Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Trump, Deportations, and “Gang Members”

Latino youth beware!  You may be a gang member and not even know it!  And no, you might not be able to dispute that label if it is made by ICE. Welcome to America, or rather….. Farewell.

President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration and his Implementation Memo dated 2/20/17 are aimed to “take the shackles off” of the nation’s immigration enforcers. According to Sean Spicer, the EO makes it clear that “the No. 1 priority is that people who pose a threat to our country are immediately dealt with” (New York Times  2/21/17). Among others, this means gangs, or at least people ICE decides are gang members. 

And that’s the rub. Bureaucratically law enforcement has a process to officially label a youth a “gang member.” There are checklists like this one:

However the judgements are highly subjective. In the recent highly publicized case of Ramirez Medina, ICE agents apparently mis-identified a tattoo as “gang related” and  although Ramirez was a DACA protected Dreamer, held him as a gang member and began deportation proceedings.


Law enforcement agencies have a long history of stereotyping and mis-labeling minority youth as gang members. In  Los Angeles, California Supreme Court Justice Chin questioned official gang identifiers, pointing out that “the City would consider a person to be a member of a Sureño gang if, for example, that person on two occasions wore baggy pants, blue clothes, or 'Los Angeles Raiders' garments.” in Denver police created a data base that classified an astounding two out of every three black youth as gang members. 

As one law review article put it, police officers and ICE agents already “exercise virtually unchecked discretion” when it come to gangs.  This means racial stereotypes can be given free reign.  A deportation case I consulted in demonstrates how dangerous stereotypes plus  ICE's “unchecked discretion” can be.  For obvious reasons I changed the name of my client and masked some of the circumstances.

Dante Menzies was a 15 year old high school student. He was a rebel, and he and two friends formed a group called “Cholo or Die.”  They spray painted it on walls and had hats made with “COD” letters. One of Dante’s friends got into a tussle with a teacher.  Dante intervened and punches were thrown. Dante was arrested, and then the astounding happened.

The local police claimed out of the blue that Dante was a “Sureño,” and COD, Dante's gang of three,  was a chapter of MS-13.  He was turned over to Homeland Security and subject to deportation. His lawyer called me and I interviewed Dante via Skype, reviewed the documents, and talked to local police officials. My question was simple: how did the officer determine Dante was a MS-13 member? 

The checklist above is from Dante’s case. Here is the evidence: the graffiti on buildings was Dante and his two friends writing “COD” on the school bathroom walls.  Dante apparently was determined to be MS-13 because he wore the color blue..... and get this,  the only blue he had on were his blue jeans. The arrest for a violent crime was the juvenile adjudication of delinquency in the scuffle which resulted in a couple of months in detention. 

The police department refused to explain what “correspondence" named Dante a gang member.   My guess is that the local Gang Investigators Association sent some back ground information or this referred to memos within the file between local officers.  Police departments or ICE do not have to disclose “gang intelligence” information as with other evidence subject to discovery. In other words, like in this case, ICE can allege gang membership as a basis to deport and never reveal how they drew that conclusion.

I have no way to know if 15 year old Dante was actually a secret MS-13 member.  But the evidence the police presented led me to conclude that Dante’s “MS-13” membership was most likely made up by the officer so deportation proceedings could begin. It was an false generalization that was necessary to justify punishing Dante, as in "Aren’t most of those Mexican kids gang members anyway?"  Why not just make up the evidence — who will know? 

Well the attorney called their bluff and I made an aggressive case that there was no evidence to even assume Dante was a MS-13 member.  He was spared deportation but not every youthful immigrant will enjoy such advantages.

I think Sean Spicer got it right. Trump’s order is meant to “take the shackles off” ICE agents, to give them even greater discretion to act on their hunches and biases in order get “them” out of the country. The facts be damned.


Gang members, along with Muslims, are the quintessential “them” to the virtuous “Us” of the all-white alt-right.  Being in a gang is not illegal.....yet.  But even the allegation of gang membership puts Latino youth at risk of deportation.  This over-broad net of ICE predates Trump and former President Obama can't escape culpability. The fight against demonization in all its forms is an on-going struggle for us all.

