CHICAGO—Every day, Clarence Franklin would brush his teeth, wash his face, put on his best clothes, pick up his phone and his gun, and go sell drugs on the streets of Englewood, Chicago.
Six years in prison failed to dissuade him. Being shot six times failed to dissuade him. Yet, two years ago, when a close friend got killed, Franklin paused to think.
Sooner or later, he realized, his life would lead to one of two outcomes: He’d get killed, or he’d go to prison for the rest of his life. “Which one do I want?” he asked himself. “Neither.”
Last year, 47 people were killed in Englewood, a neighborhood of 31,000. That’s about 30 times the national murder rate. Across the city, 784 were murdered last year, as tallied by the Chicago Tribune. Only during the crime waves of the ’70s and ’90s was the city deadlier.
The violence in Chicago has sparked a national debate. President Donald Trump has chipped in too. “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on,” he tweeted on Jan. 25, “I will send in the Feds!”
Epoch Times spoke with over two dozen former gang members, police officers, community activists, engaged citizens, and local youth. They painted a picture of a city embattled by economic and social problems. It’s also clear they haven’t given up on its future.
Today’s gangs of Chicago hardly resemble the gangs of the ’60s, ’70s, or even ’90s. Some of the gangs, back in the 1950s, didn’t start as criminal organizations. Their founders intended them to be community groups formed to help their neighborhoods. Over the years, the groups turned violent and criminal, notably with the proliferation of drugs. But the gangs kept at least some principles: members talked over disputes before resorting to guns, and it was taboo to shoot at cars (as bystanders could be inside). Mothers, grandmothers, and children were off limits.
The gang leaders were often also the gang elders. Smart enough to survive past 30, they had what the gang would call “wisdom.” They could settle disputes and prevent major conflicts, albeit perhaps only to keep the drug trade from harm.
With the authorities busting gang leaders in the 1990s, this influence disappeared. Today’s gang members, often aged 13 to 18, crave the respect enjoyed by the gang bosses of old, but lack their restraint. They pull guns for minor squabbles and bicker over territory lines that divide the ever-changing and ever-growing list of gangs, cliques, and factions. Many members don’t even know who founded their gang or what it originally stood for.
“Back then, you want to be running the block, you got to make your bones,” said Charles “Charlie Slim” Jones, a former gang member who is now an outreach worker with violence prevention nonprofit CeaseFire. “It’s not there no more. … That level of wisdom is not there.”
Jones said 13- and 14-year-old children are now running the block.
But most of the youth in Englewood don’t belong to any gang, said Asiaha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood. It is only within gang territories, sometimes as small as one block, that gang membership is almost inevitable.
Almost 80 percent of families in Englewood (with children under 18) are led by a single mother, according to Statistical Atlas. That’s a common scenario in the poor, mostly minority communities hit hardest by gang violence in Chicago.
The hardships of single-parent families have been extensively documented, and in Chicago, they can make gangs seem attractive for the purported quick money and protection.
Without fathers, many young boys feel they need to protect their family. Joining a gang is dangerous, but it may create the appearance of security compared to fending for oneself. The spiel about protecting their block makes sense to such children.
Additionally, an absent father not only removes a male role model for these children, but also diminishes pride in one’s culture and heritage, said Dwayne Bryant, a longtime Chicago resident who has worked with city youth for more than a decade as a life skills instructor and motivational speaker. “That’s a lack of pride when you abandon your family, you abandon your children,” he said.
Single-parent families easily slip into poverty. A way out requires a steady income. But Chicago’s economy is suffering.
Chicago lost a third of its manufacturing jobs between 2003 and 2013, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. Many have been replaced by jobs in food and hospitality, but few businesses are eager to enter violence-fraught neighborhoods.
Whatever financial backbone locals built up was decimated when the housing bubble burst in 2008. Predatory lenders had targeted low-income communities and thus, in the hardest-hit Chicago neighborhoods, more than two homes were foreclosed on every block, on average. Many such homes were abandoned and went to seed, making for ideal gang hideouts and drug dealing spots. The city has been tearing down the abandoned homes—about 1,000 per year—and new developments are rare. The empty lots became a hallmark of poor Chicago, studding the neighborhoods like scabs of urban decay.
Instead of investing in programs to stimulate business, the state raised income taxes by 50 percent after the crisis to address its ballooning deficit, caused by long-standing fiscal neglect and the skyrocketing costs of state workers’ pensions. The situation has only worsened since.
The new Republican governor and longstanding Democratic legislature remain deadlocked over fiscal policy, which has left the state without a budget for almost two years. Without a new budget, the state has cut funding to many nonprofits that had worked with the city’s youth on violence prevention. Bryant’s after-school program at 14 schools was canceled, despite its success in reducing absenteeism and boosting test scores. CeaseFire, which employ reformed gang members to mediate conflicts in the most volatile areas, was defunded across the city. The Englewood team alone shrunk from 14 employees to four.
