A fresh look at Chicago’s gangs

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.

Tenants organize at Far South complex

With curving streets and well-tended lawns and gardens, the Princeton Park complex on the Far South Side seems like the perfect place to raise a family – until you look inside the townhomes, where repeated flooding has caused mold and decay and lead chips fall from windows and door frames.

Princeton Park tenants are organizing and have taken the landlord to court, alleging among other things that he charges tenants for routine repairs, in violation of the Chicago Landlord Tenant Ordinance.  Metropolitan Tenants Organization tells their story in a new article at Progress Illinois.

South Side youth speaking truth, confronting power

In the final two installments of  the Chicago Reporter’s “Too Young To Die” series, Kari Lydersen looks at young people struggling to find positive directions in communities torn by violence.

In Woodlawn, Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), organized by Southside Together Organizing for Power, carries out direct-action campaigns around housing, health care, police brutality, and other sociall and economic justice issues.  They recently joined a sit-in at the mayor’s office to defend the city’s mental health clinics.

And motivated by the shooting death of a founding member, 18-year-old Damien Turner, they’ve fought for a trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center.  Turner died at Northwestern Hospital after being shot blocks away from UCMC.

Rappers Carlos and Young DBoy Low work with Project Spitfire, which uses music to help young people break free of the cycle of gangs, drugs, and violence.  It’s not at all easy, says DBoy, especially since “rival gangs don’t care about you wanting what we call ‘out.’ They don’t care about you changing your life and wanting to raise your kids in a different environment….

“See, you can try to erase your own past, but you can’t erase the pain someone else has suffered due to the hands of your gang sign.”

DBoys songs tell the stories of his life, featuring “delicate images mixed with harsh realities.” Check out the lyrics to “Too Young To Die.

Police deployment as a civil rights issue

At AustinTalks, Serethea Matthews reports that many Austin residents have stopped calling 911, “since they don’t expect police to show up.”  (The article was also published in the Chicago Defender.)  When they do show up, they may drive by an incident and do nothing, residents say.

Information from a FOIA request showed that more police cars are routinely dispatched in response to 911 on the North Side compared to Austin – though Austin has three times as many violent crimes. For calls about “shots fired,” more than two times as many cars are dispatched on the Near North compared to Austin.

The Central Austin Neighborhood Association and the ACLU sued the city in 2011, charging that disproportionate allocation of police resources violates the civil rights of Austin residents, she reports.

Latinas with diabetes

Diagnosed with diabetes as a child, Christina Rodriguez regularly sees six different doctors in order to keep tabs on this multi-organ disease.

Writing at Projecto Latina, the editorial director of Extra reports that Latinas have a much higher chance of developing diabetes – and of dying from it.

She says one challenge for Latinas is that they’ve been raised to “help everyone but yourself.”

The impact of violence, and some causes

In the second installment of the Chicago Reporter’s Too Young to Die series, Kari Lydersen talks with Ondelee Perteet, a 17-year-old West Side resident paralyzed in a 2009 shooting.  Ondelee and his mother talk about the tremendous personal costs of violence: Ondelee struggles to maintain his positive attitude, and his mother struggles to care for him and pay the bills.  Photos are by Carlos Javier Ortiz.

(Classmates of Ondelee interviewed him for a video by the Westside Writing Project, another Local Reporting Initiative participant, in 2010.)

Last week the first report in the series showed that Chicago’s homicide rate is double that of New York City.  At Chicago Magazine, Whet Moser has a fascinating piece looking at differences between the two cities that may help account for that fact.

New York has less than a third the number of gang members that Chicago has, and various experts suggest this could have to do with public housing and incarceration policies.  The CHA’s Plan For Transformation displaced a hundred thousand people, while a massive public housing renovation program in NYC was the “exact reverse,” carried out without displacement.  Chicago’s approach ended up replicating the segregation that was originally built into the CHA high-rises.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s incarceration rate rose sharply in the early 90s and has stayed near that level, which New York has seen a marked decrease in incarceration.  (The greatest expansion of gang activity here was a result of increased incarceration of youth, according to sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh.)

That creates what one expert calls a “feedback loop.”  “Young men were shuffled back and forth between two environments that were ideal for the organization and growth of gangs.,” writes Moser. “While New York was rebuilding, Chicago was continuing the shuffle.”

Another Reporter piece looks at the mechanics of incarcerating teens as adults; Illinois is one of the few states that does so.  In gun possession cases, most teens were imprisoned without having been clearly identified as having a gun; indeed, guns were actually recoverd in less than half the cases.  Now the General Assembly is considering legislation to incarcerate 15- and 16-year-olds as adults.

New CPS dual language program shows promise, faces challenges

In a three-part series, Kalyn Belsha reports in Hoy on a new dual language program in CPS that builds on research showing the children who speak and write in more than one language show increased cognitive development, improved social relations, and ultimately better employment opportunities.

