Fighting Violence with Boxing in Chicago

With more than 500 murders in 2012, Chicago may be as dangerous as Kabul these days. And what is the Illinois Crime Commission doing about the epidemic of violence? Teaming up with the Police Athletic League to teach the combat arts.

In a fresh Police Athletic League initiative police officers and firefighters will begin training in local gyms for a "Battle of the Badges;" that is a grand night of boxing between a team of fire fighters and police officers. Proceeds from the event will flow to police and firefighter charities as well to the Chicago Park District Boxing Program.

Mike Joyce, Director of the PAL Boxing Program, emphasized, "We want to expand our 1st Annual PAL boxing gala to include private businesses, faith based organizations, and organized labor unions. We are all in this together. We need to give these kids opportunities. We need to give them hope and a stake in the community. We want our kids to have the means to build up our neighborhoods, rather than tear them down."

A former fighter and coach of the Leo High School boxing team, Joyce explained that the most significant aspect of this effort is not to raise funds, though that is important as well, but to bring people together. "The key,"he noted, "is that police and firefighters will be training side by side with the kids, getting to know them, and acting as mentors."

There are currently 25 Chicago boxing centers and a handful of other PAL affiliated boxing facilities, but the plan is to add three gyms in the coming year and to increase the number of boys and girls lacing up the gloves and getting into shape.

It might seem counter intuitive to fight violence by teaching boxing. However, Hall of Famer George Foreman once put it this way, "In order to box you need to control your emotions, your anger and your fear. And the more in control you are of your emotions the less likely you are to do something mean or stupid."

Years ago, Foreman came out of retirement to fund his own youth center and boxing program. He told me, "You'd be amazed but boxing brings together families. I have seen fathers who never had anything to do with their sons start showing up at their kid's bouts, putting their arms around them, and finally showing them some positive feelings."

John Bitoy, a longtime PAL boxing coach, said "Boxing is a hook, a draw to get you in the program." Mr. Bitoy sadly noted that over the last decade he had buried seven neighborhood kids from violent deaths.

In his landmark sociological study ("Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer") of the role of boxing gyms in the mean streets of the Windy City, Professor Loic Wacquant argued that for many, the gym is an island of peace and stability in an otherwise chaotic world of bullets and mayhem -- a place where you hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the speed bag but, at least for a couple of hours, don't have to fret about the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic weapons.

It was in a PAL gym that Muhammad Ali became a student of the sweet science. For part of his reign as heavyweight champ, Ali lived in Chicago. Last week, his daughter, Rasheda Ali, now a resident of Las Vegas, returned to the city for the press conference announcing the joint effort of the Crime Commission and PAL. Ms Ali framed the positive impact that the PAL had on her father's life. However, she then went on to recall the day her cousin was gunned down right in front of his Chicago home. With the glint of concern in her eyes, she insisted, "If I can save at least one child from being gunned down in front of their home, then the work we are doing here today is worth it."