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Gang Violence Smoulders On Hot Chicago Streets

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
July 28, 2012

This has been a summer of blood, sweat and tears in Chicago. The city has been scorched by historic heat, and the homicide rate has soared. When the sun goes down behind the glimmering lakeshore skyline, blocks on the South and West Side of the city can ring with shots and sirens.

The streets of neighborhoods like Englewood, Grand Crossing and Garfield Park are empty, even during the day. In the middle of this summer, it is rare to see a child ride a bike or walk a dog.

“A child should not have to say, ‘I can’t go out because I might get shot.’ That’s bad, that’s bad,” Michelle Harris says at a community meeting at the Englewood police station.

Chicago’s street gangs span generations. The Black P. Stone Nation and Gangster Disciples gangs are older enterprises than Microsoft or Yahoo.

You can see some of those same names on police blotters this summer, but they may be names that smaller gangs just put on like a baseball cap. The word most people now use is “cliques.”

‘Random Acts Of Violence’

Jeff Williams is a former gang member. Tattoos roll from his wrists to his shoulder. He now works in the streets for CeaseFire, a group that tries to quell gang violence, and sees a lot of this summer’s killings as personal.

“A lot of cliques, getting into it with each other, basically over real senseless things,” he says. “It can range from somebody stepped on a shoe, to a guy swerving in the street, somebody got wet with a water gun and didn’t want to get wet with a water gun. … Anything could spark at any given time.”

Sudhir Venkatesh, who now teaches at Columbia University, spent several years of research in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes housing project. He wrote the bestselling Gang Leader for a Day, in which he ran with the Black Kings gang and analyzed their business model.

“These shootings are often over jealousies at school, fighting over a girlfriend, or fighting over something that someone might have said on a street corner,” he says.

Venkatesh says large gangs that grew rich and treacherous selling drugs were scattered when many gangbangers were jailed — or killed by each other.

“Ironically, you went from a situation in which gangs for a long time had an interest in keeping the neighborhood safe because if you didn’t have violence, you have a thriving drug market. No police were around, you weren’t getting arrested,” he says. “To the situation now, in which [there's] just the basic thrill for a lot of these young people of having a gun, of being able to act like a man, as it were.”

Williams, the former gang member, says the streets are filled with “random acts of violence.”

“I wouldn’t actually call it a gang thing because they’ve got no structure in what they’ve got going on,” he says, “because at any time they can just randomly shoot somebody or hurt somebody because he’s not from around here.”

Snowballing Retaliation

Last week, the CeaseFire office got an urgent call. A grandmother had called a few days before to say she was worried for her grandson because he had gotten into a dispute with a gang member.

Tio Hardiman, CeaseFire’s Illinois director, said the group sent a team of former gang members to the scene to mediate. They thought they had an agreement for everyone to cool off, and let everyone alone. But the phone call brought bad news.

“I just found out that somebody came over and burnt up the grandmother’s car, and somebody burnt up one of the grandson’s girlfriend’s car,” Hardiman says.

The grandmother had informed on the gang, and the gang burned her car. Each side now had a new reason to be angry — more sparks for a new crime in this hot summer.

“It’s beyond anger now,” he says. “The grandmother is innocent in this whole situation, and what we’re getting now from one side is, ‘Now you’ve really done crossed the line because that was my grandmother’s car, man.’ “

Why Join?

Dusk is about an hour away in Englewood. The thump and swish of kids shooting baskets hangs in the air. The heat still hovers near 100, and little boys in thin shorts and tattered T-shirts seem to work the ball toward a broad-shouldered, bare-chested young man who ducks his head when asked if anyone is in a gang. Others have said that he is. There are little girls in the street, too, watching the basketball game and laughing.

The kids give different reasons for why someone would join a gang: to get respect, to “be known,” to be safer. Why would so many children still join after seeing that gangs do not actually make them safer or live longer?

“In a 13-year-old mind, there is no negative as far as, ‘This can lead me to jail or a funeral home,’ ” says CeaseFire employee Dave Rivers. “In their mind, ‘This can lead to prosperity, this can lead me to not being hungry when my mother can’t afford food.’ “

There’s a young man down this street who’s about to turn 16. He’s a good student at Paul Robeson High School nearby and says that gangs have tried to drag him in. He’s been able to stay free, so far.

“Some people do it for popularity because being in a gang does get you a lot of ‘cool’ points,” he says.

