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.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Amazing Transformation of William “Sonny” Fletcher

By John M. Hagedorn

Outta all the stuff I been through, I been shot and everything, left for dead and all this, it’s time for me to give something back and I’m doing it and I feel good about it.

Redemption. From the streets to the prisons and back to the streets. But now he isn’t robbing people — he’s helping them.

Born in 1957, his family was one of the first black families to move to Lawndale in 1960.  They owned the “Thirteen Ten Club” on Kedzie. As he grew up he watched the Vice Lords as they transformed from a street gang into a group that helped the community. He explains how the Vice Lords worked back then:

William "Sonny" Fletcher
…say that they snatched somebody’s purse …if Mrs. Johnson came up on the corner and told one of the guys “I know who did it my purse got snatched” call the police?  We’ll go get him and we’ll come up with the purse and mostly all the belongings maybe a little money be gone ‘cause drugs wasn’t that bad back then and we would deal with ‘em, you know what I’m sayin?  We’ll rough him up, where they know not to do it no more…  I mean Vice Lords did a lot, they paid some peoples rent…  They had buildings where people could stay in…..if you needed help they would help.

But Mayor Daley and his cops came down hard on the Vice Lords, cutting off funds for their programs and jailing Bobby Gore and other leaders.

…here’s a group of Black guys that trying to get together on something positive and you wanna destroy it, instead of saying “hey they doing something pretty good over there lets go over and talk to these guys and see what they doing? 

Sonny joined the Renegade Vice Lords and became a terror on the streets. He went to prison for the first time at 17:

Altogether I was incarcerated nine times.  I was just looking at it the other day and it was about 29 years altogether off and on.

He was a bright kid who fell under the lure of dope but gained a reputation in the prisons as someone to talk to, who would help with the law and getting along in prison. Then when he was released in 1981 he met Bobby Gore who was working at the Safer Foundation. He said he was Bobby’s “first success story.” Bobby told him:

“what are you doing here?” (I said)  I just come home man- Im trying to do something.  So he said  “look- don’t bullshit me, you want a job, you got a high school diploma.”    I said yeah I been going to college in the joint.  He said  “I can get you a job today.”

Sonny got that job at a gas station and within a month he was the manager. Today he works at St. Leonard’s, counseling younger men released from prison, leading them on a path away from crime. He has some strong, but simple advice:

But the young guys, they see me.  I’m talking ‘bout, they used to call me Mr. Buzzard.  I was a rough cat, anything goes.  Now I’m a substance abuse counselor.  When they say to me “Man, you don’t even come around no more, you don’t do this.”  I say “I come around.  When now when I come around.. you’ll say “what a transformation. No more robbing, no more dope.”  They ask me for money, but I’m not giving you any money to go out and kill yourself, I’m sorry.  “But you used to.”  I say “yes, think what you’re saying, I used to do a lot of things, I don’t do that anymore.”  And I try to explain to ‘em that doing what they doin’ now is easy.  Doing the right thing is hard.

You can still find William Fletcher at 16th & Lawndale. But now he isn’t robbing people but collecting food donations and sponsoring free meals. He’s organizing programs for summer jobs.  His plans include a social center in an abandoned building in the center of the “Holy City.”  He has found redemption in serving his community.   He’s doing the right thing and it ain’t hard no more.