The voice pulses through tinny speakers and echoes from the surrounding buildings: “Chicago is a hellhole.” We hear it over and over, ad nauseam: “Chicago is a hellhole.” Volume rising and falling, increasing and abating, the message remains the same: “Chicago is…”

“STOP!” I feel the crackle of visceral anger protected through verbal response. I don’t want to hear the city I love attacked in this way. I breathe deeply, in and out. “Why are you saying this?”

There is no immediate answer. Then suddenly, the torrent begins. “The city is filled with guns people are shooting each other nonstop they don’t even value human life those thugs were jumping on cars and destroying them tourists got attacked they should send in the cops to teach them a lesson guns don’t kill people if you outlaw guns only outlaws will have guns they are animals human garbage it’s the democrats no not them it’s the people there’s something wrong with the people…”

“I TOLD YOU TO STOP!” I feel my heart almost bursting through my chest as I pinch back my words. “They. Are. Not Animals. They are not human garbage. They are people. We are all people!”

“If they don’t want to be called animals they should stop acting like animals people don’t kill each other like that why don’t they care enough to stop one another from killing…”

I don’t bother to stop the voice anymore, just respond: “You wouldn’t say this if we were talking about a mostly white city. This is racist, what you’re saying. We are all people, with the needs of people. People don’t engage in violence unless they are going through trauma themselves. Poverty, lack of healthcare and jobs, police violence, all of these injustices visited on communities and then we just condemn them! And through it all, people are pushing back. Community members are constantly organizing against gun violence, poverty, and all the other challenges. Don’t you have any empathy?”

“…not racist I would say the same thing about white people or any people it’s not because of race it’s just something wrong with them they don’t care about one another they don’t care about anything so I don’t care about them…”

I launch myself at the nearest speaker, mounted to a metal post at eye level next to the curb. I pull at it with all my force, but it is anchored solidly to the post and I succeed only in scratching my hand. Enraged, I grab a metal trash bin sitting nearby, raise it above my head, and bring it down on the speaker. The force of the blow knows the bin from my hands as I topple into the street, pain radiating from my hand. As I lay there, I see blood oozing from a gash that the bin cut on my hand as it was ripped away. I look up at the speaker. My attack appears to have done nothing. It is still mounted to the pole, solidly as ever, and the voice drones away.

“…won’t take care of themselves they are sponging off the rest of us hard-working people they don’t deserve what we have because they refuse to work…”

And suddenly I realize – the voice doesn’t have empathy. It can’t have empathy. It is an abstraction, an abomination, an amalgamation. It can speak through a mechanical speaker, and it can speak through human bodies, but it is not of them. It is the voice of humans who speak with desperation, sadness, and fear that has festered into putrescence. It is the voice of humans who have given up a piece of their humanity to hatred.

I cannot stop the voice. I can empathize with and defend those whom it attacks. I can empathize with and try to reach those who speak its words. But while the voice still has a willing mouthpiece, it can’t be stopped. 

“…a hellhole a hellhole a hellhole a hellhole…”

I turn and walk away. The voice fades as my distance from it grows. “Sometimes you fight, sometimes you walk away,” I tell myself tentatively. I’m not sure if I’ve made the right decision. But I’ve made my decision for now. 

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