Why Violence Against Women on the South and West Sides Is a Mobility Justice Issue

A mural honoring Marlen Ochoa-Lopez in Pilsen. Photo: Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune
A mural honoring Marlen Ochoa-Lopez in Pilsen. Photo: Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune

A few days ago, I was in the Loop heading northbound on the Brown Line. I was immersed in a book and lost in thought when I started thinking about my route back home. Taking the Pink Line home from the Loop is the easiest option for me, but I was worried about walking the two blocks home from the station around 11 p.m. I’m always mindful of what time and how I’m getting home. I never look forward to walking home from the Pink Line after 10 p.m., but I’ve managed just fine on the occasions when I’ve had to.

But on this occasion I was notably more nervous than usual, and I started wondering what was different. It’s tough to fully convey what it feels like to be a woman of color constantly reading headlines about missing women and girls, primarily on the South and West sides.

The Chicago Police Department and FBI are finally considering the possibility that a serial killer is targeting primarily Black women on the South and West sides. It seems that every day, my social media is filled with posts about missing Black and Latinx women in Chicago. Sometimes these disappearances aren’t reported on the news, and social media posts seem to be the only attention they get.

The case of Marlen Ochoa-Lopez hit me particularly close to home. The 19-year-old, who was nine months pregnant, was last seen leaving Latino Youth High School next to the California Pink Line station in Little Village. Ochoa-Lopez remains were found weeks three later in a garbage can on the southwest side. She had been strangled, and her baby was taken from her womb. The infant boy, whom one of the three alleged killers took to the hospital, recently opened his eyes but is still in grave condition.

These are painful details to read, and perhaps it might seem irrelevant or inappropriate for a website focused on creating livable streets to report on this case. But creating livable streets means considering all the factors that make people feel unsafe walking, riding transit, biking, or simply existing on the street.

As I got off the Pink Line that night around 11pm, I noticed a man looking at me. I knew I had a few dark blocks to walk to get home, so it put me on edge. I started to walk down the street and he followed behind me. He caught up to me and asked me what time it was. (In fairness, I think his phone really had just died). I told him the time, but I was on edge the whole way home.

I’ve never particularly enjoyed my walk home after I ride the train. Since moving to Little Village, I’ve thought about how well-lit streets makes a huge difference whether I feel safe. Although the neighborhood has a high population density, the lack of light on certain streets creates a feeling of isolation at night and contributes to discomfort for people walking alone. My aversion to walking home at night has only increased as I’ve heard more and more cases of missing women and girls, even thought I consider myself a pretty brave and street-savvy person.

I think we often view transportation through an isolated lens of an experience in a bus or train, but context matters. It matters where people are exiting public transportation, and what the realities of their communities are. It matters if someone has to wonder whether their walk home from the train is safe. Safety for women and girls on our streets is nuanced. It’s not just about actual safety, but also feeling safe, and perceptions go a long way in shaping our behaviors.

Anyone who says they care about transportation equity in Chicago has to take seriously the headlines and missing women and girls on the South and West sides. At the root of mobility justice (see the Untokening collective’s principles of mobility justice for more insight) is the idea that everyone should feel safe and able to move as they please.

So many factors can chip away at that feeling for people in lower-income communities of color. That’s why in some neighborhoods people feel safer staying indoors than playing outside, or choose to drive rather than wait for a bus on a street corner. We need to adopt a community safety and anti-violence lens within sustainable transportation advocacy in order to start building a more comprehensive movement. We need to be willing to unpack what safety means for different communities and build from there.

  • Occult

    What does Marlen Ochoa-Lopez’s death have to do with women feeling unsafe while walking/biking/riding transit?

    As news reports indicate, this woman was not killed by a stranger on the street. She was killed in a home on the SW Side by a stranger she had befriended online.

    Moreover, this woman was not walking/biking/riding transit, but had instead driven her car to the home where she was killed


  • johnaustingreenfield

    This is just the latest and most prominent incident in a wave of cases in which women have been killed or gone missing on the South and West side.

