now in its one-hundred-and-eightieth year
A force that the Chicago Police can’t make inroads against is formidable indeed.
We use the word “gangs” in connection with the thugs who are shooting to kill on Chicago’s streets. The violence is “gang-related,” or “drug- and turf-related,” authorities say. Many of the perpetrators are young men, insignificant-seeming, having few resources individually. The language used to describe the criminal networks warring on Chicago’s west and south side is inadequate and misleading. It slights the nature of the problem we face, by making it seem somehow ad-hoc, local, fragmentary, and spontaneous.
Is there a parallel between the type of violence gripping the city, and the sort it experienced back in the days of Al Capone, or even as recently as the 60s and 70s? Then, the enemy was dignified with the name of “organized crime.” Gunmen shooting to kill in restaurants and alleys were part of something explicitly formidable and monolithic. They were part of “a syndicate.” Hit men were recognized as mere foot soldiers, representatives of a hierarchy that the innocent couldn’t see, but that law enforcement and the public had the sense to infer. Those men who burst into view, peppering a crowd with indiscriminate gunfire, or stuffing bodies into the trunks of cars: they were members of something large called “The Mafia” or “The Mob.” From Mexico, we hear of the fearful “cartels.”
To my mind, these terms all have the virtue of being businesslike. They all remind us of the machinery behind the violence, of the economic goals and benefits that furnish its drive. They acknowledge the rules and discipline that underlie enduring criminal networks. And they put the rest of us on guard, by making the adversary out to be perhaps more resourceful and powerful than we.
I wish we could develop a vocabulary more suitable to describe the entrenched forces wreaking havoc in our poor neighborhoods. Not only would that vocabulary be motivating, but it would alter our way of responding, perhaps inspiring more appropriate and efficacious strategies. Can we hope to prevail with local and community approaches, if the crime originates in something much larger in scale?
Above: Ralph “Bottles” Capone and Anthony Aresso, Chicago, c. 1920,
from this source.
Unemployed men lined up outside a soup kitchen opened by Al Capone in Chicago, 1931
(Courtesy US National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons). Click here.