Sunday, October 28, 2012

Chicago Thoughts: Misunderstandings about gangs

Because many Chicagoans tend not to understand gangs, I am normally in favor of any resource that helps increase our comprehension. I personally will read anything, or talk to anyone, that has even the remotest chance of helping me to understand the city's unique gang situation. In this spirit, I want to talk about two articles that appeared in recent Chicago media. Both of these articles tried to elevate our conversation and understanding about gangs. Only one succeeded.

A few weeks back, WBEZ Chicago (a reputable, local public radio station) published a detailed map of city gang territories. Reddit users posted the link to the Chicago subforum, where it received significant attention from that particular online community. The map itself looks like a shattered church window strewn across the city. Gang territories are all over the place, with few groups holding any contiguous or uncontested areas. UChicago students were particularly roused by the idea that many Hyde Park and campus locales (student housing on 53rd, the South Campus Dorm) were actually in so-called gang territory.

Grand Theft Auto: Chitown
At around the same time, the free (and somewhat more disreputable) Chicago newspaper RedEye released an article on the fragmentation of gangs, and the resulting violence in gang-occupied neighborhoods. Our beleaguered police chief Garry McCarthy repeatedly stressed this point as a primary reason for 2012's heightened violence. This kind of front page coverage in a widely circulated periodical seemed like good news for Mr. McCarthy. At least, it was good news on the day it came out. With an equally catchy cover story running five times a week, any given story lingers no longer than April snowmen.

A lot of Chicagoans might allege that RedEye has not elevated any conversation whatsoever in the last decade (although its homicide map, done by Tracy Schwartz, is even more informative than the official CPD stats). That might be true, but if so, its article on "Gang Factions" was a stunning exception. If you just skimmed the link earlier, go and read it now. It is a succinct and surprisingly accurate summary of an expansive problem. The RedEye article is the one that succeeded. Surprisingly, the same cannot be said of the WBEZ map. As will be shown, the map is basically useless unless you know exactly how to interpret it.

The new look for gang members
Admittedly, RedEye's article is not particularly innovative or revolutionary. Police officers, teachers, social workers, and community members/leaders have witnessed gang fragmentation for at least a decade. The article is successful because it gives a public introduction to the problem in accessible, understandable terms. Media outlets and the general populace are often ignorant of Chicago's gang situation. Even academics were behind the reality. Sudhir Venkatesh's publishers released Gang Leader for a Day in 2008, describing the syndicate-like behavior of 1990s gangs from the Robert Taylor housing project. It was a good piece of sociology and an interesting piece of history. But that is how it had to be read: As a history text. Taking Gang Leader for a Day as a prescription for social intervention would be like reading Common Sense today and flying to Boston to protest King George.

Hyperbole can get the better of me, and Mr. Venkatesh certainly deserves credit for more than just his book; indeed, his later works are much more accurate in identifying current criminal conditions of Chicago and New York City. Moreover, he conducted his research in the 1990s; at the time, it would have been quite relevant, and it is not his fault that publishers waited so long to release his research. Nowadays, we need new tools to deal with new gangs. RedEye deserves praise for trying to write a mere two page article about such a complicated social phenomenon.

If I had to condense the history of gang fragmentation, and the RedEye article itself, into one paragraph, I would quote the following:
After Hoover and other gang leaders were taken down in a federal drug-trafficking, extortion and criminal enterprise case in 1997 — Hoover is now in the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo. — a steady splintering of the Gangster Disciples began that has increased in the last decade, experts said. 
Younger gang members have not adhered to the organized leadership structure set up by predecessors. That has led to a fresh spasm of violence as the lines marking gang turf are blurred and former members of the same umbrella gang became rivals.
Simple and largely accurate. There are only a few elements I would add to this narrative. For one, this splintering process was never confined to just Gangster Disciples (in fact, my major critique of the article is its overemphasis on GDs, but this was probably done for a combination of brevity and sensationalism). Gang leaders from the Latin Kings to the Conservative Vice Lords toppled in the face of increased policing, enforcement, and prosecution, often on both the state and federal levels. With more adult gangsters going to prison, there were more openings in street drug markets. Young men filled in the gaps, albeit without the "old school" cultural norms of their hardened predecessors. The result is just exactly what you would expect if you suddenly handed a Glock and a fistful of hundreds to a 15-year old.

Cabrini-Green: 2005
The second element I would add regards the dissolution of Chicago public housing complexes. When the federal housing officials took a close look at the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in the 1990s, they saw nothing but fortresses of illegal activity full of broken elevators and leaking pipes. With tens of thousands of residents living in such conditions, the government worked with the CHA (much in the same way that the North "worked" with the South during Reconstruction) to effect the Plan For Transformation, a ten plus year agenda to rehabilitate public housing and relocate residents to new, mixed-income developments.

