What we witnessed living in an environment that breeds violence, lack of hope and daily despair is often reported as such by mainstream media. We teach the young children who live and grow up there, “you are not a product of your environment,” but the truth is you are — when you can survive the turmoil.
It is not a bad thing to be a product of the environment if it strengthens a person’s ability to succeed and want to do better because of the odds.
The gangs — the gangbangers, as Mayor Emanuel continues to call them — are also our nephews, nieces, uncles, aunties, cousins and often our own children — people who started out as innocent, untapped children who either grew up in their circumstances or chose to go against the grain, despite receiving a fair and solid upbringing.
The history of Chicago gangs dates to 1870, when Irish and Italian immigrants formed organized groups to claim territory.
As thousands of Black people migrated from Southern towns, the Policy Kings were carving their niche in the 1940s as the start of organized crime groups that controlled the Bronzeville area.
Years later, these groups would progress into bigger groups as the Black population would spread across the city of Chicago. Some started out to protect their own and others as community activist groups such as the Black Panthers, while others began to morph into other organizations such as the Vice Lords, Black Stone Rangers and the Gangster Disciples.
Marco Halsey grew up on the West Side. He was considered a highly regarded member in one of the city’s notorious street organizations. After several years of being incarcerated and the challenges of surviving as an ex-felon, he rebuilt his life for a different cause.
Lawndale Community Group
Halsey and wife Anita formed GAP (Generating Adolescent Productivity), a nonprofit organization that works with youth within the Lawndale community. They currently serve 60-120 kids between the ages K-grade to 24-year-old adults twice a week at the BT Little Community Center. The tension between law enforcement and the Black community goes back decades during a very segregated Chicago.
“If you saw police that are not ‘officer friendly’ or not really trying to help or protect you in your community, that pushes you in a different direction. One of the codes, ‘no snitching’ code. Why would you tell somebody something that don’t care? You know a lot of people that has been locked up and didn’t do the crime that was framed by the police, why would you deal with them? That’s part of the thing that must change, but that’s not everything.”
Growing up on the West Side, Halsey was raised in a stable home life with his father owning businesses and his mother enforcing the importance of education. But everything went wrong once he entered 8th grade.
“I used to go to school year-round, but my motivation was my mom. She was dying with cancer. I found out when I was getting ready to graduate from 8th grade. There wasn’t nothing they could do, although she still lived another five years,” he said.
At 16, he ended up graduating early from Whitney Young High School’s summer school. Having to face the possibility of losing his mother, he chose a different path — a path that would have serious ramifications. He soon formed his own crew, running the streets — doing whatever he could to hustle and survive.
He later ended up in the penitentiary on some serious charges.
“It started out as an attempted murder charge. Somebody had tried to hit me with an ax handle. I had a gun so I slapped him and then I shot him in the leg. I ended up with 15 years. Now, I must pay this lawyer who didn’t really care about me. In the process of trying to fight it, we robbed a store,” he said. “I got caught, so now, I got a couple of cases. So, I ended up serving 15 years on those charges, to serve seven and half years.”
Over four decades later, he looks back at his younger self and the decisions that he made, knowing what’s in the past determines how he moves forward in the future.
He says, “I had no excuse, but I was so angry when my mom passed. I really had gotten to a point that I didn’t care. I really needed counseling — like these other kids that suffer from PTSD. Now they live in a war zone, Back then, it wasn’t quite as bad.”
Jeffrey Berry recently got out of the penitentiary, in March 2016. He’s served nine years. Coming out with a fully gray beard and with the body of an 18-year-old, the nearly 60-year-old former gang leader wrote a book,Why Do You Call Me Black.
His mission is to enlighten the minds of young people who are lost in frustration and acting out through the street life.
“I was raised on the South Side of Chicago. My mom was affiliated with the Black Panthers, Hebrew Israelites, and the Gangster Disciples. It’s been a struggle for youth, not just this generation but prior generations. When we were kids coming up, it’s the same struggle,” he said.
Berry says, “Seeing and coming through this, is the true factor and the reason why children are frustrated, which has never been addressed. We always address the response to the frustration, but we never address why they’re frustrated. When you look at our overall society in almost every neighborhood, it erupts. Detroit erupted, LA erupts, Chicago erupts — it’s a cycle of eruption based on society. The frustration doesn’t stem from the gangs. It doesn’t stem from the violence, that’s the results and the reaction of a frustration.”
Berry understands that frustration because the frustration is a deeper cause that he says is a much more serious problem within the African-American community.
