Saturday, November 26, 2011

The US Gang "Intelligence" Agency?

Just when you thought defining Juggalos as gangs and FBI hyperbolic exaggerations couldn't get worse, voilĂ ,   here comes the  US Gang Intelligence Agency!  With understandably muted fanfare,  the creation of a new entity to investigate gangs and "domestic terrorism" was recently announced.  

Why not front page in the New York Times?  Maybe there was a bit of embarrassment.   To get some sense of how serious this agency is, the initial press release explains that  the USGIA is concerned with more than gangs and recently investigated a spat between police agencies. In what might be called "interfecine" warfare,  one officer splattered sh*t on the car of another over the arrest of a Miami cop by Florida State Patrol! Things "escalated" from there. Ugh!  This in their initial press release. Really.   Read about it for yourself.  Now,  no easy jokes about what this agency is probably full of.

Despite the official looking seal, the USGIA ("G"not "C", get it?) is a private company dedicated to "assist local, state and federal law enforcement agencies identify, analyze, confirm and respond to what they call Mass Victim Related Acts ("MVRA")."   For a hefty fee, no doubt.   Their absurd press release is hardly noteworthy except for its easy the equating of gangs and terrorists.  What needs to be noted is how the "frame" of terrorism is being extended to areas far from what you might think.   For example, the USA Patriot Act  defines "domestic terrorism as 

... an act ""dangerous to human life"" that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to:  (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.  

This can cover almost any crime and the label "terrorist" can be easily directed against street gangs. Many states have adopted terrorist language in their anti-gang bills like The Illinois Street Gang Terrorist Omnibus Prevention Act.  What we are witnessing is the acceptance of a frame that merges young people acting out destructively with organized terrorist conspiracies, real or imagined.

A few years ago I consulted with attorneys in the Narseal Batiste trial. Batiste was accused of plotting with al Queda to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower.  Actually the plot was concocted by an FBI undercover agent posing as an al Queda operative in what the defense argued — and I concur —  was a clear case of entrapment.  After two mistrials and tens of millions of dollars spent,  in a third trial the US Attorney argued that not only was Batiste a dupe of Osama and al Queda, but he was a dupe of Jeff Fort and the Blackstone Rangers as well!  Terrorist and gang member to boot put the jury over the top.  Batiste's questionable conviction is now on appeal.

The American Prosecutors Research Institute (APRI) manual for prosecuting gang cases states:

While they don’t call themselves terrorists, the effect is just the same—every day, innocent people are killed in the streets, often in broad daylight. Just like terrorists, gang members thrive on fear. The more fear they can instill in the communities and their enemies, the greater the freedom they enjoy while dealing in their dirty business of guns, drugs, and extortion. That fear is implanted by taking credit for the violence they

Hey, lets reduce the world to "them" and "us," no shades of difference, no subtlety,  no mixed loyalties, nothing but enemies we need to wipe out before they wipe us out.  Gangs, terrorists, communists, Juggalos,  what's the difference? After all,  since we cannot reason or compromise with pure evil, we can only destroy it for the sake of "homeland security."

US Justice Department policy toward gangs is an example of what Robert Entman calls "cognitive shortcuts." This means we simplify complex and diverse matters into a single, uncomplicated mantra.  Life is reduced to a simple-minded narrative of good vs. evil.   When this psychological process becomes the underpinnings of policy, we should indeed be be wary.  Think about  it: do we really want to take "shortcuts" to justice?  Silly organizations like the USGIA just underscore the dangerous frames of our country's policy towards gangs.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Gangs, Juggalos, and the FBI's Crooked Frames

There it is, right in the FBI's list of Haitian and Somalian and other scary gangs,  the "Juggalos!" Yeah, the Insane Clown Posse's groupie group has made the FBIs most dangerous gangs list. You gotta be kidding. 

