The Strange Realities of Chicago’s Gang Wars
Terrible decisions follow cold calculation
The typical explanation for Chicago’s gang violence is as follows.
Young gang members in small, disorganized cliques shoot each other over petty personal feuds that they play out on social media with the hope of gaining street notoriety and possibly fame as a rapper.
This type of killing came into vogue in 2012 when a rapper and Gangster Disciples gang-member Lil Jo Jo was killed after making a music video threatening to kill members of rapper Chief Keef’s Black Disciples clique.
Lil Jo Jo’s video was a response to Keef’s “3hunna” music video in which he disses the Gangster Disciples.
A Twitter feud between Lil Jo Jo and Keef went on for weeks before Lil Jo Jo was shot and killed. A gang war between the rival gangs then ensued, mainly in the form of retaliation killings.
Gang members view a connection between Chief Keef’s successful rap career and the notoriety he gained in connection to the Lil Jo Jo killing.
The slang term for such notoriety is “clout.” And whether a gang member’s goal is to gain respect in his or her neighborhood or become a famous rapper, chasing “clout” is the main reason for gang wars in Chicago.
But clout-based killings, according to this story, would not be as prevalent if the well-organized gangs of the 1990s had not been dismantled. Though more people were murdered in the ’90s, the killings were mainly in connection to the drug business.
If someone stole from the gang or tried to take territory, etc., the decision to kill went through a chain of command before any order was issued. Unsanctioned killing for personal reasons would often result in a beating.
“Anybody arguing, anybody fighting, anybody doing any ol’ type of thing you was gunna get yo head split, man — get your ass beat really bad,” said a former Black Disciple from the 1990s.
The reason for this is simple. Killings were met with retaliation, and this increases the chances of a full-scale gang war. Such a severe level of fighting would drive away customers because of the threat of arrests or catching a stray bullet. A gang leader making six figures wasn’t going to tolerate his bottom line being affected by some petty feud between two teenagers.
Apparently, these killings and wars were also done in a way to avoid innocents being killed, according to many former gang members and residents from that period. Residents would be warned to stay out of certain areas before a war broke out. And a gang member wouldn’t be shot when near his family or other innocents.
Once this hierarchy broke down, fragmented gangs simply began chasing clout, and killings were perpetrated in a way that put innocents at greater risk.
There’s truth to this story.
But simple explanations for patterns of organized violence often miss the nuances of reality.
The story of one young gang member from Chicago’s West Side provides a rare firsthand look into how gang violence currently plays out in Austin, one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
I call him “Mark” instead of his real name in order to hide his identity, because he could be killed for speaking with me.
Mark’s account supports much of the usual story of Chicago’s gang violence.
However, the nuances of his experience reveal that current gangs are complex organizations that make cost-benefit calculations about the use of violence and their participation in the illicit drug trade.
From day-to-day drug-selling operations, to allocating the necessary resources to survive gang wars, his story reveals that current gang violence in Chicago isn’t simply chaos. There’s still a pattern to the violence.
At least in Austin.
Photo via Wikipedia
Driving through the residential parts of Austin when local schools get out makes the area seem like a wonderful place to live. Beautiful brick bungalows and Victorian houses line manicured lawns where groups of children play.
Night brings out a different Austin. A warm summer night means the 15th and 25th district police scanners, which cover Austin, are buzzing with horror stories. Domestic violence, person with a gun, gang fights, shots fired and requests that the ambulance “hurry.”
The streets are deserted except for groups of mostly young men standing at street corners and gas stations. During the day, residents are friendly and inviting. Especially toward outsiders visiting their church on a Sunday, as I found out.
But the “corner boys,” as they’re known, make it clear that they want nothing to do with a white reporter.
To them, a white male in his 20s walking the streets of Austin at that time of night could only be a cop. And to be fair, that’s true … most of the time. Austin is 93-percent black, a prime example of Chicago’s infamous and destructive pattern of segregation.
Austin is well below average on numerous economic indicators when compared to the United States and other neighborhoods in Chicago. For instance, only 54 percent of working-age men in Austin were employed in 2010. By comparison, 82 percent of working-aged men nationally and 84 percent of working-aged men from Chicago were employed in 2010.
Unfortunately, Austin ranked first in murders among Chicago’s neighborhoods during 2016 — the bloodiest year since the 1990s, according to data from the Chicago Police Department..
There were 762 murders in 2016. 88 were in Austin.
This is where Mark grew up.
Mark is a complicated figure.
He’s been a member of a Vice Lords faction in Austin since he was a preteen, and first shot at someone before he could legally drive. “I got mad,” he said. “I acted out of impulse.”
In the dark vernacular that has formed around Chicago’s gang violence, he’s known as a “shooter.”
