Crime in Chicago has reached epic proportions, retailers are in a mass exodus and citizens have had just about enough.

A would-be shopper pauses to look into a looted and vandalized Bloomingdale’s store on Wabash Avenue. (Stephen Hogan)

Nervous local and state politicians in Chicago Illinois, Democrats all, are on the horns of a fundamental dilemma.

That human beings tend to be self-deceiving is a well-known and documented flaw in human nature and facing reality, as it actually is, isn’t really our strong suit. We tend to deny uncomfortable truths until they become too painful to ignore.

That crime is up in Chicago is no secret; no one is in denial about that. According to the FBI, the murder rate nationwide is up 30% from last year. Rates of violent crime and property crime have also sharply increased.

No where is this more apparent than in Chicago- with the possible exception of Portland. Rather than a 30% increase in the murder rate, Portland has seen an 83% increase.

The only reason Chicagoans have it worse is because crime was already high in Chicago. After last year, the increase in crime in Chicago is palpable. People are fearful. Violent crime, always a nagging problem in Chicago, has grown by epic proportions over the last 18 months and the temptation to blame it all on COVID-19 is well-nigh overwhelming.

Some Chicago city leaders can’t resist it; that reach for an easy answer. All those angry calls fielded by Chicago elected officials- from constituents, business owners, from the victims of violent crimes, other elected officials, members of the media: Everyone wants answers about why crime has gotten so out-of-control in Chicago.

Blaming COVID-19 is the easiest out because it has the solution to the problem baked-in: At some point, we are bound to get a handle on COVID-19. The idea that Chicago’s crime problem will then go away, or at least return to a level city leaders found manageable, is a nice idea.

But it isn’t reality. And there are only two types of politicians in Chicago now, and neither of them are conservative in any sense of the word: There are politicians in Chicago who still blame COVID-19, fearing it isn’t true and there are politicians in Chicago who blame COVID-19 and know it’s not true.

If Chicago were an island, COVID-19 could possibly be to blame for the wave of crime sweeping it; but it’s not.

COVID-19 happened all over the world, all over the U.S.

Others countries experienced a sharp decrease in crime during these last 18 months- as well they should have. With more people staying home, less crime makes more sense. Plenty of places in the U.S. saw similar decreases.

Not Chicago, though. And not every city. Large metropolitan areas like Seattle, Portland, Washington, D.C., New York City, and San Francisco have seen skyrocketing rates of crime over the past year.

If these increases in crime corresponded in any way with COVID-19 rates it would be one thing; But they don’t. Places hardest hit by COVID-19 infections, places with the highest numbers of deaths and hospitalizations haven’t all seen rising rates of crime; and vice versa.

Chicago politicians want to believe COVID-19 caused the crime wave because they want to believe getting a handle on the virus- a problem many people are actively doing something about- will solve Chicago’s crime problem- which no one is doing anything about.

This is a self-delusion. COVID-19 rates have gone up in Chicago, they’ve gone down, they’ve gone up, they’ve gone down. Crime has only gone one direction, the direction it continues to go, whatever COVID-19 does: Up.

Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, once a crown retail jewel of the U.S., is becoming an abandoned strip mall. It isn’t just that anchor retailers like Macy’s and Disney have shuttered their flagship stores for good; no other retailers are planning to open in those old locations.

The wealthiest person in Illinois, founder and CEO of Citadel Ken Griffin, recently likened Chicago to Afghanistan- on a good day. He personally witnessed 20 shots fired into the glass window of his retail space. Someone attempted to carjack the security detail outside his residence.

If the city doesn’t turn things around, he isn’t the only one warning, companies like Citadel will have no choice but to follow other companies in abandoning Chicago.

It isn’t that he can’t keep his employees safe or that he doesn’t feel safe himself, though that is a problem. The main problem corporations like his are facing in Chicago is brain-drain.

Hard to recruit top talent to move to Chicago when it is no longer considered a safe place in which to live and raise a family. That is a tough sell, even for the CEO of Citadel.

And if the big guys are struggling this much, if Disney can’t stay afloat on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, how are the little guys doing?

Small and mid-sized businesses are getting the shortest of all possible sticks and no carrots whatever. Companies like Disney, Walgreens and Citadel are international interests now. They can go anywhere- anywhere.

Why stay in business in Chicago where an organized gang of thieves can back a moving truck up to your location and clean you out in a single night? Commercial insurance is nice and all, but premiums go up whenever a company makes a claim. Way up. To high premiums, no more commercial insurance. Insurance actuaries don’t stay in business by losing money hand over fist.

Why should Walgreens stay in San Francisco when they have to spend 46 times their national average on security measures to lose 5 times their national average to theft?

The Mayor of San Francisco can deny retail crime is to blame all she likes. The LA Times can suggest, while offering no evidence, the same calling Walgreens “The Company That Cried Retail Theft?”. No can force Walgreens to stay open in those areas; and if those locations were truly profitable, other retailers would be lining up to get in. And they aren’t.

Small businesses aren’t as flexible as huge corporations. Walgreens and Macys can just close one unprofitable location and invest in another somewhere far, far away. But small businesses too are leaving these blighted areas in droves. Like Chicago’s police officers, small businesses are fleeing the city center for suburbia and smaller cities. Less money- but far less crime, too.

Chicago politicians have two problems, one they know about and one they don’t. The one they know about- that crime continues to skyrocket in Chicago and isn’t magically going away, even if COVID-19 does- they are unwilling or unable to address.

The one they don’t know about is the impact this crime wave is having on the citizens of Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland.

This isn’t the type of poor performance on the part of elected officials that motivates people to vote them out. A rise in crime this sharp is what motivates ordinary people- moms, dads, small business owners and restauranteurs alike- to run against incumbents.

Community problems as visceral, as jarring as a children being shot in the head in broad daylight, shootouts on crowded streets, and the city’s most profitable retail district destroyed by unchecked crime drives people to get involved, organize their communities and push back against such ruinous leadership- at the ballot box and beyond.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)