Questions we are not asking about Chicago’s violence: Is it more profitable to be in a gang in Chicago?

Questions we are not asking about Chicago’s violence:  Is it more profitable to be in a gang in Chicago?

(Previous post in series:  Are gang members mindless?)

I am not proclaiming to have any answers.

I’m just a girl, standing in front of a guy, asking him to love her.

(Sorry, wrong pop culture reference.)

I’m just a woman who, like Mahatma Gandhi, believes that commerce without morality is a deadly sin.

I am also just a woman who loves her city.

If Chicago’s violence could be attributed primarily to its higher-than-average unemployment rate then cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Memphis (which all have unemployment rates that surpass Chicago) should be suffering from the same endemic of violence.

If Chicago’s violence is a proxy for its youth disconnection rates (i.e. youth between the ages of 16-24 who are neither in school or employed) then cities such as Phoenix, Miami-Dade and San Antonio should be experiencing a similar surge in crime.

If Chicago’s violence is primarily a byproduct of a poor educational system then large cities with lesser performing school systems like Detroit, New Orleans, or Baltimore – should have had murder rates that far surpassed Chicago’s in 2013.

However, that is not the case.

Yet, the one thing that we do know is that gang activity is more pervasive in Chicago than anywhere else in the country.  We also know that Chicago's gang numbers have trumped those of every other metropolitan city for decades, including Los Angeles and New York City.

The 2012 Gang Book estimates that there are over 600 different gang factions in Chicago and depending on the source, local gang membership estimates have ranged from 70,000 to 150,000 individuals.

We could go on and on comparing the number of cops on the streets to the number of youth jobs available to the percentage of the population living below poverty but we all know the theories and counter theories to these points.

The most prevalent theory is that Chicago’s long history of segregated public housing proved to be ample conditions for gang growth and that the city’s attempt to redress its failed housing policies through its “Plan for Transformation”(which displaced more 100,000 public housing residents) simply allowed for preexisting gangs to splinter into smaller sects.

However, this only speaks to half of the issue.

While failed housing policies may explain the persistence of gangs, it does not give us a definitive answer to why they continue to expand and thrive.  Worth consideration is that in a set demographic market such as Chicago where the demand for drugs has not astronomically increased, eventually competition should drive many of these gangs out of business.

But that’s the opposite of what is occurring.

So why is Chicago such a great place for a bright-eyed and ambitious gangsta with his mind on money and money on his mind?

Is it more profitable to be in a gang in Chicago?

Often overlooked because of tales of corrupt politicians, the legend of Michael Jordan and fantasies about our far-superior deep dish pizza is an understanding that, in contrast to Chicago’s moniker as the “Second City," it is one of the most important distribution hubs for commerce in world and arguably, the most significant commerce distribution hub in the country.

While most people know that Chicago has the second busiest airport in the world, far fewer recognize that it is also the third largest intermodal transportation hub in the world (behind Singapore and Hong Kong) which accounts for 1/3 of all freight in the United States that can shipped by rail, trucks and cargo ships.

Chicago also has more US highways traveling through its region than any other metropolitan city.

Why might this matter?

The one thing Chicago is really good at is distribution.   And if there is a product that you want to move, say drugs and other contraband, then Chicago’s vast transportation network can help to transport it further than any other place in the country.

Which could mean that gangs are no longer fighting over turf within the confined parameters of the city but are also fighting for some level of control over the illicit use of our distribution networks as well.

I suspect that gone are the days when gangs only sold dime bags, pounds and kilos of anything.  Instead, it’s probably fairer to assume that gangs, like any other self-respecting criminal organization, have diversified their revenue streams to include an array of legal and illegal products through a myriad of legal and illegal businesses.

If this is the case, then Chicago presents the ripest location to distribute drugs and contraband to almost every other market on the planet.

Is it possible that our vast distribution network is exactly what gives Chicago’s gangs their “advantage” and supports their continued growth, expansion and (potentially) increased profitability as well?

Let’s stop here because I know what you are thinking.

This is speculation at its finest.

Anecdotal musings of an ex-policy hack who has seen too many episodes of The Wire.

All of that may be true.

However, the thing about history is that it has the tendency to repeat itself. Unfortunately gangs and murders in Chicago are no new thing.

They only look different now.

In 1925, it was the Chicago Outfit.  Today, it is the Gangsta Disciples, Four Corner Hustlers and Vice Lords.

In 1925, the crime was bootlegging.  Today, the (primary) crime is drug dealing.

In 1925, Al Capone was making $100 million a year in profit.  Today, the Sinaloa Cartel is believed to have imported and distributed over $6 billion dollars’ worth of narcotics through the Chicago area over a twenty year period.

I believe the common factor, the connection between the violence of today with that of yesteryear comes down to the control, or lack thereof, of our distribution networks.

History proved that the Chicago Outfit’s system of distribution was exactly what gave it its power.   Why assume that has changed?

All because these criminals are brown boys doesn't mean they have less savvy.

Could the devil be in our distribution fairways?

I don't know.

But perhaps that's exactly where the fight against organized crime needs to return.


Next question:  Could the National Guard help us?

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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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