He was a bit full of himself, bragging about all the women he’s had casual sex with. He made a point to assure me that, despite my muscular build, he could kick my ass. In the few hours I spent with Mark, he became fearful for his life three times, simply because a car pulled up or a pedestrian walked by.
“Me, I don’t feel safe … I would never walk to that light right there,” he said, pointing to a stoplight half a block away. “If I can’t stay in the car or something, I’m not going to go. I’m not going to go on the train or the bus. Like, Hell no. Motherfuckers see me like what they going to do.”
Mark expressed no remorse for rival gang members his gang has killed. “I feel like every person in the street now says that if someone dies, it’s because they deserve to die. No one is innocent.”
But he didn’t even express any remorse when talking about innocents his gang accidentally killed.
During our initial meeting he insinuated at several points that he would kill me if I revealed his identity. When I confronted about it during a later meeting, he denied that’s what he meant. “I would get like a billion years for killing a white person.”
Killing, at least when functioning in Austin’s gangland, has clearly become normalized for Mark.
Despite all this, I found Mark to be highly intelligent and charismatic, intellectually curious and funny.
Austin, Chicago. Photo via Wikipedia
Method to the madness
A disorganized gang, roving aimlessly and constantly shooting rivals over nothing is not the way I would describe Mark’s gang.
Day-to-day, Mark’s gang hangs out at the same gas station in Austin selling various pills and marijuana. It’s not extremely lucrative. “We just stand of the block waiting for people to bring us money. We wait for them to want the shit [drugs]. If they don’t want the shit, then we going to smoke the shit.”
Drugs can be lucrative. But it’s rare. Mark pointed out that “the last block you can say you heard of that was doing a decent amount of money was Ridgeway and Augusta when they put the fentanyl on the dope.”
The low profits made by Mark’s gang don’t seem to be the product of organizational inefficiency. Interestingly, it seems Mark’s gang actually has made a conscious choice to not seek high profits.
Why? In his view, the gangs that make a lot of money attract more attention from the police. “Because it’s like the police is not going to let you make no money nowadays.”
As an example, he pointed out that most of the gang members at Ridgeway and Augusta were recently arrested in a drug conspiracy case.
When this happens, the gang is essentially eliminated, because a new, stronger gang usually moves into the arrested gang’s territory, according to Mark.
But a balance has to be struck. Too rich and your gang risks attracting the full investigatory weight of law enforcement. Too poor and your gang won’t be able survive a war.
Ensuring survival by scaling the size of drug profit relative to other gangs indicates that Mark’s gang is a fairly sophisticated organization.
But the full extent of his gang’s sophistication is revealed by the brutal cost/benefit calculus that goes into surviving gang wars.
For the most part, killing rival gang members is not difficult in Austin. As Mark pointed out, most rivals know each other personally, or are linked closely through social networks. This familiarity makes it easy for Mark’s gang to find and kill rivals.
For instance, Mark’s main tactic is to call on women to lure rivals to a location with the offer of sex. “Like, say I might know a bitch from that area [of the rival gang], and go, like, ‘You go to school with this nigga,’ or ‘You live by him. Get up with him, and act like you finna’ fuck him and shit. And have him to meet you somewhere.’ And then she call us and tell us.” That’s when Mark’s gang moves in.
Another way is to simply “spot ’em, drop ’em, got ’em type shit.” Meaning, hunting rivals in their territory. But Mark pointed out that there’s usually a simpler way to find rivals. “You can always find a motherfucker at they baby mama’s house. Like at his bitch house. Like you can always find him there.”
The war progresses from there. “One a they ass dies, and then you like, ‘Aight.’ The next day you wake up and you need to kill another one a they ass,’” Mark said, referring to rival gang members.”It just go like that, until they ass extinct.”
Still, many of the current gang wars in Chicago drag on for months or years.
This is true for Mark’s gang, as well. Two current wars his gang is fighting have been going on for a little under a year. The length of these wars is perplexing, seeing as the gangs are fairly small and it’s easy to find rivals.
According to Mark, the length of these wars is due to the high cost of fighting them.
Each time Mark’s gang tries to kill a rival, the gang usually incurs heavy costs from bonding members out, buying guns and buying drugs.
Not surprisingly, the rate of arrests increases among gang members during a war. The Chicago Police Department shifts resources to taking down gangs that produce the most violence, according to Mark and interviews with several officers.
This increases the rate of bonding fellow gang members out of jail. Mark estimates that the gang spends around $100,000 in bonds every year, making it the highest cost of fighting a war.
Failing to bond out members is dangerous during a war. Not only does this decrease manpower, it also makes enemies out of fellow members. “[T]hen if you don’t bond him out and you got the money, then you gotta worry about when he get out then he tryin’ to kill you now,” according to Mark.
