New anti-gang plans do little to fix root cause of 'urban warfare': advocate

A recent anti-gang measure signed into law this week by Gov. Pat Quinn would make it easier to prosecute high-level gang members for crimes that they ordered but were carried out by lower-level members.

 It will go hand-in-hand with a ‘tough-on-gangs’ approach that has been championed at the city level in previous months by the mayor and Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who flanked Gov. Quinn as he signed the legislation.

But despite the range of approaches seeking to stop a wave of killings, Project NIA’s Mariame Kaba said none of the plans address the root causes that lead urban youth into gangs.

“This is urban warfare,” said Kaba. Project NIA is an advocacy group that seeks community-based alternatives to the current system of policing and incarceration. “The state, the city and the county have to address issues that are underlying 'gang violence'. Most of the young people I have seen involved in gangs are economically disadvantaged.”

“We have to ask ourselves if it’s by accident that we are at the worst possible economic moment in several decades, and that violence has been increasing. Not having an ability to have employment, being poor, makes it super easy for you to rely on violence.”

Chicago has seen a high amount of gun violence so far this year– homicides for the first six months of the year doubled in 2012 compared to 2011, with 203 people killed so far. Last weekend alone saw eight killings and 35 people wounded by gun violence, and much of the blame has been placed on gang violence.

On the state level, the new legislation will increase penalties for individuals indicted under a criminal conspiracy charge, meaning they could face more than 30 years in prison. It was created under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which looks at criminal acts committed by members of a group as part of a larger criminal enterprise.

Locally, plans to tackle the issue have come with calls for gang audits and increased surveillance on individuals, as well as for bringing more police into high-crime areas. The city’s plan has also closed down four convenience stores believed to be “attracting gangs and spurring criminal activity,” according to the Huffington Post, with 45 more establishments on the watch list.

Emanuel has called for a dual approach to tackling drugs in Chicago, focusing both on gang reduction and “community policing.” This includes a “wraparound” strategy, which would see city and social workers step in to fill the void once a neighborhood has been cleared of drug markets. Englewood, one of the poorest and most heavily policed neighborhoods, will be a pilot area.

But the plans to clear vacant lots, cut weeds and repair street lights don’t bring jobs to the neighborhood or take troubled youth off the street, which Kaba says are the only long-term solutions.

“We are just expanding the powers that are already at our disposal against gang leaders,” Kaba told the Reporter, “instead of substantive increases in budgets for After School Matters” and other programs that keep troubled youth off the streets.

“They can pass as many laws as they wont, at bottom they are not addressing the root causes.”

As parts of Chicago’s anti-gang strategy are put into place and shootings continue, Kaba says plans to work with the violence prevention group CeaseFire are positive, but she has heard little about increased funding to the group on the ground.

The lack of movement makes her question how much has changed. “We have been here before,” she said, referring to previous law enforcement attempts she says were unsuccessful at curbing violence.

Her skepticism about the use of alternative policing methods comes as McCarthy expresses a reluctance to work with CeaseFire, saying" "We're gonna work with CeaseFire in a different fashion, not the way that they've been working…. I'm not a big fan of the way that they've been working."

The Chicago Police Department and the Mayor's office did not respond to requests for comment.

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