In 1992, a Gang Truce Held in Chicago. But in 2013, Truce Was Impossible - War Is Boring (2023)

On a sunny day in October, 33-year-old Anthony Garrett walked to the 10th floor of the 1157 N. Cleveland building in Chicago’s Cabrini Green...In 1992, a Gang Truce Held in Chicago. But in 2013, Truce Was Impossible - War Is Boring (1)

On a sunny day in October, 33-year-old Anthony Garrett walked to the 10th floor of the 1157 N. Cleveland building in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing complex. He knew that his fellow Cobras gang members hid an AR-15 assault rifle there.

Just before 9:00 A.M., Garrett opened the bathroom window of one of the abandoned apartments, shouldered the rifle, and fired two or three shots at several members of a rival Vice Lords faction standing in front of the 502 W. Oak building.

Garrett hoped the bullets would tear through their bodies, causing the Vice Lords to take their last agonizing breaths in a pool of blood right there on the sidewalk.

The fact that the sidewalk was being used as a route for children walking to the local elementary school didn’t seem to matter much to Garret. With his task complete, Garrett handed the rifle to a “shorty,” expecting the child to hide it for him.

The bullets missed their marks. None of the children on the way to school that morning had to witness Vice Lords bleeding out on the pavement. No Chicago Fire Department paramedics had to harden their hearts once more by telling themselves “they’re just gang members.”

Instead, one of Garrett’s bullets tore through the face of a seven-year-old boy named Dantrell Davis. His mother, who was holding his hand at the time, thought her son merely ducked in reaction to the gun fire.

That was a good guess. Even children as young as seven in Cabrini knew exactly what to do when they heard gunshots.

But she was wrong. Davis was pronounced dead on arrival at a local children’s hospital.

That was Chicago in 1992.

Fast forward. On Nov. 2, 2013, Dwight Boon-Doty — a 22-year-old member of the P-Stones gang — spotted the child of a rival Gangster Disciple playing basketball. The P-Stone had planned to kill the boy’s grandmother, but figured nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee would do for now, according to prosecutors.

Boon-Doty got out of the car and asked the child if he could take him shopping. The 4th-grader obliged. Boon-Doty had intended to mutilate the boy by cutting off his fingers and ears. But he compromised with himself once more that day and instead executed the nine-year-old by shooting him in the head at close range in an alley near the basketball court.

Lee died in a pool of his own blood, his thumb detached from when he reached toward the gun in a desperate attempt to defend himself.

Both killings brought national media attention to Chicago and sparked outrage from city officials.

“We are putting the gang-bangers and drug dealers on notice,”then-mayor Richard J. Daley said in a televised press conference in reaction to Davis’ death in 1992. “For too long, you have made the community a target. Now you’re the target.”

“We’re going to assign resources to ensure that neither one of those gangs can raise [their] head again,” then-police superintendent Gary McCarthy said during a press conference on Lee’s 2013 execution.

The gang leaders in 1992 got the message. They brokered a city-wide gang truce not long after Daley’s announcement. Many gangs even vowed to end drug-dealing and reform into productive community organizations.

But drug dealing didn’t stop. A former foot solider from the Robert Taylor Homes — a public housing project in Bronzeville on the South Side of Chicago — recounted an absurd story about the day the truce was brokered.

He said one of his gang leaders suddenly announced that the whole set was going to march to Washington Park that day for a peace rally. The foot soldier remembers standing in a large crowd of gang members listening to speeches about ending the violence and reforming gangs.

But when the rally ended, the crowd marched back to their respective turf and proceeded to sell drugs, the foot soldier said. “We didn’t shoot at each other that day, but we went back to the hustle. The hustle was going to happen anyway.”

However, the truce did seem to cause a reduction in gang violence. At least for around a year. It’s true that the 1990s were one of Chicago’s bloodiest decades. But the number of homicides never again exceeded the 943 that occurred in 1992.