Because the articles are published in Spanish, we are posting English translations below the fold here.

A dual language pilot program in four schools, with outreach to another dozen schools where similar efforts are under way, represents an ambitious attempt to overhaul the district’s approach to bilingual and world language education – a departure from the single goal of proficiency in English.

CPS has 64,000 English-learning students, but native English speakers benefit from dual language instruction as well, research shows.

Previous dual language programs fell short by aiming at “early exit,” while it takes five to seven years to master two languages. At that point many dual language students begin to outperform English-only students, research shows.

So dual language programs require patience from administrators who are under pressure to produce higher test scores more quickly.

With no standardized test that measures bilingual achievement, dual language teachers now use a hodge-podge of independent assessment measures that take time from instruction and make it hard to compare data.

The State of Illinois is developing Spanish-language standards and assessments, but that is expected to take several years.

Meanwhile, with a new administration at CPS and continuing budget problems, the district’s long-term commitment to dual language programs remains to be seen.  While federal stimulus funds that launched the pilot program have expired, the district has increased some funding for the program (while cutting professional development) – and has extended the pilot program at two schools.

Belsha’s three articles follow:

Chicago leads in youth homicides

Chicago leads the nation in youth homicides, with a rate more than double that of New York or LA, according to a new article at the Chicago Reporter.  Nearly 80 percent occur in black communities on the South, Southwest, and West Sides.

Efforts by police and politicians – ranging from tactical gang squads to the CPS “Culture of Calm” program – have failed to signficantly reduce shootings and deaths.  Advocates say curbing youth violence will require addressing underlying causes, inclucing extreme segregation, lack of jobs, and violent, underfunded public schools.

Kari Lydersen and Carlos Javier Ortiz profile groups that are working against violence, including the rap group Spitfire and Fearless Leading by the Youth, and the Reporter features Ortiz’s photos of communities dealing with violence.  (See our post on The Sorrowing City for more on his photography.)

More on AIDS at 30

Betty Smith was a respiratory therapist who was tired of seeing AIDS patients treated as pariahs when she founded the South Side Help Center in 1987.

She started by reaching out to African American ministers. When many were “hesitant,” she started going to their wives.

Today the South Side Health Center offers HIV testing, education and outreach programs along with myriad community services like youth mentoring and substance abuse counseling.  The group is also dedicated to fostering other, younger community groups.

The group’s story is part of a panaroma of history and reflection available in Windy City Times’ AIDS At 30 series, including a number of articles looking at HIV/AIDS and the black community.

James Scott of the Youth Pride Center writes that HIV is “wreaking seemingly uncontrollable havoc on the African American community,” particularly among young black men who have sex with men (who may not identify as gay or bisexual).

Cleo Manago, founder of the Black Men’s Xchange, recalls being heckled at a mid-1980s conference when he called for a multidimensional approach to attract diverse African Americans to AIDS services.

“The black community still has HIV because America has never had an efficient and black culturally responsive HIV prevention model, policy, campaign, leadership or agenda — in 30 years,” he writes.

WCT interviews West Side native (longtime LA resident) Phill Wilson, who’s emerged as one of the nation’s most outspoken AIDS activists since founding the Black AIDS Institute in 1999; he talks about his own history and activism, the challenge of reaching out to the black community about AIDS, and his assessment of the strengths of weaknesses of President Obama on the issue (he serves on Obama’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS).  “I believe that the president has had some hits and misses,” he says.

Nina’s story: prostitution and recovery

In a new audio report at Gapers Block, Sarah Ostman tells the story of “Nina,” the first woman to enter the WINGS program, which offers treatment services for women facing prostitution charges in Cook County.

Nina began selling sex at age 13, after becoming addicted to cocaine.  That’s the typical age that girls enter prostitution, according to Jody Raphael of DePaul University.  At first it seemed glamorous, Nina says – then the violence began.  Over 33 years, she served three prison terms and numerous stints in jail.  She had seven children and lost custody of all of them.  She tried several times to get sober.

Along with new state laws protecting underage girls and sex trafficking victims, the WINGS program reflects a new understanding of prostitution, long considered a victimless crime.  Most prostitues were coerced into the industry at a young age.  And if prostitutes are more victims than criminals, perhaps they should get treatment rather than prison time, Ostman says.

We follow Nina through work readiness sessions at the Career Advancement Network, some of which are emotionally charged – and to a graduation ceremony for the program, where the women sing “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”

A year later, she’s yet to land a job – she volunteers at a food pantry in Back of the Yards – and has faced a number of challenges, including the threat of foreclosure and utility cutoffs.  But she’s got a suportive fiance, she’s reconnected with her mother, and she’s developing relationships with her children.  And she’s committed to staying sober and working toward her goals.