But lets leave to one side too-easy-to-make comments about FBI paranoia or tactics to scare lawmakers and get more funding.  Rather, let's look more carefully at what the FBI says about the overall US gang problem.  How are gangs being "framed" by the nation's most powerful law enforcement agency?

First, all sorts of gangs are lumped together in their report "2011 National Gang Threat Assessment." Fair enough, the FBI is charged with investigating "threats," as in the mafia, communists, terrorists, gangs, or now, eeek!,  Juggalos.  The "frame" provided by their report means some aspects — gangs as threats — are given more prominence than others.  As in a picture frame: you are directed to look inside the frame and end up not looking outside it.  

Gangs as threats may be a justified target of the FBI,  but aren't gangs more than threats?  We may not like it, but gangs, for example,  provide emotional support for troubled kids.  They are signs that not all is right with our schools and become a refuge for drop outs.  [note: according to a recent report only 47% of high school age black males actually graduated].  They provide jobs, even if from vice industries, for youth in minority neighborhoods where unemployment is staggeringly high.  They bring money into poor minority neighborhoods when gangs sell drugs to a richer white clientele  [evenso, white kids are more likely to use and sell drugs than black kids].  Yes, gangs do more harm than good, but we need to recognize that gangs (including Juggalos) are more than one thing.  Come to think of it,  just like the FBI, as those who've had experience with their investigations will attest

But FBI "framing," double entendre intended, is not on the up and up.  Let's look at what their report did not say or what we can find buried in their text.  For example, their report claims there are now 1.4 million gang members, a "40 percent increase from 2009."  Huh? Forty percent, actually a reported 500,000 more gang members over 2 years?  How did they arrive at this number ?  Read the small print: 

Better reporting and collection has contributed greatly to the increased documentation and reporting of gang members and gang trends. 

Uh, huh. They got these numbers by asking law enforcement agencies to estimate how many gang members in their jurisdiction and this year there was "better reporting" meaning the cops found more gangs. Do locales have a common methodology in estimating gang membership? Nope. Any checks on validity? Nope. Any reason to think a jurisdiction might exaggerate their findings? Well, if you got a bigger gang problem you will certainly need more funds to fight them. How many local estimates did the FBI reject because they were suspect? We don't know but I'll take a guess: None. So how do they know how many gangs and gang members there are? Do they count them? Nah, they ask the local cops to do what amounts to a "guess-timate."  So why do the FBI think this massive increase occurred?  Read and weep:

Law enforcement in several jurisdictions also attribute the increase in gang membership in their region to the gangster rap culture, the facilitation of communication and recruitment through the Internet and social media, the proliferation of generational gang members, and a shortage of resources to combat gangs.

Ah,  gangsta rap and Facebook are to blame. Really.  But there is more.  In 2010 the FBI tells us 

Gangs are becoming more violent.....

But Director Mueller, we have a problem here. USA Today reported that in 2010.  

Across the nation, homicide rates have dropped to their lowest levels in nearly a generation. And overall violent crime has sunk to its lowest level since 1973, Justice Department statistics show.

In fact, the murder rate in 2010 of 4.8 per 100,000 was less than HALF that in 1991 (9.8) or 1980 (10.2).  In fact, the absolute number of homicides in 2010 (14,748) is almost exactly the same as 1969 (14,760) when there were 100,000,000 fewer people in the US!   Rape, robbery, and assault are also all sharply down.

The report goes on to say other silly things, for example linking gangs to the computer game Second Life, because gang members "could potentially use Second Life to recruit, spread propaganda, commit other crimes such as drug trafficking, and receive training for real-world criminal organizations." "Potentially?" Is this a feeler for the FBI to investigate the 21.3 million Second Life accounts registered in 2010?