Hufstader, Rebecca A. 2015. "Immigration reliance on gang databases: Unchecked discretion and undesirable consequences." New York University Law Review 90:671-709.

Leyton, Stacey. 2003. "The New Blacklists: The Threat to Civil Liberties Posed by Gang Databases." in Crime Control 
            and Social Justice: The Delicate Balance., edited by Darnell Felix  Hawkins, Samuel L. Myers, Randolph N. Stone,. Westport, CN: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Lynching, Gangs, and the Courts



…the prosecutor’s remarks were designed to humanize the victim, demonize the defendant and his alibi witnesses, and remind jurors of the brutality of the crime. His intentions were to give the trial one last heavy dose of emotionalism. 

This quote could describe prosecutors' rhetoric in every gang-related legal case I’ve worked.  Emotional appeals to racial stereotypes and the routine demonization of gang members is “expected behavior” for states attorneys. As a manual on gang prosecution argues,  when the defense objects to gang evidence as "prejudicial" prosecutors should respond:  “Of course it is. That’s the point! “   Offering research to combat stereotypes is why I consult on gang related legal cases. 

The trial the first quote comes from, however, was from 110 years ago in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In his final appeal to the all-white male jury,  prosecutor Matt Whitaker raised his voice and thundered:

Send that black brute to the gallows and prove to the world that in Chattanooga and Hamilton County the laws of the country does not countenance such terrible crimes, has not ceased to mete out the proper punishment for such horrible outrages. 

Contempt of Court  tells the story of Ed Johnson, accused of the rape of a white woman. Likely innocent with multiple alibi witnesses,  Johnson was hurriedly tried and convicted in an emotionally charged city.  Attempts to change venue were denied because the judge and sheriff stated the mob would lynch him before letting him leave Chattanooga. During final arguments, one of the jurors tried to jump out of the jury box and threatened to tear out the defendant’s heart.

Two black attorneys made an unprecedented legal journey to the US Supreme Court in 1906.  When Justice John Marshall Harlan granted a stay of execution, an angry white mob of hundreds of locals, aided and abetted by Sheriff Joseph Shipp, broke Johnson out of the jail, lynched him and filled his still-shaking body with bullets.

The story of the book is that this event caused the Supreme Court for the first time to apply the 14th amendment to state criminal courts, with a particular concern with the lynchings that were terrorizing black people in the south.  The Supremes were split about whether to interfere in criminal matters traditionally left to the states. They had decided less than ten years previously in Plessy vs Ferguson that “separate was equal” and had given free reign to Jim Crow.  Justice  Harlan, who dissented in Plessy, argued not only that ignoring the Supreme Court’s habeas order was a direct insult to the Court, but Johnson’s unfair trial and subsequent lynching violated the basic rights of black people to equal protection under the law. 

Harlan’s argument was buttressed when a deliberating court heard about of another lynching in Oxford Mississippi. That mob was brazenly led by a US Senator, W.V. Sullivan,  who boasted to the press:  

I directed every movement of the mob. I wanted him lynched. I saw his body dangling from a tree this morning and I am glad of it. I aroused the mob and directed them to storm to jail.

This was too much and the court unanimously found Sheriff Shipp and others in contempt bringing them to trial. While Shipp and the others got off with light sentences the Fourteenth Amendment would from then on be applied to state criminal proceedings and actions. Federal courts would be used to bring civil rights suits against local authorities and to challenge egregious violations of justice in local courts.

The last two lynchings in the US took place in 1944.  That is progress. But this does not mean that black people receive equal protection of the laws. Like Ed Johnson, black males — in my work this means gang members — are still considered guilty unless proven innocent by extraordinary efforts of defense attorneys.

So while we celebrate progress, we must note mass incarceration is a Mark of Cain on our nation, persuasive evidence of the permanent nature of racism. Remarks by prosecutors still seethe of racial resentment and routinely spout out “alternative facts.” For example in one case in Georgia where I consulted, the prosecutor, Fred Bright, claimed that a gang related homicide was an example of a “the carnage” gangs had brought to Milledgeville, Georgia in recent years. His theatrics led to death sentences for the two defendants, Robert Butts and Marion Wilson.

