Chicago wages war on gangs, but some say fingerpointing oversimplifies gun violence issue

Chicago Crime

CHICAGO — Summer of 2021, with Chicago in the midst of a surge in gun violence, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the police department declared war on gangs. 

With support from key members of the City Council, the mayor introduced a plan to sue gangs for their assets.

“To be very blunt and clear, we are going after their blood money,” Lightfoot told reporters after announcing an asset seizing plan.

The aldermen examine the feasibility of gang forfeiture, the Chicago Police Department is taking the fight to street organizations, building another gang database.

In an interview, Ernest Cato, Chief of the Bureau of Counterterrorism told WGN News the new gang database will be carefully vetted and citizens who find themselves on the list will get a chance to get their names removed.

“We’re going to do our best to give these children – these gang members the help that they need, but we must be clear if they don’t want to accept that help and they refuse that help, we will be looking to discipline,” Cato said.

There’s no way to know how many active gangs exist in Chicago and how many people are members of the organization. CPD won’t release the data it’s collecting for its database and the department won’t say how many shootings it’s labeled ‘gang-related.’

Civil rights groups condemned CPD’s original gang database as racially discriminatory and the city’s inspector general found the data riddled with errors.

Chicago’s federal partners have increased their focus on gangs. This week, the U.S. Attorney announced sweeping conspiracy charges against members of a West Side gang allegedly responsible for 19 murders, over the last 20 years.

But Northeastern University Professor Lance Williams, an expert on violence, calls the idea of targeting gangs weird.

 “What you have today is fragments of those groups that exist from block to block. You’re talking about thousands of them that exist throughout the whole city of Chicago from block to block and because of the level of disorganization those groups change regularly. So what one group might be today, they might not be tomorrow,” Williams said.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx says her office attacks gang activity through its Complex Homicide and Gang unit, Financial Crimes unit and Gun Crime Strategies team, but she’s not embracing the city’s increased focus on gangs.

“I think there is a pervasive fear of gangs and because of the structures that we have been so accustomed to in this city, and whether you were talking about Al Capone’s gang back in the 20s and 30s or the GDs from the 80s, that there’s a notion about Chicago and gangs that when we see violence there is a tendency to think that’s what it is,” Foxx said. “I think we certainly need to make sure that we don’t have these organizations that are hellbent on creating violence and mayhem under control, but we also have to make sure that we’re addressing why people join gangs, what happens to our social structure when we have kids as young as nine, 10, 11, feeling that there’s more comfort and solidarity in a gang structure than they have in their communities.”

Street Pastor Donovan Price travels to dozens of shootings every weekend. He says the problem is not gangs, it’s guns. 

“Both the good kids and the bad kids have guns. The good people and the bad people have guns because they feel safer with a gun than without a gun knowing that the rest of the people have guns,” Price said. “The reason you would shoot at somebody has gone down to average stepping on a shoe, a statement on social media, whatever the case may be.”

And it’s an endless cycle.

“We see the retaliation and the retaliation for the retaliation and that goes on and now we say ‘oh well, it’s a gang war.’ In actuality, it’s a series of ill-natured moves,” Price added.

Chico Tillmon served 16 years in prison for conspiracy to distribute drugs. He’s now with the University of Chicago Urban Labs. He too finds the Lightfoot administration’s anti-gang focus head-scratching.

“The problem is more nuanced than just getting rid of gangs. The entire philosophical view that gangs are pushing the violence is incorrect,” Tillmon said. “I believe it’s interpersonal conflicts between individuals who aren’t equipped with the skills to be able to resolve it in a peaceful way. I think this happens from living in a state of perpetual trauma where shootings take place daily.”

When released from prison, Tillmon went back to school at age 40 to earn a Ph.D. He believes he lost his way as a young man because he did not have a mentor.

“A role model is afar, anybody can be your role model. But mentorship is somebody who can walk you through a process,” Tillmon said. “The challenge is I never had a male figure in my life for a long period of time. Or had a connection with somebody that had a pathway of success outside of individuals who were athletes, entertainers, or involved in sub-culture activities.”

Raymond Richard, who goes by Brother Raymond, spent 25 years in prison for selling dope, aggravated battery and other offenses. He now sees how easy it was to fall into a life on the streets.

 “They never told me I’d go to jail. They never told me I’d be shot. They never told me I’d be addicted to drugs. They never told me I’d wind up homeless,” Richard said.

Today, Brother Raymond and Tillmon work to keep young boys on the right path.

“I joined a gang at 11. I didn’t have a mentor. Had I had a mentor, I probably wouldn’t have went to penitentiary six times, I probably wouldn’t have been left for dead three times, right?” Richard said.

Last week, City Council approved more than one billion dollars in investments in affordable housing, violence prevention and aid to business corridors.

But Professor Williams says money alone won’t end the bloodshed.

“I see it mainly as a cultural problem,” he says.

Leaders must address the human element. Williams is advocating for outreach and brutally honest dialogue in Black and brown communities.

“It’s got a lot to do with dominating women,” Williams said. “It’s got a lot to do with being able to effeminate other men who then have to oppose that and because there is not a lot of room to use other resources to exercise your power, your authority and your control when you have easy access to weapons, that’s one way that you can get your manhood and dignity.”

Williams calls this behavior a toxic form of masculinity.

“I think we have to fix that problem among many young African American males,” Williams added.

Declaring gun violence a public health crisis, Governor Pritzker has pledged to funnel $250 million to reduce shootings. That and the investments Chicago is making a show that money to combat violence is flowing. But the question remains will the city tweak its anti-violence gameplan or continue to use a playbook from a different era?

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