards for the identity of killers.
Earlier this week, John Kass, the city’s most prominent newspaper columnist, weighed in on the crisis. Writing in his familiar space, Page 2 of the Chicago Tribune, Kass focused on the political culture in Chicago and other municipalities controlled by the Democratic Party, including St. Louis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. The mayors in those cities take the heat for rampant crime, Kass wrote, but perhaps a better place to look is the local district attorney offices. In those cities and many others, he wrote, “left-wing billionaire George Soros has spent millions of dollars to help elect liberal social justice warriors as prosecutors.”
“He remakes the justice system in urban America, flying under the radar,” Kass added. “The Soros-funded prosecutors, not the mayors, are the ones who help release the violent on little or no bond.”
This is an interesting point of view, one you’d think more journalists would find worth pursuing. Megan Crepeau could do it, for instance. It’s her beat and she works on the same newspaper, covering criminal courts for the Tribune. Or Gregory Pratt could dig deeper. He’s the paper’s city hall reporter. The assignment would be straightforward, albeit painstaking: Find out how many progressive prosecutors around the country have been put in place because of financing from the Soros organization -- and try to determine whether the liberalized policies they’ve implemented have contributed to violent crime.
Personally, I’m skeptical that this narrative is the most significant factor at play in rising murder rates. In addition, it seems that, at the least, this cadre of new left-leaning prosecutors aren’t necessarily out of sync with the prevailing mood in their communities. Yes, Soros’ organization may have contributed $2 million to the campaign coffers of Kimberly Foxx, the Cook County state’s attorney who beclowned herself by taking a dive in the Jussie Smollett hoax. But the record murder rate in Chicago that 2020 threatens to eclipse occurred in 2016, and she didn’t take office until the last month of that year. And while it is true that Foxx immediately announced that her office would no longer seek pretrial detention for minor crimes, that step simply comported with a state law passed in Springfield the same year. Moreover, bail reform was part of Foxx’s campaign platform, and the voters evidently supported it.
Likewise, New York City’s “stop and frisk” policies -- widely credited with lowering many shooting and killings -- were not abandoned by a rogue prosecutor installed slyly into office by liberal political donors. The program was aborted by Bill de Blasio, shortly after he was elected as mayor. De Blasio also campaigned on ending stop-and-frisk, which had become politically radioactive. The reason for its unpopularity was not that the practice was ineffective, as some critics, including Hillary Clinton, have asserted. It helped lower crime. But it also had a toxic side effect: alienating the Latino and African American communities from the police, who had tended to abuse the authority this policy gave them.
On the other hand, it’s also undeniably true that as bail reform and lenient parole policies have taken effect, cops on the street are often dismayed to find out how many violent suspects they apprehend have been released from jail, many while awaiting trial. It happened this summer in Washington, D.C., in a heart-breaking case. When 11-year-old Davon McNeal was caught in the crossfire between two gangs on July 4 and killed, D.C. detectives quickly realized that the suspects had prior firearms felonies on their record and two of them were out on bail. In Chicago, a 25-year-old suspect who wounded three officers is a convicted felon who’d already been to prison four times -- and was recently paroled on a gun charge. So bail is a complicated issue -- especially if you believe, as I do, that the United States incarcerates too many people.
Instead of going after this story, however, Megan Crepeau and Greg Pratt, along with seven other Trib employees -- the nine members of the Chicago Tribune Guild executive council -- went after John Kass, claiming that what he wrote was “anti-Semitic.” George Soros, you see, is Jewish. Not that Kass mentioned that fact, or that it has anything remotely to do with this topic. Yet in a letter to their Tribune colleagues, without so much as talking to Kass first, the guild quoted a couple of left-leaning Kass critics who seized on his “under the radar” phrase and portrayed it as some sort of anti-Jewish dog whistle.
“The essential point?” the guild letter reads. “The odious, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that billionaire George Soros is a puppet master controlling America’s big cities does not deserve a mainstream voice, especially at a time when hate crimes are rising.”
“We ask,” this letter continued, “that the paper, and Kass separately, apologize for his indefensible invocation of the Soros tropes.”
What’s really “odious” here is to see reporters behaving like political operatives. These Chicago newsroom activists used the same tactics that were employed in June against James Bennet at the New York Times. Progressives at the paper forced his ouster as editorial page editor by playing the race card and used the guild to do it.
