08.31.12

Chicago Gangs Go ‘Wilding’ Amid Rising Gun Violence in Obama’s Hometown

As the president preps for his Democratic Party convention coronation, homicides in his hometown the first three months of this year have spiked 60 percent over the same period in 2011, and gangs are preying on citizens in a phenomenon called ‘wilding.’

Wilding. 

The word joined the lexicon a quarter century ago, when groups of teenagers from New York City’s tougher neighborhoods would sweep through Times Square and Central Park. 

Now, the term is being used by street cops in Chicago to describe groups of teenagers from that city’s tougher neighborhoods who have begun to periodically sweep through its Gold Coast and Magnificent Mile areas, raiding shops or robbing passersby, or more recently, just shouldering people aside.  

“Wilding,” a uniformed officer posted in a radio car near the corner of North Michigan and Chicago avenues said this week. “The cops call it wilding.” 

The officer said the teenagers generally arrive by public transportation, getting off at a Red Line stop at State Street, just down Chicago Avenue. They gather at a McDonald’s beside the station entrance. 

“That’s the jumping off point,” the officer explained. 

When the impulse hits them, the teens occasionally proceed east along Chicago Avenue, passing the tony Park Hyatt Hotel, an Anthropologie store, and a Ralph Lauren store that has an adjoining RL Grill, its outdoor tables adorned with white tablecloths and tended by white-aproned waiters. The coiffed and preened diners look up from such offerings as wild Alaskan sockeye salmon and goat-cheese tart. 

For a few moments, Chicago becomes a tale of one city. And as the teenagers behold the trepidation caused by just the sight of them, they no doubt experience the same surge of power their New York predecessors felt while charging through Midtown Manhattan. The most powerful of CEOs is all but sure to drop his eyes and visibly cringe upon suddenly encountering a wilding crew. 

“You be big,” a pint-sized wilder named C-Allah from Brooklyn told me back then. 

In the most recent wilding foray in Chicago, the teens followed their usual route from the McDonald’s assembly point past the RL Grill, no doubt feeling big as they barged through the Saturday afternoon throngs, forcing shoppers and tourists aside. Police stepped in and a number of teenagers sought to elude arrest by dashing into moving traffic opposite the famed Chicago water tower, whose plaque notes that it survived the Great Fire of 1871 and “stands as a proper memorial.” 

The present-day Chicago that rose from the ashes was on its way back to being a tale of two cities as police took 20 juveniles and four adults into custody. No injuries were reported. The charges generally were misdemeanors, mostly “reckless conduct.” The teenagers were soon on their way back to the tougher neighborhoods, where feeling big does not come with just walking down a sidewalk. 

“Law enforcement alone is not going to fix this problem.”

On these meaner streets, a kid can at least avoid feeling small by joining one of the gangs, which until the current decade were highly structured organizations, some with tens of thousands of members and bosses who adopted Al Capone as a role model. 

As has been reported in The Daily Beast and elsewhere, these mega-gangs have since fractured into much smaller “sets” that war within themselves as well with each other. A study of 200 homicides conducted by Harold Pollack of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago found that many of the killings have less to do with one crew challenging another than with an individual responding to even a seemingly minor affront with gunfire. 

While gun violence in Chicago is still down considerably from a decade ago and crime in the city is dropping overall, the number of homicides in the first three months of 2012 spiked 60 percent over the same period the previous year.

Police began to apply an array of new strategies, and in July were able to reduce the monthly murder rate to the lowest in a quarter century. A superstitious person might believe that nobody should have jinxed the improvement by noting the improvement, for by the third week of August the number of killings had surpassed the 2011 total for that month. 

And then the summer turned even more violent. Thirteen people were shot in one 30-minute period. Eight of these were wounded on a street that some call the Killer Block in a neighborhood known as Terror Town.  

Last year, police raiding a house in Terror Town found a kind of shrine to Jeff Fort, the imprisoned supreme leader of the once mighty Black P Stone Nation, which had as many as 50,000 members. But if Fort is still venerated there, his nation has splintered, as have its equally large rivals, so that no one faction rules supreme. Police believe a feud between two small sets led to the latest shooting on the Killer Block of Essex Street just off 79th Street. 

