Report release: The Fracturing of Gangs and Violence in Chicago

The Great Cities Institute is releasing its report on the Fracturing of Gangs and Violence in Chicago:  A Research-Based Reorientation of Violence Prevention and Intervention Policy. Co-authors of the report include John Hagedorn, Roberto Aspholm, Teresa Córdova, Andrew Papachristos, and Lance Williams (See below for titles and affiliations). The report is a follow up to a May 2018 gathering of researchers, street experts, and service delivery professionals sponsored by the Great Cities Institute. Drawing upon years of research and expertise, the report seeks a reorientation in violence prevention and intervention policy. Among the reports findings:

The nature of gang violence in Chicago has been changing, but policies and practices toward it have not. This was the main conclusion of “The Fracturing of Gangs Conference,” held at the Great Cities Institute in Spring 2018. This report shares insights from that conference along with an array of conversations since then.

The conference presenters urged that it is time to move on from the narrative of Chicago as a “city of gangs.” Chicago has always been a “city of neighborhoods,” and the violence that has resulted from the fragmentation of traditional gangs into new horizontal gangs and cliques should be addressed within a comprehensive neighborhood policy. The decline of the traditional leadership and structure of African American gangs presents Chicago with an unprecedented opportunity to redirect youth away from gangs and into jobs and movements for social justice.  

Data from the conference presentations show that Chicago’s high levels of violence are persisting, suggesting that current approaches need to be readjusted. Homicide levels and trends in Chicago are more similar to Rust Belt cities like Cleveland and Milwaukee than to “global cities” such as New York City or Los Angeles. The homicide rate is strongly correlated with race and concentrated poverty, with 75% of all homicides in Chicago taking place between African Americans, despite the fact that the city’s population comprises a relatively equal number of Blacks, Latinos, and whites. Long-term approaches to Chicago’s persistent homicide problem must address the city’s deep-seated issues of racism, disinvestment, and concentrated poverty, as well as the more recent issue of the changing nature of gangs.

The conference presenters call for a new anti-violence policy that de-emphasizes gangs and instead emphasizes conflict resolution among youth in a context of significantly increased employment and neighborhood economic development. While drug- and gang-related violence still plagues our city, the conference found that much violence today is the product of interpersonal disputes and retaliation, unrelated to traditional gang rivalries or drug markets. The fracturing of traditional vertically organized gangs into horizontally organized cliques is most pronounced among South Side African American gangs, which were affected the most both by the demolition of Chicago Housing Authority projects and subsequent diffusion of residents and by the displacement of young, African American men from Chicago public high schools via Chicago Public Schools’ Renaissance 2010 plan.

All gangs are not alike. There are significant differences between West Side and South Side African American gangs. In addition, Hispanic gangs were not as affected by the diffusion of CHA residents, and as a result, they have not fractured in the same way. For a more effective approach to violence in Chicago, outdated assumptions about the connections of gangs and violence need to be readjusted to consider the changing structure, dynamics, and activities of gangs, the nature of the precipitating triggers that give rise to that violence, and differences in gang structures. Anti-violence policies need to differentiate between identity- and drug-related violence, as well as between the expressive violence of neighborhood youth versus the instrumental violence of organized crime.

Persistent disinvestment and concentrated poverty amounts to an assault on the dignity and self-worth of black youth and is correlated with violence. Intervention and prevention programs need to counter codes of hypermasculinity with vehicles to restore dignity and self-worth, teach healing and conflict resolution (restorative justice), while advocating and advancing strategies for economic and educational opportunities. The most effective of these strategies requires the involvement of young men – and women – themselves in readjusting the narrative and rebuilding their communities, thus leading to questions of how to rebuild community and neighborhoods.

Full Report (PDF) »

The report authors are:

John Hagedorn, Ph.D.
James J. Stukel Fellow, Great Cities Institute
Professor (Retired), Criminology, Law and Justice
University of Illinois at Chicago

Roberto Aspholm, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville 

Teresa Córdova, Ph.D.
Director, Great Cities Institute
Professor, Urban Planning and Policy
University of Illinois at Chicago

Andrew Papachristos, Ph.D.
Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research
Professor, Sociology
Northwestern University

Lance Williams, Ph.D.
Professor, Urban Community Studies
Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Urban Community Studies
Northeastern Illinois University