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A man walks pass a memorial wall at the Altgeld Garden public housing project in Chicago. [The Washington Post / Getty Images]

Q & A

An Outdated Understanding of Chicago Gangs Could Be Hampering Gun Violence Prevention

Roberto Aspholm spent years researching the transformation of the city’s gangs. He says law enforcement in Chicago hasn’t caught up.

On July 22, 15 people were shot outside of a Chicago funeral home. At a press conference about the incident, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said the shooting was likely gang-related. “Someone gets shot, which prompts someone else to pick up a gun — this cycle repeats itself over, and over, and over again,” said Brown. “This cycle is fueled by street gangs, guns, and drugs. In the case of the funeral shooting, rival factions repeated this cycle.” 

Gun violence in Chicago is up this year following a relative decline since an apex in 2016. More than 2,000 people have been shot so far, according to the police department. 

Roberto Aspholm

But Roberto Aspholm, an academic who has spent years studying the structure of gangs in Chicago, says that the prevailing narrative about how they work is misguided. His book, View from the Streets: The Transformation of Gangs and Violence on Chicago’s South Side, which was published in February, offers in-depth accounts from current and former gang members that explain how the city’s gang structures have changed over the past few decades. 

The Trace spoke with Aspholm about his findings, and how properly understanding gang dynamics could help the city address its recent increase in gun violence. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In a press conference earlier this month, Superintendent Brown said there are more than 117,000 gang members in the city, broken into 55 major gangs, with 747 factions and 2,500 subsets of those factions. 

Is his characterization of the size and scale of gangs in Chicago correct? 

I don’t know about the veracity of those numbers because numbers that come from public figures are going to be inherently politicized. Someone is making a decision of who is and who is not classified as a gang member — and it’s unclear what the criteria for that is. Neighborhood identity is often a proxy for gang identity. Young people identify with the neighborhood that they’re from — but that doesn’t necessarily translate neatly into a gang membership. 

A lot of conflicts are taking place between groups of young people, that is true. There are thousands of young people that have been pushed to the side and whose communities have been devastated by disinvestment and who are in desperate circumstances. Street gangs are one way that those young people can find some kind of meaning in tough circumstances. 

In your book, you spend quite a bit of time on how people who join gangs in Chicago are often pathologized by city officials, law enforcement, and the media. What is lost in that? 

In painting [gang members] in a certain light, we can justify the conditions that have produced the problematic behaviors and dynamics. 

It’s really amazing to me how resilient people are — trying to scrap and scrape and survive in a scenario in which they have been dealt every disadvantage. The number of people trying to beat the odds is astounding. The problem is that they have to beat the odds in the first place. The odds shouldn’t be against them. 

A lot of guys that society would probably think of as irredeemable, are the furthest thing from that. You have people who were involved with street gangs and gun violence when they were young, that are now on the front lines of addressing these issues in the community, and are putting their lives on the line doing really heroic work. These are the same people that society would look at 10 years ago and say, “You know, lock this person up forever.” 

The premise of your book is that gangs have changed. How have they transformed since the ‘80s?

The gangs in Chicago have transformed from large cross-neighborhood gang nations or street organizations that fell under centralized leadership hierarchies. Today, we have independent neighborhood groups that don’t belong to any kind of broader cross-neighborhood type of street organization. They’re relatively small groups that are not involved in wide scale drug dealing or anything like that, typically.

One of the things that the police chief said that I think is a mischaracterization is that these groups are factions of bigger groups. That implies that they are part of a larger coherent structure or organization — and that’s not the case. The bigger groups don’t really exist in a meaningful way anymore. 

What drove this fracturing of gangs in Chicago?

How we got where we are today from the ‘80s and ’90s was primarily through demolition of public housing, the end of the crack epidemic, the transformation of drug markets from open-air drug markets to the use of cell phones, and the incarceration of hundreds of gang members by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. 

In and around the first decade of the 21st century, the young, rank-and-file gang members had also had enough of the hierarchy. They felt and perceived the structure as exploitation and coercion from some of their superiors. So there was violence within a lot of these groups. This effectively fractured the groups into independent, neighborhood-based gangs. These groups are not really, in any coherent sense, a part of the same structure, even if they use the same traditional gang names and identities like the Gangster Disciples or the Black P. Stones. 

Tell me more about the demolition of public housing. 

