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Chicago Gang Members Explain Why They're 'In It For Life'

By Alisa Hauser | September 1, 2016 1:01pm
 Drugs, fingerprints and handcuffs.
Drugs, fingerprints and handcuffs.
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Shutterstock/Africa Studio

WEST TOWN — If you could ask a gang member anything, what would it be?

At Wednesday's "Keepin It Real" event — attended by about a dozen people, including a social worker, an affordable housing coordinator, a pastor and two reporters — five convicted felons shared their experiences and answered questions related to drugs and recruitment.

Held in St. Mary's Nazareth Family Center, 1127 N. Oakley Blvd., no recordings or photos were allowed.

"If you are here to judge, leave now. They are volunteering. They come in peace and are here to try to educate," Sgt. Juan Clas from the Near West Police District said.

The five men on the auditorium stage, all residents of a halfway house in North Lawndale operated by the Safer Foundation, served jail time for burglary, drug dealing and drug conspiracy.

Chicago Police Officer Maudessie Jointer, who has been operating the citywide "Keepin It Real" program since its inception in 2002, said that the men were in the last leg of their sentences before transitioning back to their families.

Safer Foundation runs secured residential centers on behalf of the state's Department of Corrections. Some of the men have jobs and are on work release. Others attend workshops and classes on anger management, budgeting and parenting through the nonprofit's social services arm, Jointer said.

Among the takeaways were that "gangs are watered down and cliquey" these days with not as much structure and not as much punishment or discipline for "violating" or acting out, according to the men, all who seemed to be in their 20s or early 30s.

When asked what law-abiding citizens living around gang areas or encountering gang members needed to know or do, one man said to stay away. Not to interfere. For safety.

"Young guys will do anything," he said.

There was a lot of discussion focused on recruitment and how the older gang members select their younger assistants.

"I make it seem like I'm his best friend."

"I make sure he's smooth, mature."

"I say I'll put you under my wing and I'm going to finesse him."

But what if your recruit gets busted and makes his one call from jail to you and not to anyone else?, Jointer asked.

"I ain't gonna get him. I'm going to the next man," one said.

Two others said that whether the kid gets bailed out would depend on how much money he brings in while selling drugs. If the gang member caught is a top seller, one of the participants said he would post up to $1,500 bond, maybe more.

Who is buying drugs?

"Doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, college students, moms, mechanics, you name it," one said.

Demario, who served time for drug conspiracy, told a story to illustrate who is buying.

"[Police] sent out undercover agents, wearing hoodies just like us and took to the corners pretending to be dealers, we watched them. They had a van parked on one of the blocks and were arresting people and putting them there."

Demario said he "saw women in nurse scrubs running away" when they realized there was a drug buying bust going on.

When asked what the draw of gang life was from the perspective of a young boy ripe for recruitment, one man said, "You're out there, driving cars, messing with a lot of girls."

Another said, "Some people don't got a father and they are looking to be loved."

And: "I liked the money. I joined because it was cool, it was in the neighborhood."

When asked if there is such as thing as retirement from a gang, one man responded, "In it for life." 

And if you move?

Another said, "You are still in it."

If a gang member is not shot and killed or in prison — and almost all of the men said that they have seen friends or family get killed or shot — as an older gang member, he is likely "doing paperwork" and drugs.

The older guys are "hyped up" on drugs and not much help, as one put it. 

All but one of the men are fathers and all four dads said they were worried about their kids and what will happen when they eventually return home, despite having plans to get jobs.

"I get nervous about riding [in the car] with my kids. What if I'm riding and we see someone [from before]?" one man said.

At home, things were not ideal at the time they joined the gangs.

Only one of the five men said family members urged him to not get into a gang but he said by the time they were pressing him, "it was too late."

One man had a "clouded environment" as he put it, explaining, "My mom's boyfriend was abusing me at the time" he joined a gang.

Another man said his mom was doing crack and his dad was locked up when he joined a gang.

A third said he was "born into it."

When asked what they want people to know about them, what misconceptions they can clear up, one man said, "We are good people."

The Q&A ended with a round of applause for the guests.

Then, the men filed out of the auditorium. One smoked a cigarette on the sidewalk while the others walked over to the passenger van parked at the curb and waited for Jointer to drive them back to the halfway house.

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