He says there’s supposedly a war going on in the neighborhood between the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples. He says they’re fighting for power.

“But other than that, I don’t know power over what — over territory. I don’t actually see how they can be fighting over that one,” he says. “On this block is BD’s and the next block is GD’s, so … that’s stupid. That’s crazy. They’re fighting over blocks.”

Closed Projects, A Flood Of Violence

Neighborhoods like Englewood have been beset with crime and joblessness for decades. The jump in the murder rate may partly be what military intelligence experts sometimes call “blowback” — actions that have unintended consequences.

The sprawling Chicago Public Housing skyscraper projects — Robert Taylor Projects and Cabrini-Green — built in a burst of Great Society enthusiasm, were torn down over the past decade. They had become high-rise hothouses for drugs, gangs and crime.

But Sandra Hobbs of Englewood, who has two sons, a daughter and two grandchildren at home in her apartment, says that when the projects came down, crime and gangs gushed into neighborhoods.

“They were killing each other and breaking into people’s homes, and when they tore that down, that filtered right on into the Englewood community,” she says. “I’ve never seen so many killings, but when they took down [those] projects, it just went chaotic.”

Mike Shields, a Chicago patrolman who is president of the Fraternal Order of Police, believes another reason may be that the police successfully rounded up many street gang leaders in recent years.

“Now, some of those gangs are out there without a true hierarchy or a leader,” he says, “and each corner is their own turf, and they’re fighting over different corners, and people are getting killed over who is controlling what dope spot on some of these corners in Chicago.”

Where Gang Members Outnumber Police

Shields says police could protect world leaders at the NATO summit meeting, where President Obama invited them to talk about security in Afghanistan. But it’s harder to safeguard people who live in South Side neighborhoods that are the president’s home turf than heads of state.

“We were a well oiled machine during that event. Every other night, though, we are out-gunned, we are out-staffed,” he says. “They know. The gangbangers themselves know there are more gangbangers out there than there are Chicago police officers.”

Chicago’s city government is tearing down hundreds of abandoned buildings this summer to prevent them from being used to sell drugs or store weapons. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pledged to hire another 500 police officers, despite a city budget deficit of $600 million.

But police say it’s hard to deter crime with patrols when so many of the murders seem random, wild altercations over shoes, girls or insults.

Alderman Rod Sawyer, whose 6th Ward includes part of Englewood, says he believes more police might help chase away gangs. So would more jobs, and better housing.

“Just like when you turn off the light, roaches come. … When it’s bright and vibrant and clean, they don’t want to have anything to do with it because they can’t eat, they can’t survive there,” he says.

Continuing The American Dream

But Sawyer doesn’t hold the police or City Hall solely responsible.

“I want to make sure that our neighbors understand that we have to stand up, we have to positively loiter,” he says. “We have to be outside watering our grass, walking our dogs, playing with our children at night in order for us to continue the American dream.”

Despite the shooting and sirens, Hobbs sits in her window each night in Englewood. She barks, “What are you doing?” at young men who walk by. She commands her two sons to get home. If they don’t, she rolls into the streets in her wheelchair to look. She was in the Insane Gangsters gang herself when she was 14.

“Gangs like girls, and we was the girls. That’s was what it was about,” Hobbs says.

But someone in the gang threw her off of a balcony. It was an act of savagery that crippled her for life — but saved her from gang life.

“I don’t sit on that pity pot and worry about what took place back then. I worry about what’s taking place now and how to keep my kids from getting into the ruck of things that I got myself into,” she says, “and that’s how come I stay close-knit with my boys. I wanna know everything.”

As dusk settled, Hobbs will be hunkering down with her sons.

“Imma triple lock m y door here, Imma lock that door here, triple lock the door in the back, and lock my other door,” she says. “And me and my kids are gonna get into bed, we’re gonna look at TV, … we play video games.”

Hobbs says she tells her sons to get out of Englewood during the day: go downtown, see the lake, the safe parks and skyscrapers and people laughing. She tells them not to let the world around them be their whole world.

Her son won’t say it, but she says he just graduated and wants to go into criminal justice.

“It’s good money coming to clean up the bodies in Englewood,” she says. “He says, ‘Ma, people are going to die all the time, and I wanna be able to be the one to come and pick up the bodies.’ “

Many in Chicago worry that the bloodshed won’t end with the summer’s heat — and keep boiling instead.

Audio produced with assistance from Natalie Moore of WBEZ in Chicago. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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