I was retained by counsel for both defendants in appeals. The habeas hearings where I testified had been made possible by US vs. Shipp a century before.  On the stand I pointed out that with the advent of gangs in the late 1980s, the homicide rate in Milledgeville had actually declined, not spiked. Gangs in that city, the former capitol of the Confederacy, were in neighborhoods that were far apart and conflict between them was held to a minimum. 

We don’t know if Ed Johnson was innocent of rape, though after Contempt of Court  was published his conviction was set aside 94 years later.  Butts and Wilson, however, likely participated in the homicide on Donovan Parks.  Does their guilt make the unbridled demonizing rhetoric of prosecutors acceptable?

Gang neighborhoods in Milledgeville
 were not adjacent to one another
Bright grandstanded in his opening statement that the murder was a gang related crime. Despite offering not a shred of evidence of gang involvement he kept hammering his “alternative facts” into the heads and hearts of the all-white jury, stoking their fears.  He knew gang evidence is prejudicial and he kept riding that bucking bronco in rodeo-like proceedings.  In closing he evoked images of Muslims and terrorism as well as continuing his “Satanic” version of gang rituals of murder.  The appointed defense attorneys offered few objections at the original trial — they were indeed “friends of the court.” 

Like in the Johnson case, the prosecutor got his death penalty. Unlike Chattanooga in 1906, the convicted defendants were not lynched.  Times have changed and fortunately America is still not “great again” as in the good old days of vigilante justice. But despite years of hard work by the Georgia Resource Center and two high power private law firms working pro bono, both Butts and Wilson remain on death row.  


I think the use of “alternative facts,” demonizing defendants, and evoking strong emotions to cloud judgement violates the spirit of what we mean by justice.   A cynic might call what happened to the two Folks gang members a “legal lynching.”


Curriden Mark and Leroy Phillips, Jr. 2001. Contempt of Court: The turn-of-the-century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism. New York City: Anchor Books.

Jackson, Alan. 2004. "Prosecuting gang cases: What local prosecutors need to know." Alexandria, VA: American Prosecutors Research Institute.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Riots, Race, Stereotypes and the Law

Unrest in Milwaukee's Sherman Park
 after Police shooting of Sylville Smith
Are charges brought against police officers based only on the facts of a case and a strict reading of the law?  Or are prosecutors' decisions sensitive to unrest in the streets and other non-judicial factors? Consider two cases in Milwaukee.

Dontre Hamilton was shot by Milwaukee Police officer Christopher Manney April 30, 2014. Manney was fired five months later but Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced in December there would be no criminal charges against the officer. 

On December 15. 2016  Chisholm charged MPD officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown with reckless homicide for the shooting August 13 of Sylville Smith. In justifying his decision, he said:  “I have an ethical obligation to just look at those facts and ... not to consider extraneous things like public sentiment.”  

Really.  I think the contrary was more likely true.  These DA’s decisions were clearly responsive to public sentiment,  ie. fear or lack of fear of riots, rebellions, and unrest.   Additionally, the way police officers Manney and Heaggan-Brown have been "framed" in the public mind is related as much to racial stereotypes as any “facts.” 

First the “facts.”  Dontre Hamilton was sleeping lawfully in Red Arrow Park April 30, 2014 when he was confronted by officer Christopher Manney.  Dontre’s resistance to being poked by a baton, according to Chisholm, was legal justification for Manney to use lethal force.  The officer fired 14 shots at an unarmed Hamilton. There was no video.

MPD Chief  Edward Flynn fired Manney in October of 2014, more than five months after the shooting.  Flynn said Manney had not followed police procedures but also that he had not broken the law in shooting Hamilton.  The firing occurred only after local protests and more importantly major riots and demonstrations in Ferguson and other cities over other police killings. In December of 2014, after mass arrests on Milwaukee’s downtown freeway (full disclosure: I was among those arrested) DA Chisholm declined to indict Manney.  The arrests did prompt eight Milwaukee Aldermen to successfully demand police begin to wear body cameras. 

