Senators Durbin's and Kirk's 'Elitist, White-Boy' Plan to Fight Gangs Is Right

Rep. Bobby Rush's attacks ignore the facts and dishonor law-abiding Chicagoans trying to lead their lives.
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Classmates of slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton attend her funeral in February. (Reuters)

American culture is far too tolerant of street-gang units that use the tactics of domestic terrorism to destroy the quality of life in poor neighborhoods. No president has ever organized a commission or put together a task force to investigate potential solutions to the increasing problem of drive-by shootings, turf wars, and related criminality. Governors and mayors talk tough on crime, but rarely, if ever, allocate more resources than additional police officers to prevent gangland massacres of children and families.

According to the Chicago Police Department, in 2012, 80 percent of the city's 532 homicides were gang-related. Comparable connections between high rates of murder and gang activity exist in Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, and other major cities. In a rare and promising effort of bipartisanship and cross-party cooperation, Illinois Senators Dick Durbin, a Democrat, and Mark Kirk, a Republican, are joining forces to "crush" (as Kirk put it) the Gangster Disciples, a group on the South Side of Chicago that is reportedly responsible for as much as a quarter of the city's murders last year.

Durbin and Kirk have already met with Zachary Fardon, President Obama's nominee for U.S. attorney in Chicago, to persuade him to use federal racketeering laws to target all members of the Gangster Disciples for arrest and prosecution. The senators have pledged to secure $30 million in federal funding for the project.

Federal prosecutors used the same strategy to weaken and debilitate the crime-family syndicates of the mafia, from Al Capone in Chicago in the 1920s to John Gotti in New York in the 1980s. The advantage of federal involvement is that G-men can sweep up many gang members at once. But racketeering laws haven't been used as much against street gangs, in part because the groups have only recently reached similar levels of sophistication, prosecutors have said.

Urban street gangs are worse, in both practice and intention, than mafia families, because while all gangsters might act as trained killers and ruthless power seekers, the mafia attempted to limit bad publicity and negative attention by leaving "civilians" -- non-mafia members -- alone. The Gangster Disciples are largely indiscriminate in their drive for dominance. Spraying a crowded corner with bullets to eliminate one rival gang member often results in the dead bodies of bystanders.

Hadiya Pendleton -- a Chicago honors student who sang at President Obama's second inauguration -- made the mistake of walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. A Gangster Disciples member opened fire on a group that he believed included members of an enemy gang encroaching on his "territory," killing Pendleton and wounding two other teens.

Pendleton's death briefly galvanized the nation. President Obama and the first lady both visited Chicago to address high-school students on the evils of violence and gang membership, and the media expressed shock and outrage that a talented young woman full of potential could go from the White House to the grave simply for showing up at the wrong street corner, blocks from her home.

A proposal to scrub the streets of the stains left by the 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples is long overdue. Local law enforcement, though well-intentioned, is impotent to rid communities of gang infestation because leaders scare witnesses into silence after they commit murder, assault, or robbery. No one will cooperate with police because they fear fatal retribution. Federal involvement is necessary to protect children like Hadiya Pendleton.

Senators Durbin and Kirk should receive applause and assistance for their proposal, but unfortunately, they are already facing harsh criticism. Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, whose district covers much of the South Side, denounced their plan as an "elitist, white-boy solution", because it does not include "education" and "job creation." Rev. Michael Pfleger, an all-around heroic priest who has helped people fight South Side poverty and drug dependency for decades by opening halfway houses and starting job training programs, said that he was "sad" to hear of Durbin and Kirk's preferred method for the destruction of the Gangster Disciples, and echoed Rush's advocacy of "jobs, education, and help."

Rush's race-baiting deserves condemnation, especially from Pfleger, members of whose church have been murdered by members of the Gangster Disciples. His vague, maudlin, and uninspired repetition of Rush's remarks is surprising and unhelpful. When Rush fails to differentiate between what society owes to gang members and what it owes to his law-abiding constituents he makes two crucial errors that disrespect, undermine, and insult the very people he is claiming to defend.

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David Masciotra is author of the forthcoming All That We Learned About Livin’: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp and author Against Traffic: Essays On Politics and Identity. He is a columnist for the Indianapolis Star and has written for the Daily Beast and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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