Now the problem with such "crooked frames" is that there is a real threat from gangs, but it becomes lost in rhetoric that doesn't hold up to scrutiny. In many cities gangs are not becoming more sophisticated and organized but fragmented with fewer controls from powerful city leaders. This has both good and bad aspects. Less organization often means more violence.  At the same time, the reach of Mexican cartels and prison gangs has influenced gangs in many areas, and this deserves more than cursory attention. We also are not informed of increasing penetration of Latino gangs into politics, following the well trod Irish and Italian paths.  Gangs and politics have always been closely knit, but the FBI apparently doesn't think corruption is a threat worth mentioning.  I wonder why?  FBI gang reports like this are meant for cheap headlines and little else. 

Now I have to admit that I have mingled with Juggalos and watched the Insane Clown Posse perform in person. They are outrageous. But no more so than the FBI's "Threat Assessment." 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gangland and the Untold History of the Vice Lords

          The CVL's "Teen Town" a 1960s "drop in" center for Lawndale's youth

Watching Gangland is always a trip down Sensationalism Lane. But "The Holy City," its "documentary" on the Vice Lords, is a particularly maddening experience. Captured (but unattributed) in its hour long feature is footage from "Lord Thing" (click to watch) directed by DeWitt Beall in collaboration with the Conservative Vice Lords and funded by the Xerox Company.  Lord Thing won the Silver Prize in 1970 at the Venice Film Festival and was screened at Cannes, but was ignored and buried in the US.  It tells a story that is diametrically opposed to Gangland's images of guns and scary stories.  Both videos, however,  raise important questions of how to report on gang history.

The two videos document the social activism of the CVL at the end of the 1960s and both let us hear the words of Bobby Gore, the CVL spokesman, explaining how the CVL transformed from a gang to a pro-community organization.  Lord Thing ends with the arrest of Gore and repression of the black liberation movement.  Holy City sees the Vice Lords of the 60s as more scam than real and uses police testimony to question the motivation of Gore and his colleagues.

What happened in the 1960s? The black liberation movement caused a crisis in the identity of gang members in Chicago. While the Vice Lords were expanding and becoming the first of Chicago's multi-neighborhood "super-gangs" they also were deeply effected by the civil rights and black liberation movement of the times. As in the movie on the LA's Crips and Bloods,  the Vice Lords and other black Chicago street gangs were not exempt from the rising political and racial consciousness of African Americans.

The Vice Lords "went conservative" and built businesses, received foundation funding, and even organized an open house for police!  While in 1968 homicide began to skyrocket in black Chicago neighborhoods, in Lawndale it dropped by nearly a third. But the Vice Lords were seen as a threat by the Democratic machine.  It was not the assassination of Dr. King that ended the CVL's programs, as Gangland asserts,  but the 1969 "war on gangs" of Mayor Ricard J. Daley.   Gang leaders were arrested across Chicago including Bobby Gore on a questionable murder charge.  Two weeks after Gore's arrest,  Daley's States Attorney Edward Hanrahan led the police raid that took the life of Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers. CVL programs were de-funded and the heroic efforts of the men and women of the CVL ended in "shattered dreams." (For my own more complicating view in a video documentary, click here).

But to hear Gangland tell the "Holy City" story, the Vice Lords of the 1960s were really about stealing money to buy guns and continue on a crime spree. Their social programs were a hoax.   While the Holy City allows Bobby Gore and Bennie Lee to speak, their arguments are quickly rebutted by "authoritative" police spokesmen.  The Vice Lords, we are told,  are now and always were  a "vicious gang" made up of "career criminals."  The Holy City's message is that despite an "appearance" of doing good, the Vice Lords are really one thing:  bad.

Lord Thing is a corrective to this tale of evil.  But the notion that the Vice Lords were proto-revolutionary organizations (one Lord Thing scene shows demonstrators chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh") is also misleading. The Vice Lords were and are a street gang, one immersed in the life of survival on the streets and masculine contests of violence. While the CVL created a wonderful "Art and Soul" art studio alongside numerous commercial and cultural ventures,  gang violence and criminal activities never ceased. While homicide dropped in 1968, it was still much higher than in most Chicago neighborhoods and rose again in 1969 to among the highest rates in the city.

