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Racial Matters

When It Comes to Gang Violence in Chicago, the More Things Change the More They Stay the Same

The Blackstone Rangers announce their presence on a building on 63rd Street, near Stony Island, in 1966. 
 

When 87 people were shot in black neighborhoods of Chicago over the July 4 weekend, resulting in 14 fatalities, including a seven-year-old girl, city leaders were seemingly at a loss to make sense of the mayhem. "Sorrow itself is not enough and what it says is we need to do better as a city, this day, this year and really every day," said the city's black mayor, Lori Lightfoot. "There is no reason we should be feeling and experiencing moments like this." She went on to push for more effective gun control measures.

 

You had to read the news reports closely to understand that the shootings were mostly not directly related to the massive protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and other cases of apparent police brutality that have been vividly recorded in Atlanta, Baltimore, New York, and other cities.

 

According to one report, Chicago police quickly arrested a 33-year-old man and charged him with the murder of the seven-year-old girl. Deep in the news story about how the man and several accomplices fired into a crowd gathered for a July 4 party, was this: "Police said they believe a possible motive was gang retaliation."

 

Well into another news report about the weekend shootings was this from Chicago's chief of detectives, Brendan Deenihan: "It's this constant gang-on-gang violence where they're targeting an individual. There is usually zero cooperation between these gangs because they just wanna go back and exact their revenge the next time around…."

 

The difficulties of both public officials and the media about how to portray the spasms of violence is understandable, because the reality is that the outbursts of black-on-black gang-based violence in Chicago and elsewhere at once have nothing to do with the protests against police brutality….and everything to do with them. Let me explain. 

 

Serious black-on-black gang violence has been going on for decades in Chicago and other large cities. Making the problem endlessly troublesome and frustrating is that all kinds of remedial efforts — ranging from government programs to police crackdowns to gang truces — have done little or nothing to short-circuit the violence. 

 

In Chicago, gang-instigated black-on-black violence has been around at least since the early 1960s. That was when the South Side was going through a huge amount of racial upheaval brought on by white flight, blockbusting, redlining, and related race-based housing discrimination practices. In 1962, an African-American social studies teacher at Hyde Park High School in the South Side's Woodlawn neighborhood, Timuel Black, tried to mentor a skinny young black freshman by the name of Jeff Fort not to drop out of school. "Jeff was a smart kid," Black told me a few years back. "He had a lot going for him."

 

But not surprisingly, the teacher wasn't successful. Fort was a gouster, a term used on Chicago's South Side at the time to describe tough poor black kids, and Timuel Black was a middle-class black man who was most comfortable relating to Ivy Leaguers, the term used to describe upwardly mobile middle-class black kids. Indeed, Black would do much better 20 years later mentoring another smart young black male by the name of Barack Obama.

 

In those days of the early 1960s, Jeff Fort hung out at the Woodlawn Boys Club, where he used his charisma to attract a regular flow of members, many from Hyde Park High School, to his new gang, known as The Blackstone Rangers. Like gangs and underworld operators in poor areas everywhere, the Rangers were the best source of employment and income for poor black kids via illegal drugs, shaking down local businesses…..and protecting the gang's turf from competitors, which during the mid 1960s was primarily the Devil's Disciples gang from the neighboring Englewood neighborhood.

 

Fort's gang was so "successful" — running drugs and shooting it out with rivals — that it soon attracted the attention of police and community leaders. A white community leader and Presbyterian minister, John Fry, worked up a plan to engage Fort and his gang members in legitimate enterprises. Fry formed a political organization that in 1967 obtained a $1 million federal grant to teach job skills to gang members; he put the Rangers in charge of making the plan work. Chicago's establishment embraced the Rangers and Fort actually received an invitation from president-elect Richard Nixon for the 1969 inaugural ball. Fort declined the invite, but sent a couple of lieutenants in his place.

 

Not surprisingly, the gang's initiation into Chicago's establishment didn't end well. Months after the inaugural ball invite, Fort and his gang were being investigated by the feds for misusing the grant money; Fort actually appeared before a Congressional committee looking into the affair, and refused to say anything beyond giving his name. By 1974, he was serving two years at Leavenworth federal penitentiary for fraud.

