Questions we are not asking about Chicago’s violence: Are gang members mindless?

Questions we are not asking about Chicago’s violence:  Are gang members mindless?
Photo credit: news.

Confession time.

I have a secret fascination with stories about unconventional solutions.

Like in World War Z when Brad Pitt inoculated himself with an unknown disease in order to keep himself from getting eaten by zombies…

I thought that was pure genius.

…and the fact that a very hungry person, armed with nothing but Corn Flakes and chicken, recreated the same delicious crunch that comes from frying but with half the calories…

That is amazing to me.

…and that time MacGyver shorted out a missile timer with a bent paper clip causing the timer to stop and keeping a missile from detonating??

That may have been the most awesome moment in network television.

Like I said, I love unconventional solutions.

I love unconventional solutions because they often show how seemingly insurmountable problems can be solved if we only change our perspective and shift our thinking.

Like so many people, the reports of eighty-two people being shot in Chicago over the Fourth of July weekend boggled my mind.  No matter where you live on the planet, be it New York or Baghdad, Tel Aviv or Bogota, eighty-two people being shot in one metropolitan area is unarguably excessive.

The sound bite, War on Chicago’s Streets, has once again rang loudly through homes around the world, provoking fear, anger, denial, community action and rapid changes in traveling itineraries.

Well-intentioned people shout of all the injustices that we already know:  Segregation, an inequitable educational system and high unemployment are all to blame!

Let’s lift those things up in prayer, put them on the alter and acknowledge that it will take a holistic approach and at least one of the billions of dollars that the United States sends outside of the country to mend each of these issues.

But even after acknowledging all those things, my inner MacGyver tells me that there is something else that we are missing.

This nagging sensation led me to create a list of questions that challenged some of the most basic assumptions that most of us have about gang participation and gang violence.  It is my hope that the answers, which may be obvious to some, will help us begin to rethink the way we look at money, gangs and the incentives that keep criminal organizations alive and growing in Chicago.

Question #1:  Are gang members mindless?

Most proposed solutions to Chicago’s violence are reactionary responses rather than strategic offensive measures.  Calls for increased policing and harsher penalties for gun crimes seek to address the symptoms of gang activity while ignoring the need for us to understand the economics of gang participation and why it continues to be a viable lifestyle choice for so many youth.

Inherent to most proposed solutions is the assumptions that gang participants do not realize that they have viable alternative lifestyle choices.  While this is true for some, I wonder if this approach is an outdated understanding of the pathology behind gang participation.

I believe that the reality is that there are many who become active in gangs as a fully rationale economic decision.

I think oftentimes we, who have not fallen prey to that lifestyle, allow our moral compass to ignore the great allure that financial incentives provide for so many.  The death toll and shooting count makes us all want to believe that the perpetrators of these crimes are mindless thugs but I suspect that, for many who choose this path, violence and death are merely seen as occupation hazards to an otherwise lucrative lifestyle.

In this light, we must recognize that gang violence should more appropriately be considered a byproduct of a financial risk rather than the primary goal of gang participation.

And if gang participation is primarily financially motivated, then it should also force us to consider why Chicago is such an apt market for this particular lifestyle choice/occupation.

It’s uncomfortable to ponder but it is worth considering how many youth, given safer alternatives, still choose the route of gang life. It’s important to consider because I’m beginning to suspect that simply promoting alternatives options will not be enough to change the tide.  I believe that nothing less than attacking the life source of that which feeds the allure of gangs will force at-risk youth and young adults to consider options outside of gang life.

Until we acknowledge the perceived benefits of gang participation and how drastically alternatives fall short, then we are merely trying to convince a lot of poor kids to make a decision that is akin to asking a Wall Street banker to become a teacher because it’s the more civil thing to do.

It should be no surprise when poor kids, like rich men, choose money over ethics.

Until the profitability of gangs is challenged head-on then many legitimate alternatives will simply never be able to compete.  And if the fear of jail isn’t enough to keep an investment banker from choosing their financial self-interest over what is right, we can’t be surprised when jail or death isn’t enough to deter a poor kid from making what they see as the best and most rationale economic choice at their disposal.

Though it is perhaps more comfortable for us to think of the violent actions that are propagated by gangs as thoughtless, it is important to recognize these organizations for what they are – organized crime enterprises.  Once we begin to classify these organizations as such we will better understand the incentives they provide to their members.  We will also recognize that history has already shown us how to destabilize them: By going after that one thing that accounts for their growing membership – their money.

Next question:  Is it more profitable to be in a gang in Chicago?

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    Kay S

    Kay Smith is a Chicago-based freelance writer and blogger who focuses on race, politics and urban culture. Having worked on public policy at the state, regional, city and community level, her opinions have been featured in the Chicago SunTimes and a host of news websites (under very mysterious sounding pseudonyms). Follow her on Twitter @kaywillsmith or contact her at

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