In the more recent Smith killing,  Mayor Tom Barrett said a body cam video — though incredibly he admitted he has never viewed it —  fully explained the indictment.  According to DA Chisholm, Heaggan-Brown fired one shot when Smith was holding a gun, which Chisholm said was justified.  A second shot, fired less than two seconds later after Smith had thrown his gun over a fence, was the stated reason for the homicide indictment.  The officer claimed he thought Smith was going for a second gun.  Similar to Manney he was not fired for the actual shooting.
Manney at his termination appeal

Heaggan-Brown’s defense, that he fired two shots within two seconds at an armed man,  seems to me stronger than Manney’s firing 14 shots at an unarmed man. Still Heaggan-Brown is headed for prison while Manney enjoys a full pension. Why was Manney not charged at all but Heaggan-Brown faces 60 years in prison? More than the law is at work here.

One difference between the cases is that protests were slow to break out after Hamilton’s April 30 killing. They gained steam after rioting broke out in Ferguson more than three months later in August of 2014 and as the country swirled with Black Lives Matter protests.  The Coalition for Justice in Milwaukee began small but persistent protests.  However the size and orderliness of the demonstrations likely led city officials to conclude there was not much of a chance of widespread unrest.  Manney was supported by the police union and enjoyed sympathetic treatment in the media.

The response to Smith’s killing was more immediate and violent.  Riots shook Sherman Park where the shooting took place. Businesses were burned, the National Guard was on stand-by.  Local officials were traumatized. Just firing Heaggan-Brown, local leaders must have been thinking,  might not be enough to pacify an angry and wary public.
Heaggan-Brown pleading "not guilty"

The two officers also presented contrasting portraits.  Heaggan-Brown was charged with a sexual assault soon after the shooting and newspapers discovered he had been an aspiring rapper.   In stark contrast to the mild mannered Manney, Heaggan-Brown looked more like “them” and pictures of him framed a narrative of Heaggan-Brown as a “bad apple.”  View the standard media images the public saw of the two presented here and above.  

I’ve learned one way to combat stereotypes is to “sub-type.” In other words the stereotype of someone like a gang member as evil —  or a police officer as good — is so strong, that it’s not likely to be overcome easily.  So one avenue is to argue that the stereotype may be true but “not for this case.”   The white, well-mannered Manney fit the police stereotype of “officer friendly” but  the black rogue male Heaggan-Brown did not.  In other words, the DA could successfully “sub-type” Heaggan-Brown as deviant while conveniently declining to demonize Manney.

Courts respond to the Streets
The point is not that Heaggan-Brown is a victim and should get to live on a pension like Manney.  To me, they both deserve prison if convicted at trial.  But our US culture is so racialized that it extends even to the police.  African American police officers have often found that black is more salient than blue, and have been victimized by white police officers

We also should not believe the fairy tale that a wonderful liberal Milwaukee DA strictly followed the law and was not influenced by "extraneous public sentiment."  No, in both cases city fathers feared unrest and the DA's response fit with a varying estimate of the probability of riots.  While legalities matter, DAs and judges  often frame decisions in response to broader events.  Does anyone believe that the indictment of officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago was not related to the fear of an angry black response to the video of the killing of Laquan McDonald?  Police killings have been routinely covered up in Chicago and elsewhere until the Ferguson uprising and Black Lives Matter youth took to the streets.   

We need to be honest that in Milwaukee violence successfully produced an indictment in one case and peaceful protest failed in the other.  I do not advocate violence, but our non-violent protests need to be more tactically sound and combine small group action with broad mass demonstrations and exploitation of divisions of elites.   Donald Trump’s election, some surveys have found, has more to do with racial resentment than desire for a strong leader.  Sadly, this means will have likely have many more occasions to organize around police violence. 

I also see these cases as a demonstration of the ubiquity of race in the criminal justice system. The DA’s decision to prosecute Heaggan-Brown relied, consciously or not,  on the usefulness of racial stereotypes —  to the extent that a police officer was sub-typed to the public as a black “thug.”   Heaggan-Brown is finding out that blue doesn't trump black. 