Chicago's Hull House has begun an important "CVL Traveling History Museum" to memorialize the heroic efforts of Gore and other CVL leaders to transform their gang. They remind us as well that the Vice Lords were made up of men and women who accomplished some amazing things. Their intention is to teach Chicago, and particular African American youth, that the life of the streets does not have to mean drugs and violence. There is another way and the CVL of the 1960s is a prime example.  Youth can take a path of social activism, not gang-banging.

The lesson to be taught about gang members however, is not that they are either good or evil, but like all of us, have both in their nature. The reality of the streets in Chicago is that survival means illegal ventures alongside licit employment. Gangs mean hyper-masculine "them vs us" violence, but they are also mass organizations of the streets that can potentially mobilize the "underclass" for social change.  Gangs can be seen as an arena for the struggle over identity, and projects like Hull House can challenge youth to decide whether their rebellion will lead them to become a gangster or a social activist?

We are captivated by simple narratives of heroes and villains,  where good and evil are depicted in unambiguous fashion.  Videos like Gangland's Holy City can be understood as "frames," a lens by which we prioritize some information and exclude or minimize others.  When a powerful frame like the Holy City is created, it can only be contested by first presenting "discrepant information" to challenge what is left out or distorted.  "Discrepant" means providing information that does not fit with a frame, in this case the frame of gangs as completely bad.  I see Lord Thing and the exhibit by Hull House as "discrepant information" to Gangland's, law enforcement's, and the mass media frame of gangs as evil..

But once this frame is questioned, we need to put a more complete counter-frame in place in order to win the public away from support for repression.  This has been my work over the past three decades. I am trying to use all the means at my disposal  — including this blog — to argue gangs are not simple examples of good or evil,  but made up of human beings who like all of us are trying to figure out how to survive and thrive, even if they often go about this destructively.  They are organizations of what are called the "socially excluded" and we need to realize that today gang members number in the tens of millions worldwide. We cannot simply jail or kill our way out of our gang problem. Gangs aren't going away no matter what we do.

This means we need to understand the multiple conflicting identities of gang members and struggle to promote what is positive and pro-social and work to isolate the very real tendencies toward violence and organized crime.  We need to oppose the simplistic answer of mass incarceration.  The discrepant information of Lord Thing and Hull House's exhibit help us challenge the dominant frame that supports one-sided policies of "war" on gangs.   But they take only the first steps toward a counter-frame of inclusive democracy.  Today's social movements, like Occupy Wall Street,  need to make more efforts to include what the French called sans culottes, the ill-clad warriors of the street, or they will surely fall short of their goals.

My role these past years has been trying to figure out how best to use "discrepant information" to construct a convincing counter-frame on gangs. It is a work in progress.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Interruptors: Why I don't like this movie.

I can’t join the parade for the recent movie The Interrupters.  I admire the former gang members, many of whom I know, working to stop the cycle of violence.  So what’s wrong?

You can see my problem by viewing this brief video clip from CeaseFire’s founder, David Kennedy. 

This is certainly an incredible tale with the emphasis on incredible.  To put it frankly, David Kennedy is lying.  Their own evaluations demonstrate that for all the millions of dollars in CeaseFire funding, there is little or no effect from their program. What we have with The Interrupters is the creation of a myth:  CeaseFire as a magic bullet to reduce violence. Send your money now. 1

Now, I admire the former gang members who work in CeaseFire. I know many of them and what they do is important and even noble. But what the police do is important too, if also problematic.  What churches and community organizations do is important.  There are many people out in Englewood besides CeaseFire putting their selves on the line on a daily basis, with little credit and less funding to “interrupt” violence.  What CeaseFire does is not new.  David Kennedy and his Chicago counterpart, Gary Slutkin, however, claim something more: that CeaseFire reduces violence and they point to a Northwestern University evaluation as proof. The problem is that if you actually read the evaluation, and more importantly the appendices where the data is displayed, you come to completely different conclusions than the PR spin from the academics who benefit most from the bloated administrative costs of CeaseFire and their newly claimed "superstar" status.

