Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Chiraq ain't Chicago

Spike Lee's new movie is NOT about Chicago.  'Chiraq' is a metaphor for senseless violence and the desperation of the public to stop it.  Chiraq is also Hollywood entertainment and if success is measured in dollars, it's a likely loser.
Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, the model for this movie, as one of a series of plays about the futility of the Peloponnesian wars.  Those wars devastated and exhausted Athens and Sparta between 431-404 BC.   Lee's comparison of the war-weary Athenian public to inner city African Americans works on a general level.

The message of both Aristophanes and Lee is the same: most wars are about power and masculine pride.  The true cost of such wars are measured in the lives of innocents. These wars can get out of control and the movie is a plea for peace. 

Okay, I buy that. And I liked the idea that a mass movement — in this case of women — is the way to force the warriors to put down their arms. This is also my argument in The In$ane Chicago Way, A World of Gangs, and People & Folks, my books on gangs. 

But there are many problems in the movie that alienated me.  First, as with Aristophanes, the characters in Chiraq are reduced to stereotypes, even cartoons. The gang leaders, for example, have no depth and seem only concerned with sex until Chiraq (the gang leader) is overwhelmed at the end of the movie with images of victims and repents.  The women are nearly all one-dimensional as well,  crude stereotypes of sex-obsessed black women wearing alluring attire. Such shallowness may have been all right in the Athenian theater, but we should expect more in a two-hour movie. What the shorthand of this movie does is reinforce racial stereotypes, not undermine them. 

Second, Lee's location of the movie prompts us to look for insights into Chicago's gangland. Don't. In the very first scenes of the movie,  comparing the deaths in Chicago in 2000-2015 to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, the movie veers away from reality.  The years since 2004 have marked the lowest level of homicide in Chicago since 1967. The violent years — the organized gang wars — were in the years 1989-1999 when Chicago's homicide rate was twice as high as now. Lee's nostalgic references to "back in the day when children weren't shot" forget the gang ordered murder of 11-year-old Yummy Sandifer in 1994, who was featured on the cover of Time and memorialized by Tupac.  We forget how much worse violence was during the gang wars. Once again, Lee reinforces media stereotypes. 

The climax of the movie is the signing of a peace treaty between gang leaders and with the mayor and police chief.  That's not happening today, even if women withhold sex.  There are no Chicago African American gang leaders anymore with the authority to negotiate any broader truce.  Young people don't know their laws and prayers but instead memorize sexist and violent "drill-style rap" lyrics. Today's gang-bangers are not directed from above, but are stimulated to violence by local incidents,  neighborhood feuds, episodic humiliations, petty drug deals, and social media provocations.  An early scene in the movie where a rapper is shot in a concert with provocative rap lyrics tweeted in text on the screen is intended to recall the 2012 Chief Keefe and Li'l Jo Jo beef.  But gang homicide today has dropped dramatically from the 1990s,  not getting worse as Chiraq would have us believe.

The hard reality masked by Lee's stereotypes is that no gang leaders or magic bullets can stop the kind of spontaneous gang violence we are witnessing today. The gang peace conference in 1999 described in In$ane ended in the assassination of a gang leader by his own gang homies as he tried to negotiate peace. The futile tactics of the Chicago Police and CureViolence to threaten or cajole gang leaders don't work because gang leaders aren't in control of any armies.  Rep. Bobby Rush's trip to the federal prison in Florence, Colorado  to meet with Jeff Fort and Larry Hoover was 20 years too late and out of touch with reality. The 1990s gang wars ended for many reasons spelled out in my book. But the principle outcome was the undermining of established gang leaders and fracturing of African American gangs. 

Don't forget I said Lee's movie was NOT about Chicago. But that made one aspect of the movie maddening. One of the lead characters in Chiraq,  who contextualizes the violence and leads the protest march is a white priest played by John Cusack.  He is supposed to represent the real-life Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabinas parish. In a Spike Lee movie, bewilderingly, a white person is the moral leader.  There are many views of Pfleger, but why are there no serious African American community leaders in the movie who talk to gang youth and work for peace?  Why didn't Spike Lee feature Minister Farrakhan or the active NOI gang outreach of Minister Michael D Muhammed?  If the movie is only loosely tied to present day Chicago, why feature a white priest?