From ’92 onward, gang leaders went to great lengths to vet killings, according to the foot soldier from Robert Taylor. Gang leaders had always tried to make sure they were targeting those who hurt drug profits, or violated other gang rules. But after the truce, gang leaders would beat up their “employees” for even threatening a rival over personal matters, according to the foot soldier.

This phenomenon seems to have occurred across the city, according to other reporting and academic work.

But McCarthy’s warning in 2013 didn’t lead to a similar city-wide truce as that which occurred in 1992. In fact, the two gangs McCarthy directly threatened didn’t even bother to end their war. Within just a few months murders and shootings in Chicago rose to levels not seen since the 1990s.

This trend seems to be explained by de-policing more than by anything else. But it’s significant that this threat didn’t stabilize or bring down the violence.

The rate of killing was not the only thing getting worse. Beginning around 2012, police started to notice more and more gang members threatening each other on social media. The mostly personal attacks often led to shootings and killings on the streets.

There are two main reasons gang members announce their killings on social media, a young gang member named Gino Watters said.

Some gang members are seeking notoriety, known on the streets as “clout,” in order to get more clicks on their rap videos, according to Watters. The more clicks, the more likely a record company will offer a lucrative record deal.

This phenomenon was first reported on at length by journalist Ben Austen in 2013, and has since gained a great deal of attention from news media and academics.

Other gang members don’t have aspirations for a music career. They have accepted they will likely die young, and so seek as much clout as possible before they die, according to Watters. This rather disturbing reality has been said to me by many gang members, community organizers, cops and everyday Chicagoans. “Nobody want to be regular no more,” Watters said in frustration.

Drugs are no longer the main driver of gang killings in Chicago, according to Watters and several other young Chicago gang members and journalist Zack Stevens of Zack TV1.

In 1992, a Gang Truce Held in Chicago. But in 2013, Truce Was Impossible - War Is Boring (2)Chief of Staff of the United States Army Gen. George W. Casey, Jr. walks with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and other officials during the city of Chicago’s Memorial Day parade on Saturday, May 24, 2008. Photo via Wikipedia

Corporate collapse

The comparisons between Chicago’s gangland in the 1990s and today leaves us with two confounding questions.

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Why did a truce occur in 1992 but not in 2013?

And why did gang leaders seem to put extra effort into vetting killings after 1992, but the trend toward social media-fueled personal killings has only gotten worse since 2013?

The most popular explanation for both questions is that current gangs are no longer the hierarchical corporate entities they once were.

Once the major gang leaders were sent to federal prison, “the gangs in Chicago crumbled, there was no more laws, there was no more literature,” Stevens said. “It was about every man for himself.”

Indeed, Mayor Daley made good on his threat.

Following Davis’s death in 1992, Daley announced the foundation of a Chicago Police Department and federal law enforcement task force that would ultimately take down the leadership of the Gangster Disciples. It was the largest and most powerful gang in Chicago at the time with profits exceeding $100 million a year.

This task force took down many of the gang’s leaders, including its infamous leader Larry Hoover. He received a life sentence in 1997 and now resides at a federal prison in Colorado

The Chicago Police Department and its federal partners got very good at taking out gang leadership from that point forward. Specialized gang units from the CPD and their federal partners even established “top 20” meetings to coordinate on taking down gang leaders. Hundreds of gang leaders were incarcerated during the same period, which crippled the gangs by the mid-2000s.

Davis’ killing also led to the downfall of the housing projects.

The projects were considered drug selling “fortress” by Demetrious Nash, a former Black Disciple who lived and sold drugs in the Stateway Gardens project. Lookouts could be placed on the top floors of the buildings to warn gang members of approaching law enforcement and rivals, according to Nash, who now heads an organization that helps at-risk-youth gain training in skilled trades.

Anthony Garrett’s decision to snipe rivals with a high-powered rifle was also common in the projects, according to a former foot soldier who often acted as a sniper as well as reporting from that era. And gang members could usually get away from the police by hiding in random apartments, Nash added.