While we need to insist on vigorous prosecution of killer cops, our main tactics are in the streets, not the courts.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Jacqueline Montañez and our Culture of Demonization

Today Jacqueline Montañez was re-sentenced for a highly publicized 1992 gang-related double homicide she participated in when she was 15 years old.  My bike accident hasn’t healed enough to allow me to travel so I watched the hearing live streamed by WGN-TV. For more than a decade I’ve been struggling with the meaning of this case Judge Alfredo Maldonado called “senseless.” Jackie’s hearing was a victory for the US Supreme Court’s Miller decision which overturned mandatory life without parole sentences for all juveniles. For Jackie the prison will not be a tomb.

For me however, this case did not result in justice. Rather it exposed serious defects in how we “do justice” in our courts and indeed in our broader culture.  I’ll start, incongruously,  with Donald Trump. 

I cringed when earlier this week Trump called Hillary Clinton “the devil” and said to her face she should be put in jail.  His venomous call to lock up a political rival is reprehensible and should be scary for us all. But his demonizing words are also merely a pale imitation of the unbridled rhetoric used by prosecutors routinely in trials of stigmatized defendants, like gang members.  For example Jackie was called the “teen queen of criminals,” a “cold-blooded…hitman” of whom “Al Capone could be proud,” a “rat in a corner” and many more horrific and depraved names.  In order to justify punitive sentences, like life without parole,  prosecutors routinely have relied on dehumanizing rhetoric which, I suspect, for them is not always just rhetoric.  Law breakers — otherwise known as human beings —  are essentialized as pure evil.  An evil nature, rather than evil deeds,  can never be changed so it must be punished or obliterated.

As the current political environment so sadly demonstrates it is fashionable to look at the world through Manichean lenses.  Our opponents are not just wrong they are deplorable, and we can’t or won’t understand them. In the criminal justice system,  this demonization is one cause of the mass incarceration that has earned the US world wide condemnation and shame.

I’ve learned through my many years of working with gang members  — and yes,  some who have murdered — that gang members, like all of us, are not one thing.  Jackie, for example, was shamelessly used by gang chiefs and tricked into thinking the gang was her “family.” Her childhood of abuse was not an excuse, but as the Miller decision explained, a factor to be taken into consideration in sentencing.  Jackie, like all of us, is a complex human being. But transcripts of Jackie’s trial display an all out deluge of demonization by prosecutors that reduced her to a one dimensional cartoon character and left no room for even a hint of capacity for rehabilitation. 

Gordon Allport first pointed out that we think in categories and this leads to what Hillary Clinton referred to as “implicit bias.” Implicit Association Tests demonstrate that we not only have categories like race and gender embedded deeply in our mind, but we unconsciously act on them.  Our culture ascribes meaning to race and gender — women are the “weaker sex” and thus seen by men as willing to accept any sexual advance.  African Americans are judged by whites as likely to be violent and often are charged,  convicted and sentenced on scant evidence.  Women who kill, like Jackie,  are de-gendered and transmogrified into monsters.

The stigma of blackness = evil has permeated our culture from slavery to Jim Crow to ghettos and mass incarceration as Loic Wacquant and Michelle Alexander have argued.  Patriarchal culture is even more powerful and invisible, like “water for fish,” as Judith Lorber said. We are not always conscious of this implicit bias because it seems normal. 

In the trial of Jacqueline Montañez attorneys were helpless as prosecutors raged and demonized a young teenage girl.  She was given a mandatory life sentence but a more appropriate charge by prosecutors could have resulted in a sentence that would have allowed parole and rehabilitation. One of her co-defendants, Madeline Mendoza,  received 35 years and has already been released.  It was Cook County prosecutors’ successful dehumanization and demonization of Montañez that led to her being charged in such a manner that life without parole was the only possible sentence.  

I have great sympathy for the families of the two victims, Hector Reyes and Jimmy Cruz. As Jackie’s tears and words in court expressed, nothing can be done to bring back their lives.  While today Chicago’s homicide rate is not nearly at 1992 levels, it is indeed a “cancer” as the judge said and has not gone away.  But a culture of demonization, so aptly demonstrated by Montañez’s prosecutors, flourishes as well.  It runs rampant in our criminal justice system but, sadly, also permeates American mass culture.