“If you take an eagle and raise an eagle like a chicken, the eagle is going to get frustrated because the eagle likes to fly high and swoop down. With its characteristics, he has wings, he got a beak, he got the same features as a chicken. But if you take a chicken 400 feet on a cliff and leave him, he’s going to get frustrated and both are going to clash. They’re going to clash because they’re out of their element. We’re out of our element when it comes to who we are as a people.”
How does a kid get pulled into a gang? The stories of young children being bullied and pressured to pick a clique has become a common ritual of surviving in the main inner-city neighborhoods.
“Well, the group that I was involved with, we didn’t recruit, but at one point I’m assuming it became a fad,” Halsey explained. “This thing spun out of control so fast to where people had their own little groups calling themselves, this and that and so forth.”
He admits part of the code was also how people joined gangs.
“Most women weren’t a part of the gangs or street organizations. That’s not true today. But you had some organizations that do recruit or jumping them in or beating them up. Back then if you weren’t a part of one organization or another, you didn’t have no problems. Even if there was something going on where they’re fighting, many times, they fist fight to solve a problem.”
More of the structured groups handled conflicts in-house. If somebody was wrong in one organization, “he’s going to have problems within the organization to keep a situation from blooming out of control,” said Halsey.
Over the last two decades, hundreds of documented gang members were gradually being charged on various drug and other charges. Some of the leaders were running street organizations with similarities that would rival a successful corporation. There was bylaws, rules, protocol and rank among its members. But more and more leaders began to be indicted and charged — some under the RICO act and others under the newly formed Homeland Security agency. The conspiracy or intent to commit a crime was justification to incarcerate many who were allegedly criminals.
This swift and aggressive movement by local and federal law enforcement added to an already tainted criminal justice system, filling more prisons with predominantly Black and Latino men and women.
“The void that leaves something like that and the possibility of something like that happens. That is one of the biggest problems,” said Halsey.
Within the growing changes and the streets of Chicago feeling more like a scene from “Boyz n the Hood,” there are more cliques than full gang organizations.
“You have people who claim this organization or that one. All of them clicked up together fighting the group of people, a block over, not from different neighborhoods to neighborhoods.” Halsey, a husband and father, believes the various ways technology and social media serve, influences young people. “There has a lot to do with the images with our kids see with some of the video games that desensitize you. Movies that you see, violence in the movies so these kids, many don’t expect to live past a certain age. If they pass 20, that’s a badge of honor.”
Cornell Smith grew up on the “low end” off 47th and Indiana. He was a talented high school athlete, helping his varsity team win the Illinois State Basketball championships for Morgan Park High School in 1976.
A teammate and long-time friend of Jeffrey Berry, he soon fell into drugs.
“I’m a recovering addict, I’ve been clean for over 23 years and I’ve been on the same job since 1989. I also fellowship with Narcotics Anonymous (NA).” Smith has worked for a security firm for over two decades and serves on the board for A Little Bit of Heaven, a South Side non-profit organization.
He is determined to help those who mirrored his situation. “I’m a giver. I love helping people. The brothers and sisters out there, I don’t fear nobody — I just want to help. We must have some jobs and other things to offer. I don’t ‘do’ no marches. I just give,” Smith said.
As we sit around the table discussing the systematic problems that have built up in the last five decades in African-American communities across the country, these men have lived through the storm and come out of it with renewed energy for saving young kids and adults challenged with similar obstacles.
Berry doesn’t have much trust in the political fanfare of public officials and law enforcement’s Band-Aid solution to Chicago’s heightened violence. “They say, ‘We’re addressing it but we’re not going to solve the problem. We’ll put it on television but we’re not going to solve the problem.’ They don’t have any intention on solving the problem and we can be singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ until 2117. These social problems stem from Jim Crow, it stems from Willie Lynch — it stems from our first trip over here. It’s not going to change until we change.”
Last summer, CPD Supt. Eddie Johnson announced a monitoring system that would identify about 1,500 repeat offenders who are more likely to shoot or be shot. This would offer a possibility of curbing the rising gun-related violence around the city.
Halsey believes there can be flaws with this type of monitoring because he feels CPD is waiting for a repeat offender to commit a crime, instead of putting more resources toward prevention.
“An ounce of prevention is a ‘pound of cure,’ so if you know these people, they also have families — mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents. You must get not only with them but with their parents and set up some type of intervention. It would cost less money and possibly save lives.”