What’s left from Daley’s war against the gangs are hundreds of fragmented gang sets, usually made up of young teenagers. Leaderless and mainly bound together by neighborhoods, these gang sets simply don’t have the organizational capacity to implement a city-wide truce — and certainly can’t control the ongoing social-media-fueled violence.

Most barely make enough money from drug dealing to buy clothes and everyday staples, according to numerous CPD officers.

It’s very likely that the lack of organization and leadership is the main reason current gangs are so out of control in Chicago.

But this isn’t the whole story.

The skeleton of the gang structure from the past still exists. And natural leaders continue to emerge.

For instance, it’s true that there are hundreds of fragmented gang sets currently in Chicago. But they do still identify as branches of major gangs. For instance, there are dozens of sets with distinct names that all identify as Vice Lords. The same holds for Gangster Disciples, Black Disciples, P-Stones, etc.

The existence of distinct sets that identify with a larger organization isn’t any different from the 1990s, according to academic work and numerous gang members from that era. The only difference is that there is no central leadership attempting to control each set.

However, to say that no gang leaders exist is misleading.

There continue to be extraordinarily business-savvy and charismatic gang members that would have easily been gang leaders in the ’90s, according to two Chicago police officers from a specialized gang unit and five young gang members.

So why don’t these business-savvy gang members animate the existing skeleton and organize the fragmented gang sets into profitable corporate entities?

The current opioid epidemic seems to present a profitable venture for an enterprising gang member with hundreds of potential sellers at his disposal. In fact, prior to the introduction of crack in the late 1980s, Chicago’s gangs were similarly fragmented, according to sociologist Lance Williams, who has spent years embedded with gangs on the South Side of Chicago.

The answer is that the drug economy in Chicago has changed dramatically since the ’90s.

It has evolved in a way that allows a select few business-savvy gang members to make huge profits off of drug sales without requiring them to organize large corporate entities. Thus, these business-savvy gang members also have no incentive to control the type of gang violence taking place in Chicago, and no incentive to call a truce when children die.

In fact, the market structure of today’s drug economy largely explains why Superintendent McCarty’s threat was basically meaningless to business-savvy gang members.

To fully understand how economic incentives effect gang violence, it’s vital to begin with a look at the business structure of gangs in the 1990s.

In 1992, a Gang Truce Held in Chicago. But in 2013, Truce Was Impossible - War Is Boring (3)Chicago Police Memorial Foundation photo

The drug economy

Most gangs in the 1990s structured their “businesses” in a similar manner to the one described in an academic study by economist Steven D. Levitt and sociologists Sudahir Alladi Venkatesh.

Venkatesh spent years embedded with gangs in Chicago. One gang leader even gave Venkatesh four years of accounting documents. The study is written based off of these documents as well as Venkatesh’s unprecedented access to the gang in the 1990s.

At the very top of the gang hierarchy stood about four to six central leaders, about one-third of whom resided in local prisons. These leaders made big-picture strategic decisions and fostered relationships with large-scale drug suppliers.

Think of them as a board of directors at a Fortune 500 company. In fact, the leaders in Statesville prison called themselves “the board.”

The central leadership made huge sums of money by taking a percentage of the profits made by gang sets under their umbrella. The particular gang in the study had about 100 distinct sets. Within each set there was a local leader who made between $50,000 to $130,000 per year.

Within the central leadership was about a dozen men tasked with making sure the local leaders payed their dues and were following orders from the central leadership. Violations could get the local leader beat up or killed.

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To this end, the local leader was ultimately responsible for managing the gang set.

Though not in the study, the local leaders were also charged with seeking out and maintaining relationships with wholesale drug suppliers, according to Rodney Philips, a former local leader from a Black Disciples set who was stationed in the Stateway Gardens project. Though he did several stints in prison, he sold drugs in the project from the 1980s until the early 2000s.

Wholesalers were usually foreign nationals. They would seek out local leaders in the projects due to the high demand for drugs being readily apparent in the open-air style drug market of that era, according to Philips. Another method of connecting with wholesale suppliers was going to prison. “If you in the underworld you meet underworld people,” Philips explained.

