Police chief Jody Weis told aldermen Tuesday that he’s looking into reorganizing and re-energizing police coverage across the city, possibly with strategies ranging from drawing up new police beats to reminding officers to be aggressive to creating new squads that could be mobilized in gang-infested and crime-plagued neighborhoods. But that all sounds a bit too familiar to John Hagedorn, a criminal justice professor at UIC whose extensive writings on gangs and crime include the new A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture (University of Minnesota Press). The rookie police chief, Hagedorn says, is essentially continuing an anti-gang policy that’s been ineffective since the first Mayor Daley introduced it in 1969. 

MD: The Chicago police superintendent has just told aldermen that a poor economy and gang culture are provoking the city’s problems with violence. In your newest book, though, you downplay joblessness as a cause of gangs and gang violence. Instead, you say gangs are a response to racism and “social exclusion.”

JH: I’m from Milwaukee, and one of the differences between Milwaukee and Chicago was that up there we watched the gangs form along with deindustrialization. But here the gangs preceded deindustrialization–they’ve been around for decades! Something else is at work.

Since the beginning of globalization you see a reaction of all sorts of armed groups around the world saying, “We’ve got to get our own.” And in this country it’s very deeply tied to race–in other places to ethnicity, religion, or tribe. As the state withdraws a lot of social services, the gangs work to fill in the vacuum.


You argue that the best approach to gangs is to try to reach out to them and change them into community assets. Is that practical? The superintendent’s not going to pitch that to the City Council.

It’s not what people want to hear. It may be that in this climate it isn’t possible to say, “We want to work with the gang structure.” But if you don’t work with these guys, who’s going to stop the violence?

And do you think the gangs aren’t already involved with politics in Chicago? Lots have ties to local aldermen. They’re very aware of the gangs. There’s been an official policy here for 40 years of not including anybody in a community project who’s involved with gangs, but that’s not really the way it works.


So you don’t think that any new, aggressive police tactics will end gang violence.

There’s been a 40 years’ war on gangs that we’ve had in Chicago. Instead of the police getting assault weapons, maybe we should reevaluate that war. The police are at war with the gangs, and the gangs are institutions with deep roots in their community. [The police] don’t seek to convert them and it’s one side against another. That war mentality is what needs to change here, but the new police chief has bought into it. War is a funny way to confront violence.

When I came here 12 years ago I was invited to a meeting with people doing community policing and all the evaluations of it, and they asked me what I thought. I suggested they invite young people and gang members and ask them what’s going on. That was the last meeting I was invited to.


You argue that the Vice Lords tried to become a community organization in the 1960s but were targeted by the police and eventually turned to the drug trade. What are you seeing on the west side now?

Because I’ve developed relationships with the Vice Lords guys from the 1960s I’ve been trying to bring them together with some of the younger people out there. We’ve had like four generations of the Vice Lords sitting down and talking. A lot of these guys have never heard those stories of the 60s. Young people today can be influenced by the past. It’s important for young people to see that the gang has been different things through the years, and the only route isn’t the drug deal.


Have you seen progress?

Hopefully some things are coming together. A lot of people are involved with their little hustles or whatever, but that doesn’t mean they’re stuck there. There’s a reason why the drug trade is so big–there aren’t any jobs. The issue is how you see it and treat it–do you see everyone in it as evil? Well, then, you can just fill the prisons.

You try to keep organizing. I think giving up and waging war are two sides of the same coin. What’s needed is some quiet diplomacy—sitting down with these young people and saying, “What do you need?” And then acting on it.

But I think Chicago’s going to continue to get hot. The city wants the Olympic bid and they don’t want to be seen having a problem with gang violence. They’re going to try to crack down, but that’s just going to end up hurting their bid.