With the economy in shambles, the only job openings in many poor neighborhoods are in the drug trade. So the incidence of overdoses climbs, and dealers fight over turf, further alienating legitimate business.
The Isolation Factor
Isolation is one of the worst problems in gang-ridden neighborhoods, as described by former gang members and other locals from different perspectives.
Because there are so many gangs and factions now, many young people live their lives wholly within a several block radius. Beyond it begins the territory of another gang or faction, which is dangerous to enter. This immensely shrinks their worldview. Many of them have never even been to downtown Chicago. Crime and violence becomes normal to them.
Thomas Jefferson, a former gang member who works as a conflict mediator with CeaseFire, remembered when he, as a boy, visited a cousin in California. The family was well off and lived in a suburb—something Jefferson had never seen.
When the children returned from riding their bikes, they left them on the front lawn. Jefferson recalls being dumbfounded that a bike left alone in front of a house wouldn’t be stolen.
“You don’t know what’s bad until you experience good. So it was just normal,” said Chico Tillmon, a former gang member from Austin, Chicago, who now works for CeaseFire. “I didn’t know Austin was a bad neighborhood until I got older.”
Last year, 88 people were killed in Austin (population 99,000), one of the deadliest neighborhoods in the city.
It’s difficult to talk about positive things in such a depressed environment, because people don’t want to listen to anything outside their desires, said Deandre Robertson, a 24-year-old former gang member from Englewood. “If it’s not about what would make them the next dollar or something like that … that person will not have an open ear to that subject.”
Turning Life Around
Robertson grew up poor and fatherless. He had a godfather who took him to church, but that didn’t keep him from joining a gang, dealing marijuana, and going to jail for it.
Still, he said, the church gave him some spiritual connection and a different perspective, and it made him read.
“The more reading I did, the more enlightened I got,” he said. “The more I got spiritual, the more humble I got. My ears opened to listen to stuff. I start taking heed of it, and as I start taking heed and listening and agreeing, I start doing things a little bit different.”
When he was 16, he sat down and thought: “I’m a hustler. I like making money. I like doing things. And the thing was, the thing I was doing, it kept getting me incarcerated.”
The odds were against him, but, he figured, others had beaten the odds before by changing their behavior. “I don’t know what to do, but I know what I’m doing right now ain’t going to do it.”
“Everybody’s so angry because they expect something to be different,” he said. “But you can’t expect something to be different when you’re doing the same thing.”
He had an arrest warrant on his head at the time and he decided to make a drastic change.
“I turned myself in,” he said. As soon as he got out of jail, he returned to school. After he finished, he found a job as a door-to-door salesman and has been putting his hustling skills to use ever since.
Englewood has plenty of stories like Robertson’s.
Chico Tillmon spent 16 years in prison for drug dealing. One time, when his mother visited him, she said: “When are you going to change? I’m tired of it. I can’t do this no more.”
“I really had to do a self-reflection and look at myself,” he said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t want to live like this for the rest of my life.'”
“I gave my life to God,” he said. He got out of the gang. “People thought I was crazy.” But he was serious about it, and that’s why, he thinks, his former associates respected his decision.
After Tillmon left jail, some of his friends asked him to calm a dispute between two street groups. A drug dealer from one group was selling on the turf of a dealer from the other group. A shooting injury was already involved, and another round of retaliation threatened to be deadly.
“Who is it?” Tillmon asked. They told him. “No problem,” he said. He knew everybody involved. “I made a few phone calls, actually went over there, got them to sit down together, and I was able to stop it.”
Soon after, he was recruited by CeaseFire. While working, Tillmon pushed himself through college. Later this year, he expects to finish his doctorate in criminology.
Chicago police face an overwhelming job. Many locals said police sometimes treat them unfairly, but many ex-gang members also mentioned that trying to avoid prison played a role in their decision to change. They needed to feel the weight of justice.
If anything, Chicago needs more policing. In August 2015, police officers stopped and questioned almost 50,000 people. A year later, stops fell to less than 9,000, an 80 percent drop. Arrests decreased from 10,000 to 6,900, CBS reported.
Gun assaults on officers increased almost 50 percent from 2015 to 2016 (21 to 31 assaulted) based on data from Jan. 1 to Sept. 19 for both years.
Current and former officers as well as multiple experts attribute the slowdown in activity and rise in aggression toward police to the release of a video showing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
A judge ordered the Chicago police to release the video on Nov. 24, 2015. Officer Jason Van Dyke shot knife-wielding McDonald 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014, and most of the shots were discharged after McDonald was on the ground.
The tape sparked multiple protests and a federal investigation into the police department.
William Calloway, a local activist and former gang member, fought for the release of the tape. In retrospect, he said, he has doubts about his decision. He wanted the police to do their job properly. But he didn’t intend for the political firestorm that put officers under so much scrutiny that they’re afraid of being called racist if they stop too many people of color.
