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.
The award-winning sociologist Elijah Anderson explains in his ethnographic classic Code of The Street that the "code of the street emerges where the influence of the police ends and personal responsibility for one's safety is felt to begin, resulting in a kind of 'people's law,' based on 'street justice.'" He goes on to describe the "primitive form of social exchange" that establishes enforcement and criteria for the code -- "eye for an eye" measures of accountability for even the slightest transgressions against the gangster's demand for deference.
Yet some South Side residents try to lead normal lives in the midst of the war zone. Pendleton and the students who make up the 60 percent graduation rate in Chicago Public Schools grew up in the same neighborhoods as gang members, and they face the same limitations that come with being poor and black in the inner city, yet they manage to conduct themselves with responsibility, decency, and integrity. It is unfair to blame the criminality and cruelty of street-gang members on social ills, even when conceding that those ills -- poverty, unemployment, dysfunctional schools -- do exist and need fixing.
To fail to make the distinction, as Rush has, between the law-abiding poor and those who threaten them is to deny the achievements, character, and excellence of Pendleton, her friends, and everyone else in her neighborhood who takes education seriously and works hard to become a familial, communal, and national asset, rather than a scourge.
School improvement and job creation incentives are vital to the revitalization of dying ghettos, but no matter how brilliantly conceived or generously funded, they will fail without the assurance of safety. Many children who attempt to attend class regularly are afraid to walk to school because they have to cross gang territory to do so. Even an excellent school staffed by the best teachers in the country would do little good if students have to dodge bullets simply to show up for first period.
And while it is true that there are more street gangs in poor neighborhoods than middle-class ones, since poverty produces underground economies, it is also true that anyone who picks up a gun and terrorizes one's neighbors relinquishes the right to benefit from the schools that are built and the aid programs designed to help the victims.
Anyone who drives down the streets of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods will notice there are few businesses, financial institutions, or offices. Without commercial activity there is no tax revenue and no employers. And what business owner would set up shop in a neighborhood where he is under constant threat of vandalism, robbery, and murder?
Fighting gangs, and making progress, is essential to opening sufficient space for good schools to succeed in giving children a future, and business owners to feel comfortable investing in the community. It is a self-evident truth that when it comes to eradicating poverty and healing wounded neighborhoods, "safety first" is more than a driver's education slogan. Phony moralizing and misplaced compassion won't alter reality.
752,496 people live on the South Side. Ninety-three percent of them are black. The 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples -- who constitute far less than one percent of the black population in the entire city of Chicago -- should not be allowed to hold those who truly could benefit from economic uplift hostage under a cheap cover story provided by an overly sentimentalized liberalism.
In a political era paralyzed by partisanship, Durbin and Kirk's alignment is brave and noble. Should they, along with a cooperating U.S. attorney and federal and local law enforcement, succeed in combating the wickedness that ruins the lives of many inner-city families, they will send a chilling message to the other gangs that conduct their exploitative business in Chicago and set a precedent for urgency and action in Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and cities across the country plagued by the same problem. Despite being white boys, Durbin and Kirk are pushing their city in the right direction and working for peace in black neighborhoods.