However, bonding members out also reduces the amount and quality of guns a gang can buy.
Gangs with higher-caliber guns with a faster rate of fire and higher magazine capacity than their rivals’ are the most successful in wars, according to Mark. He added that many in his gang “don’t want 17 shots or 15 shots,” referring to magazine capacity. “He want 30, he want a 50 on it. He want 50 shots” to feel more comfortable on the battlefield.
But quality guns are expensive. And once they’re used, Mark’s gang typically sells them at a loss. “Say I might have a gun and I might have shot somebody with this gun, and this gun might be dirty. Now I’m sell it to you for a lower price.”
Doing so protects the gang by making it more difficult for cops to trace guns. But this also means that shooting someone is expensive.
Interestingly, buying a large number of guns isn’t just for security. Doing so also helps Mark’s gang avoid arrest … and paying expensive bonds.
This may seem odd. But Mark described numerous instances in which he avoided arrest by providing Chicago Police Officers with illegal guns.
Mark told several stories to explain how this works.
“I was on probation, and I got locked up for some weed or some shit. I got locked up for some weed. We had a broke gun. Like a duce-duce or some shit. Motherfucker didn’t shoot. You needed like a pin. So, I was like, ‘Fuck it.’ When the police grab me I don’t wanna … ”
“I just got out on intense probation. I just caught a case, then I’m finna’ go back to the county [jail]. I don’t want to go back to the county. We had guns to throw, with the spare. I told the officer I had a gun. They let me out the back. Shit, I gave him my number, he called. He gave me his number, I gave him my number, he called me. After 10 minutes, we made the exchange.”
Mark and the officer agreed to meet in an alley.
“I put the gun in a bag. … He was at the end of the alley in a car. I took off running. I went back to the block. They rolled past, never said shit to me. Like it never happened. It didn’t never happen.”
Mark described two other instances of similar exchanges. Another time he was caught with a large amount of marijuana by patrol officers. However, they let Mark go with a ticket.
“Then that’s when they got a shotgun,” he added. “Because it’s a bogus gun. Nobody shoot shotguns.” He clarified later that his gang buys numerous cheap guns for the sole purpose of exchanging guns for freedom.
Another time, Mark was called by a friend and fellow gang member from the back of a police car.
“They grabbed my homie, and then he called me. He had some pills … he got caught with some pills. He called me and said he need a gun. So, we did it the same way. They kept him in the back of a police car. I made the call, I put it in a bag, I saw the cop, dropped it. I said, ‘Ya’ll got it?’ I showed him — like, ‘Yeah’ — took off running again.”
Mark claimed that he exchanged guns for freedom about five time since 2015. I couldn’t confirm Mark’s particular stories, but the 2017 U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the CPD did find evidence of this practice.
One CPD officer confirmed the practice goes on, but explained that officers from specialized units are allowed to conduct the practice, though under strict guidelines. It should be noted that the DOJ report endorses “guns for freedom,” but only under such strict guidelines.
The CPD source added that cops only organize such exchanges for minor crimes, such as possession.
Drugs also get more expensive during gang wars. Mark’s gang buys pills to “take the fear away. Or anxiousness away” for the shooters. Especially the younger members. “They make you not give a fuck,” Mark said, referring to the pills. Mark estimated that buying pills costs the gang around $50,000 a year. Each pill costs $40.
Photo via Wikipedia
Irrationality of gang wars
With all these costs, it may be confounding as to why Mark’s gang goes to war at all. Especially since the two major wars Mark’s gang is currently fighting started over personal beefs. The end goal of these wars is not to make more money, as was the goal for many wars in the 1990s. Instead, these wars are about pride.
Mark claims that his set is winning both wars, killing close to 15 members of rival gangs. Mark remorselessly listed the names of many of those his gang killed. “Hey, I tore dey ass down! Dey ass dying!”
Although Mark’s set has killed more of their opponents, they’ve lost a large portion of their members to jail and prison. “Like we into it with the [redacted] and the [redacted], but it’s like a lotta [Mark’s set] locked up right now, so it’s like unbalanced.” This lack of manpower has significantly cut his gang’s power, according to Mark.
Mark acknowledged that fighting these wars over personal beefs may seem petty. But backing down from a war in the face of personal attacks will result in the gang’s destruction.
“The value of your gang goes down. Like, these dudes out here getting disrespected, so they not even in our lane, we can just run over them. Like, they ain’t on nothing.” In essence, by backing down from personal disputes, a gang will no longer be able to project deterrence.
That’s the “rational” reason to fight the wars.
But there’s an emotionally driven reason as well. “We want bodies, we don’t want money. The money ain’t going to bring our homie back. The bodies going to level the motherfuckin’ pain out. You feel me?”