Carefully reading the study produces an embarrassment of riches. Since space is short, lets look at this chart buried in the body of the report.

Whoops. Except for one of seven Chicago neighborhoods, there is no demonstrable effect of CeaseFire’s programming by their own data.  A careful read of data analysis in the appendices by two respected academics, Richard Block and Andrew Papachristos, reveals statements again and again like “However the proportion of both the CeaseFire and comparison areas in the red or orange categories barely declined” (Block;  B-21) or  “both overall homicides and gang homicides dropped in the program and comparison areas, though neither change was statistically significant.” (Papachristos: C-12).

Papachristos even states that in Auburn-Gresham, the only neighborhood where there might be a CeaseFire effect:  “Yet, another spike in gang murders occurred in 2005, roughly two years after the start of CeaseFire”  (C-7).  Murders went up after CeaseFire was in full swing. What the heck is happening?

It’s not hard to figure out. Violence was already declining when CeaseFire began. Since they properly picked the highest violence neighborhoods, what we are seeing is “regression to the mean” or the tendency for high scores, or homicides, to decline over time toward the average. 

We might also ask the common sense question:  What accounts for variation in rates of homicide within a neighborhood?  CeaseFire is one intervention, but the evaluation admits that it does not take into account any other interventions or changed conditions that may have occurred.  Changes in police strategy?  Not measured. Changes in housing policy, which I showed to have a major effect on Chicago homicides in the 90s? Not measured. What about decisions by the gangs themselves, or action by churches or community groups that might vary by community?  Not measured, though Papachristos’ network analysis of gangs reports little or no changes in gang homicide.  What about neighborhood demographic changes or variation in employment? Not measured.

Some confusion may come from reading Skogan’s narrative in the evaluation. Nary a critical word can be found in his worshipful descriptions of CeaseFire. Where, for example, does he report on tensions with community agencies whose funding has been usurped by CeaseFire’s hogging of violence reduction resources? Where does he explore the problem of older former gang members who are completely out of touch with the younger generation? Where is the explanation of how much violence actually is “retaliation” and therefore even amenable to “interruption?”  The narrative is one-sided and uncritical, more fitting for a movie script than an expensive Justice Department evaluation.

And you know, sadly, it all comes down to the money. When the program started, violence was already on the decline and CeaseFire, just like the Chicago Police, claimed credit. What are they going to say when violence goes up? Oh, yeah, we need more money..... or cops. According to a state audit in 2007, CeaseFire in Illinois received more than $13 million,  not pocket change by any means.   The dozens of on-the-streets, risking-their-lives  violence interrupters, according to their own evaluation, were paid $189,050 total (3-19). CeaseFire is not a struggling grass roots program, but a multi-million dollar enterprise, now with their own myth-making movie.

Violence has deep structural roots untouched by Ceasefire.  A short paragraph at the end of the evaluation admits: “The reasons for this general decline in crime are, as elsewhere in the nation, ill-understood, and we could not account for possible remaining differences between the target and comparison areas in terms of those obviously important factors.”

But lets forget the facts. Watch the movie and send CeaseFire more money. The Open Society Institute has already swallowed the Kool-aid as CeaseFire is now in Iraq on its grand journey to “cure violence” all around the world. They say violence is a disease, like Aids, and the doctors have the cure.

Violence is not a disease, but that is a story for another day. My problems with CeaseFire begin with its shameless spin, and the movie adds to the myth. My reading of history is that major changes in behavior, like street violence,  occur with the emergence of mass social movements who challenge authority.   Social movements are about change. CeaseFire isn't about change, it's about big bucks.

