gangs and change in Chicago

Yesterday I went to the opening of the Conservative Vice Lords exhibit, ttelling the story of a street gang that became a civic force in the North Lawndale neighborhood, organizing for employment, education, and health.  A poster board on the wall as you entered the exhibit asked: What are gangs? Attendees had posted a few ideas under this question; you could tell who was at this exhibit by their posts: “fraternities;” “stockbrokers;” “politicians”…once you break open the term “gang,” you realize what a stranglehold it has on the mind.  The stock image of street thugs instantly becomes more complex and overlaps with glimpses into closed-door boardrooms many floors above the streets of Chicago.

In the main gallery space, the Vice Lords were mainly represented by photographs; these were interspersed with typed documents that showed the world of power (almost all white, political, corporate) trying to get a handle on this gang: how to collaborate with/exploit/patronize/protect this group of young men who had created their own playbook.  Documents include grant applications and approvals and materials relating to the arrest and murder conviction of CVL leader Bobby Gore.

I talked with a former Vice Lord: he urged me to check out John Hagedorn’s book A World of Gangs, in which he and many other gang members from previous and current generations, all over the world, were featured.  From what I see so far, the book, like the exhibit, gets you thinking about the gang as a force of dignity and community and self-determination in the context of a power system that demeans, demonizes, and lies to people in the neighborhoods.   In telling this story, the exhibit asks us to consider what could happen if gangs today were seen as, treated, and supported as a force for civic improvement.  I am drawn to the question; like any good question, it raises more questions: What hidden power structures would have to reveal themselves to enable such an approach?  What conversations would have to occur about race and poverty?  What is the line between collaboration and cooptation?  How would reconsidering who gangs are and what they do impact our understanding of criminalization?

The exhibit (at Art in These Times) runs through December; it will be an important field trip for students who are connecting with and shaping Chicago history.