How Gangs Drive Chicago's Violence

AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

Anyone with half a brain knows that violence in a city like Chicago isn’t the result of average citizens shooting each other in a fit of rage. It’s driven by very particular factors and particular groups. It’s almost like the 80/20 rule applies, only it’s not 20 percent of the population of the city that’s responsible for the violence. It’s actually a much smaller percentage.

In short, it’s generally the gangs that are responsible.

As many in Chicago’s gangs are facing criminal charges, we can get a glimpse into what drives some of this.

The victims met their fates over two decades in every corner of the city: informants shot execution-style, rivals gunned down in barbershops and restaurants, a rapper targeted after online taunts, an innocent bystander felled by bullets sprayed at a pickup basketball game.

At least 54 people slain and dozens more wounded in shootings stretching from Englewood to Garfield Park to the Gold Coast — and all of them now included in a string of recent federal racketeering cases against reputed members of Chicago street gangs.

The announcement earlier this month of a racketeering indictment charging the Wicked Town gang faction with 19 of those killings was the latest in a concerted push by federal investigators to go after those believed to be driving the gun violence in Chicago, which has reached levels not seen in years.

The gangs allegedly responsible for the violence range from well-established organizations such as the Latin Kings and Four Corner Hustlers to smaller factions that are little-known outside their own neighborhoods, with names such as the Goonies, LAFA, O Block and Milwaukee Kings.

At the core of each indictment, though, is a common theme: That much of today’s violence is being driven not by sophisticated drug trafficking enterprises but by gang factions trying to boost their group’s reputation on the street or on social media, creating a seemingly endless cycle of shootings and retaliation.

Of course, this isn’t overly surprising, except maybe for social media playing a role. We knew why gangs commit acts of violence. As I’ve talked about before, our inner cities are basically honor cultures where one’s reputation matters a great deal.

However, the idea of social media making it worse shouldn’t be surprising. After all, it allows people to attack another’s reputation far more easily and far more often than before the days of Facebook and Twitter. How many times have you been insulted by someone on social media?

For most of us, we shrug it off. Their opinions aren’t really relevant to our lives, so there’s little reason to go out and seek vengeance.

We’re also not in an inner-city gang, either.

Understanding this mechanism, though, is important. It’s important to understand what drives people to commit violent crimes in order to try and prevent them from carrying out a violent crime. Otherwise, you end up with people trying to ban guns rather than address the actual problem.

The fact that most gang members can’t legally buy a firearm in the first place doesn’t enter into these people’s equations, but it does factor into ours. If they’re going to get guns illegally–and Illinois’ gun laws are failing to stop that, unsurprisingly–then maybe the approach you need to take is to address the core issue.

You’re not going to just erase an honor culture with a few words or public service announcements on TV or the internet.

Instead, you need to recognize that an honor culture exists and provide an alternative. That’s where backyard fight clubs actually come in handy. You’re resurrecting dueling but in a generally non-lethal way. It might just be something Chicago should start to take a long, hard look at.