Understanding Contemporary Gangs and Violence in Chicago

I am very excited about Views from the Streets. It addresses central questions in contemporary gang research. . . It does so by offering what is deeply needed but rarely accomplished in this field: a grounded analysis providing a convincing, cogent understanding of local history and social dynamics. Moreover and most refreshingly, it appreciates rather than ironicizes and pathologizes the voices of gang members. This is the book I’ve been waiting for: a nuanced explanation that matters.

~Robert Garot, author of Who You Claim: Performing Gang Identity in School and on the Streets

In today’s guest blog post, Roberto R. Aspholm, author of Views from the Streets: The Transformation of Gangs and Violence on Chicago’s South Side, discusses the persistence of gang activity in Chicago, as well as the contemporary dynamics of gangs and violence in Chicago.

If you enjoy what you read, make sure to enter our giveaway for a chance to win a copy of this book.

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Why have levels of violence in Chicago remained so stubbornly high, especially when they have continued to fall in most other U.S. cities? What role do the city’s street gangs play in this violence? Why have highly touted, evidence-based interventions failed to reduce violence in Chicago over the last decade and a half? What might be done to more fruitfully address these issues?

These are among the pressing questions that have perplexed researchers, law enforcement officials, policymakers, and the broader public since the middle years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Indeed, the public’s recent fixation on Chicago’s persistently appalling levels of violence and deeply rooted gang culture represents only the most recent chapter in a century-long dynamic in which the city has been cast as a national symbol of gang deviance, unchecked violence, and urban pathology. Yet, despite this cyclical deluge of media attention and moral hand-wringing, a dearth of recent street-level research has left our collective understanding of these issues and what might be done to address them decidedly wanting.

The reality at the close of the twenty-first century’s first decade was that Chicago’s infamous corporate-style gangs, whose wars over illicit drug markets drove the city’s homicide rate to an all-time high during the early 1990s, had been largely relegated to a remnant of local gang lore.

Views from the Streets: The Transformation of Gangs and Violence on Chicago’s South Side offers some timely insights into these dynamics. The research for this book grew out of my experiences working with gang members and other marginalized young people as a community-based social worker on the South Side of Chicago. While I was familiar with the canon of scholarship on gangs and violence in Chicago and I had my own sense of these dynamics based on my own experiences and relationships, the dynamics saw up close on the streets did not align with the literature and what I knew about the city’s storied gang history. The reality at the close of the twenty-first century’s first decade was that Chicago’s infamous corporate-style gangs, whose wars over illicit drug markets drove the city’s homicide rate to an all-time high during the early 1990s, had been largely relegated to a remnant of local gang lore. Views from the Streets tells the story of what happened to those gangs and how that recent history helps us understand contemporary dynamics of gangs and violence in Chicago.

In-depth interviews with gang members from Chicago’s South Side reveal how the end of the crack epidemic, the demolition of public housing, and the incarceration of scores of gang leaders in federal prison undermined the coherence of the city’s African American street gangs, as drug revenues dried up, gang territories were thrown into disarray, and leadership structures were dismantled. These changing conditions exposed and exacerbated contradictions between gang ideologies of brotherhood and unity and the acute imbalances of power and earnings that characterized the hierarchical structures of these groups. Rank-and-file gang members increasingly rebelled against their marginal positions, remaining gang leaders eventually lost control over their groups, and Chicago’s black street gangs effectively shattered.

In short, African American gangs in Chicago today are relatively small,
generally leaderless collectives rooted in neighborhood identity and a shared reverence for fallen comrades.

In the wake of these developments, young gang members radically reconstituted their groups, rejecting traditional gang ideologies and embracing instead a distinct culture of personal autonomy rooted in egalitarian principles and intimate relationships that often crossed traditional gang fault lines. In short, African American gangs in Chicago today are relatively small, generally leaderless collectives rooted in neighborhood identity and a shared reverence for fallen comrades. These changes in gang structure and ideology have transformed the nature of gang conflicts as well, as the instrumental, leader-controlled gang wars over illicit drug markets that typified gang violence during the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced with relationship-driven vendettas whose violence emerges spontaneously from the unrestrained impulses of individual gang members. Contemporary gang violence, in other words, is increasingly expressive and volatile.

Chicago’s law enforcement officials and policymakers have seemingly done little to grapple with or respond to these enormous changes in the nature of gang organization and violence. The Chicago Police Department has embraced focused deterrence, a widely praised policing strategy that presumes gang members are willing and able to exercise social control over one another in the service of violence reduction—a notion at direct odds with the prevailing gang culture on Chicago’s South Side. Local and federal investigators and prosecutors, for their part, appear committed to prosecutorial strategies rooted in outdated notions of gangs as coherent, vertically organized outlaw-capitalist organizations—even when the facts on the ground clearly contradict these notions. Celebrated public health-oriented groups like Cure Violence, on the other hand, have focused their efforts on interrupting violent events before they occur—yet most of today’s violence is spontaneous, unpredictable, and, therefore, generally uninterruptable.

The failure to understand contemporary dynamics pertaining to gangs and violence and to craft interventions rooted in these realities has contributed to the persistence and exacerbation of these problems in Chicago.

The failure to understand contemporary dynamics pertaining to gangs and violence and to craft interventions rooted in these realities has contributed to the persistence and exacerbation of these problems in Chicago. Indeed, while violence continues to decline in most major U.S. cities, Chicago’s already-elevated homicide rate has soared in recent years to levels unseen in the city in roughly two decades. The Chicago Police Department, moreover, appears completely befuddled, boasting the single lowest homicide clearance rate among the fifty largest cities in the nation, a figure that fell to a mind-boggling nadir of 17.5 percent in 2017.

Yet I argue in Views from the Streets that these problems are not intractable. Indeed, I make the case that there is a rather unprecedented opportunity at hand to substantively address these issues. Why is this, and how might we go about doing so? Pick up the book and find out!


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