There are differences. Bennet was management. Kass is not. Also, the Times case concerned an op-ed written by an outside voice, Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who advocated calling in the U.S. Army to maintain order on our city streets. That’s a radical idea and hasn’t worked out in the past. Kass, by contrast, is a lifelong Chicagoan with a popular following among Trib readers. He was expressing his brand of working-class populism, which is hardly an outlier. The thrust of his argument was that Democrats’ lenient criminal justice policies, facilitated by wealthy left-wing donors, have made U.S. cities less safe. It’s not only a valid issue to raise, it’s an obvious one. Contrary to the guild’s assertion that this view “doesn’t deserve a mainstream voice,” any honest reporter would be a moron not to be wondering about it.
As for the notion that any criticism of George Soros’ political goals or tactics constitutes anti-Jewish “tropes,” that’s such thin ice it’s hard to believe any professional journalist would stand on it.
A Man With a Mission
Born 90 summers ago in Budapest (his birthday is next week), George Soros and his family escaped persecution from both the Nazis and the Soviets. Understandably, he cherishes freedom and tolerance. Presumably, Soros also venerates free-market capitalism, a system he mastered in England and in the United States with a combination of insight and nerve. In a long career as a financier, Soros speculated in currency and gold and launched a remarkably successful hedge fund, earned billions of dollars and accruing unofficial nicknames ranging from “the man who broke the Bank of England” to “world’s greatest money manager.”
Moving from Europe to New York in 1956, Soros became an American citizen five years later. For decades, he’s been extraordinarily generous with his fortune: He estimates his charitable giving to be in excess of $32 billion, much of it funneled through the international nonprofit he founded called the Open Society Institute, later renamed the Open Society Foundations.
The sheer scope of its international work is breathtaking: combating apartheid with educational scholarships for black South Africans in the l970s; supporting democracy in China and promoting dissent behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s; funding academic exchanges between the West and his native Hungary, and establishing a private university with campuses in Budapest and Vienna after the fall of the Berlin Wall; helping besieged residents of Sarajevo survive ethnic cleansing in the 1990s; spending $100 million on early childhood education in the Balkans; supporting democratic reformers in Burma; supporting the beleaguered Gypsy community in Romania; fighting tuberculosis in the poorer countries in the Russian Federation; underwriting democratic reformers in a dozen African countries; declaring war on the “war on drugs” in several nations, including the United States; and much, much more.
The agonizing issue of illegal drugs helped Soros focus more intently on U.S. domestic policy, and in 1996 his organization turned to an array of American social and political issues. “Our programs in the United States were an outgrowth of our programs in the rest of the world: social justice, vulnerable populations, and the criminal justice system,” Open Society explains. A 1998 effort selected Baltimore “as a laboratory to better understand and solve the most intractable problems facing urban America … drug addiction, an overreliance on incarceration and the obstacles that keep youth from succeeding inside and outside of the classroom.”
In furtherance of its social vision, Soros’ foundation adopted many other causes over the years, injecting its founder squarely into partisan U.S. politics. These issues ranged from reforming marijuana laws, legalizing gay marriage, and lowering America’s incarceration rate to gun control and combating climate change. Without exception, his resources were deployed on the liberal side. And because this foray into domestic policy coincided with a general polarizing trend in American politics -- the GOP became more conservative while Democratic Party became solidly liberal -- this activity was inevitably viewed as partisan, particularly by Republicans. Soros certainly came to view it that way himself. In 2003, he told The Washington Post that denying George W. Bush a second term in the White House was “the central focus of my life.” For him, the 2004 campaign was “a matter of life and death.”
Bush won reelection, but Soros did not expire. Vibrant and healthy into his 70s and 80s, he doubled down. Long before his foundation’s support for groups such as Black Lives Matter prompted intense criticism, his political donations brought scrutiny of the man and his motives. Even friends and allies wondered: What changed him? Prior to the 2003-04 campaign cycle, Soros had ardently supported financial transparency -- and strict campaign spending limits -- as did most leading Democrats. In the 1990s, Soros donated $18 million -- when that was considered a lot of money -- to good-government groups working to curb the influence of special interests. He was a force behind the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform law.
