Chicago’s gangs have changed. Our violence intervention strategies should too.

To address the changing dynamics of gang activity, Chicago needs to combat concentrated poverty in African-American neighborhoods instead of continuing to criminally target economically disenfranchised youth.

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Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Chicago needs a change in anti-violence strategies. Gangs today are not so much the cause of violence as one of the effects of distressed communities. We need to switch our focus from targeting gangs criminally to a strategy of economic and social development in high-violence African-American neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. This was our conclusion at “The Fracturing of Gangs Conference” held last year at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute. The findings are available in a new report, The Fracturing of Gangs and Violence in Chicago: A Research-Based Reorientation of Violence Prevention and Intervention Policy.

Gangs in Chicago have changed dramatically in recent years, but our violence intervention strategies have not. The old hierarchical super-gangs, fighting citywide over control of drug trafficking, are largely gone. African-American gangs have fractured into different types of cliques and neighborhood peer groups, affiliated more with rappers than with the old gang chieftains. While some violence is still drug related, much of it is interpersonal, setting off cycles of retaliation, particularly on the South Side. The different sources of violence call for different types of law enforcement tactics.

Race is at the root of the reasons why African-American gangs fractured. Policies by banks and the Chicago Housing Authority’s concentrated African-Americans in segregated neighborhoods and obstructed the movement of black people into white neighborhoods. The conference showed how, decades later, the demolition of CHA towers in the late 1990s and early 21st century scattered residents, including youthful gang members, into surrounding areas. This influx of gang members into new neighborhoods shook already weakened gang structures. Brand new gangs and cliques, formed in the wake of the demolitions, have taken many forms, but no longer represent units in some super-gang army. Many of the new cliques are composed of youth who identify with several different, even rival, traditional gangs. These cliques typically have horizontal structures, rejecting vertical control by gang chiefs. This means “leaders” cannot be counted on to control violence.

The root source of violence, however, lies in the nexus of desperation and race. Chicago’s homicide rates are more similar to rust belt cities like Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, and Milwaukee than to global cities like New York and Los Angeles. African-Americans came to the industrial Midwest to find good jobs, but deindustrialization in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with sharp rises in homicide rates. Indeed, the desperation of young men, as a United Nations report has found, is correlated with homicide the world over.  

Nearly 40% of Chicago residents live in distressed areas — neighborhoods of “chronic and concentrated” joblessness and poverty — much higher than New York City or Los Angeles. Citywide, the Great Cities Institute found, nearly 40% of all black males in Chicago age 20-24 were out of work and out of school and nearly 90% of black youth age 16-19 are jobless, figures that are, again, much higher than other major cities.

While Chicago’s homicide rate has fallen from its recent spike in 2016, the homicide rate last year (20.4/100,000) was still higher than any year since 2004. While we hope the rate will keep falling, last year’s rate is at about the city’s average homicide rate over the last 50 years. Shockingly, the homicide rate among African-Americans in 2015 (47/100,000) was nearly identical to the African-American homicide rate of (46/100,000) in 1930. While Latinos and African-Americans have likely the same number of gang members, more than three-quarters of all homicides occur between African-Americans. The drug trade is not controlled by African-Americans, but by Mexican cartels that routinely utilize police and official corruption to advance their business interests. However, only a small portion of homicides appears to be related to organized crime. We concluded high rates of violence are correlated more to conditions of concentrated African-American poverty than to gangs or drugs.


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Over the last ten years, the Chicago Police Department cleared the fewest homicides per capita than any other major city in the U.S. While there are many reasons for this shocking statistic, at the very least it should cause Chicagoans to reconsider the “war on gangs” strategy that has been Chicago policy since it was declared by Richard J. Daley in 1969.

There are many different strategies that could address violence within a context of neighborhood development. At our conference, we discussed ways to approach and counteract the “hyper-masculinity” that often leads to retaliation for violent acts. Conference presenters advocated a “cultural switch” to replace the violence that is engendered by the desperation of current conditions of joblessness and racism with training on conflict resolution and activism. The problem of violence today is more expressive than instrumental. It is more of a cultural problem and identity crisis than following orders of gang chiefs. The new cliques resemble loose networks of young people holding on to a local identity in the absence of legitimate opportunities.

The decline of the traditional leadership and structure of African-American gangs presents Chicago with an unprecedented opportunity to redirect youth away from gangs and into jobs and movements for social justice. What Chicago most needs to reduce violence is a strategy to reinvest in and rebuild communities, reduce joblessness and poverty, and increase opportunity for African-American youth.

  • Orlando coombs

    That’s all fine and dandy and sounds great but here’s the thing: NOT EVERYBODY IS THESE POOR NEIGHBORHOODS WANTS A JOB. Everybody says they do, but look at what people actually do. As an adult, it’s your responsibility to get and maintain a job, it’s your responsibility to get an education, it’s your responsibility to get an affordable place to live, these are adults things that adults are supposed to do. It’s Ok and in fact necessary that you reach out for the proper help and assistance through the right channels, but you need to do it. That’s how it works. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t it drink, people need to help themselves. Help comes from helping yourself.

    • JC Cook

      This is the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach. As my dad explained about growing up in an impoverished neighborhood, he said there was no money, no jobs, no reasonable transportation (he often hopped trains). He said they had nothing. It really is like a third world country in many extended neighborhoods. You can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you have no boots.

      • Orlando coombs

        You don’t need boots. You only need inner drive, because inner drive is what pushes you forward. We live in the greatest nation on earth. We have unprecedented opportunities like no other time in history. Opportunity exists all around you. Opportunity Comes To Those Who Create It and only to those who create it. Because who’s responsible for you getting a job ahd keeping it?, educating yourself, and acquiring marketable skill sets that will make competitive in a 21st Century global economy.? That’s all on you. We are all responsible for ourselves.

        • JC Cook

          Drive is essential, but evidence suggests it is rarely enough by itself.

          • Orlando coombs

            Well, you got to actually get out there and do the damn thing. Your responsible for your life. In America, you have a public school that is free and a library that’s free and if you don’t take advantage of that then your a damn fool and you got no one to blame but yourself. I’ve worked in public education as a substitute teacher before in South Florida where I was living so I can tell you emphatically that the kids who want an education, who wanna be somebody in life, and wanna go places and do things in life are coming to class, sitting down doing their school work, and behaving themselves.The ones who don’t want an education and don’t wanna learn, are coming to school everyday late if at all, they’re cuttin up the classroom, acting a damn fool, and deliberately disrupting the learning process for everyone else cause they don’t wanna be nothing, they don’t want nothing, they don’t go nowhere, and don’t wanna see nobody else go nowhere and they’re making a total nuisance of themselves. All they do is create problems, that’s all they do and then wanna blame the whole world for their failure in life. I’ve seen this countless times throughout my almost 45 years on this planet. I know lots of people who’ve come up in very adverse situations and have chosen to make something of themselves no matter what, lots of people including several family members and childhood friends of mine. It boils down to one word: CHOICES.