 

As the Rangers expanded their influence and notoriety, Fort became more of a target for both other gangs and police. By the 1980s, the gang had changed its name to El Rukn and, while Fort was imprisoned in Texas for cocaine trafficking, and now known as the imam Malik, the gang sued prison officials in Federal court for recognition as a Sunni Muslim religious organization.

 

Fort continued running the gang from prison, including involvement in a scheme to carry out domestic terrorism on behalf of Libya, in exchange for $2.5 million. Fort claimed he was merely discussing religious matters with the Libyans. He was convicted in federal court, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Not long after, he was convicted in the 1981 murder of a competing gang leader, and given a 75-year sentence, to be served on top of the 40-year domestic terrorism sentence.

 

As much as law enforcement might have hoped, permanently jailing Jeff Fort didn't solve the problem of gang violence. New gangs and new leaders continued to emerge.

During those years of the 1980s, while Jeff Fort was running his gang from jail and fomenting mayhem around the South Side, his former high school teacher, Timuel Black, had become a civil rights activist and community organizer, and began mentoring another young black man, this one a young articulate Columbia University graduate by the name of Barack Obama. Black introduced Obama to the political and community powers running things on the South Side, and a political career was born.

 

The worlds of Jeff Fort's gangs and Barack Obama's community and political organizing ran on parallel tracks, rarely intersecting. As president, Obama did visit the place Jeff Fort began his gang, Hyde Park Academy (formerly Hyde Park High School) once, in 2013, and spoke movingly about Chicago's ongoing violence: "Too many of our children are being taken away from us….Last year there were 443 murders with a firearm on the streets of this city." He added, "For a lot of young boys or men, they don't see fathers or grandfathers who are succeeding…..I wish I had had a loving father around." But he uttered not a single word about youth gangs and their codes of violent initiation, promotion of drug use and prostitution, and community intimidation — in fact, he's never known to use the term "gang."

 

Similarly, in Michelle Obama's 2019 best-selling book, Becoming, there are only vague allusions to the gang violence that was all around her, growing up as she did in the South Side neighborhood of South Shore, just a few miles from Hyde Park Academy. During the 1970s, she writes, there were "families who watched their better-off neighbors leave for the suburbs or transfer their children to Catholic schools. There were predatory real estate agents roaming South Shore all the while, whispering to home owners that they should sell before it was too late, that they'd help them get out while you still can (author's emphasis). The inference being that failure was coming, that it was inevitable, that it had already half arrived."

 

What she was describing was an exodus of middle-class blacks, which accelerated with the turn of the century. In the first two decades of the new century, 200,000 black residents left Chicago for the suburbs or other parts of the country, with 50,000 of those exiting after 2015. While we don't know for certain, it's fair to assume most of the exiles were middle-class blacks.

 

Alex Kotlowitz, author of a 2019 chronicle of gang violence in Chicago, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, described the frustrating persistence of the problem this way in a 2019 interview: "I can point to half a dozen times at least over the past 15–20 years when we've had these moments in the city where we've thought, OK, this is the moment where everything is going to change. It's usually in the aftermath of a horrific shooting of a kid. The city is flooded with national and international press and there are all these cries of 'Can't go on anymore.' And here we are. It's maddening."

 

For middle class blacks and white progressives alike, the depressing reality of urban gang violence is the proverbial elephant in the room — everyone knows it's a big deal, but no one wants to talk about it, likely because no one knows what to do about it. For middle-class blacks, it's a little like having a misbehaving poor relative you're ashamed to talk about with your friends — no matter how angry you get at the embarrassing cousin or brother-in-law, you can't get rid of him.

Maybe a different perspective is needed to rid everyone of the shame. Gang violence is, after all, organized crime, and that's not particular to the American black community. It's what drives migration from Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras to the U.S. Italy has had to deal with mafia violence for decades and decades. Russia's mafia is understood to have significant influence in the Russian government.

 

In other words, once a criminal class becomes seriously entrenched into a community, it is very difficult to eradicate. But you can only begin to seriously consider eradication approaches after you recognize the existence of the problem.

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