I think this is the Hollywood angle of the movie. Chiraq seeks to be a cross-over and such movies need white heroes. I'm not sure it's going to work. My wife and I went to the movie at prime time in an upscale theater near our home.  There were only about two dozen people in the audience and we were the only whites.  What message did placing a white priest as the voice of reason and empathy send?  In Chicago's ghetto,  as well as in other cities,  it is African American community leaders who do the lion's share of the work for peace.   Shame on you, Spike Lee.

I was also unsatisfied with the film's minimizing of the impact of police violence. The movie invoked BlackLivesMatter with a familiar list of names of victims.  The idea that police violence, like the horrific police execution of Laquan McDonald,  has played a major role in stoking the hostility of black youth is totally absent.  As I said in the last line of In$ane, "In Chicago and elsewhere, history shows the gang problem is broader than just a problem of gang members."   This movie lets the cops off the hook.

Spike Lee's movie is about stereotypes. Unfortunately, instead of undermining them, he promotes them. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Laquan McDonald and the CPD's Responsibility for Chicago's Gang Problem

      An appropriate uniform design for the CPD

nternal Chicago Police Department documents claimed recently that gangs were attempting to use the protests of the murder of Laquan McDonald to commit crimes and attack police!  Huh?  

What Laquan's murder actually shows is the culpability of the Chicago Police for the severity of Chicago's gang problem.

Police culture in Chicago has always been ugly, racist, and corrupt. It's history, Richard Lindberg summarizes in his book on the CPD is "to serve and collect."  The problem isn't really accountability. The CPD has always been supremely and supinely accountable..... but to the machine not the people. 

My conclusion from more than a decade of research on Chicago gangs is this: corruption and brutality by the CPD  are principle reasons why Chicago has had such an entrenched gang problem. 

Lets look back.  A major reason why the Outfit, Chicago's mafia, has been around now for more than a century is their cozy relationship to the top echelons of the machine and the CPD. Al Capone was best buds with Mayor Big Bill Thompson in the 1920s.  For decades the Outfit got away with murder.....  literally.  Here is what the reform commissioner OW Wilson said in the early 1960s about his CPD's record clearing Outfit murders: 

           Since 1919 there have been 876 gangland-style slayings in the Chicagoland area. [Of these] only two                                have been cleared by arrest and conviction of the killers.

The CPD did more than allow Outfit hitmen to operate with impunity.  In 1997, Chicago Police Superintendent and champion of "community policing" resigned when it was disclosed he vacationed with Outfit figures. In my book, The In$ane Chicago Way, I report Rodriguez's protection of an Outfit hit man, Pierre Zonis, who was also a Chicago police officer. And then there was Deputy Superintendent and Chief of Detectives William Hanhardt who was convicted in 2001 on running jewel theft ring for the Outfit. And don't forget influential Alderman Fred Roti who was indicted in 1990 for fixing a murder trial, racketeering, and extortion.  The FBI publicly named him as mafia "made man'" while Alderman.  The Outfit has persisted for a century in no small part to active support by the CPD and the machine.

The CPD's policy toward African American street gangs, on the other hand, was brutal repression and lawless violence.  Corruption didn't stop, but as I conclude in In$ane, changed its nature and vastly expanded during the war on drugs. When the gangs took over retail drug sales, the Outfit did not also order their loyal servants in the CPD to protect the new vice lords and gangsters. As the "Don," a blue blood Outfit leader told me in an interview for In$ane, "Without the cops none of this could happen." The gangs had to do it from the bottom up while the Outfit did it from the top down as our study of police corruption showed.

However, the main way the CPD has fueled Chicago's gang problem has been by its brutal and lawless behavior. The outright assassination  of Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton by Chicago Police was only a sign of horrors to come. We can never forget how Jon Burge tortured more than a hundred African American gang members.  No officer reported him, though the screams could be heard throughout the station house. Burge represented the attitude by Chicago Police and their machine masters that extreme brutality on black people was acceptable.  To the CPD and machine, black lives have never mattered. Oh, buy off their votes when necessary, but treat them as less-than-human on the streets. If you were repeatedly beaten and locked in cages like a dog,  how would you respond? The history of  racist hostility by the CPD  explains the strength of gang culture in Chicago. And that brings us back to Laquan.

There are three important points about the murder of Laquan McDonald. First is the assumption by officer Jason Van Dyke that gunning down a black man would be acceptable. "I feared for my life" is now the standard response of police killers. Before they were caught on camera, they got away with it — and often still do.