A New Way
Commander Kenneth Johnson of Police District 7 in Englewood tries to do things differently.
Last summer, after 30 years of service, he was looking forward to retirement. Instead, in August, Johnson was given command of the highest-crime district on Chicago’s South Side. He implemented community policing, a highly touted strategy that has rarely been put into practice fully.
Community policing requires officers to talk to and listen to the people on their beat, learn about their problems, and look for ways to solve them. Officers still use the usual methods of writing tickets, issuing summonses, and making stops and arrests. But they can also use softer methods, like getting drug addicts into treatment centers and the homeless into shelters, or organizing midnight basketball games to keep youth out of trouble.
“We serve the community, we have to be part of it,” Johnson said. He encourages all officers to invest part of their time on patrol in talking to people to facilitate “positive engagement.”
The district’s community policing faces two problems. The strategy usually requires more officers, so that the department can engage with the community while still responding to calls and fighting crime. The city is currently hiring 900 more officers.
And district commanders like Johnson have limited authority to put such a strategy in place. If some officers don’t want to play along, there’s not much Johnson can do, because officers are protected by union contracts.
Johnson said he’s trying to get everybody onboard, but “in anything you do, you’re going to have the naysayers.”
Johnson invited Officer Janice Wilson to be his community liaison. She worked in the central office on security for large city events, like fairs and parades. But she was from the South Side and, with her amiable personality, was the perfect choice to strike relationships with community members.
Wilson accepted, but the job was colossal. She visited every business in Englewood (over 100). She organized discussion groups with police officers, but started with having officers talk to each other—a breakthrough idea. Not only were the officers not talking to the community, they often weren’t even talking to each other. The meetings were a hit, she said. Gradually, she started to replace officers in the circle with community members, creating mixed groups.
Johnson’s leadership and Wilson’s enthusiasm have brought results. Many people are starting to feel the police are on their side, or at least the officers they know. Wilson routinely accepts hugs from children on her routes. She knows many by name, too.
Clarence Franklin and his six children are just a few of the many faces familiar to Wilson. Franklin now works as a house manager at the I Grow Chicago Peace House. The house was established about two years ago by yoga teacher Robin Carroll. She bought a dilapidated house and employed some of the most problematic young people on the block to renovate it, maintain it, and then run a charitable nonprofit out of it.
The house changed the environment within several blocks, Franklin said. Before, “I couldn’t even walk my daughter to the store,” he said. Now he can. And his daughter visits him at work—instead of prison.
Charles ‘Charlie Slim’ Jones, outreach worker at CeaseFire
Englewood native Charles Jones, 43, went to prison at the age of 17 for accountability in murder. That means he didn’t pull the trigger but was part of planning or assisted the murderer. He served 20 years. But it wasn’t all wasted time. He began to learn about laws and legal procedures and how to file grievances and lawsuits. He said learning about his rights made him “feel human again.” When he was released in 2010, he went to work for CeaseFire, a nonprofit devoted to violence prevention. “Guns are always going to be there,” he said. “We got to change how young people see violence. … We got to change that mindset—how you think it’s OK to kill, or it’s normal to kill.”
Thomas Jefferson, conflict mediator at CeaseFire
Thomas Jefferson grew up in Englewood. He said he made “the wrong decision” to join a gang, which started a cycle of crime and imprisonment. It was prison that changed his perspective. He saw that members of different gangs talked to each other and even got along in prison. He asked why and was told, “When you know a person, you know a person.” Personal connection was, at times, stronger than gang affiliation. It made Jefferson look past the squabbles on the street. He decided to change. When he got out, CeaseFire gave him the chance to have a legitimate job mediating potentially violent conflicts, for which he uses his extensive contacts in the neighborhoods.
Erin Vogel, co-executive director of I Grow Chicago
Erin Vogel grew up in the cornfields of Central Illinois. After studying criminal justice and sociology, she found a job in real estate. One day, her work friend told her about the I Grow Chicago Peace House project, a charitable nonprofit funded by donations. She loved the idea. “This is a community house,” she said. “It’s not an institution. This is built by people who used to terrorize this block.” She volunteered with the project starting in December 2014 and joined full time in May 2016. “This is my dream job,” she said. She leads yoga classes, organizes discussion groups, and helps run the project.
Asiaha Butler, president of RAGE
When a bullet tore through Asiaha Butler’s Englewood home in 2007, she wanted to move. But one day, she looked outside and saw kids playing with dirt on an empty lot. Looking at them, she decided to stay and instead help her community. She started to volunteer for different councils and organizations, and eventually founded the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE). The association selects the most dangerous parts of Englewood and organizes a festival in one of them every week to create “safe spaces.” Her latest achievement was to convince the city to let Chicago homeowners buy empty lots from the city for $1 to spur development, or at least let the residents fix up the lots.