In February, This American Life
aired two one-hour shows about Harper High School
. You can listen to part one
and part two
. The school is in the Englewood neighborhood of south Chicago
. It looks like an old residential neighborhood, with houses from the first half of the century, mature trees, and small patches of grass. In many cities around the country, this would be a neighborhood with a mix of hipsters and retirees. In South Side Chicago, though, this is a neighborhood run by a patchwork of gangs with endemic gun violence. This American Life
spent a semester reporting at Harper because in the previous year eight current and recent students had been murdered; 21 more had been wounded by bullets.
From my standpoint as an outsider to this world, I found several key insights.
Most importantly, the administrators, teachers, and staff at the school have a lot of social capital
. First, they speak the same language–African American Vernacular English
. Second, they know the social scene the students are living in–which gangs students are in, the alliances and rivalries, and the territory maps. They know all the students on a personal basis and they keep an eye on their social networks: if someone who didn't attend the school gets shot, the staff can map out which students might get caught up in retribution and who might need proactive outreach. After hearing the Harper staff talk with students, I'm starting to think that programs like Teach for America
are coming from the wrong angle. In a school like this, social capital is key to helping students succeed. Someone who grew up in white suburbia and attended a prestigious college coming in to an "underprivileged" urban school will have no social capital to work with, no matter how well they know math or English.
I've blogged about social capital in the context of violence reduction efforts in South Side Chicago before. A year and a half ago I wrote about The Interrupters
, a documentary about CeaseFire
, an organization of former gangbangers, hustlers, and convicts. These are people with social capital–they've lived in the violent neighborhoods, they know the emotional state folks are in, they've done violent things, and they've paid a price. A kid that's struggling with the urge for retributive violence is a lot more likely to listen to someone with a shared vocabulary, style, and background than to a Nancy Reagan-style "Just say no to gang violence."
Second, gangs are the social structure
. At the beginning of the first part, This American Life
explains that this isn't the gang landscape that the middle class might assume, with the Crips and the Bloods maintaining city-wide hierarchies and drug distribution networks. The reporters said Chicago police have been fairly effective at arresting big-time gang leaders, yet scores of small local gangs flourish, often with a territory of a couple square blocks. The gangs often don't have significant criminal involvement or other revenue streams. They're just local kids banding together, making it safer to navigate through territory controlled by other gangs. Gangs are the social support system, the guys a guy can rely on when he gets into a jam. There's not a lot of choice in gang membership; opting out is nearly impossible. If you live in a particular neighborhood, when you reach a certain age, you're a member of the local gang.
School officials recognize this endemic environment and they smartly don't preach a message of "stay out of gangs." Their focus is on keeping the kids safe, supporting kids when they're affected by violence and stressful events, and encouraging them to make good decisions (there's a difference between a gang member who's part of a social group and a gangbanger who's involved in crime and initiates or threatens violence). Gangs aren't a unique social structure that's limited to poor ethnic neighborhoods in America. Certainly a lot of the details of gang life are based on the urban environment. Yet if you take a step back, you can see an evolution from tribes to gangs. Chicago is certainly no stranger to violent gangs; Al Capone was one of its most famous residents. West Side Story
highlighted the similarities between mid-century gang conflict and Renaissance Italy qua Romeo and Juliet
. Much of Shakespeare's work can be seen as gang and tribal conflict, from Macbeth
to the War of the Roses. White people spent centuries on large-scale gang violence, first with swords and later with guns. Tribes and gangs thrive today in the Afghan warlord system, bands of Somali pirates, Hamas and Hezbollah networks, prisons, and other places where people don't have a formal social system or government they feel they can rely on. To an outsider, tribal and gang battles usually don't make sense. The gangs in the story were sometimes said to be fighting over territory, which (from a historic perspective) seems an odd thing to do in a residential area with no agricultural or mineral resources. Other times, the gangs are in a long-running feud of back-and-forth revenge and nobody can remember what the initial problem was. That doesn't sound too different than the Montagues and the Capulets.
Third, the presence of guns is a major factor differentiating contemporary gangs from gang and tribal conflict in the past. Teenagers getting in fights over girls, insults, and perceived harm to their friends is far from new. School in the British Isles is somewhat famous for kids getting in fistfights and rolling around in the mud (leading, I suppose, to the sport of rugby). American media as wholesome as Lil' Rascals
portrays boys in gangs that support each other, yet don't lead to kids getting murdered in high school. A gun is a tool with a remarkable power to amplify a rash decision.
When fists are the most dangerous weapons in a stupid fight, the worst physical outcome is usually lost teeth or a broken bone. When guns are involved in a stupid fight, the outcome is often death, paralyzation, or functional loss of a limb. There's a silver lining: the story mentions that many of the kids have terrible aim, so a lot more kids get shot at than actually get shot. But that also means there are a lot of stray bullets, and someone with no gang association can die when a stray bullet flies through a living room window.
Finally, it's interesting to look at this story through the lens of NRA rhetoric. One common gun liberalization argument is that criminals will ignore restrictions on gun sales, so we should make guns legal so that non-criminals can buy them. In practice, things are a little more complicated. Even though Chicago has strong anti-gun laws, with no gun shops in city limits and no firing ranges, kids interviewed in the story said it wasn't hard to get a gun for less than $100 or even free, a gift from another member of the gang. Yet before the NRA claims this as vindication of their argument, one reason it's easy for these kids to get a gun from Indiana or elsewhere is because the NRA has the political standing to ensure laws intended to make it hard to buy a gun stay weak. And in many cases, the kids who get a gun aren't criminals yet, but once you've got a gun it's a lot easier to end up with a criminal charge, ranging from unlawful possession to accidental manslaughter to murder. When you're fighting with fists, you've got to do a lot of damage before you end up with much jail time.
So what does this mean for gun laws? I don't know if stricter gun laws would improve things in America. But I don't think adding more guns to Englewood will make the neighborhood safer. Part of the gun rights activist narrative is that people won't shoot you if they think you might shoot back. Rival gangs with decade-long cycles of revenge killings definitely seem like a factual counterpoint. When C shoots B for shooting C's pal A, C must know there's a good chance he'll get shot before too long. And even if nobody shoots C, they'll probably get his homie D. A gang functions in some ways like an informal government, providing services to the local community when the formal government structures can't or won't come through. But gang-administered justice ignores modern judicial principles: punishing your brother for your own transgressions is far too common.
What's the solution? I don't know. Harper High School is doing a commendable job, but it can't change the situation alone. The neighborhoods need better economic opportunities. The kids need strong people in their life who can convince them not to fall into the trap of violence. People need to overcome their tribal instincts for revenge and bury the hatchet and the .45. None of these avenues have a magic bullet, so to speak, and one of them alone is probably inadequate. America can do better, but we don't yet know how. After the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama said it should be at least as easy to get mental health counseling as it is to get a gun. Add conflict mediation to mental health and that would be a good first step.