Second, there were good reasons for him to think he could get away with it.  Just as fellow officers heard the screams of Burge's torture victims,  look at all the officers in the video allowing Van Dyke to kill. When gang members are present at a murder, prosecutors charge them all as party to a crime and they are deemed by law to be as guilty of the murder as the shooter.  The CPD may be upset that the community has a no-snitching culture, but the only effective no-snitching culture in Chicago is the blue code of silence.

Finally, States Attorney Anita Alvarez, McCarthy and Emanuel were aware of the murder and kept it under wraps.  John Kass points out that if the video was made public before the mayoral election, Emanuel likely would have lost to Chuy Garcia. If there wasn't a storm of protest and a "smoking gun" video do you think they would have ever fired Van Dyke or indicted him? Even Burge was never indicted for his tortures.   Laquan's murder was not an aberration but business as usual by the CPD.

Protestors are filling the streets. The CPD's ploy to "look out for gangs using the protests to attack officers" fools no one.  It has been the long standing violence by police against African Americans that has fueled Chicago gang hostility and fanned violence in the black community.  To understand why black youth are so hostile just watch the video.  The BlackLivesMatters movement has the capacity to focus the anger on the streets toward police reform and the machine.

A measure of justice for Laquan should include the indictment of all those police present at the shooting who did not immediately arrest Van Dyke. And it should include the resignation of Alvarez, McCarthy, and Emanuel for trying to cover up a murder.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Talking Common Sense About Gangs and Violence

The violence problem in Chicago is mainly about race, not gangs, guns, laws, or cartels.  

That’s what I’ve learned from two decades of gang research in Chicago.  Today there are more Latino than African American gang members and gangs in Chicago.  Yet nearly 80% of homicide victims and offenders are African American.  Despite this, CPD Superintendent McCarthy and Mayor Emanuel continue to blame “gangs" and avoid linking homicide to Chicago’ history of racial oppression.

Other conventional explanations for homicide also fall flat.  There is no evidence that homicide fluctuates with a rise or fall in the number of guns, which have plagued our streets for decades.  The  Chicago Reporter recently pointed out harsher penalties for gun laws are also uncorrelated with homicide drops.

The notion that our homicide rate is a product of drug cartel rivalries is similarly specious.  The cartels are Mexican and their local distribution thrives on kinship connections. The cartels have been at war in Mexico for nearly a decade yet their violence has not spilled over even to the other side of the border, much less Chicago.  El Paso, only a bridge away from violence-plagued Juarez,  is statistically one of the safest cities in America. The DEA may claim violence in Spike Lee’s “Chiraq” is about drug cartel rivalries, but their self-serving proclamations stretch credulity. 

Our homicide rate, with two small spikes and dips, has stayed constant for more than a decade. With an alarming number of gunshot wounds, it makes sense that random fluctuations in the number of people dying of gun injuries account for occasional increases and drops in deaths. Our homicide rate has settled in at about four times higher than New York City and half of Detroit’s. There is no evidence law enforcement tactics or interventions by groups such as CureViolence have had any measurable impact on our city’s homicide rate since its 50% decline from 1992 to 2004.

Superintendent McCarthy blames the gangs for violence but maybe he doesn’t understand that gangs in Chicago are radically different than in the 1990s. My book, The In$ane Chicago Way, explains how organized wars,  led by incarcerated gang chiefs,  brought homicide levels in the 1990s to twice as high as they are today.  Those wars didn’t end because of any new police tactics, but rather exhausted and fractured the gangs, breaking the hold of the old gang leaders. Today’s black gang members particularly are rebellious even against their old gang chiefs. 

Current research by Robert Aspholm and others finds violence is driven by spontaneous,  local incidents, sometimes gang related, sometimes not.  Drill raps on YouTube often replace memorized gang “laws and prayers” as motivations for violence.  What underlies the shootings in black communities are the same factors that for a century have produced higher rates of African American violence:  the daily humiliations of powerless, desperate, unemployed black men.  

From the 1919 race riots to the years of restrictive covenants and “hidden violence” to the building and then destruction of CHA housing projects there has been an unbroken line of oppressive conditions in Chicago’s black communities.  Have things gotten better?  Despite a growing middle class, the black poverty rate has increased since 1960 to reach one third of all African Americans. Indices of segregation have remained unchanged since the 1960s and the black unemployment rate has doubled. The pool of young, poor, unemployed black men are still on street corners and they are killing each other as this 2012 Chicago Reader graphic shows.

