Name That Gang
Like it or not, street gangs are a fact of life in Chicago. Their presence is felt across the city, from alleys to playgrounds, schools to street corners. Even in jails and prisons gang turf and loyalties are given grudging respect, with members of the same gangs or gang coalitions assigned to the same cells or tiers. Gang names, signs, slogans, and colors are well-known to anyone--even to nonmembers--who must safely navigate the neighborhoods. Those who don't know can easily learn from lecturers and liaisons from the Chicago Police Department, who give frequent gang-awareness seminars to parents and community groups.
Until recently, about the only place you couldn't learn specifics about gangs was in the major news media. Under an unwritten agreement--"a longstanding understanding"--between law enforcement officials and the media, newspapers and broadcasters refrained from listing the gang affiliations of those arrested and charged with gang-related crimes. The understanding also discouraged feature stories about gangs or gang leaders. And except for the assorted trials and tribulations of the El Rukns and their imprisoned leader Jeff Fort, the efforts of the police to keep the gangs out of the media were successful.
In keeping with this tradition, City News Bureau, the local wire service that serves as the media's major source of crime stories, routinely excludes the names of gangs from its transmissions, though it usually includes an editor's note at the end of each gang-crime-related item providing the names of the gangs involved.
Over the past six months, however, the "understanding" has been unraveling. Both major newspapers have identified gang affiliations, and broadcasters occasionally have followed suit. And feature stories about gang leaders and gang culture--even one on the lucrative business of gang-inspired jewelry--have been printed on the front pages of both the Sun-Times and the Tribune. Last December the Sun-Times ran a series, reported by Lee Bey and Alf Siewers among others, called "Inside Chicago's Gangs," which carried interviews with gang leaders and prominently displayed not just the names, but the symbols, mottoes, and colors of the city's major gangs. That same month the Tribune ran a story about the release of a major gang leader from prison--focusing on the flamboyant clothing and expensive cars flaunted by the gang members and supporters who came to pick him up. Both stories blatantly challenged the decades-old policy of keeping gang names and leaders anonymous.
The police--who continue to keep gang identities and affiliations out of communications with the news media--are not happy. William Davis, director of news affairs for the Police Department, has lodged vigorous complaints. Says Davis, "The newspapers now say they will depart from the old agreement when they deem it appropriate. But some of these stories are as inappropriate as they can be. They amount to little more than free publicity for gangs and their leaders.
"Like anyone else, these guys collect their press clippings. These gangs--like anyone else--like attention and publicity. And articles that give them such visibility are likely to stimulate rival gangs and wannabes to try to outdo them and get their own free publicity.
"And just who do these articles enlighten? Gang identities, leaders, symbols, and slogans--these are things people in the neighborhoods already know about. The only ones who benefit are the gangs and their leaders. Free publicity like this gives them a rep and just makes things worse."
Davis admits, "We have no empirical study to show a correlation between media coverage and gang crime, but I can cite examples of cases where identification in the media led to problems, and how coverage which identifies gangs can create a power struggle--or publicity struggle--that strengthens gang rivalries and poses even more crime problems for the city. . . . A front-page article showing a gang leader in furs and expensive jewelry becomes a recruiting ad for the gangs. . . . The newspaper may not think that they are portraying this leader as a hero, but to young impressionable people in the community that's exactly what they are doing."
Sun-Times reporter Lee Bey argues that under the old policy gangs and their leaders were actually benefiting from the anonymity. "As long as they were a faceless blob," Bey says, "they were even more terrifying. By giving them names and identities we in effect are demystifying and unmasking them. We are also educating parents and others about gangs, so they can spot gang symbols and behavior in their own neighborhoods or families. . . . I think our new policy of stripping anonymity from the gangs will better inform them about what's happening on the streets and with their own children."
