It’s been a while that I haven’t spoken with a gang member. In St. Paul these days, there are fewer and fewer of them… the neighborhood’s changing and they’re moving out little by little. In a strange way, that makes the situation more dangerous. It used to be that a gang would control a pretty large area… let’s say a half a mile by a half a mile. I remember years ago that the Latin Kings and the 26 were rival gangs in Little Village. You could clearly identify the leaders, and you could even find neutral territory where the gangs could come together and not fight. We ran a bible study/basketball night for years in the parish gym at Blessed Agnes (now St. Agnes) on 27th and Central Park, and the rival gangs came and played basketball and didn’t fight.
That’s all changed. Some years ago, the police department thought it would be a good idea to target the leaders of the gang. The thinking was that if you took them out of the picture, the gangs would disperse. It didn’t work out that way. I suppose it’s similar to the way we tried to deal with terrorists. We thought that if you took out the leaders of the terrorists, they’d go away. Nope. As it is, our efforts to deal with terrorists seems to have made the situation worse. Now, instead of a few major players you can keep track of, there are many individual cells bent on causing destruction and mayhem.
It’s a similar pattern with the gangs in Chicago. In the absence of a hierarchy of leadership, anarchy has taken over. Instead of controlling half a mile squared, in Pilsen the gangs control a block or two at a time. It’s much more dangerous than it was in the past because the gangs are now fighting for individual blocks. And the slow gentrification means that the blocks are losing what you might call “critical mass.” In other words what used to be an SD block is now up for grabs since a couple of SD families have moved away and the Kings or somebody else are trying to grab the block.
What does that mean for someone like Sammy? He told me he’s been “involved” for years. He comes from a pretty dysfunctional family. It seems that he was getting in trouble in school and living with his mom and her new husband. It got to be too much for her, so she sent him to live with his father. His father had remarried, and his wife hated Sammy. She’d tell him she didn’t want him around. She’d pull his hair and pinch him. And so on. And his dad didn’t do anything to protect him. Here’s Sammy in the 7th grade, and he’s a couple of years behind in school. He’s been bouncing from school to school and falling further and further behind. He gets “socially promoted” out of 7th grade to High School. He was simply too old to be in primary school. No matter that he really didn’t know how to read or do much math. It was off to High School. This has been going on for years in Chicago… kids arrive at High School and can’t do the work. Someone hands them a textbook they can’t read. They can’t do the work, and besides, there’s somebody offering them drugs and sex and money. All they have to do is go off and shoot somebody. If they’re under 18, the penalty is next to nothing anyway. There’s a reason the Chicago Public Schools have a 70% drop out rate for Latino males. Or maybe many reasons. Troubled families, bad schools, tough neighborhoods. What might we expect…
Anyway, this past Saturday Sammy came by to do some community service hours. He got assigned 80 hours of community service because of an “incident” he was involved in. More about the incident later. I figured I would ask him to help me move some stone. He works polishing granite countertops, and I had to move some marble to make an altar for a little chapel we’re working on in the parish. He shows up late… and I’d borrowed a pickup truck to move the stone. Luckily, there were some guys working at the parish and they had a bobcat. We loaded the stone on the truck while I was waiting for Sammy. Instead of yelling at him right away (my usual way of being!) I decided I might talk to him instead. I’ve known him since he was a little kid… That’s how I learned about his history with his family and school. We talked on the way to drop off the stone.
I asked him why he was late, and he told me he woke up late. And he had to take 2 buses and the train to get from his mom’s house to the parish. I noticed that he was wearing his face mask in the truck and I asked him “Sammy, why are you wearing the mask in the truck?” “It’s in case someone might recognize me.” I pondered for a minute… if they recognized him, and he was in the wrong place, they would probably shoot at him. He’s sitting next to me in the truck! Ok, I thought, I hope nobody recognizes him.
He named the territories of all the gangs we crossed as we went down 31st street. His way of viewing the street was radically different from mine. He was hypervigilant, noticing every car, every pedestrian, every detail of the street we were driving across. We dropped off a load of stone and went back for another one. On the way back I was paying pretty close attention to the cars and pedestrians, too!
The “incident.” It seems that he was driving home down Archer Avenue. A black car came up next to him and the guy flashed a gang sign at him. He ignored it. Another car came and tried to cut him off in traffic. The first car’s driver side window started rolling down. He thought, “oh shit, it’s about to happen,” so he picked up his pistol and started shooting. He unloaded the pistol, he said, just to scare them off. He didn’t want to shoot anyone. It worked, they left.
As it turned out, the detector on the phone pole caught the sound of gunshots. He had a police scanner in the car, and he heard the description of his car over the radio. He had to get out of the car, so he went to a friend’s house to let the car cool off for a while. He left the gun at his friend’s house. After a while he thought he ought to go home… how to get there? Down the side streets to avoid the cameras on the main streets. He didn’t think very hard, otherwise he would have picked up the shell casings on the floor of the car and dumped them in the sewer. Oh well… he told me he made it almost all the way home and then he saw the blue lights on behind him. Got taken to the jail. Somehow, he was released, and at the hearing he was assigned 80 hours of community service.
At the end of the day, I told Sammy I’d drive him home. I didn’t want him taking the bus. Driving down Pulaski I was watching all the cars that came alongside us. I paid attention to who was stopping at the traffic lights. I had pretty heightened “situational awareness,” as they say in this world. It reminded me of my days in South Chicago. Imagine Sammy. He can’t really go anywhere without being afraid. He tells me he’s tired of this life. He wants to get out. He thinks he can’t because if he tells the gang he’ll either have to get a violation (a severe beating), or just walk away. In either case, after this decision is made, he turns into a SOS or a KOS (it’s the same thing, shoot on sight or kill on sight). If he stays in the gang, at least in a tiny corner of the world, someone has his back. If he leaves, he’s as good as dead. He’s 22 years old and looks like a teenager. He has braces and he’s maybe 120lbs dripping wet.
We’ll see if I can’t bump him back onto the rails a bit. One of the things he told me is that he’s smoking a lot of pot. It’s legal… but I told him I thought it was scrambling his brain. He thinks it helps him get in the groove to polish granite. I told him that I wanted him to show up to work sober, that we’d be working with power tools and heavy stones, and that I didn’t want to see him get hurt. This past Saturday I bought him some steel toed shoes. Hopefully he turns up on time this coming Saturday.
Just a side note. Sammy told me he’s terrified taking the bus to the places he has to polish granite. He’s never sure whose territory he’s crossing and some days he doesn’t want to leave the house. He goes anyway. He wants to work. It’s going to make Sammy’s life a lot harder when we don’t have to wear masks anymore. How will he ride the bus?