The attempt to blame the gangs fundamentally diverts attention from  the fact that to McCarthy’s police and the Emanuel machine to which he owes allegiance — black lives don’t really matter. In the 1990s CPD clearance rates for homicide ranged from 64% to 69%. The Superintendent admitted that by September 2015, only 23% of all homicides were cleared. Read that again: less than one in four homicides resulted in an arrest.   When the gangs were at war in the 1990s it was relatively easy to figure out who was doing the shooting.  Despite gang claims they don’t snitch to police, court records show they did, pointing their fingers at rival gang shooters. Today, shootings are more spontaneous, and less controlled, making them in a way more dangerous. Young men hand out violent street justice as retaliation since police can’t seem to find the actual offenders.

This means McCarthy should stop his out of date tactics of threatening old gang leaders to control youthful members over which they no longer exercise control. His “Call Ins” claimed their first death October 13 when Tracey Morgan was gunned down after a meeting with CPD officers. While there have been persistent attempts by gangs to minimize their own violence, from the People & Folks coalitions to Spanish Growth & Development,  gang leaders today simply do not have the legitimacy, organization, or authority to stop the shootings.

Blaming the gangs also diverts attention away from police brutality and corruption. Jon Burge’s legacy has not been forgotten and serious attempts to bring real accountability to McCarthy’s CPD have been largely frustrated. My book demonstrated how police corruption helps gangs thrive. While good police work is part of the solution, bad police work is part of the problem.

All violence is paid for, the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu said. Chicago’s “structural violence” of racism and poverty is coming back to haunt us in many ways, including the hostility of poor young black men.  The rebellion that has been going on in Ferguson for the past year may be a portent of the fire next time in Chicago. 

Here is the uncomfortable truth: There is no easy answer to violence in Chicago.  Our city has to soberly confront its legacy of racism in employment, housing, education, and policing. McCarthy and Emanuel should stop blaming the gangs and calling for new repressive legislation. If the mayor is serious about reducing violence he needs to steeply increase investment in black communities. The best way to prevent violence is to provide hope to the desperate underclass of African Americans in our city. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Trumping the Gang Problem

Donald Trump has a solution for this country’s gang problem. He says strong leaders, like himself or certain police chiefs,  could solve our country’s gang problem if only their hands were untied. Here are some of his thoughts on gangs:  

“We’re going to get rid of those gang members so fast your head will spin”…..“One of the first things I’m going to do is get rid of those gang members”….. Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy “is a phenomenal guy.  He could stop this if we allowed him to stop it. … Believe me.”

Well I don’t believe him one bit. When McCarthy became the CPD police chief, he vowed to “eradicate” the Maniac Latin Disciples. Even his own officers made fun of him on that one.   I’ve been doing research and working with gangs for more than thirty years. Gangs aren’t going away no matter what we do.  With high levels of poverty, inequality, and racism,  gangs are now a permanent fixture in American’s urban landscape. 

I’ve concluded a bigger problem than gangs is our poisonous culture of demonization.  Trump exemplifies this demonization, but he is far from alone. Any trip to a courtroom where a gang member is on trial will reveal even more outrageous comments from prosecutors. For example, in one Georgia court where two gang members were on trial, the prosecutor told the jury that the name of the gang, “Folks” stood for “Followers of Our Lord King Satan.” Let’s see: young, black, male, gang members, accused of murder and being devil worshippers to boot! It didn’t take long for the all white jury to come back with the death penalty. 

I wasn’t in the courtroom for the trial, but years later I was called in on a habeas corpus hearing on the basis that the defendants had received ineffective counsel. I brought along a letter from a former Chicago gang squad officer saying how ridiculous the prosecution's “Folks” assertion was.  The death penalty still hovers over these two young men as the courts weigh the fate of the habeas petition. But demonization is standard fare for prosecuting gangs.

Rather than seeing the gang problem as having complex structural, cultural, and situational roots, gangs are essentialized by the media, politicians, police, and prosecutors as little more than evil cartoon characters.  And if gangs are evil, Trump’s final solution might be similar to Kurtz's in Conrad’s  Heart of Darkness:  “Exterminate All the Brutes.”  You can’t reform evil so why try? Destroy that which you fear! Deport! Incarcerate!  Annihilate!  Let’s not take time to think, let's stamp them out — now!

