Gangs are a fact of life in Chicago, drawing boundaries in a city already considered to be one of America’s most segregated. The street violence and murder rates have captured the attention of international media in the midst of the ongoing gun rights/gun control debate. In two interviews, local experts weigh in on their unique strategies of tackling gang violence in the city. By Susan Du from the Chicago Bureau.

The Riddle of Chicago Gang Violence
The Riddle of Chicago Gang Violence – Image courtesy of Rev. Dwayne L. Grant

Gangs are a fact of life in Chicago, each identifying with distinct neighborhoods and schools, drawing boundaries in a city already considered to be one of America’s most segregated.

In some of Chicago’s public schools, students in grades as early as 4th and 5th are exposed to gang recruitment, sometimes strong-armed, more often cajoled with promises of fraternity and protection. By the numbers, incidents which Chicago Police have deemed “gang-related” account for a large proportion of homicides contributing to 2012’s overall spike in violence – which shot up again in January before ebbing last month.

Chicago’s street violence and murder rates have captured the attention of national, even international, media in the midst of an ongoing gun rights/gun control debate. And in February the First Couple heeded the community’s call for them to visit their old neighborhood and address public safety – Michelle Obama to attend the funeral of slain 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, and Barack Obama to gear his post-State of the Union speech at Hyde Park Academy toward crime prevention.

The Chicago Bureau will be reaching out to local leaders in the study of crime trends, the practice of crime prevention, and the drafting of policy to combat it at all levels: Government, schools, community groups, journalists, and more. First up were Ethan Ucker of Circles and Ciphers and Gary Slutkin of Cure Violence – both weighing in on their unique strategies of tackling gang violence at the local level.


Interview 1, with Ethan Ucker. Ethan works with Circles and Ciphers: A Leadership Training Program for Young Men. It is a part of Project NIA, which facilitates the creation of community-focused responses to youth violence and crime.”


The Chicago Bureau: What proportion of your clientele is involved in gangs or has been involved in a gang?

Ucker: 100 percent of the young people we work with are gang affiliated. The difference is that some would say now that they are not active. Yesterday, one of our guys was jumped because even though he currently claims not to be an active member of a gang, he once was active. He made a choice, empowered I think through the work that we do here, that he was going to start moving away from that lifestyle. That legacy of gang membership, which is so inextricably linked to where he grew up, and which determines the acceptability of his choices, marks him and shadows him even as he tries to transform it.

The Chicago Bureau: So what are the benefits and detriments of being affiliated but not quite active in gangbanging (turf wars, illicit activities) versus quitting gang life entirely?

Ucker: Gang affiliation is a form of protection, fraternity, community – all those important things that everyone needs. Besides their involvement in gangs, the young people we work with are otherwise disengaged … in their communities. A lot of them feel victimized by oppressive systems which target them, like the prison industrial complex. Even institutions that are designed to help them, like schools, are taking stricter and stricter disciplinary and punitive measures. I think a lot of guys respond to that by turning to a community like a street gang that is of their own design and more adequate to their needs. And, specifically when talking about detention centers and prisons, gang affiliation offers a form of protection. If you get locked up in Cook County Jail, it’s a necessary means of survival.

The Chicago Bureau: What can institutions like detention centers and schools do to decrease the need for youth to participate in gangs?

Ucker: The way it works is in Chicago Public Schools there is a dean of discipline and right next to that office there is basically a police station. Chicago Police officers deal with disciplinary issues in schools by making arrests. The result is that you’re not supporting healing, resolution or building healthy relationships in communities. Instead of addressing the underlying needs of the young person, there’s an increased emphasis on punishment.

The Chicago Bureau: Do you feel there has been an increase in punitive discipline even after 2006 when CPS included more restorative justice language in the student handbook?

Ucker: Since restorative justice has been included in the handbook, concurrently there’s been an explosion of stricter disciplinary policies like the zero tolerance idea. Schools and people are claiming that restorative justice language, holding up their peer juries as a way of showing that they are doing restorative justice, but at the same time there’s this increased emphasis on punitive measures. If you were to actually claim the practices and principles of restorative justice in an authentic way, those principles run counter to idea of having police officers sitting in your school.

The Chicago Bureau: And the prisons?

Ucker: We could decrease the need for youth to participate in gangs by not using detention and incarceration to punish non-violent crimes, and not using them to punish at all. Instead of relying on punishment and paternalism, which further alienate disengaged young people, provide the things that gangs provide: a sense of safety, a sense of belonging, responsibilities, a space in which a young person can be heard. Then gangs will not be needed, and they will disappear. If prisons can provide this, I’d love to see it. I’m not convinced that they can. Specialize prisons, so that they focus on providing a context for healing that can be tailored to the needs of individuals. Rehabilitation is not a one-size-fits-all. At various county and state detention centers, juveniles are all warehoused together in an indiscriminant way, as though they all need the same things.

The Chicago Bureau: If these issues are well known and widely criticized, why haven’t changes been implemented?

Ucker: Two reasons. The first is purely financial – there are huge prison guard unions and a lot of political stakeholders who profit financially and politically from the continued use and expansion of prisons. The other reason is cultural. What is normal and accepted is being tough on crime. It’s political suicide to say or be made to seem soft on crime. Even in communities where I work, people hate the police, but they still call the cops to deal with conflict. Everyone calls the cops. We need to peel back that impulse, and look at what really happens when you bring someone into an adversarial legal system, and how locking someone up does not address the needs of the victim.

The Chicago Bureau: How do you envision employing these Circles and Ciphers methods to disengage kids from gang culture? Or is that even your end goal?

