Monday, April 29, 2013

Chicago Thoughts: Treat chicago gang members as people

Are Chicago's gangs terrorists? Should we treat Chicago gang violence in the same way that we treat acts of terrorism? A good friend of mine recently shared a CNN Opinion article asking these questions. Whenever our city's violence makes national news, it's always a mix of tragedy and triumph. The tragedy is invariably in an act of violence that has taken yet another young person's life (as with Derrion Albert or Hadiya Pendleton). The triumph is that someone outside of Cook County is showing any interest whatsoever in our problems. Before we can talk about the article's arguments, take a moment to read it. If you can't, here is its main point in the words of the author, LZ Granderson:
"And if the name attached to all of this violence were al-Qaeda instead of Gangster Disciples; or if instead of "gang violence" the bloodshed were called "terrorism;" or if instead of calling the people spreading fear and mayhem gangs we were to call them what they really are -- terrorists -- the nation would demand more be done."
For police officers, policy wonks, and the average middle class Chicagoan, this argument probably seems like an accurate description of our city's violence. Residents of distressed South, West, and even North Side (Rogers Park; Jonquil and Juneway - "The Jungle") communities, however, would be more ambivalent. On the one hand, they are the ones who are daily affected by the terror of violence. But on the other hand, the so-called terrorists are all their sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins, and friends.

And then there is my perspective as a social worker. Granderson says that reclassifying gangs as terrorist groups is an "exercise in empathy" for the victims of violence, both those who are shot and those who live amongst the shooting. But this classification ignores, even vilifies, the most important victims of gang violence, those who are most deserving of our help and empathy: The gang members themselves.

From a technical perspective, we can definitely think of a definition of "gang member" that fits under the "terrorist" category. For one, there are just so many different definitions of "terrorism" that at least a few are bound to apply to gangs. Both groups are violent. Both use fear as a weapon and/or cause fear by virtue of their activities. Both find ideological foundation in a powerful and longstanding philosophy that has been altered, even warped, to fit its contemporary usage. Today's Middle Eastern terrorists operate in decentralized and splintered cells. Chicago gangs exist in autonomous cliques. As to the members themselves, disaffected and troubled young men in Auburn Gresham have a lot in common with their peers in Anbar. So at least from this technical side, the definition of "terrorist" might overlap with that of "gang member".

But Granderson's argument is more than a technical one. He does not want us to consider gang members as terrorists just because of definitional similarities. His goal is to make gang violence more tragic and demanding of our empathy:
What seems like a linguistic shell game is really an exercise in empathy. The thought of elementary school kids walking across areas of a city controlled by three terrorist groups becomes unacceptable to everyone, not just their parents. Hearing that 25 Chicagoans were shot in one weekend becomes a threat to national security, and not just the mayor's problem.
Granderson wants Americans to empathize with the victims of this violence in the same way that we all felt the horrors of Boston. Invoking terrorism can achieve that and spur action. It's a noble end, but a profoundly flawed approach.

The problem is that Granderson's goals of increasing and his reframing of gangs as terrorists are at odds. The recharacterization is supposed to be "an exercise in empathy", one for the kids, the families, the neighborhoods, and the victims of violence. But the young people who are equally, if not more, deserving of our empathy are the gang members themselves.

There are countless reasons to want to join a gang, including protection, notoriety, status, money, and desire of a peer group. These seemingly disparate motivations have one unifying theme: The gang member's environment. It is our job to empathize with the effects of that environment. The young men and women of Chicago are not inherently predisposed to join violent criminal groups. Rather, their upbringing and neighborhood shape them in such a way as to make it difficult to resist gang influence.

It starts with families. Many young college-educated students pursue a career path following their parents' examples (doctors, lawyers, and professors come to mind). But what happens if your uncle was a Vice Lord lieutenant, or if your brother was killed over a dispute on Twitter, or if your father is in prison for robbing an armored car? If all, or even some, of your role-models are tangled up in such activities, your goals are going to be different than those of an attorney's child. Neighborhood influences are no better. For many of my readers, the daily high school reality was extracurriculars, sports teams, video game afternoons with friends, endless homework, and a nonstop cycle of applications. For Chicago's forgotten youth, their reality is different. Avoiding or committing robberies and shootings are their after school activity. Fights break out in the halls of school or even the stairways (or bedrooms) of your apartment. Many males you see are either on probation, parole, or former felons. And then there are the gang members with their girls, their cool shoes and hats, their guns, and their aura of strength. In that environment, it is no wonder that youth turn to the protection and power of the gangs, just as it is no wonder that we apply to college.

I admit that this is a vastly oversimplified, if not cliched, view of gang involvement. But it is still a much more honest and real one than that suggested in Granderson's piece.

Categorizing gang members as a terrorists eliminates their complicated narrative. It forces us to view them as monsters to be defeated, not kids to be helped. All of the above environmental factors can be resisted with support from parents, teachers, mentors, and other well-intentioned entities. We see it every day, whether in the Golden Apple-winning teacher from Englewood or the youth programs of Becoming A Man. There are people out there who are trained to succeed at this struggle, and even though we have our failures, we have countless more success stories. That helping process becomes impossible once we categorize our clients and fellow citizens as terrorists.

The real exercise in empathy is to be dissatisfied with the stereotypes of gangs and to try and understand how they work. This means rejecting Granderson's argument and his classifying of gangs as terrorists. It means even rejecting my own simplified picture above and searching for more nuance. Above all, it means seeing that the gang members we are so eager to vilify often have only one difference from us: Their neighborhood. If we can start to succeed at that exercise in empathy, then we can start to really see the factors that create gangs, cause violence, and kill children. And once we can see that, then we can start to make the changes that are needed.

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