Life is not so simple and never was.  In my new book, The In$ane Chicago Way,  I look at the darkest side of Chicago gangs, their horrific wars, ties to organized crime, and widespread corruption of police.  In my other books I was focused on debunking gang stereotypes, but in this one I narrate the story of gang leaders bent head over heels on grabbing power and money.  I describe police who became drug kingpins in an unholy alliance with those gang chiefs.  But my message in In$ane is familiar: “Gangs are not one thing.” We need to think first and then react. 

The gang leaders who rushed to war in the 1990s number at most in the dozens and are mainly out of the picture now. Professional hitmen exist but it is hard to be a hitman and most don't last long.  The current fracturing of gangs in Chicago in part is a healthy rebellion of young gang members who were sent to kill, die, or spend their lives in jail by power tripping “OGs.”  We have a unique opportunity now to win youth away from gang life and enlist them in the struggle for social change. The #BlackLivesMatter movement represents the most exciting possibility in generations for a social movement that includes the streets. We should all join in.

But the 2016 elections are a dangerous time for demonization.  Trump has realized “law and order” has been a winning policy for US voters at least since Nixon.  Mass incarceration, stepped up deportations, and wars against gangs and drugs have defined both Republican and Democratic administrations for almost 50 years.  Dare I suggest we have failed to learn the lessons of the rise of Hitler and Mussolini? Have we forgotten the KKK and their terrorist lynchings? Do we still remember the names of Emmett Till, Michael Brown, and Milwaukee's Dontre Hamilton?  Have we forgotten where unrestrained scapegoating can lead?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ferguson, Social Movements, and Gangs

I went to Ferguson for the one year commemoration of the murder of Michael Brown. I accompanied my wife and Maria Hamilton, whose son was killed by Milwaukee police last April.  I came away deeply moved by the dynamism of the young activists. It was clear to me that #BlackLivesMatter is spearheading a new black liberation movement that just might have the potential to transform society and reach alienated youth.

We were in Ferguson for the marches, the shootings Sunday night, and the civil disobedience Monday. We supported those who were arrested at the Department of Justice and trained for confrontation but fortunately were not among those jailed.  The crowd was exuberant,
At the Canfield Green Apartments where Michael Brown  was 
shot by police and laid for 4 and a half hours in the street after
 he was shot. 

chanting “We’ve Already Won” at the lines of armed cops.  One young girl was wearing a T-shirt that summed it up: “This Ain’t your Momma’s Civil Rights Movement.”

No indeed. This new movement is decentralized,  organized yet not organized, and its youthful activists exhibit courage, street smarts, and dedication. They don’t take orders from anyone. This new, dynamic set of comrades rely on social media to mobilize and educate, and won’t let the constant police provocations hold them back.  Police murders are the essence of dehumanization and Michael Brown’s death has sent Ferguson into a state of rebellion.  Young people are screaming, “Enough is Enough.”  This is an American Intifada and I’m on their side.

But the events in Ferguson are not one thing. I was not foolish enough to think in a few days I could learn anything about the gangs and the extent of their participation in the uprising. Lots of people claim they know, but there is no serious research. We heard that gang members in Ferguson pledged at one time to put down arms against one another and unite against police. So did Baltimore gangs, who publicly denounced lies that they were planning to shoot police and called for calm. In Seattle the gangs marched together. #BlackLivesMatter seems to be reaching the most alienated.

If there is hope to stem gang violence, I don’t think it lies in formal programs like CureViolence or law enforcement schemes to threaten leaders, or even less in the failed strategy of mass incarceration.  As I have been writing from People & Folks to A World of Gangs to The In$ane Chicago Way, the real hope for us is to pull gang members into social movements —  like those in Ferguson.  Gangs are by nature made up of desperate, angry young men and women. I’m sure they are among the those on Florissant Street confronting the police. These youth are setting the fire this time for all of us.

It’s not clear how the gun play started Sunday night. Some claimed two groups of youth were shooting at one another. Just because there is a movement for justice does not mean the internalized anger of black youth will be easily channelled into activism.  The movement may offer hope, but it doesn’t promise as many jobs as the dope game.  As it stands, our movement can’t even get more than a few killer police indicted, much less punished for murder. This won’t make gang kids’ anger go away but instead will heat it up.