Thursday, September 1, 2016

Violence and Healing



I’ve had some thoughts on violence and healing. They are personal but also reflections on what has happened to my city this past month.

On August 2 while riding my bike I was hit by a car. Witnesses said I was hurled two car lengths and landed on the side of the road.  I was taken by flight for life helicopter to Froedtert hospital. I suffered a broken neck, brain injuries and three breaks in my right clavicle.  I had spinal fusion surgery August 5 and was released from the hospital August 22.

I’m not able to concentrate on much besides my rehab.  Walking, eating, and sleeping are all difficult and require my full attention. I’m now in a long, hard rehab process and am on medical leave from my university job. I’ve had to postpone or bow out of several important legal cases where I am an expert witness. 

It’s time for me to begin to heal. But watching the “unrest” in Sherman Park from my hospital bed it occurred to me that it is not yet time for healing in Milwaukee. Healing is what you do after surgery or after major interventions to change oppressive conditions. Healing means the patient is on the road to recovery. That is not the situation today in MIlwaukee. Now is time for action. Healing comes later.

In the early 1980s I lived in Sherman Park and this was where I began my work with gangs.  In my first book, People & Folks,  I pointed out that the desperation in Milwaukee’s ghetto guaranteed the gangs would not go away. And they haven’t. In the 1990s I wrote an article titled “Milwaukee I Do Mind Dying”  and argued that unless radical measures were taken Milwaukee’s future would look more like Detroit or East St.Louis than Minneapolis or Indianapolis. Twenty-five years later we are Detroit’s equal in poverty, even more segregated, and by some measures the nation’s worst city for black people to live in. Thousands of Milwaukee’s black youth are as desperate today as they were when gangs first formed. The busy construction in today’s downtown is a sign our city leaders have embraced a “city of spectacle” but continue to ignore the “city of desperation.” 

And now these same leaders and their media call for “healing” with no accompanying agenda to bring us the sweeping changes we so desperately need.  Weeks after the police shooting of Sylville Smith, the body cam video has still not been released.  We don’t need healing when each day the wounds of oppression are inflicted anew in the nation’s fourth poorest city.  To call for healing as oppression continues is to provide a cover for our city’s inexcusable inaction on jobs, unwillingness to control police, and persisting policies of mass incarceration. This is what is meant by the slogan,  “no justice, no peace.”

I am a Unitarian and my partner Mary Devitt has been among those leading an effort to mobilize Milwaukee's religious community to “stand on the side of love.” To me this does not mean “healing” it means empathy for those who continue to be oppressed. Empathy means demands for action to address the real needs of the black youth living in our city of desperation.  Long ago, Dr. King called for nothing less than “a radical reconstruction of society.”  We've heard the empty words of politicians for decades and these failed promises are why youth have been incited to riot.  These angry soldiers of the night need our empathy and understanding as we stand on the side of love.

In the 1980s I wrote that Milwaukee’s gangs were signs of rebellion  — much of it destructive, but still rebellion against desperate living conditions, police violence, and a one-sided policy of jails not jobs. Nearly 30 years later these remain the principle factors that sparked the “unrest” in  Sherman Park.   

I am physically healing but our city can begin to heal only after our leaders wake up and begin needed fundamental changes, This awakening starts with  a major jobs program and concrete measures for greater police accountability. We can't begin healing "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Gangs, Racism and Homicide in Chicago

The Mayor’s Task Force has said the obvious: Racism is at the heart of the problems with Chicago Police Department. Consider CPD history.

Chicago Police looked the other way when racist gangs attacked the black community during the 1919 race riots. They enforced the “era of hidden violence’ from the 1920s to the end of the 1940s, when whites attacked any black family daring to move across segregated lines. They were paid off by the Outfit, Chicago’s mafia, in protecting Outfit gambling and vice businesses, but cracked down on black and Latino small scale hustling. CPD officers pretended they did not hear when Jon Burge physically tortured, in CPD stations, more than a hundred black gang members. The code of silence meant violence against African Americans, including police murder, has been business as usual for decades.

In recent years the excuse for police violence has been the need to combat gangs.  Gang violence, in the mind of much of the public, justifies brutal and illegal police tactics. After all, doesn’t everyone agree that gangs are behind Chicago’s high homicide rate?

