The Gangs of Chicago

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Just a gangsta, I suppose. (Photo by Author)

I spent last week trooping through North Lawndale, on the West Side of Chicago, with the Atlantic's video team. We spent much of Friday with some positive folks over at the Better Boys Foundation (BBF) in K-Town. Then we went outside to get some sense of the neighborhood. I've spent a lot of time in North Lawndale over the past year. It is one of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. It is also achingly beautiful. Wide boulevards cut through the neighborhood, the old Sears building looms in the distance, and the great greystones mark many of the blocks. If you stand at the corner of Springfield and Ogden, as I have, right next to the Lawndale Christian Health Center across from Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, you can see the great wealth of Chicago, indeed the great wealth of America, looming over all those who long toiled to make it so.

That Friday, it snowed all day and we walked the blocks, Sam, Kasia, Paul and me, with our guides, running mostly on the odd joy one gets imbibes from the kind of exploration that should be what journalism is about. Towards the end of the afternoon we were standing on a corner shooting one of our hosts. Kids were walking home. We were standing on a street designated as a route for Chicago's Safe Passage program. Volunteers, bundled like scientists of the arctic, stood across the way, nodding as children passed.

The afternoon was quiet. The street-lights were just beginning to flirt. There was no sun. A group of older boys, with no books, came aimlessly down the street. Our host called one of them over and hassled him for not having stopped by BBF recently. BBF is a fortress in a section of this long warred upon section of the city. Kids can go to BBF to read, make beats, make video or play table-top hockey. The conversation between our host and the kid was familiar to me. It was the way men addressed me, as a child, when they were trying to save my life. Aimlessness is the direct path to oblivion for black boys. Occupy the child till somewhere around 25, till he passes out of his hot years, and you may see him actually become something.

Catercorner to the volunteers of Safe Passage, two cops sat in an SUV, snug and warm. Our video team was shooting the conversation between our host and the kid. One of the cops rolled down his window and yelled, "Excuse me you need to take your cameras off this corner. It's Safe Passage."

I didn't know anything about Safe Passage and the law. If the program prohibits video footage on a public street, I haven't been able to document any record of it. But it is police, after all, which is to say humans empowered by the state with the right to mete out violence as he sees fit. We backed up a bit. Our host kept talking. The cops yelled out again. "You need to move, bud. This is Safe Passage."  At this point our host yelled back and contentious back and forth began. Things calmed down when one of our cameramen walked down the street with our host to get a few different shots. 

A few months ago, on one of my other trips to Chicago, I was at a dinner with a group of wonks. The wonks were upset that the community, and its appointed represenatives, would not support mandatory minimums for gun charges. I--shamefully I now think--agreed with them. It's not simply that I now think I was wrong, it's that I forgot my role. I mean no disrespect to my hosts. But whenever reformers convene for a nice dinner and good wine, a writer should never allow himself to get too comfortable.  

One of my friends, who grew up on the South Side, and was the only other black male at the table, was the only one who disagreed. His distrust of the justice system was too high.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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