1 CeaseFire in Boston is different in many respects from its more famous Chicago counterpart. Both, however, claim to have "the cure" for inner city violence. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Challenging the Frame: London's riots

Facing criticism for cutting police budgets, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to get tough on gang members and others he said were at the heart of recent riots and indicative of a breakdown in social norms in Britain.  Mr. Cameron has long argued that some young people have no sense of responsibility to society and little discipline in their lives, and that attitude has helped engender the riots, a narrative that many Britons were agreeing to this week.                                                                                      Wall Street Journal 

And Labour's response?  
 "Meanwhile, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, has urged the government to "think again" about police cuts, in the wake of rioting and disorder across English cities."

It appears there is a mainstream consensus on gangs in the UK, not unlike that in the US. Both major British political parties see a largely black underclass as spawning gangs and lacking discipline.  Taking his cue from US super-cop William Bratton, the issue has been framed as a breakdown in law and order due to lax morals among you-know-who.  Labour, ostensibly the opposition, meekly echoed the conservative perspective. 

The UK/US formula to answer riots and gangs boils down to "more cops, more prisons."  What research tells us is that this gets us .....more gangs!  And stronger, more organized, more criminal gangs. There is some evidence this is already happening as in the US, Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere. We need to be protected from violent offenders, but as a strategy to undermine gangs, mass incarceration is wrong, wrong, wrong. Cameron is putting the UK at serious risk.

But I'm sure the Prime Minister is not going to allow research to get in the way of a strong dose of stereotypes, and he'll surely stir in a spot of racialized demonization to boot.  So let's leave to one side the fact that the London rioters were not all black and underclass. There is deep alienation  among many white and black youth which triggered rioting after one too many incidents of police abuse.  But what is of interest to us here is the popularity of the right wing frame of a breakdown in law and order.  An "undisciplined and irresponsible" frame is widely held even by residents in poor black communities.  The media not only reports on this frame, but accepts and embellishes it. It becomes "common sense." 

How would we construct an alternate frame?  How can we tell a story of the riots that has a different message than one that leads inexorably to "crackdown?"  One thing I know, it doesn't begin by excusing violence.  A shop keeper who has lost his store is angry and wants to find a villain to blame. We need to have empathy for the victims of violence in any counter narrative and redirect their anger.

We have to realize that a new story, an alternative frame, however,  will not win everyone over.  Sadly, the right wing story line of  the need for sterner punishment is accepted by a large portion of public opinion, like those Tea Party supporters that cheered Gov. Perry's recored of executions.  Our immediate task is not to win over hard core law and order folk, but to provide a convincing story line that becomes "common sense" for three groups: 1. those liberals who strongly disagree with the right wing frame; 2. those in the center who may accept some of the "breakdown" frame, but not all of it; and 3. those on the streets and communities most affected, particularly non-white youth, even gangs.  A successful story, a "deep narrative," will make sense to all three groups. 

Our choice of words to describe what is happening in London is crucial. Some on the left may call the riots a "revolt" and, yes,  in part it is that.  "Revolt" helps us to realize that the central institutions of our society are not seen as legitimate by large segments of society.  But to frame the riots solely as "revolts" fails to recognize that the actions of youth are also destructive to their own communities and to themselves.  Gangs, as I've said are "organized nihilism."  Their rebellion is misplaced.

Richard Sennet and Saskia Sassen frame the discussion with the words "the cuts" and compare the Tea Party agenda with Cameron's Thrasher-emulating policies to devastate social services. This gets us part of the way there.  But it simultaneously avoids the issue of violence with the only answer left to us  is to elect Labour, whose limp response you've read above.  A successful frame has to challenge Labour and non-right wing parties and force a debate within them. 

So I need to put up or shut up, right? How would I tell the story?  Here's how I'd spin it:

"Things are getting worse for everyone except the very rich and powerful. What is happening in London is an old story, not a new one.  When conditions are deplorable in the poorest communities,   youth lash out and sadly they often harm their own. A better model for young people would be the "Arab Spring" where youth channeled their rage at their corrupt leaders and brutal police. Everywhere people are fed up with politicians and their rich friends who prosper while we suffer.  What is called for today are broad social movements, not violence, as the path to a more just society.

