There Was A Shooting, But Don’t Worry. It Was “Gang-Related”

There Was A Shooting, But Don’t Worry. It Was “Gang-Related”

A North Side Perspective

February 1, 2013. I received an email today from my alderman. I like my alderman. He’s a good guy who works hard for the community and keeps us informed on a weekly basis about events and issues in the ward. When the situation warrants it, he sends out special email announcements.

Today’s special email informed us of a shooting that took place about three blocks from my home. A man was shot in the leg. The shooting was “believed to be gang-related.”

There are a lot of shootings in Chicago, and a lot of them are “gang-related.” I googled “gang-related” and found that there are approximately 110,000 news items online that refer to “gang-related” crimes. The term can be universally used to describe certain acts of violence without the need for further definition or explanation, implying that everyone knows what a “gang-related” shooting (or other crime) is. This suggests that the term has an accepted connotative function in our language.

The term “gang-related” functions as a “code word,” a term that is used to make racial references without explicitly mentioning a particular racial or ethnic group. By using code words, a writer or speaker can draw a clear distinction between his audience – us  – and  the referent of the coded terms – them.   Code words have historically been used in reference to Black people when addressing white audiences. The references are uniformly pejorative. Some well-worn code words are “urban populations” “crime,” “welfare,” “dependency,” “special interest groups,” and “poor work ethic.” These are simply descriptive nouns and noun phrases. But when used in the context of racial politics, they become implicit references to Black people and their purported flaws.

“Gang-related” has become a useful shorthand in the management of fear that is a major function of our media. The media tell us whom to fear (terrorists, Muslims, Black men, criminals), what to fear (terrorism, “big government,” global warming, having our guns taken away), when to fear (generally, “now”), where to fear (“the city,” “the inner city,” “red” states, the rest of the world}, and how to fear (“stand your ground,” repressive legislation).

The term “gang-related” consolidates all of important journalistic Ws and H. It tells us whom to fear (young Black –and occasionally Latino – men), what to fear (predatory violence, loss of our valuables through theft), when to fear (whenever we see them), how to fear (“stay out of those neighborhoods,” “lock ‘em up), and most usefully – at least until recently – where to fear.

Like most American cities, Chicago is conveniently segregated by race. The poorest neighborhoods are on the south and west sides of the city. These communities are overwhelmingly Black (although there are entrenched white enclaves). They are home to most of the victims of gang violence and to most of the perpetrators, as well. These gangs are multigenerational criminal enterprises that provide illegal pleasures – especially illegal drugs – to customers throughout the metropolitan era – persons of all racial/ethnic groups and income levels. Competition between gang families is intense and the struggle to control territories (neighborhoods) routinely involves violence – primarily targeted at gang rivals, but often killing or injuring noninvolved bystanders.

The neighborhoods on the north and northwest sides of the city are predominantly white, although some communities are largely Hispanic or Asian. In some of these neighborhoods, especially the lakeside communities of Uptown, Edgewater, and East Rogers Park, the white plurality is not so great, and the other ethnic groups are so diverse, that no one group can claim to be the “majority” (though whites continue to monopolize political and economic power.) In Chicago’s racial lexicon, however, these are “white” neighborhoods. And although these neighborhoods have tough enclaves where gangs have been active for years, the violence associated with gang crime has largely been absent. But now, as the economics of crime mirror the economics of the country in general, gangs are in greater competition for scarce resources and the territories that contain them. This competition has brought an increase in shootings to the north side. And northsiders, especially nonblack northsiders, are beginning to taste the fear that flavors daily life on the south and west sides.

Shootings associated with random rage, and those associated with robberies would understandably create generalized fear. But if a shooting is “gang-related,” it narrows the scope of fear. If shootings are “gang-related,” white northsiders can be assured that the shootings are happening in parts of the city that they are unlikely to ever see. And when “gang-related” shootings happen in a north side neighborhood, nonblack residents can take comfort in the illusion that they will not be the targets of the violence.

But it is an illusion. The economics of illegal goods, like the economics of every product, dictate expansion of markets and a striving for monopoly. For criminal gangs, violence is the means of achieving economic dominance.  Whether we accept it or not, the invisible boundaries that contain “gang-related” violence are dissolving. Either we will all join together to solve the problem of gang violence or we will be overwhelmed by it in isolation, reinforced by self-deception. If we, on the north side, limit our efforts to the eradication of gang violence from our communities only, we will fail. We must accept responsibility for our entire city and all of its children. If not, we should be prepared to see the entire city overwhelmed by gun violence. Calling it “gang-related” will convey no meaning and offer no false security.


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