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?