"Cabrini-Green": 2011
It would be impossible to chronicle the staggering effects of public housing transformation across the nation, or in Chicago more specifically. But in this post, one effect must be made clear. With the demolition of apartments and row houses came the relocation of their residents. Many of those residents were average, low-income families. But some belonged to well established gangs that ruled those projects for years. Those criminals weren't just moved out of a neighborhood. They were moved in to another one. This put the relocated gang members into direct conflict, indeed competition, with extant gang populations.

Once you get fragmentation, you get violence. Uptown GDs gun down Edgewater Stones just as often as Woodlawn GDs go after the GD group down the block. With the gangster of the 1970s and 1980s behind bars, drug corners can be held by young men in their 20s, or even younger. Lacking the old school rules in an increasingly competitive and hostile environment, violence is almost inevitable. As to the law enforcement perspective, it is just plain hard to police so many small groups. There are over 600 factions in the city by the last estimate. As Garry McCarthy laments, "They're splintering off into smaller gang factions, and that's getting more difficult for us to track and predict what's going to happen next."

With all that history in mind, it is easy to look back at WBEZ's map with a raised eyebrow. Given the historical splintering of gang organizations, is is natural to expect a similar fragmentation in their territory. When you look at the map, however, you still see large tracts of land controlled by single groups. Does that mean the WBEZ map is just plain wrong? Or is there some other story behind the images?

To get some perspective on that question, one needs to know that WBEZ was not even the original source for the map. Reporters at the station simply recreated a graphic that already existed in the Gang Book 2012, a recent publication of the Chicago Crime Commission. The CCC is itself not above criticism, especially given its entrenched bureaucracy and shady political allegiances, but the group does have a strong, academic understanding of Chicago's unique gang dynamics; I own the book and would have paid even more to have it. Even the CPD uses that map, or at least a variation of it, as a quick reference guide to gang activity (at least, only those officers who don't already have it memorized). Smart, experienced researchers made the graphic, not just journalists looking for a quick sell.

Simply put, there is nothing wrong with the map itself. It is largely accurate even months after its publishing, and it is a great guide for social workers and public servants alike. Or rather, it is a great guide ONLY if you understand the consequences of gang fragmentation and how that affects the subsequent gang territory that is indicated on the map.

To explain the unique context of the map, let's take a look at an area that lots of UChicago students focused on: The South Side of campus.

Gang territories in Woodlawn. Red circles denote murders
The colored areas are taken directly from the gang map; I have labeled them with their corresponding "owners". The red circles denote murders that occurred in this area since the beginning of 2012. I tried to include all murders, but I might have missed one or two. Although I did not include shootings, a quick look at the data indicates that it is in roughly the same geographic distribution.

It is very difficult to classify a homicide as "gang-related" or otherwise. Gang members are often victimized by crime even though they were not involved in any "gang activity" when they were shot. Similarly, a gang member may pull the trigger on a target over a completely unrelated incident. As a general bet, I go with the estimate cited in a Chicago Magazine article on gangs: 62% of murders are gang-related (Source). I imagine that the actual number is probably higher, and also admit that the CPD official statistic is quite a bit lower (about 47% in 2010 and 2009. In Woodlawn, homicides are mostly gang-related. So we can reasonably assume that many of those red dots correspond to gang killings.

With that in mind, let's ask a question: Where are murders happening? If we went by the old school picture of gang territory, we would expect to see violence on borders between the clearly defined gang zones. I imagine that most people who see the WBEZ map assume that violence occurs where territories converge.

The data tells another version of events. Only 2 of the murders happened at gang boundaries. The vast majority happened deep in GD occupied territory.

Talking with a CPD Lieutenant at a beat meeting this summer, I learned a bit about was going on in this area of Woodlawn. Although the GDs ostensibly maintain control over the blue domain, that "control" is divided between a variety of smaller groups all subscribing to the GD title. Most of the time, however, they have no more allegiance to one another than do all the collective high school sports teams with names like the Spartans or Lions. Most of these murders are between rival GD cliques, all happening well within their own supposed zone of control.

This is the sort of logic and analysis that you need to apply to ever segment of "territory" on the map. Just because an overarching group controls an area, that does not imply there is unity or peace within that neighborhood. Indeed, those areas may see the most conflict, as no single faction holds any large tract of a community.

This Woodlawn example tells an important story about Chicago's gang landscape,and more generally about the WBEZ map. But it also hints at an interesting, and prevalent, problem in Chicago's general citizenry. Memorizing the boundaries of various criminal organizations on a cool map does not make you knowledgeable (let alone an authority) on the subject. At best, it impresses friends at a dinner party. At worse, it misleads people who really care. As we saw with Woodlawn, there is always lot more happening than the map alone indicates.