Yet with no real public explanation, Soros began funneling huge sums of political “soft money” to super PACS and various Democratic Party entities. When Republicans called him a hypocrite, it only made him more partisan. In the autumn of 2004, he literally told the New Yorker magazine that the ends justified the means. This explanation, troubling on its face, also begged an important question: What had radicalized him? The short answer seems to be the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Almost all Americans rallied behind the flag and the president in those daunting days, in a manner that almost certainly would not happen now. Soros did, too, at least initially, but he soon came unglued over the Bush administration’s response. In the rare interviews he granted at the time, Soros mentioned two aspects of that response: the decision to invade Iraq and the rhetoric used to bolster the spirits of the American people. The first is entirely understandable: a majority of Americans also developed misgivings about the U.S. military invasion of Iraq.
Soros’ second response seems inexplicable, notwithstanding how evocatively he explained it. In 2003, he told The Washington Post: “When I hear Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ it reminds me of the Germans.” The comment conjures up nightmarish memories of his childhood, he added, of Nazi slogans on the walls: Der Feind Hort mit (“The enemy is listening”). “My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me,” he said.
The following year, Soros ratcheted up the Hitler talk. In that New Yorker piece, he told Jane Mayer, a sympathetic interlocutor, that the statements of Attorney General John Ashcroft “reminded me of Germany, under the Nazis. It was the kind of talk that Goebbels used to use to line the Germans up. I remember, I was 13 or 14. It was the same kind of propaganda about how ‘We are endangered’ and ‘We have to be united.’” He also told Mayer that for 18 months after 9/11, Bush had managed to “suspend the critical process” and “suppress all dissent.”
This was palpable nonsense. George W. Bush never mentioned Islam without describing it as a “religion of peace.” And opposition against the Iraq War was given a prominent platform in every major news outlet in the country, in White House news conferences, and on the floor of the House and Senate -- before and after the March 2003 invasion. America resembled the early days of the Third Reich no more than it resembled Mars. Even Soros’ allies didn’t understand his obsessiveness. But why argue with the guy? He was on their side and wanted to give them something they wanted: untold sums of money for the purpose of influencing U.S. elections.
My Dark Money Is Cleaner Than Your Dark Money
The problem -- if one considers hypocrisy a problem -- is that as Democrats began tapping the largesse of partisan billionaires to influence elections, party leaders remained on record in vehement opposition to no-limits campaign financing. They never veered from this catechism even while quietly assembling their own roster of billionaires to counter GOP-supporting moneymen such as the conservative Richard Mellon Scaife and libertarians Charles and David Koch.
All the while, leading Democrats continued to demonize wealthy Republican donors. From 2004 to 2014, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid denounced the Koch brothers 134 times on the Senate floor -- and many other times off the floor. In a convincing imitation of Joseph McCarthy, Reid called the Kochs “shadowy” and “dishonest” and “radical” men trying to “buy our democracy” and “rig” elections. He also said they were “un-American.” If Harry Reid’s demagoguery bothered George Soros, there’s no record of it. Moreover, nearly every leading Democrat joined in the Koch-bashing and frequent attacks on so-called “dark money.”
Nice work, if you can get it. Attack Republicans for using wealthy conservatives to hijack American elective democracy while doing the exact same thing with wealthy liberal donors. Viewed that way, the Democrats are arguably worse because they know better. What’s remarkable is how faithfully the Democrats followed the Republican script. It was in 2004 that the Koch brothers formed a super PAC called Americans for Prosperity, the entity used to funnel hundreds of millions into Republican causes and campaigns and to run attack ads against leading Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.
Yet it was the very same election cycle that George Soros and four fellow Democratic billionaires banded together with help from a half-dozen Democratic Party officials to launch their own super PAC, America Coming Together. In the end, ACT would spend some $137 million trying to get John Kerry elected (and pay a $775,000 fine to the Federal Election Commission for violating election laws.)
The first organization meeting was in Aspen, Colo., a session revealed by Jane Mayer, a liberal journalist who would later write extensive exposés of the Koch brothers’ political spending. Mayer described the Aug. 6, 2004, summit as “clandestine.” The participants, she added, were “sworn to secrecy” and an assistant to one of them told her, “No one was supposed to know about this. We don’t want people thinking it’s a cabal.”
The Democrats were trying to operate “under the radar,” in other words – the words used by John Kass to such consternation. Not that anyone accused Jane Mayer of it, but describing the Democrats’ machinations in this fashion was no more anti-Semitic than it would be to call anti-Koch journalism anti-German (although some Koch brothers’ critics have explored their family ties to the Fatherland.) Yet Soros himself has raised that specter repeatedly. As long ago as 2000, he was complaining about anonymous Internet trolls playing the “Jewish cabal” card.