I don’t. I’ve studied gangs and homicide in Chicago for the past 20 years. While gang members certainly account for more than their share of homicides, we might consider some discrepant information.

To start off with there are at least as many Latino gang members in Chicago as African American gangsters. Yet three quarters of all homicide victims and offenders are black, and have been for decades.  Hmm. We have Latino and Black gangs. Much higher rates among Black gangs?  Maybe being Black has something to do with it?

A recent UIC Great Cities Study reports nearly half of young black men in Chicago are unemployed.  Homicide worldwide, the UN Study on Global Homicide tells us, is related to the desperation of unemployed young men.  Conditions in Chicago’s African American communities qualify as desperation in my book. A war on gangs? Why not a war on unemployment or poverty?

Similarly claims by DEA’s Jack Riley that Chicago homicides are related to the Mexican cartels defies logic. If homicide is mainly about drug trafficking, why are are there so few homicides of Mexicans compared to African Americans?  Some say the six Mexican family members killed in February in Gage Park was a cartel hit.  Maybe, but regardless the vast majority of all homicides remain between very poor African Americans.

Today there are no citywide wars over drug turf as the organized gangs wars of the 1990s. The violence of that decade contributed to the shattering of Chicago’s African American “super-gangs.”   Black gang drug dealing today is small scale and local and that means deadly disputes have largely stayed local.  Despite scary violent drill rap videos, the number of homicides today is at half the level of the carnage of the 1990s.  

If gangs are the root of the homicide problem, why does Los Angeles, with as many gangs as Chicago, have a homicide rate of 7.3/100,000 while Chicago’s is at 17.2? Maybe the hopelessness of African Americans in the rustbelt has something to do with it?  Chicago’s homicide rate is similar to other rustbelt cities, like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Cleveland or Memphis who are all between 20 and 25. While Chicago’s homicide rate is four times higher than New York City’s 3.9, thankfully, it has not risen to Detroit’s level of 44 or St. Louis’ 50.

Homicide in Chicago has been relatively steady since 2004 when the city wide gang wars ended. This year’s jump in the first three months is similar to jumps in 2008 and 2012 which saw small spikes that fell the next year.  The 135 total homicides in the first three months of this year are slightly more than the 114 in 2012 but far below the 200 in the first three months of 1991.  While homicide this year is likely to level off, the main point is Chicago’ homicide rates is steady and not falling.

Is there a “Ferguson effect?” The Sentencing Project doesn’t think so. The jump in St Louis homicides occurred before Michael Brown’s killing by police.  While the CPD claims the new policies of reducing Chicago’s stops of African Americans is responsiblefor Chicago’s 2016 uptick in homicide, it is more likely that the CPD’s behavior having "no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color" in the words of the Mayor’s Task Force has been a major factor contributing to the hostility of young black men over the years.  For example, the CPD’s 250,000 stops of citizens in 2014 “dwarfs” the rate of stops by the New York Police Department in their highest years.


A large percentage of Chicago’s homicides appear to be related in some way or another to African American gang or clique members.  However, in my opinion, gangs today are more effect than cause of high homicide rates.  I concur with the Mayor’s Task Force who argues:

We arrived at this point in part because of racism.
We arrived at this point because of a mentality in CPD that the ends justify the means.
We arrived at this point because of a failure to make accountability a core value and imperative within CPD.
We arrived at this point because of a significant underinvestment in human capital.

I’ve stated in this blog previously that the CPD bear a large degree of responsibility for our city’s entrenched gang problem.  Gangs make good headlines and scapegoats but Chicago has to take a hard look in the mirror at the desperate conditions facing black youth and the CPD’s responsibility for a culture of alienation and hostility.


There are no easy answers to reducing Chicago’s homicide rate. Police officers must follow the law and the blue code needs to be undermined. Radical changes in police culture must accompany investment in black communities, better and more stable housing and education, reductions in prison population, and more jobs.  The Task Force points out we have reached this crisis in policing because of racism. We have to also recognize the uncomfortable reality that our homicide rate is also more about race than gangs.