It may be time to reexamine the conventional wisdom on Chicago’s gangs.
In the fifth part of In These Times’ series on “The Other Chicago,” Joel Handley talks with experts and sources on the street who argue that today’s black street gangs are highly unorganized, with no top-down control — and rarely involved with criminal activity.
The 8-Tray Stones on 83rd Street is one of the loose block-by-block groupings that are typical today. It’s a Black P. Stones “set” with somewhere around 400 members consisting of young kids to grandfathers. “At an early age, the men in the neighborhood learn the Stones handshake or gang sign, but that’s the extent of their affiliation.”
The traditional criminal enterprises engaged in by street gangs are less of an option now – extortion has suffered as small businesses have closed and construction has dried up; drug sales are less lucrative as the wholesale price of illegal drugs has risen. Perhaps 10 percent of today’s gang members are involved in those activities, according to Lance Williams of NEIU.
More than 70 percent of self-described gang members are chronicially unemployed, Williams estimates, in a city where 50 percent of working-age black males are jobless.
“People don’t just go to the streets,” says John Hagedorn of UIC. “They’re getting marginal work, losing it, coming back to the streets. There’s a huge set with one foot in and one foot out. Former gang members are trying to move on and having a hard time of it. People that were working their way up got pushed back down.”
And much of the violence categorized by police as gang-related is not that at all, Handley’s sources maintain. Von Stone, a hospital case manager, says it’s easy to “sweep it under the run” by calling a shooting gang-related “when they have no idea.”
Much of this violence is actually interpersonal, reflecting a “Wild West mentality,” says a member of the 8-Trays. He argues (as we previously noted Whet Moser arguing) that the proliferation of violence is tied to the demolition of high-rise projects and the focus on incarceration as a crime deterrent.
Stone, himself a shooting victim, founded Hip Hope, a program that helps surviviors of violence find housing, rehabilitation, and support services. “Everybody talks about how many die, but nobody talks about the survivors,” he says. Last year the program lost its state funding. Now it’s looking for donors.