The local leader would “cut” the whole-sale supplies into packs filled with numerous small baggies of crack that foot-soldiers would directly sell to customers, according to the study.

Foot soldiers were allowed to keep a percentage of what they made, but had to give a large portion of their earnings to the local leader. This is where the majority of the local leaders’ money came from. In fact, the amount of profit made by the gang as a whole was mainly dependent on these street sales.

Although critical to the gang’s bottom line, the accounting documents reveal that the foot soldiers in the set made $200 or less per month. Foot soldiers in the set numbered between 25 and 60. Each worked about 12 hours per week, and thus earned less than the federal minimum wage at the time. Interestingly, most of the foot soldiers also maintained minimum-wage jobs on the side.

The local leaders also had three subordinate officers to pay. The runner, treasurer and enforcer each made around $1,000 per month.

The runner was charged with delivering money to the wholesale supplier, and then delivering the drugs back to the gang. The treasurer did the accounting. And enforces would collect money from the foot-soldiers and provide them with security.

But enforcers were also charged with beating or killing foot-soldiers for violating gang rules. For instance, stealing, secretly cutting crack to make a larger profit and killing or fighting rival gang members over purely personal matters were all considered violations.

It’s the last violation that is most critical for our story.

Personal feuds between gang members often led to shootings and killings. These acts of violence are almost always reciprocated, and often escalate to full-blown gang wars.

And gang wars are expensive.

The set in the Levitt and Venkatesh study went to war with rivals seven times in four years. The total time spent fighting amounts to 12 months.

The gang’s accounting documents show that “drug revenues fall almost in half in war months.”

The threat of death from rivals and arrest due to heightened police presence increased dramatically during these wars. Thus, extra expenses during war mostly stemmed from the need for increased security.

Expenses included paying mercenaries to fight rivals, and defending foot-soldiers attempting to deal drugs. They also helped keep a lookout for police.

Interestingly, local leaders were forced to increase the foot-soldiers’ wages by 70 per cent during the wars. “Would you stand around here when all this [shooting] is going on?”one foot soldier explained to Levitt and Venkatesh. “No, right? So if I gonna be asked to put my life on the line, then front me the cash, man. Pay me more ’cause it ain’t worth my time to be here when [the gangs are] warring.”

And since customers don’t want to get shot or arrested, they often went elsewhere to buy drugs during wars. In an attempt to redress the declining demand local leaders chose to drop drug prices. Some gangs even gave away drugs for free.

All-in-all, drug revenue during warring months came out to $10,900, while expenditures amount to $12,800, according to the study.

The extraordinary costs associated with war was confirmed to me by Philips, Nash and a former Black Disciples enforcer from Robert Taylor Homes.

“When we keep on losing money you got to think, if a building doin $100,000 in drug sales a day, shit, you wanna stop this war,” Nash explained. “You wanna get back to the money.”

Even everyday residents in gang territory were aware of the costliness of war. Many residents saw gang leaders as “business executives who know that violent streets attract police officers and discourage customers,” The Chicago Tribune reported shortly after the city-wide truce in 1992 took hold.

“The gangs said, ‘If we can stop the killings, we can sell the drugs,'” Chicago-based activist Hank Dungy told The Chicago Tribune in reference the truce in 1992.

However, just like patent-infringement lawsuits by legitimate businesses, gang wars can be a worthwhile investment. For instance, the gang featured in the Levitt and Venkatesh study fights a war that results in the expansion of its drug-selling territory from 12 blocks to 24 blocks. This increased monthly drug revenue to $23,000, almost doubling the pre-expansion monthly revenue.

And, as stated earlier, killing rivals or even members for harming revenue or a lesser violation can help maintain corporate efficiency and increase a gang’s deterrence power.

Again, this is no different than the business world. Suing a competitor for patent-infringement deters others from doing the same. Further, punishing or firing a misbehaving employee communicates to the rest of the staff the companies’ willingness to enforce standards.