Across Michigan Avenue, the Tribune's deputy managing editor for metropolitan news, Annmarie Lipinski, also supports the change in policy. She says "I can't think of any area of our coverage where we would agree to let anyone--law enforcement officials or anyone else--dictate what we should and shouldn't mention in a story. And yet for years we went along with this policy at the behest of law enforcement officials on the belief that any mention of gang names would somehow glorify gang activity.
"Does writing about political corruption encourage more political corruption?" Lipinski asks. "This policy is so antithetical to how journalists behave. We believe that turning the light on, providing information in all its relevant detail was better. . . . And where is the evidence that not writing about gang identities for all these years made a difference in reducing gang activity? What did the city get out of all this secrecy?"
Lipinski says that junking the old agreement "does not mean that the Tribune will use gang names gratuitously. We just want the freedom to pursue a story in detail wherever it leads, gang names or not, just as in every other area of our coverage. And when a gang name is relevant to the story, when it's a detail that sheds light on events and helps us explain something more clearly, we will use it."
Now that the veil of secrecy and denial has been lifted perhaps someone could put together a story about what happens when gangbangers grow up. They might start with these words from Chaddick, the autobiography of Harry Chaddick, real estate developer (Ford City and the Brickyard), friend and patron to mayors Daley (the elder), Byrne, and Bilandic, and author of the city's zoning ordinance. Mr. Chaddick writes:
"As a child I did not enjoy going to school. I'd rather play softball or football or fight with gangs in the neighborhood. . . . There was one particular tough gang called the 22's whose members wore white hats. They had an annual dance which was held at the West Side Women's Club. . . . The 22's decided that a girl who was at this dance had done some wrong. They entered the club, with two carrying machine guns, and told everyone to line up against a wall. [They] picked out the girl and the others started to take her up to the balcony. . . . I grabbed her and thought I could dance her out of the club. I could like hell! Some guy hit me on the top of the head with one of the machine guns . . .
"My friends and I then went to the place where the gang hung out. . . . My friends got out of their cars, also with shotguns and machine guns and ordered the other gang to put their hands up. One of my friends gave an order that three or four of the ones who had attacked the girl be shot in the leg. When this was done, the avengers drove back to a club to play pinochle."
Maybe all today's gangbangers need to do is learn to play pinochle to begin that climb up the ladder of respectability. Maybe they could put together a new zoning ordinance; the one Chaddick created is frighteningly out of date.
The recent release of a new edition of Trivial Pursuit was depressing news. If anything, we need a new parlor game, one that invites us to learn facts that matter. Call it Significa.
Now, Significa hasn't been invented yet, but creative folks could design their own with the help of the 1992 "Metro Survey Report," a $10 publication of the Metro Chicago Information Center (104 S. Michigan, Chicago 60603).
Illinois House leader Pate Philip ought to give the game a try. Philip recently opposed a modest increase in public aid, saying recipients would just use the additional funds to buy more lottery tickets. For Pate's sake and yours here are some sample questions. Answers, based on responses from 6,000 Chicago-area residents, follow.
(1) Does a higher percentage of Chicagoans or suburbanites buy lottery tickets? More whites or blacks? More people in the lowest income quartile or the highest?
(2) How many suburbanites support paying higher taxes for improved schools and pay raises for teachers in poor areas? 15 percent, 25 percent, 40 percent, or 64 percent.
(3) What percentage of suburbanites think government spends too much on the poor? 22, 33, 44, 55, or 66 percent.
(4) Who is more likely to believe that state and local taxes are too high, Chicagoans or suburbanites? Blacks or whites?
(5) What percentage of Chicagoans say they have less leisure time than they did a year ago? 22, 33, 44, 55, or 66 percent.
(6) What percentage of Chicagoans say they read a book for pleasure last month? Were rates higher for blacks or whites?
(7) What percentage of whites almost never or never talk to blacks for work? 12, 24, 36, or 48.
(8) What percentage of blacks say they almost never or never talk to whites for work? 17, 27, 37, or 47.
(9) What percentage of Chicago-area residents regularly attend religious services?
(10) What percentage of Chicagoans say they never go downtown?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.