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.