What's Driving The Violence In Chicago?
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It was a violent Christmas weekend in Chicago. Sixty-one people were shot, 11 killed. That brings the number of murders in Chicago this year to over 750. It's a 58 percent increase over last year, and it's the most of any American city.
John Eligon is a national correspondent for The New York Times. He wanted to know what was driving the violence, so he spent several weeks this fall with members of the Black Disciples gang on Chicago's South Side.
JOHN ELIGON: Gunfire was so common in their lives that to me, it seemed like they were not necessarily traumatized by it anymore in the sense that a lot of times, if there were - if someone was killed, of course they were talking about it. You would go on their social media page, and you'll see them grieving about it openly.
But if someone gets shot in the hand or the foot and they're alive, in some ways, they actually joke about it. For them, it's because it's not necessarily something that's uncommon or traumatic. In Chicago, in the part that I hung out in, the ambulance comes. They put the people in the ambulance. Police come. They try to talk to people. They put up police tape. It goes down, and then life just kind of continues.
SIEGEL: What does it mean today to be a member of a gang in Chicago, the kind of gang that you came to know?
ELIGON: Yeah, well, I really kind of liken them to social clubs. They're not really so much these lucrative drug-selling enterprises. Now, a lot of the young men and women involved do indeed sell, you know, drugs, do hand-to-hand transactions. But a lot of it is just, you know, the violence ends up being perpetuated because there's historic tensions between the various groups.
SIEGEL: I come away from your writing about these young people with the impression that while gang violence accounts for a great deal of the gun violence and the gun murders in Chicago, if we think of two big gangs and some enormous turf war going on, that's wrong. We're talking about dozens of little vendettas and little affronts that are being assuaged by a gunshot here, a gunshot there.
ELIGON: And I'd say you hit the nail on the head right there. These are people who are mad at each other for numerous reasons. They might be upset over how someone dissed them at a party or something they said on a rap song that they posted to YouTube. It's not like there is a gang turf war going on in terms of, someone is selling drugs on my block, and I want to get them off my block because they're from the Black Disciples; and I'm against the Disciples, so I want to kill them. It's not really happening like that anymore.
It's more so just conflicts that are arising over what some of us might see as very small things but what can be really impactful to the psyche and to the bravado of some of these young men.
SIEGEL: Well, given what you learned about what's driving the violence among young gang members and what the city of Chicago says it's doing to try to curb the number of shootings, are you at all optimistic that the trend might start improving?
ELIGON: I think almost anyone you talk to - be it city officials, be it the gang members themselves, be it pastors in the neighborhood, be it, you know, community organizations - they all talk about really systemic changes that need to happen.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office has talked about tackling this problem not just by adding more police, but they also talked about, you know, making investments in education and other things. The thing that makes people in Chicago not so optimistic about it is they feel like they hear that stuff all the time, but they really don't see it happening.
SIEGEL: Did you come away with any insight as to why the number of shootings in Chicago and the number of gun murders should be so high, why it's spiking?
ELIGON: Yeah, I mean there's just this ongoing inherent anger over what has happened over the years in terms of their friends getting shot, their family from the past getting killed or just anyone who they knew from the neighborhood getting killed, that a lot of them say, hey - I asked them, why will this never stop? They said, hey, because they killed our homies. They killed our friends.
And a lot of them tried to tell me, how would you feel if your brother, uncle, father, cousin was shot and killed? Would you let that go? And for a lot of them, it's really hard to let that go. And I think that that's why you see this kind of continuation, this perpetuation of it. So I think that's one thing.
And I think the other thing - in a community where you are kind of living day by day with very little hope - no job prospects, no prospects for money - in some ways, they tend to take more risks. And they're like, hey, my life can't get any worse, so if I'm involved in this violent life and I get shot and killed, it's not really that big of a loss because, you know, my life wasn't that great anyway. And I know it's kind of, like, a...
ELIGON: ...Harsh way to put it, but I really feel that there's that sense of hopelessness there that it's so bad that this gun violence is not something that we necessarily need to avoid. It's not something that we're scared of.
SIEGEL: John Eligon of The New York Times, thanks for talking with us about your reporting.
ELIGON: Thanks for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.