In The In$ane Chicago Way I looked at how Latino gangs with their superior connections to Mexican cartels built a Spanish mafia in Chicago.  Black gang members, already at the bottom of conventional society are also at the bottom of the drug game. In Chicago their old hierarchical “street organizations” have shattered. Like the movement in Ferguson, black gangs are decentralized and their youthful members look to social media not self proclaimed leaders for inspiration. 

What Ferguson taught me was the vital importance of reaching out now to black youth on the streets. The In$ane Chicago Way argues that organized crime is a serious threat to our youth. However the lack of legitimacy of the old gang leaders means street youth are looking for something new and events in Ferguson show us the way.  We need to realize #BlackLivesMatter means gang members too.  The alternative to joining this powerful social movement is watching our youth succumb to an even deeper cycle of despair and destructiveness.  Ferguson is above all a call to action.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Spectacle, Desperation, and Justice

I'm for the deal for a new arena.  Whether you like it or not, in today’s world you can not address the needs of the city of desperation without a city of spectacle.

Urban scholars are looking to a city of spectacle like Rio de Janerio, Los Angeles, or Barcelona as the 21st century standard.  The industrial city model,  like Milwaukee, Cincinnati, or Gary have been replaced by high tech or tourist capitols like San Francisco, Denver, or Miami,  or even a sports mecca, like Indianapolis.  

Chicago’s rebirth was not based on recapturing the steel industry or meat packing of a dead industrial era.  Millennium Park, Navy Pier, museums, and a host of near-by sports facilities were incentives for highly paid professionals to settle on Chicago for a suitable residence.  Chicago’s banking, futures, and nascent information industries in the Loop have near-by amenities that attract and sustain their wealthy middle and upper class consumers.  Spectacle is necessary to attract capital and their high wage workers.

This means rejuvenating Milwaukee is more than raising — or lowering — the minimum wage. In order to recharge our economy our city has to agglomerate corporations in a few key sectors, like medical technology or water.  But to do that it needs spectacle, starting with the underused Calatrava, our summer festivals, the Harley museum, and the Potawatomi Casino (bizarrely misplaced in the Menomonie Valley after their proposed move downtown was vetoed by former Mayor Norquist).  If the Bucks arena is rejected, what kind of strategy do our leaders have to rejuvenate a truly depressing downtown Milwaukee?  

But the dark side of the city of spectacle is the city of desperation.  Milwaukee is both one of the poorest cities in the US and one of its most segregated.  Black lives apparently don’t matter in this city even in a debate over a mainly African American sport.  Mark Levine’s sobering research on the depths of inequality in our city needs to be heeded.  My own research on gangs in 1980s and 1990s Milwaukee predicated that absent a turn about in jobs for the very poor, gangs would not go away.  

And they haven’t. In Chicago, the danger of a one-sided city of spectacle can be seen in the depths of hostility in all-black, high poverty,  high homicide areas like Englewood and Lawndale.  Chicago’s leaders appear to have been blinded by spectacle and have wanted the public to not think about the wrenching poverty and desperation of the ghetto. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been franticly trying to control the headlines about “Chiraq’s” stubborn homicide rate.  Do you know Milwaukee’s murder rate is even higher than Chicago’s?  The city of desperation is a moral stain on us all and cannot be ignored.

Opposition to the Bucks arena come from a variety of interest groups.  Common Ground has proposed tying Bucks public funding to giving the Milwaukee Public Schools $150 million to rebuild playgrounds.  A coalition of labor leaders has demanded high wages for local construction workers saying,  Good Deal or No Deal.  Others, like Stan Stojkovic, argue that funding higher education has more benefits than having a pro Basketball team.

It is crucial to struggle for investment in the central city.  Construction jobs should be high wage and include minority set asides and quotas for black and other minority workers. It is also important to  invest in, not cut, higher education.  What could be more foolish in an information era than to threaten one of the nation’s top universities?  

But the opposition to the Bucks arena needs to recognize the nature of the 21st century city is inextricably linked to creating a city of spectacle. The entertainment district proposed around the Bucks arena is a sensible piece of an overall strategy toward concentrating amenities for the wealthy and middle class.  Forcing the Bucks to move would be an act of urban suicide. 