But war is risky.

And since the pocket books of the central leadership, the local leadership, and the gang set’s officers were ultimately tied to the foot soldiers’ street revenue, the organization would do everything its considerable power to make sure the foot soldiers behaved.

To this end, there were a few ways local gang leaders controlled foot soldiers.

As stated earlier, foot soldiers were beaten and sometimes killed for initiating personal beefs. But, just like any corporation would do, gang leaders also used promotions to shape behavior.

Willingness to kill was a vital characteristic for promotion. However, most foot soldiers who reached the rank of officer conducted killings that the gang hierarchy had sanctioned. Foot soldiers who killed for personal reasons were rarely promoted, according to the study.

“We try to tell these shorties [foot soldiers] that they belong to a serious organization,”one gang leader told Levitt and Venkatesh. “It ain’t all about killing. They see these movies and shit, they think its all about running around tearing shit up. But it’s not. You gotta learn how to be part of an organization, you can’t be fighting all the time. Its bad for business.”

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This brings us back to the city-wide gang the truce of 1992, and the increased vetting of killings.

One former Cabrini resident told me the truce was a moral decision by the gangs. I’ve heard others tout the high moral character of the gangs in the 1990s, especially when it came to avoiding violence against children.

It’s possible that morality played a role.

But the Levitt and Venkatesh study provides fairly strong evidence that Daley’s threat of overwhelming police pressure likely led many gang leaders to fear for their bottom line. And the enforcement of the truce, to include vetting killings, was clearly incentivized by profits.

In 1992, a Gang Truce Held in Chicago. But in 2013, Truce Was Impossible - War Is Boring (4)Photo via Wikipedia

Past is prelude

The current drug economy in Chicago actually bears some semblance to the past. There are more than 850 gang sets in Chicago. Many name themselves after the streets they live near, rappers they like or even friends who have died. And yet, the local gang sets still identify with a larger gang organization.

I’ve asked several cops, former and current gang members, and no one knows quite why the gang sets in Chicago still identify with a larger gang organization. Probably just tradition, according to some.

But what’s clear is that no one is attempting to use those common identities to organize the sets into large hierarchical corporate entities. Instead, the individual sets act autonomously, according to five young gang members living on the South Side of Chicago and several CPD officers.

The fact that, say, five sets are all P-Stones is meaningless. You can simply be killed for being on the wrong block, according to the gang members.

And there are still business-savvy gang members that could organize these sets over time. For clarity I’ll call these gang members “middle management.” The five young gang members and two CPD officers from a specialized gang unit all agreed on this point.

One CPD officer said that these middle managers often complain to him about the current epidemic of social-media fueled personal violence among young gang members. The officer said he always points out to the middle managers that they control the young gang members’ drug supply, and thus have the ability to control them.

But the middle managers don’t have any economic incentive to control the young gang members like they did in the past.

The process by which drugs go from foreign drug cartels to the consumers reveals why.

The following description of the process was first described to me by a CPD gang officer. Much of his story was independently verified by two other CPD officers from specialized units, and the five young gang members. The names of the gang members are Anthony Thomas, Gino Watters, Cobe Barker and Will and Joshua Cephus. All are in their early 20s.

One of the gang officers even called one of his informants, presumably a middle manager, to make sure some of the details were right. All officers requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak by the CPD.

At the very top of the cartel-to-consumer process are a relatively small group of gang members I’ll call “chief executives.” These gang members have built their reputation as intelligent, hardworking, and trustworthy over years in the drug trade. Their reputation, and the relationships they build, allow them direct access to foreign drug cartels and the huge amount of wholesale drugs only they can supply.

The chief executives are akin to the central leaders in the ’90s.

Let’s say the chief executive buys one kilo of cocaine for $32,000, which is the example amount used by one of the gang officers during his explanation. The cartel makes a profit because the chief executive is buying the kilo well above the production cost. The officer didn’t know exactly by how much.

