While walking home from school one day in September, 16-year-old Derrion Albert found himself caught in the middle of a fight that he had no intention of joining. A group of teenagers started beating him with wooden planks, ultimately killing him. The incident was caught on video and later circulated around the Internet, drawing attention to the problem of youth and gang violence that has reached an alarming level in the past few years. In 2008 there were 50 juvenile homicides in Chicago, the highest number in seven years. Albert’s death also drew attention to the effectiveness—or lack thereof—of the various programs that have been enacted to combat gang and youth violence.
Around 70 gangs operate in Chicago, with more than 100 thousand members among them. Chicago has long been notorious for its gang culture and for gangs’ influence on politics and business. But modern gang members aren’t like Al Capone. They are young—most under age 20—and usually in the business of trafficking hard drugs.
Why do kids join gangs in the first place? For one, it’s easy to do. Kids become members just by getting to know current members or by having family connections. For youths who need to help support their family, joining a gang and dealing drugs is a way to make some money. New recruits begin with small jobs—selling drugs on a street corner or taking a “hit” out on a rival gang member. As their reputation and respect within the gang increases, they move up to selling drugs in larger areas and managing other members.
Violence is an integral part of how gangs work. Like any other business, drug dealers must have a particular market niche, which in this case is their territory. Through turf wars, gangs reclaim and expand their market base. Smaller altercations can also arise when members enter a rival’s territory, or even if a member of a rival gang steals a member’s girlfriend. The damage can range from a small scuffle to a multiple homicide, and frequently, the younger, lower-rung members are the ones given the most violent assignments.
In the past few years, territorial issues have gotten more serious. In 1996, the Chicago Housing Authority began demolishing the Robert Taylor Homes housing projects to create new mixed-income housing; as a result, tens of thousands of residents had to relocate in the years leading up to the buildings’ final demolition in 2007. The Robert Taylor Homes were notorious for their gang populations, which had established territories around and within the projects. When the gangs were forced to move, they had to stake new ground or live in enemy territory, leading to more territorial battles and violent acts against rival gang members.
But gangs are more than a way to make money for Chicago’s youth; they are also means of gaining self-worth. According to Rudy Nimocks, former chief of the University of Chicago Police, gangs give “a place in society” to youths who do not get a sense of belonging from their parents or community. By doing violent work, young gang members earn praise and attention from the older members.
A typical teenager may receive similar plaudits for succeeding in school or extracurricular activities, but the areas in Chicago with high gang membership have some of the worst schools in the city. In 1997, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) began a program called Renaissance 2010 (Ren10) to change this situation. The initiative seeks to restructure 100 schools throughout the city by 2010, all of which will compete with each other in terms of student performance. Through this process, CPS has closed, restructured, and rezoned 43 preexisting public schools. The process moves thousands of students to different school in new neighborhoods, likely in another gang’s territory. Simply going to and from school has become a hazard for gang members and non-gang members alike in some areas.
Chicago continues to have one of the highest gang populations in the country, often alternating with Los Angeles for the top spot. According to U of C sociologist Irving Spergel, “Chicago is backward in dealing with [its] gang problem.”
Spergel believes solutions addressing one factor, such as education or housing, cannot permanently fix the situation. Teenagers may have a stronger incentive to stay in school, but that may not be enough if their parents are unsupportive or neglectful.
Instead, Spergel tried a multi-pronged approach. In the early ’90s he launched the Little Village Gang Violence Reduction Project, which sought to reduce violence among members in their late teens and early 20s and keep younger children from joining gangs in the first place. Police officers, community centers, schools, and former gang members who worked for the organization collaborated to help gang members get a job or go back to school. Reformed older gang members served as positive influences for younger kids, helping them stay away from gangs. Within five years of placing the program in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, there was a 40-percent reduction in the violence committed by the 200 participants.
Spergel’s model was chosen by the Department of Justice as the template for similar programs in five other American cities; a few Canadian cities also plan to enact it in the near future. However, when asked why it did not last in Chicago, Spergel said, “The city never really took over the program,” failing to give it the requisite funding to continue. Gathering information to determine whether the model was consistently effective also took a great investment of resources.
Long-term, government-based funding can be hard to come by for such programs if gangs are wrapped up in a city’s economy and politics. According to Spergel, besides their role in the drug trade, gangs have historically interacted with the city’s politicians during elections. “Gangs are available to support people who want to become [politicians]…[former] Mayor [Jane] Byrne was trying to get the Blackstone Rangers [to] get her elected,” Spergel said.
Nimocks agrees that a “holistic” neighborhood-wide approach like Spergel’s is the future of solving the gang problem. Although his focus is on younger children, he too thinks that community centers, schools, and other programs should communicate with each other and work together to create a zone of safety and positive reinforcement for children and older residents alike.
Nimocks looks toward the Harlem Children’s Zone, a project created in 1970 that combines community centers, family therapy, and educational reform to reduce violence and gang membership. President Obama has allocated $10 million in the 2010 budget for a “Promise Neighborhoods” program that will give 20 neighborhoods around the country funding to start a program following the Harlem model. Nimocks is campaigning for Woodlawn to be selected as one of these neighborhoods. Should the program work there, he hopes it will be expanded to other Chicago neighborhoods in need.
» Reducing Youth Gang Violence, Irving A. Spergel
» “Gang Supression and Intervention: Problem and Response Research Summary,” Irving Spergel, et al.
» “National Drug Intelligence Center: Attorney General’s Report to Congress on
the Growth of Violent Street Gangs in Suburban Areas,” April 2008
» “Youth Killings Reach Crisis Level In Chicago,” David Schaper, NPR, May 27, 2009