But that does not mean we have to remain silent on the needs of the city of desperation. We need to link the two cities whenever we can.  Indeed the Bucks arena financing might have provided some leverage but the needs of Milwaukee's ghetto have been lost in a foolish debate about whether it would be cheaper to keep the Bucks or let them move.

I want to watch Giannis and Jabari bring Milwaukee an NBA championship. But most of all I want to see a City of Justice that can link the dollars brought by spectacle to addressing the needs of the desperate.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter and Gangs

In Ferguson, gangs are among those protesting the police murder of Michael Brown. In Baltimore Bloods and Crips denounce rioting and call for peace.  Are we witnessing something new where black gangs join in political protest rather than shooting one another?  No, we’ve seen this before and there are important lessons from history for the “new civil rights movement” about gangs.

  As a scholar who has called for the inclusion of gangs in social movements from People & Folks, to The In$ane Chicago Way, I’m closely focused on current developments. Police killings, brutality, and corruption are daily realities on the streets and gangs have a self interest in opposing police misconduct. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has created an “injustice frame” that has mobilized people from all walks of life, including gangs.   It has long been my mantra that “gangs are not one thing” and gang members have “multiple conflicting identities.”  Among other things this means gangs can take an activist role — and historically they have.

In the 1960s, gangs in both LA and Chicago were politicized.  In the HBO movie, Bastards of the Party,  gangs are described as the offspring of the Black Panther Party,  following Mike Davis’s history in City of Quartz. At the same time in Chicago, the Black Panther Party sought an alliance with street gangs mediated by civil rights leaders, including Useni Perkins, whose book The Explosion of Chicago’s Black Street Gangs is must reading. In the 1990s the NYC Latin King and Queen Nation took a pro-social path richly documented by David Brotherton and Luis Barrios. My own book, A World of Gangs, finds many examples of politicized gangs around the world.

What have these historical experiences taught us about gangs and activist politics? 
  1. Law Enforcement will make concerted efforts to suppress any gang involvement in social movements and create divisions between gangs and activists.    We see this today in Baltimore. After the gangs announced a truce the Baltimore Police Department spread the slanderous story they had “credible information” that the truce was designed to allow gangs to target police officers for assassination.  In 1969, Chicago gang politicization prompted Mayor Daley to declare “war on gangs” killing and jailing important leaders.  In both LA and Chicago the FBI did all they could to incite violence between the Black Panthers and gangs.  In the 1990s the New York City Latin Kings' leadership were indicted in order to crush a transformed ALKQN. Gang involvement in politics in all three cities were effectively suppressed by law enforcement.
  2. Historically, gangs who turned to activism had strong organization and progressive leaders, unlike the situation today.   In Chicago Bobby Gore was a transformational leader of the Vice Lords as was King Tone in New York. These leaders inherited strong organizational structures and through force of personality led their gangs into pro-social action. Today, at least in Chicago, the black gangs have little formal organization. The old leaders were discredited by the horrendous gang wars of the 1990s that cost thousands of lives.  Contemporary black gangs are not nearly as organized as their 1960s counterparts.  On the other hand,  with weakened organization, the alienated and hostile young gang members may be open to being individually or in small groups pulled into activism. There is an important opportunity today to reach out to gang members who may be willing to join the protests. 
  3. Unfortunately,  desperation on the streets and police repression means other paths, including organized crime, remain attractive options for street youth.   What we learned from Chicago in the 1960s was that while the gangs were being politicized some of their leaders were also negotiating with the mafia to control retail drug markets. Both progressive politics and organized crime coexisted among gang leaders who led a desperate, alienated membership.  Both then and now the uncertainties of real progress,  repressive policies of law enforcement, and the seduction of a lucrative and ‘always hiring’ entrepreneurial gang, means sustained activism by gang members is unlikely. 
This does not mean we should neglect or reject participation of gangs and their members from the new civil rights movement. If we are ever to build a real movement that benefits those on the bottom of society, we need to include the US's one million gang members as allies. We must resist the lies of law enforcement and oppose their transparent tactics promoting disunity. But we also need to heed the lessons of history and understand gangs are not one thing. For me, the guiding point remains:  #BlackLivesMatters includes gangs. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Stereotypes Can Kill

March 24, 2015

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Fire & Police Commission upheld the firing of former MPD officer Christopher Manney after he shot and killed Dontre Hamilton last April 30.  I spent four hours one day observing the hearing.  What was very clear and disturbing was that the decision whether to sustain or overturn MPD Chief Flynn’s firing of Manney was made on technical grounds of whether Manney followed MPD rules and training.  The entire hearing turned our attention away from the most obvious and important aspect of this killing: one more young black man killed by police.

