John Campos, 48, has been an organizer for CAPS, the city’s community policing initiative, for 13 years. He currently works in the 11th District, a stretch of the west side struggling with poverty, drugs, and violence. He’s often accompanied on the job by his German shepherd, Zeus. —Mick Dumke
I’m very happy to be assigned to this area because I know the streets. I grew up in Austin, and my parents still live there, just off Chicago Avenue. Now when I go to CAPS meetings and people talk about their concerns, they’re the same things I was growing up with: you’ve got to go through the gangs, you have to watch when you’re coming back from school. In fact, it’s only gotten worse. Now these guys have guns.
It’s a drive-through drug market. There are corners—like Wilcox and Kostner—that are chronic with guys selling drugs. Many times during the day you can’t get down the street because you have to wait in line. Yet it’s a good block; even the kids slinging dope, they’re known by their neighbors and everybody kind of goes about their business.
My opinion is that one of the problems is the war on drugs. People have always done drugs and they always will. You can’t go to Lincoln Park or Wicker Park and just pull up and buy a bag. It’s allowed here. I think we all collectively allow it. You can easily—easily—find a hundred drug spots right now. You can get anything you want. Just turn down a random street and go up a few blocks and by then you’re going to see somebody.
Restaurants and grocery stores—there’s nothing around here. If you go down Chicago Avenue, these kids are not only going back and forth amid things that are safety concerns, but the litter, the broken businesses. There’s fly dumping everywhere. If you don’t think it weighs on you, then try it every day.
And yet, there is plenty of good on the west side, and it almost goes block to block. Some blocks look like Afghanistan and others look like any other street in Chicago—beautiful homes, well-kept lawns.
So I’ll go into the neighborhoods and find people. Sometimes you see someone sitting on their porch and you can ask, “Is there a block club here?” And very often, someone will say, “Yes, there’s somebody here who looks after things and is always the one organizing.” And those are the people you try to get into a relationship with, and encourage them to stay active and be a role model for the other neighbors, because it does catch on.
The blocks that have the most people making their voices heard, they’ll get the attention, and they’ll have a better chance to get the resources. Those are the people the politicians and the commander don’t want to disappoint.
As an organizer, you basically try not to say the same thing over and over, like, “Just call the police.” You listen and help them try something they haven’t tried. If they’re on a block where people are hanging out, you tell them, “The only way you can do something is if you’re coming out and picking up in front of your own house.” It’s not going to change the dealers exactly, but it’s something they’ll take note of. Sometimes these little things work.
There are also beautiful projects going on in the 11th District. There are places where they’re doing beekeeping. There are community gardens where they’ve taken over whole lots.
But I couldn’t say that anything is guaranteed. I know people who have been active for twenty years and they still have problems on their block. Everything can affect everything else: the alderman; the liquor store that finally got closed down, or opened up, or expanded; one bad landlord. Or they established a drug spot on that corner, and it’s really dragging things down.
You have to keep evolving. Organizing is a day-to-day adventure.