  • Carter O’Brien

    Context absolutely matters. This is not currently an issue, but it’s relatable to me coming from being in the Gacy and Dahmer target demographic back in the day. And yes, it sucks hugely to feel like you need eyes in the back of your head just to walk around at night.

  • Kelly Pierce

    I understand and completely agree with Lynda’s and Carter’s
    sentiments. This is why I am a strong supporter of the second amendment and
    carrying a firearm outside the home. Currently, the Illinois concealed carry
    law prohibits carrying a loaded, holstered gun on public transit as is allowed
    in other states. Handguns are known as equalizers by placing enormous defense firepower
    in the hands of those who are vulnerable to those willing to commit acts of
    horrible violence against the innocent. Lynda and Carter should have the
    ability to concealed carry on the CTA so they can be safe on their trips home.

  • rohmen

    “We need to adopt a community safety and anti-violence lens within sustainable transportation advocacy in order to start building a more comprehensive movement.”

    i wholeheartedly agree, and the start needs to be public conversations in the neighborhoods themselves, but I wonder what adopting community safety means in terms of actually carrying out the plan. When discussing making vulnerable road users safer in relation to vision zero work, part of the conversation was increasing enforcement against drivers who drive unsafe to reign in bad conduct. South and West Side residents rightfully noted that with increased enforcement comes increased CPD interaction, and that interaction has often been dangerous in its own right for residents of those areas.

    Same problem seems to be present with this issue. How do we truly make women safer (especially in the short term) without some sort of increased intervention by CPD/police (and I get increased police presence is often specifically rejected in these conversations)? We can certainly improve lighting, and make access safer in the sense that it’s designed better to be more open and exposed to the public, but I just fail to grasp how you deal with an issue like a sexual predators completely without some form of increased law enforcement accountability aimed at catching and deterring the predators.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Having civilian self-described “good guys with guns” on transit would not be a positive thing for public safety, as the Bernie Goetz case demonstrated.

  • Outland

    Conceal carry gun holders in Chicago have used those guns to save their lives


  • johnaustingreenfield

    They’ve also been known to accidentally shoot themselves.

    Anyway, this is not an appropriate place for a debate about concealed carry, so further comments along these lines will be deleted. Thanks.

  • Ray Tylicki

    This is a black mens issue as it has been ingrained in there culture to hate women because they hate there mothers for chasing there father out of the house so they can collect more welfare.

  • Kelly Pierce

    Bernard Goetz was the victim of a violent robbery on the New
    York subway system prior to the incident in 1984. The trauma from the prior incident prompted
    him to request a gun permit from the city of New York for which he was denied.
    He bought a .38 caliber revolver anyway from another state and carried it
    loaded with five rounds. The trauma from
    his prior victimization likely led him to shoot four people who solicited him
    for money on the subway, where no weapons were displayed or violence
    threatened. A jury found him not guilty of attempted murder and all other felony
    charges related to the incident. He was only found guilty of carrying a gun
    without a permit, a misdemeanor. Crime victims and others concerned about
    security often carry loaded firearms. A 2018 study from the Urban Institute and
    funded by the Joyce Foundation found that a third of Chicago young men 18-26 on
    the south and west sides carried a gun and almost all did it unlawfully. Legalizing
    firearm carry would train gun owners firearms safety and on the law about when
    it is appropriate to shoot in self-defense. This training is even more
    important now. Semi-automatic pistols that hold more than three times the
    rounds Bernard Goetz had are quite common. Ammunition is also much more
    powerful than 35 years ago. People are already carrying. Moving them into the licensed
    system where they are provided training and guidance could prevent another incident
    like this.

  • gradius

    New Haven needs a Suzanne Jovin mural right outside its Metro North station


Courtney Cobbs Comments on the CTA

[This piece originally ran in Checkerboard City, John’s column in Newcity magazine, which hits the streets on Wednesday evenings.] Social worker and transit fan Courtney Cobbs moved to our city from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2013, partly because she wanted to be able to live car-free. She has posted some thought-provoking comments on Streetsblog Chicago […]