If you harbor genuine curiosity in Chicago crime, research the topic, read the literature, and talk to experts. You have an obligation to yourself and to others to possess accurate information about the problem. Reporting inaccuracies to others is dangerous when it comes to gangs and community violence. When you misinform on the score of last night's football game or a factoid from your the most recent episode of a popular show, the only thing you risk is annoying your audience. When you misinform on violence, people pursue misinformed policy. Sometimes the policies are silly (gun buybacks that get mostly broken weapons from old men). Other times they are harmful (zero tolerance drug policies in schools).

Equally valuable!
Understand your sources. The RedEye article, and other Tribune pieces like it, can be excellent introductory resources that familiarize citizens with gangs. Sadly, they tend to go no deeper than a Wikipedia page. Academic books and journals can give you a more nuanced and technical understanding of gangs, but they often presuppose basic knowledge of the topic. Also, many of the best texts are somewhat dated; it takes time to write and publish and research a solid piece of scholarship. Take their lessons and re-contextualize them in the modern world. The same goes for firsthand experience. Police officers and community members can offer insight into the everyday realities of gang neighborhoods and Chicago violence. In approaching that level of detail, however, experts on the ground often neglect the larger macro-forces at play. Essentially, all information sources have advantages and disadvantages. It is the same with gangs as with any subject you might research in a class. Stumbling around the evidence is part of the fun, as long as you maintain a direction.

The only time that we err in our research is when we willfully confine ourselves to only one subset of evidence. Worse still is to deliberately avoid evidence in favor of opinion. A UChicago example illustrates this well. I often hear people explain how the South Campus of UChicago is dangerous, a Buckleberry Ferry between criminals and civilization. It's a flat out ridiculous characterization based on anecdotal crime reports and vaguely racist and classist sentiments towards Woodlawn. Just because the average income and demographics shift at 61st, that does not imply a heightened level of danger. Woodlawn absolutely does have high crime, but it starts both south of 63rd Street and west of Cottage Grove. It does not happen at the South Campus Dormitory.

Cabrini-Green 2012? Oh wait...
False beliefs like this can lead to harmful responses. If I genuinely believed that South Campus was deep in GD territory, I might encourage students to advocate for increased security near Burton Judson and SSA. We would get more patrol cards, more security personnel, and maybe more cameras. That is great for south campus, but bad for UChicago crime. It turns out that the majority of incidents in the last few years occurred between 53rd and 58th Streets, in the heart of student apartment housing. The streets are darker, sparsely populated, and dotted with hiding spaces and escape routes.

If UCPD attentions were forced to focus on areas of sensationalized UChicago attention, the real dangers might be missed. This happens in Chicago, and you do not want to be a part of that problem. When a single robber strikes on the Gold Coast, the entire police force descends to increase the sense of safety. This happens at the expense of neighborhoods that see at least two robberies every day (Englewood and Woodlawn both had approximately 500 in 2011).

We often have the passion to advocate for our beliefs. But if we advocate for harmful solutions, our ardor can be turned against the causes that we most care for. Proper information can prevent this and ensure that you vouch for actual solutions and educate your peers about real problems.

RedEye has about as much academic credibility as Yahoo Answers, but in this case, its article on gang fragmentation proved an insightful and accurate source on Chicago gangs. By contrast, the normally incisive and intelligent WBEZ posted a map that was downright misleading and bereft of context. Both articles are potentially useful, but only with the proper knowledge at your disposal.

Be discriminating in your information sources, especially in regards to a high-stakes issue like Chicago violence. Many of us have the intelligence and passion to push for dramatic change. But it is important that our advocacy is well-directed, supported by evidence from all quadrants of the issue. We are often powerless when it comes to global issues, or at the very least we lack the capacity to effect immediate change. This is not true of Chicago crime. Individuals can make a difference in this problem, even if they do not commit themselves to social work, law enforcement, or public policy. Tutoring, mentoring, advocacy, and even honest conversation are all effective at helping the problem.

There is obviously more to the issue than the RedEye article, the WBEZ map, or anything I have said in this post. But if you want a starting point to enter this high-stakes dialogue, these are all fine places to begin.


  1. "We often have the passion to advocate for our beliefs. But if we advocate for harmful solutions, our ardor can be turned against the causes that we most care for. Proper information can prevent this and ensure that you vouch for actual solutions and educate your peers about real problems." Very well put! Thank you for this piece, it is extremely helpful!

  2. In this spirit, I want to talk about two articles that appeared in recent Chicago media. Both of these articles tried to elevate our conversation and understanding about gangs. Only one succeeded. window graphics Chicago