Soros’ son Alexander, deputy chairman of the Open Society Foundations, penned a recent screed for NBC lashing out at the “vile allegations” made by “white supremacists” against Soros Sr. The younger Soros mentioned John Kass by name, asserting that Kass had claimed “my father was somehow responsible for the unrest in Chicago and other American cities because of his support for a liberal approach to criminal justice.”
This is misdirection. Kass’ column didn’t focus primarily on protests. It was mostly about street crime: “A recent Chicago Tribune investigation,” he noted, “found that of 162 offenders arrested and charged with felonies before the Floyd protests -- and who were bailed out by liberal social justice warrior groups -- more than one in five were charged with new offenses.” That investigative piece ran in late April, a month before George Floyd’s death.
If there’s a familiar “trope” here, it’s using anti-Semitism as a ruse to deflect questions about accountability. And since when did asking who funds anti-bail groups or the campaigns of political candidates become a topic that gives working journalists the vapors? It sure isn’t off-limits when the Koch brothers donate untold millions of dollars to oppose pro-environmental Democrats.
Information about the Soros donations to liberal candidates in prosecutors’ elections has been difficult to come by, which is curious from a group calling itself “Open Society.” In this area, they are not so open. The reason political “dark money” is so controversial is that it’s not always clear where it’s coming from. But it’s a matter of record that in 2018, Democratic Party dark money surpassed Republican Party dark money for the first time. A lot of that cash came from the Soros organization, and in races where big money was a new concept. As Neal Simon, an independent 2018 candidate for Senate from Maryland, noted, “George Soros took things to a new level by ‘going granular,’ meaning he poured enormous sums into hyper-local political races.” According to the Washington Post, the Soros’ affiliated Justice & Public Safety super PAC poured $1 million into two Northern Virginia commonwealth’s attorney races – where expenditures are usually measured in the thousands of dollars. Both of the Soros-backed progressives won, ousting longtime prosecutors.
What was that money used for? To finance negative television attack ads, for one thing, against incumbents with no real means to respond. The local elections in Fairfax and Arlington were not unique. “George Soros’ quiet overhaul of the U.S. justice system” – that’s Politico’s wording, not mine (or Kass’) -- began in 2016. When he broke that story, Politico reporter Scott Bland couldn’t get the Soros organization to explain its rationale or its reach. Digging into local records, however, Bland found Soros-backed district attorney candidates in Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas. The American Association of Assistant District Attorneys have identified Soros’ footprint in elections in California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. These $1 million Soros campaigns have also targeted prosecutors’ races in Massachusetts and Oregon.
And so it goes, piecemeal. How many of these prosecutors are out there? Dozens? A hundred? What effect are their policies having? This is what John Kass was getting at in his July 22 column, the one his newspaper’s own guild deemed unsuitable for public discourse. I disagree. I worry that many Americans’ lives depend on the answers. Perhaps these progressives are doing more good than harm. To be honest, that would be my own bias. But honest dialogue could help shed light on that.
Ironically, that’s what the Chicago Tribune Guild executive committee now says it was trying to facilitate. “We didn't, and wouldn’t, set out to ‘silence’ him,” Megan Crepeau told me. “We wanted an apology and a conversation, that’s all.”
It’s an odd conversation that demands an apology as a precondition, and in any event there’s a better way of going about it than writing a nasty letter you know will leak. From more than four decades’ experience in the news business, I know that the way you approach a colleague who wrote something you deem problematic is to approach them personally and say, “Hey, some of the stuff in your column made me uncomfortable. Let me buy you a beer at the Billy Goat Tavern and I’ll tell you why.”
I realize this is harder to do during a pandemic-induced quarantine, but that’s why God made Zoom. In the end, there’s something else about this episode that is troubling besides the astonishing lack of collegiality in today’s newsrooms. The Chicago Tribune Guild’s original letter attacking John Kass said that one their motivations was that they believe his column was “detrimental to our hopes of winning new readers.”
Put me down skeptical that new readers would flock to a predictable, politically correct newspaper featuring reporters wearing their biases on their sleeves and repeating partisan talking points. Even if they did, would such a publication really be a newspaper?
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.