So over 21,000 units of public housing in Chicago were demolished [between 1999 and 2010] under the guise of ending deep, concentrated poverty. Residents primarily moved to other poor and segregated neighborhoods in Chicago. It disrupted the equilibrium for a lot of the gangs that existed in public housing, scattering former residents into other rival neighborhoods and kind of throwing those neighborhoods into a pretty good deal of chaos.

You mentioned the drug landscape also changed, how did this affect gangs on the South Side?

Beginning in the mid ‘90s, the demand for crack cocaine just plummeted. There weren’t a lot of new users and a lot of people were trying to get clean. So that kind of dried up a lot of the economic lifeblood of these groups. Another thing that happened was the federal government began prosecuting a lot of gang leadership with federal drug cases or RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations] cases — moving the leadership either off the streets, or from the state penitentiaries to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. 

If the gangs on the South Side aren’t doing much drug dealing now, what are they doing instead, in terms of self-protection and economics? 

They’re not doing much in terms of economics. So the end of the crack epidemic and the transition from open-air drug markets to mobile drug distribution practices really undermined the economic base for rank-and-file gang members on the South Side, who face pretty bleak prospects, not only in the conventional economy but also in the underground economy. So your average young gang member in Chicago probably doesn’t even sell drugs.

They join [gangs] because these are the people that they grew up with… these are their older siblings [and] cousins that belong to these groups. These are some of the institutions that exist within their communities that can provide them with a positive sense of self identification, a sense of meaning, and purpose. As destructive as that purpose may be, it can be compelling in the face [of few] alternatives. 

A [gang membership] revolves around identity and solidarity among young people who find themselves in similar circumstances and share an identification with a particular neighborhood.

As the structure of gangs has changed, has the city adjusted the way it approaches crime prevention?

It’s not clear to me that they have adjusted. I think that there is an increasing acknowledgement, as the comments the police chief alluded to, that the gang situation is different today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. I don’t know how that’s translated into policing strategy. You still have this [idea from city officials] that guys within these groups are going to exercise social control over one another and that is antithetical to the culture among these groups as they exist today. 

Your book ends with a critique of violence prevention efforts like Cure Violence and Ceasefire Chicago. 

The assumptions of the Cure Violence model don’t line up with the realities of the dynamics of violence. The notion is, “‘We’re going to interrupt violence by predicting when it’s going to happen.” 

Well, how possible is that today? A lot of the violence occurs in the spur of the moment — the whims of young teenagers and adults. 

I don’t think violence intervention and prevention is impossible. I think the main thing is the relationship building because that’s what the young people value and they respect, and that’s what they’re going to be responsive to.

The broader critique of Cure Violence and focused deterrence is their models are rooted in the reality that they do not address any of the conditions that produced these elevated levels of violence within these communities. Until we address those things, I’m skeptical that we can substantially reduce violence in a city like Chicago. It’s not a coincidence that the most economically devastated communities and cities in the United States are those with the highest levels of violence. 

There is now a gun violence prevention collaborative, where more than a dozen private organizations are working together to streamline violence prevention efforts in the city. Do you think this is a good direction?

I think that’s a good direction to be taking things, for sure. I still question the adequacy of [the idea that] we just need to have interventions with these young people to try to kind of redirect them into mainstream channels and institutions. I think that has proven to be inadequate and by no fault or shortcoming of the people who are doing that kind of work, really, but that the odds are so long for these young people and there are not opportunities and resources readily available to make those kinds of transformations in their life. 

Are there any limitations of your research that people should keep in mind?

I think we should be careful in terms of overgeneralizing how we think about gangs and violence. My findings don’t necessarily apply to the West Side of Chicago, or to the Latino gangs. One of the things that we want to be careful about is having an appreciation for the particularities of local dynamics and the history that helped create the context in which street gangs and violence exist.

Gun violence is up this year in Chicago. What should people remember in the big picture?

I think people need to think about how we can create a society in which everyone can live a dignified life. The violence that’s taken place is a manifestation of poverty, of despair, of hopelessness. 

There is an opportunity now to build a broader movement and a broader constituency to support the kinds of interventions that are going to be necessary to transform life for wide areas of the South and the West Sides of Chicago. To me, that means that everyone is entitled to acquire high-quality public education, a meaningful living wage, employment opportunities, and affordable and stable housing. Those should not be things in our society — in a democratic society — that are negotiable.