What we need are not more police and prisons but more jobs and less corruption. Police are surely part of the answer, but they are also part of the problem, particularly in non-white communities.   Those who commit acts of violence or arson need to be punished.  But we also should insist their rehabilitation includes rebuilding their neglected communities.

We need  leaders who will stand up to the super-rich and their right wing spokesmen. We need policies which will unite broad sectors of society, including youth and even those attracted to gangs.  If we had more jobs and fewer wars we wouldn't need so many prisons and police and then we'd have fewer gangs and riots."

So,  I've spoken and saved my soul. What do you think?  We need to become better at reframing the law and order perspective that sadly holds such broad appeal.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Exterminating Cockroaches

No popular media has influenced so many people on gangs as the History Channel's "Gangland."  As a disclaimer, I was approached near the beginning of the series and asked to consult. After viewing their  episode on the Aryan Nation, I declined. Gangland is long on scary images and gangsters looking and talking tough, but very short on context.  It is the definition of stereotypes, not research.

The Gangland world is not the world of the streets, but the world of the TV studio. Its a world of black and white, good and evil, Us vs Them. As in this clip about the Traveling Vice Lords in Memphis.

So are gang members cockroaches to be exterminated by the blue-clad good guys? Are they "shitbags" as a Chicago law enforcement gang specialist insisted, and nothing else?   Or are they human beings,  who do wrong and very real damage but also live everyday lives, with mothers and grandmothers, children, wives or husbands?  Here's a simple question:  What do gang members do more:   drive-bys or washing dishes?  In other words, like all of us, gang members are real human beings. Their lives are mainly mundane.

But what about the violence? We should do everything we can to prevent it and people who kill and harm others need to be punished. I'll have more to say about violence in future blogs, but we need to keep in mind that street violence isn't the only kind of violence oppressing us. Let's not forget our wars of questionable legality and whose victims are mainly noncombatants.  Phillipe Bourgeois calls that "Direct Political" violence.  Bourgeois also reminds us of "structural violence" of unemployment, racism, and poverty.  This leads to "Everyday Violence" of survival, with hyper-masculinity an ever present reality. Street violence needs to be kept in context. 

Lest we forget, the police aren't always the good guys. What consequences do you think Jon Burge had in Chicago by torturing over a hundred black male gang members? And what example do CPD units like SOS provide in Chicago, when they robbed drug dealers, sold the drugs to gangs, and set up one gang to the benefit of another? And when the cover-up was threatened, its leader,  CPD officer Jerome Finnigan,  hired a "2-6" gang member to murder a fellow officer!  Now that is setting an example. What a role model!

Finally, the "exterminating the cockroaches," "good vs evil" mindset is deeply embedded in western culture. While this is too much to deal with today,  our designation of people as "evil" and our lives as a cosmic battle goes back to the early years of Christianity, according to Elaine Pagels in her classic,   The Origin of Satan

Its not that evil doesn't exist. But I think evil is mainly a quality of behavior, not a way to categorize humanity into good vs. evil, non-gang vs gang, white vs black..... oops!  Maybe I spilled an official secret.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Mexican Mafia

This summer I testified at a RICO trial of two Mexican Mafia members in Del Rio, Texas. It was an unsettling experience, both in getting a clear look at the day to day work of the Texas Mexican Mafia, the Mexikanemi,  but also the actions and rhetoric of the government prosecution. The trial, if you can call it that, was little more than an act of ceremonial injustice.  When it comes to gangs in courts, apparently anything goes:  lies and perjury, bribery,  and making up facts that fit a demonizing prosecutorial story line.

In most testimony I give at trials I dispel stereotypes of a prosecutor alleging gangs are highly organized conspiracies, hierarchal organizations of evil.  In fact, most gangs are loosely organized, unsupervised kids and violence is almost always an act of desperation, anger,  or passion.  For example, a prosecutor often alleges a murder took place so the offender can "rise in rank in the gang" even when there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate it.  When gangs are involved, stereotypes quickly replace evidence.