But a phone call to one of his informants confirmed that several of the middle managers buy portions of the kilo from the chief executive, who makes about a $10,000 profit once all is said and done.

Interestingly, the chief executive is often not affiliated with the same gang as the middle managers, according to the five gang members and the CPD officers.

A chief executive from the Gangster Disciples will sell to middle managers from the Black Disciples, Four Corner Hustlers, Mafia Insane, etc. “They have no loyalty, frankly,” remarked one of the officers. “There’s no loyalty to anybody.”

The five gang members emphasized that the chief executive must have some level of trust before selling to a middle manager.

To rise to the middle-management level, gang members need to be intelligent and hard working. Interestingly, just like those that made rank in the 1990s, young gang members who move to middle management usually don’t have a history of erratically killing people for personal reasons.

And they certainly don’t brag about murders on social media, according to the five gang members and two of the CPD officers.

The middle managers keep their heads low, and are typically polite to police during interactions, according to one officer.

The next step in the process involves the middle management cutting wholesale drugs into smaller packs made up of baggies for street distribution. The middle manager needs some idea that the gang set is trustworthy before he sells itthe packs.

Beyond this, however, which gang set he distributes to is almost solely based on demand levels. Again, if the middle manager is a Mafia Insane, he has no problem distributing to individual sets affiliated with the Four Corner Hustlers, Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, etc. “It just depends on who needs what,” one officer explained. “What spot is working better.”

The middle manager typically sells the pack of drugs wholesale to individual sets. Thus, unlike the foot soldiers in the 1990s, the young gang members in these sets keep all the revenue.

By selling wholesale to a diverse array of sets, the middle manager puts distance between himself and the young gang members in the sets. This makes sense for two reasons.

First, it becomes far more difficult to charge the middle manager in a RICO conspiracy than in the 1990s, when local leaders were tied more directly to the foot soldiers. In fact, fear of being indicted on a conspiracy charge is likely why the economy changed by the mid-2000s, though it’s difficult to make any sweeping conclusions.

Second, if a set’s revenue begins to fall due to violence, or simply being inept, the middle manager has many other sets he can sell to. Though fear of RICO laws probably sparked the change in the economy, it’s very likely that the stability of a diversified market sustains it.

Think of the current drug economy as a diversified stock portfolio, and the economy of the 1990s as a single stock portfolio.

If you have all of your money in one company’s stock you increase the potential for huge gains when compared to a diversified stock portfolio. However, if the company gets caught committing fraud and the stock tanks, you’re screwed. But the failure of a single company in a diversified stock portfolio probably won’t even be reflected in the returns.

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In addition, you probably won’t pay much attention to the behavior of each company in a diversified stock portfolio. But if you have all your money on one stock, you’re probably going to pay careful attention to the company connected to the stock. And if you somehow had control over the company, you’ll probably try to keep it from destructive behavior.

Still, one might imagine that a middle manager’s revenue might tank if several of the sets he sells to are at war. But technology has made the likelihood of this scenario extremely unlikely.

The drug markets of the ’90s were highly vulnerable to wars because drugs were mainly sold on the streets. This made it easy for law enforcement and rival gang members to identify foot soldiers and their customers. And a gang usually could not simply move to a new turf without fighting a war of conquest.

The dissemination of social media, cell phones, and encryption technology has meant that many of the sets no longer have to stand on street corners to sell drugs. And selling territory has become somewhat more fluid.

Gang members now blatantly advertise drug sales on social media, and customers contact them through encrypted third-party messenger apps, according to the five gang members and three of the CPD officers.

Drug dealers now simply drive to the location of customers. To be sure, there are some street deals taking place, according to all three of the officers. So, violence can reduce sales on one’s turf. But since around 2010 the gang sets have turned more and more to technology instead of standing on a corner, according to one of the officers that has been on the department for close to 20 years.

The number of open-air drug markets are nowhere near what they were in the 1990s, according to Brad Cummings, a journalist that has lived and worked in the Austin Neighborhood since the 1970s and who has always had personal relationships with local gang members.