Manney was fired on two grounds. First, he was accused of stereotyping homeless people and acting based on a general conception that homeless people had weapons, knives and such.  In the first count of the charges, Manney’s statements to police investigators had not included any evidence that these stereotypes applied to Dontre. His pat down of Dontre thus violated policy and MPD rules. Based on Manney’s own words, there was no reason to pat Dontre down, and doing so led to a confrontation that took Dontre’s life. 

In social science terms, Manney was fired for being guilty of the ecological fallacy,  mechanically applying characteristics of a group to a specific case.  “Homeless people often carry weapons; therefore Dontre carried a weapon.”  Manney was found guilty of using stereotypes.  And stereotypes, we discover once again, can kill. And Dontre wasn’t even homeless. 

The second count was based on Manney’s response to count one. Once Manney realized he had not made a case to police investigators for Dontre’s dangerousness, he changed his tune.  He said he actually had feared for his life because of Dontre’s aggressive reactions, including a kicking motion and a “thousand yard stare.” If this was true, the charges read, then Manney again violated rules and policy by not asking for backup. 

The Chief repeatedly has said that Manney’s shooting of Dontre Hamilton was not a criminal act. The shooting was deemed justified by an officer being in fear for his life. The firing was not framed as a homicide, but as a technical rule violation, one that had the “unfortunate” consequence of taking a human life, i.e. Manney shooting Dontre 14 times. In our celebration of Manney’s firing we can’t lose sight of the fact that Manney is a free man and Dontre lies dead.

Flynn himself has radically changed how he framed the shooting. The police union attorney, in his cross examination of Flynn, played a video of the press conference Chief Flynn had given the day after the killing. At that time Flynn decried deinstitutionalization of the homeless and mentally ill which made controlling them a police matter. He complained how dangerous the mentally ill are and how forcing police to deal with violent homeless men is bound to result in situations like the death of Dontre Hamilton. The police are overwhelmed, Flynn said in his best liberal manner, and until broader social policies are adopted, killings of people like Dontre Hamilton are inevitable.  The day after the shooting Flynn’s chosen frame was to defend his officers against crazed, dangerous, mentally ill homeless people— like Dontre. 

Oh yes, and Dontre was black. You wouldn’t know it from the hearing, from the union or city attorney or Chief Flynn.  All mention of race was missing from testimony even though racist police violence oppressively and persistently hangs over this and many other cities. To frame means your attention is focused on what is inside the frame and you are directed away from considering what is outside. I listened as the legalistic words of both sets of lawyers and the judge expunged race from the proceedings.  

The frame of this hearing was only whether Manney abided by MPD policy or not.  A policy, I might note that has been relied on by police and city officials to justify dozens of police killings of Milwaukee black men over the years. They didn’t need to shout “THIS IS NOT ABOUT RACE!”   They just ran the hearing as if race didn’t matter.  Race was outside the frame. Once our attention is focused on what is inside a frame, i.e. the police rules, we don’t need to recognize the shadow of a tombstone in the room, one more unarmed black man killed by police. Everyone seems to agree: “They” are dangerous and “they” are the homeless but we all know who else “they” are. The power of framing lies in what is said but also what is unsaid. 

Flynn’s day after “police-are-facing-violent-homeless-people” framing was very different from his technical defense of his firing decision many months later.  Why the change? In the months that followed Flynn’s initial defense of Manney, the country’s streets erupted in protest over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Do you think the thousands marching in Ferguson and New York had any influence as Milwaukee wondered whether they also will face protests, rioting, and violence?  Do Flynn and Milwaukee's Mayor Barrett watch the news? Without the protests filling our TV screens and the Hamilton family’s brave stand,  Dontre’s death would likely have been dealt with routinely and Manney would have been returned to duty. 

I think the Chief’s firing of Manney and the Fire & Police Commission action was a concession to our movement.  But we also need understand it as a conscious attempt to divert attention away from racist killings by Milwaukee Police.  #BlackLIvesMatter remains our powerful counter frame.