Imagine for a moment you are the owner of a small business. And imagine further that despite the currently gloomy economic conditions, your business is prospering to the extent that you are looking to hire someone for an entry-level position, one requiring little in the way of skill or experience. You advertise your opening in the usual places and await the results.
Soon a young man, we’ll call him Applicant A, appears at your doorstep. He has obviously made some effort to impress, wearing a coat and tie and giving you cause to believe he adheres to a passably tolerable regimen of personal hygiene. His résumé, though not extensive, indicates some degree of initiative: he has graduated from high school and junior college with passing but not sterling grades, during which education he supported himself by working as a busboy, a cook, and a waiter. For references he presents a list of former teachers and supervisors at his previous jobs. During the course of your interview with him, you form the opinion that he is eager, honest, and intelligent, the kind of young man who, though not highly educated, will be an asset to your business and a pleasant coworker for your other employees.
And then along comes Applicant B, who arrives thirty minutes late for his interview. The initial impression he makes is one of stark contrast to Applicant A. Where Applicant A has chosen an approximation of business attire, Applicant B is more casually dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans, the waistband of which rests somewhere well below his waist to expose a vast expanse of his plaid boxer shorts. He also wears athletic shoes with the laces untied and a baseball cap whose bill points off in some direction other than the front.
He discloses that he is a high school dropout, and when you inquire about the skills he might bring to the job, he recites a litany of talents which, though impressive in their own way, seem ill suited for the position you seek to fill: he can outrun any cop in his neighborhood, can start almost any car with only a screwdriver, and is an expert shot with a 9-millimeter Glock, so expert in fact that he can — and has — hit a moving target from a moving car. For references he offers his probation officer and a friend he knows only by the sobriquet “Pookie.”
Now, to whom do you offer the job?
Be honest now — you chose Applicant A, didn’t you? Shame, shame, shame on you. Now Applicant B, having suffered discrimination at your hands, has no choice but to go out and continue in a life of crime. When he shoots and kills someone in the course of a robbery it will not be his fault but yours for having denied him an escape from his descent into perdition.
This was the theme of a bizarre press conference held this month in Chicago, where a collection of so-called gang leaders addressed reporters and aired their grievances on a number of subjects including the police and economic conditions that, they claim, offer poor young men no choice but to commit robberies, burglaries, and various other crimes, and to shoot each other with a staggering degree of regularity.
The press conference was a response to a meeting Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis held with gang members on August 28, during which Weis and prosecutors are alleged to have threatened to prosecute gang crimes under federal RICO statutes if Chicago’s street violence is not curtailed. The gang members claim they were tricked into attending the meeting, having been summoned under the pretense of a routine parole hearing.
“We don’t have to be tricked into meetings and then told, you’re going to govern people who can’t be governed,” said James Allen, a self-described “minister” with a West Side gang.
Whether some deception might have been required to lure certain people to the meeting should be of little interest, but the rest of Allen’s statement rings true. In handing down an ultimatum to “gang leaders,” Supt. Weis has displayed a degree of naivete that is troubling to see in a man in his position.
Most street gangs have no hierarchical structure through which instructions are relayed via a chain of command. A man might be recognized as a leader in a given street gang merely by virtue of having lived beyond the age of 30 without being murdered or imprisoned on a life sentence. Some young gangster might look at such a man with admiration, but in most cases he would neither seek nor accept the older man’s counsel on how to conduct his business. If that young gangster comes to believe some rival deserves to be shot (and it doesn’t take much for a young gangster to come to such a belief), then there’s going to be some shooting no matter what his elders might have to say about it. As James Allen admitted, young gang members are “people who can’t be governed.”
And yet people are nonetheless impelled to try, or at least to pretend to try in the hope of claiming government funding for their efforts. That’s what the gang press conference was really all about: the time-honored Chicago tradition of shaking down the taxpayers for a slice of the pie. “A lot of this violence was started, was birthed by patronage, corruption, and cronyism,” Allen told WLS reporter John Garcia, “and us being locked out of contracts and jobs and resources in our communities.” And there you have it: We know there are billions of dollars in graft coursing through this city, Allen is saying. We only want our fair share of it. And when we get it, maybe we’ll stop shooting each other. And if we don’t stop shooting each other, it won’t mean that the program has failed but rather that even more funding is required. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass was at the gang press conference and, unlike most of his fellow reporters, saw it for the charade it plainly was. “[E]veryone [got] what they came for,” he wrote. “The leaders got publicity. The reporters got to ask pointed questions and demonstrate that they’re not pushovers.”
Kass knows, as Chicago street cops know, that for all practical purposes there are no genuinely “former” gang members, only older ones pretending to be. And they also know that gang members will cease their predatory ways not when they are given jobs, but rather when they come to fear the consequences of the life they have chosen. They don’t get off the corners because they like the cops, they get off the corners because they’re afraid of them. It’s really just that simple.