But in this case I took a very different and, for me, troubling stance.  The US Attorney alleged the defendant was a Lieutenant in the Mexikanemi, and had ordered "hits" for six people at a "junta" or meeting near San Antonio.  The intended victims had failed to pay the "dime" or ten percent tax all drug dealers had to pay in "830" a Mexikanemi-controlled area around San Antonio and Del Rio.  What evidence did the government present? No audio or video recordings, no one who wore a wire, no non-gang testimony.  The only witnesses to the "conspiracy" were several former Mexikanemi soldiers who struck deals — one guy got two years for a murder — to testify they were at a mass meeting where the hits were openly ordered.  The plea deals were so obvious that at one point, the defense attorney told me,  a gang witness looked at the US Attorney and asked if he was telling his story right!

My testimony went to the contradiction in the government's case. They asserted both that the Mexikanemi was a secretive,  highly structured organization AND that a mass meeting of leaders and soldiers was held where ranked members ordered hits in front of a big group of members.  I testified that when "business" is being discussed in most structured gangs, care is typically taken to protect leadership. Potential prosecution revolves around snitches and it seemed "crazy" to me that multiple hits would be discussed in front of so many people. The "junta," I concluded,  was likely a figment of the US Attorney's imagination, invented in order to better make his case. 

The appointed defense attorneys seemed ill-equipped to provide a serious defense.  The jury returned their verdict in only a few hours,  but the verdict in this case was in before the trial even began. The trial was not merely Kafkaesque, but an elaborate myth rather than the reality of justice.  According to Meyer and Rowan, belief in a myth like "justice is being done" acts to legitimate law enforcement institutions. But this belief in "justice" need not have much to do with facts, the evidence, or any rational notion of "truth."  What is important is the appearance of justice,  a myth of the US Attorney as an avenging angel for the public, doing battle with Satan himself, in the case the evil Mexikanemi.   In his closing, the southern Texas US Attorney began with the trusted clichĂ© of terrorists and 9-11 and predictably proclaimed the absolute evil of the defendants. He said conviction was a "no-brainer." 

He was right. Trials like this are not about facts but about the potency of dominant myths to carry the day, or at least a jury. "Gangs" are reduced to images draped in evil and the prosecution case reinforces “implicit stereotypes" of them, as I mentioned in an earlier post.  Uncontested, dominant myths always win.

I had a close look at how the Mexikanemi works and indeed they are a organization that regulates the drug trade through violence.  But while the death toll mounts on the Mexican side of the border, the notion of a "spill-over" of violence is contradicted by the facts.  San Antonio's homicide rate has fallen to all time lows, with only four, yes, that's "4" drug related homicides in all of 2009.  Del Rio, a border city of 35,000, had only one homicide all of last year.  El Paso ranks as one of the nations SAFEST cities: Chicago's homicide rate is TWENTY TIMES higher.  While one homicide is too many,  the drug gangs in south Texas, like the Mexikanemi meet regularly between themselves and there are no drug wars as between cartels in Mexico.  Murder should always be prosecuted, but homicide is not a south Texas problem on the same magnitude as poverty, unemployment, health care, and our obsession with foreign wars. 

This data puts the government's hyperbolic prosecution of gangs in perspective.   We need to sadly recognize that our "law enforcement" agencies have too often produced perjured testimony and some prosecutors will do almost anything to get a conviction.  In Chicago, Police Commander Jon Burge, routinely used torture on gang members to produce convictions for prosecutors who apparently didn't care how he got the confessions.   

Today gangs and terrorists have become so evil in media and law enforcement eyes that torture, bribery, and lies are accepted as necessary to "prosecute" justice.  "Execution first, trial later" said the Queen of Hearts. This is why I do this blog: especially in court, we need research, not stereotypes.