Thus, economic incentives to reduce or control violence are largely absent even within the gang sets. And the technology-induced stability of the current retail drug market, even in the face of violence, further disincentivizes the chief executives and middle managers from trying to quell or control violence.

This largely explains why Superintendent McCarthy’s threat didn’t lead to a truce. The bottom line of the chief executives and middle managers in 2013 was under far less of a threat than the central and local leadership’s was in the 1990s.

And yet, there is still potential for promotion to middle management positions for the young gang members. Those that get promoted these days tend to be intelligent, hardworking and use violence in a controller manner, just like their peers in the 1990s, according to the five gang members and two of the CPD officers.

But most young gang members aren’t motivated by promotion potential because they believe the likelihood is low, according to the five gang members.

Interestingly, the potential for promotion for foot soldiers in the 1990s was also low, according to the Levitt and Venkatesh study. But unlike today, the clear hierarchy of the ’90s seems to have given foot soldiers relatively greater hope of rising in the ranks. Economists call this a “tournament model.”

In 1992, a Gang Truce Held in Chicago. But in 2013, Truce Was Impossible - War Is Boring (5)Photo via Wikipedia

It’s worse than it looks

4,368 shot. 762 murdered. That was Chicago in 2016, the bloodiest year since 1996, when 796 were killed.

Rodney Philips remembers that year well. He spoke at length about the brotherhood that was formed by the gangs, and the contributions they made to the community. Philips told me about the reforms that took place after 1992, and showed me a copy of the book titled From Gangster Disciples to Growth and Development: The Blue Print.

The book came out in 1996, and was supposedly the manual for how Chicago’s gangs would become productive community organizations.

Philips remembers the gangs as living by a code of honor, as do many gang members and residents from that era.

I remember Chicago in 1996.

I was six years old and living on the Northwest Side of the city in a middle-class neighborhood called Jefferson Park. One of my first memories came from that year. I looked on with horror as my father, a Chicago firefighter, tried on a borrowed bullet-proof vest.

He needed the vest because he would be working New Year’s Eve at a fire house near the Stateway Gardens project. The gang members there would be shooting into the air all night — and at each other.

This was a common practice on New Year’s Eve all over Chicago’s gang territory back then.

Sometimes they even shot at the firehouse. I found out later in life that the shooting forced the firefighters to pull their mattresses onto the floor in the off chance that the 911-calls would stop pouring in. And a Chicago police officer stood watch all night in the fire house. A loaded shotgun laying across his arms. Waiting.

Not far away children and families living in the Stateway project also had to pull their mattresses onto the floor. Some even lay awake in their bathtubs, just like in other projects throughout Chicago.

I think about the horror I felt that night, and I can only imagine how a six-year-old boy lying awake in his bathtub felt as the sound of gunfire blared outside his window. Stateway Gardens was only about a 40-minute drive from where I slept that night, but it may as well have been on the other side of the world.

Philips admitted he was one of the many gang members shooting into the air. They were “celebrating,” he explained.

The gangs in the 1990s terrorized Chicago. A survey of residents in two of Chicago’s projects in the ’90s found that the majority of residents approved of law enforcement warrantlessly sweeping apartments for drugs and guns.

The residents wanted the gangs gone.

But when compared to the violence of today, the gangs back then seem relatively controlled. Residents knew that, generally, those targeted for killings violated the gang code. The gangs tried to warn people when a war was taking place so that they could avoid the battlefield.

And when a child was killed or injured a truce would likely be called and the perpetrator would be punished, according to gang members and residents from that era.

Today’s residents living in gang territory have no idea when or where the violence will take place. They worry that relatives of gang members will be killed. And the case of nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee shows that truces are nearly impossible.

Most blame the fact that there are no leaders in the gangs anymore. But potential leaders definitely exist. It’s just that the chief executives and middle managers have no economic incentive to try to control the young gang members.

“If they needed them,” Demetrius Nash said, “they would care more.”

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