Ucker: No. That’s the thing – how can I tell someone with a completely different set of experiences than mine that they should not be in a gang? The gang is fulfilling needs for them, needs that everybody has: safety, belonging, protection. Ideally, we’re trying to work with young people who have only ever been engaged with street gang culture and engage them in something else, something new.

The Chicago Bureau: Is creative alternatives to gangs better than confronting gang members and telling them to make different choices in the intervention, Interrupters style in your opinion?

Ucker: One organization, CeaseFire, does frontline intervention work. Good for them – we need less violence and specifically, less homicides. Our focus is more on community building and relationship building and that involves deep work that looks at the root causes rather than structuring interventions around surface-level behavior. I’m not criticizing what CeaseFire does – they do different work than we do, they address and defuse situations that threaten to become violent. We use restorative justice to do consistent and sustained youth development, a very different model. Following the principles of restorative justice, we would never confront anyone and tell them to make a different choice.

The Chicago Bureau: People say restorative justice is ineffective from an institutional point of view because there’s such a high traffic of youth offenders that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to give enough time and attention to any one child and not enough money to accommodate everyone in the system. Tell me more about the expenses associated with your work.

Ucker: It is really time-intensive work. I don’t know if it’s necessarily more expensive than building an enormous facility with a huge staff to maintain and detain young people. A restorative justice framework doesn’t work from an institution’s perspective because institutions prescribe what a young person needs, and use a certain model to determine how those needs should be addressed, what they need to do to get better or to be reformed. This is an important distinction. Restorative justice is not paternalistic – there is no ‘you need to complete these steps in order to be rehabilitated’ prescription. Rather, it’s about asking, ‘what do you need?’


Interview 2, with Dr. Gary Slutkin. Gary is a physician, epidemiologist, infectious disease control specialist and Founder/Executive Director of Cure Violence.


The Chicago Bureau: How much of that violence that you aim to stem – alluded to the name ‘Cure Violence’ – is gang-related?

Slutkin: Probably 20 or 30 percent.

The Chicago Bureau: What type of violence is the majority of your efforts geared toward?

Slutkin: Interpersonal disputes that fall into the categories of Girls [fighting over women], Money, Disrespect and then a lot of Retaliation.

The Chicago Bureau: How do you recognize and anticipate when interpersonal disputes are about to explode into violent conflict?

Slutkin: One way is that there’s already been an event and a retaliation is expected. Then if there’s been a shooting, we have to talk to friends, find out what they’re thinking, and then we have to cool them down. So how do we find out about a shooting? About three ways – one is the hospital calls us. And that’s already organized with most hospitals in Chicago and in several other cities. So we go [to the hospital] for the purposes of helping the guy, should he live – and to prevent any retaliation. Another way we find out is that the police notify us. And the third way, which is arguably the most common, is street information. When [our staff] takes the pulse of the neighborhood, they’re kind of talking to people all the time. It’s also the way in which we learn about all kinds of different things that help us do prevention on the front end. So there’s the prevention of retaliation and there’s [the prevention of initial violence].

The Chicago Bureau: Cure Violence brands itself as being a support network for individuals who are “beyond the reach of traditional social support systems. They have dropped out of school, exhausted social services or aged out, and many have never held a legitimate job; their next encounter with the system is either to be locked up behind bars or laid out in the emergency room.” How do you determine that someone, especially a minor, is beyond traditional help and requires your assistance?

Slutkin: We have criteria for this. It has to do with whether they have access to weapons, if they have a big criminal history, if they’re involved with people who have done shootings, their age and things like that. The check ensures that our workers are really dealing with people who pose the highest risk and that they’re looking for people who are causing the most trouble. They’re looking for the guys who are active in a gang, or are leadership in a gang or are thought to be shooters.

The Chicago Bureau: You stated that engaging in violence can be a neurological habit, and that it takes intervention to shake people loose of that lifestyle. What kind of mind-changing, game-changing interruption do people require when you actually confront them on the street?

Slutkin: Think of it in two different categories. One is persuading someone out of something when they’re really angry and they’ve got their mind set on doing it – that’s what we call interruption of persuasion. The second is doing behavior change, which is longer term, so the next time they get angry, they have another set of responses to fall back on. So in other words, they don’t have to be persuaded. The starting point is that [Cure Violence is] talking to them with someone they already know and trust and whom they see as one of their own. Step two is talking with them in their own interest. They validate the complaint. Even though sometimes the complaints are wrong or they’re lies, they listen thoroughly. They’re buying time in order to cool down. And then they reframe, so instead of talking about that particular incident, they’ll talk with them about their kids, about their mom, and get them thinking about their longer term life. Behavior change means learning a new set of conflict resolution skills to try and practice.

The Chicago Bureau:Would you say Cure Violence is in any form a gang prevention program? What is the best way to decrease gang violence overall?

Slutkin: I think we’re better at reducing gang violence than most everyone. What is usually thought of as gang prevention means preventing someone from going in a gang. So there are a lot of programs across the country devoted to that, to prevent youth from going into a gang and also to bring people out of a gang. Those programs do not effectively drop the violence in a neighborhood because they don’t change the norms, and because just because they keep one kid from joining a gang doesn’t mean some other kid won’t. These things don’t, as a rule, reduce violence.


Featured Image Credit: Huffington Post

Written by Chicago Bureau

The Chicago Bureau is a collaboration of journalists, university faculty and students to put out stories that engage those involved in, or concerned about, the conversation on youth. We believe we have the ability, through partnerships and by tapping the youth voice, to push forward the discussion on issues of justice and education, immigration, race and poverty and health, and the LGBT community.