The Gangs of Chicago

By Ta-Nehisi Coates
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.

Perhaps this is why:

During his more than 30 years behind bars, Stanley Wrice insisted he was innocent, that Chicago police had beat him until he confessed to a rape he didn't commit. On Wednesday, he walked out of an Illinois prison a free man, thanks to a judge's order that served as a reminder that one of the darkest chapters in the city's history is far from over...

Wrice, who was sentenced to 100 years behind bars for a 1982 sexual assault, is among more than two dozen inmates — most of them black men — who have alleged they were tortured by officers under the command of disgraced former Chicago police Lt. Jon Burge in a scandal that gave the nation's third-largest city a reputation as haven for rogue cops and helped lead to the clearing of Illinois' death row. Some of the prisoners have been freed; some are still behind bars, hoping to get the kind of hearing that Wrice got that eventually led to his freedom.

The scandal of Jon Burge, which will trouble Chicago police for many years to come, is the worst of something many black folks feels when interacting with police in any city. Police address us with aggression, and their default setting is escalation. De-escalation is for black civilians.

When the officer wanted us to move, there was a very easy way to handle the situation. You step our your car. You introduce yourself. You ask questions about what we're doing. If we are breaking the law, you ask us to move. If we are not breaking the law and simply making your life hard, we are likely to move anyway. You are the power.

The cop did not speak to us as though he were human. He spoke to us like a gangster, like he was protecting his block. He was solving no crime. He was protecting no lives. He was holding down his corner. He didn't even bother with a change of uniform. An occupied SUV, parked at an intersection, announces its masters intentions.

It was only a second day there, and our first real one out on the street. It only took that short period to run into trouble. I was worried about the expensive equipment. But it was the conventions of community that protected us. People would walk up and ask us what we were doing. I would tell them we were shooting the neighborhood, or had just finished interviewing some elder--Mr. Ross, Mrs. Witherspoon--and they would smile. "So Mr. Ross is famous, huh?"

No such social lubricant exists for the police.  If you are young and black and live in North Lawndale, if you live in Harlem, if you live in any place where people with power think young black boys aren't being stopped and frisked enough, then what happened to us is not a single stand-out incident. It is who the police are. Indeed they are likely a good deal worse. 

What people who have never lived in these neighborhoods must get, is that, like the crooks, killers, and gangs, the police are another violent force that must be negotiated and dealt with. But unlike the gangs, the violence of the police is the violence of the state, and thus unaccountable to North Lawndale. That people who represent North Lawndale laugh at the idea of handing over more tools of incarceration to law enforcement is unsurprising.

As we were finishing up, the officer who yelled at us got out the car and asked for the driver of our vehicle. It wasn't me. 

"I happened to notice your sticker is expired," the officer said, handing a ticket to Kasia.

"It's a rental," she replied.

"Well give it to them," he told her walking away. "They'll know what to do with it."

The cop got back in his heated car. On the other corner, Safe Passage stood there, awaiting children, huddling in the cold. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/12/the-gangs-of-chicago/282468/