Among the innocents on the street that evening was 54-year-old Bruce Finley, who was riding his bike in the street—police of late having begun ticketing cyclists who venture onto sidewalks. He heard a burst of what sounded like automatic-weapons fire. 

“I see people running, falling,” he recalled to The Daily Beast.  

He began pedaling away as the shooting paused for maybe five seconds before it started again. 

“They reloaded,” he says.  

He heard the roar of a car racing behind him, followed by a siren. He realized he had escaped being shot in a drive-by only to now risk being killed in a drive-over. He veered to the side and pitched himself off his bicycle as the fleeing gunmen’s car roared past with a radio car in pursuit. 

“The police was like a car-length behind them, siren on,” he says.  

The chase ended at the nearby South Shore Motel, which could hardly be more different from the Park Hyatt the wilders storm past. The people on Essex Street apparently had fired back, for the car had bullet holes and a blood trail led from it to a room on the first floor. The gunmen somehow escaped, leaving a number of weapons behind. 

Back at the scene, the wounded bystanders included a 19-year-old woman who has been working her way through college, studying criminal justice. The wounded also included two 14-year-olds, a 15-year-old, and two 16-year-olds. They were luckier than the seven who were shot on this same corer in February. Two of them had died. 

The police could not have been surprised when a number of victims observed the street code against “snitching”—even on those who had just shot them. A recent Chicago Tribune study found that police had suspended the investigations into nearly 80 percent of 1,100 shootings between January and July of this year because the victims refused to cooperate. 

A police surveillance camera is on the corner, and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy later told reporters it showed 10 radio cars had passed by in the hour before the shooting. Two officers had stopped to clear the corner 25 just minutes before. 

“Law enforcement alone is not going to fix this problem,” McCarthy noted. 

Along with applying ever-evolving police strategies, McCarthy has welcomed civilian efforts to help stem the violence.

CeaseFire, a group that includes Jeff Fort’s daughter, Ameena Mathews, approaches violence as an infectious disease and seeks to intervene before it spreads. Harold Pollack and others at the Chicago Crime Lab are busy demonstrating that counseling and tutoring and activities at school can dramatically reduce violent behavior. Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Church in bullet-torn Englewood has called for an end to the no-snitching rule. 

“Break the code of silence!” his leaflets say. The leaflets also call on parents and grandparents to “go through your place of residence from the attic to the basement on a regular basis in search of any hidden guns.” Pfleger has a sign at the entrance to the church office saying, “Turn in guns anytime, No questions asked.” 

With such bright, dedicated, and selfless people at work, it seems unlikely that the arrival of wilding in Chicago means the city is going the way New York did before the turnaround that made it the safest big city in America, a miracle McCarthy witnessed while with the NYPD. In Chicago, there’s even reason to hope for a significant reduction in shootings—despite what Pfleger terms a perfect storm of joblessness, cutbacks, and a culture that glorifies violence. 

Meanwhile, the latest shootings in Terror Town were followed by a 24-hour period in which 18 more people were shot across the city, six of them fatally. The dead included a man, Stephen Wilkins, who was shot in an apparent robbery while sitting with his girlfriend in a car parked outside a school a block and a half from President Obama’s home. The Secret Service detail posted on his block almost certainly heard the shots. 

After the police towed away the car in which Wilkins was murdered, a trio of 14- year-olds named Chantay, Jamilah, and K’eonna said that from their point of view the violence was only getting “worse and worser.” The young Obama neighbors warned a reporter against going into a park adjoining the shooting scene, as this patch of the president’s immediate neighborhood is a place of contention between two local sets.  

“That’s the death zone!” Chantay said. 

They spoke of a friend named Antonio Davis, also 14, who moved away to Englewood, only to be shot to death in June. 

“I went to his funeral,” Jamilah said. “The mayor came!”  

They spoke of Mayor Rahm Emanuel with some respect, clearly viewing him as the mayor of one city, not two. 

“And he’s cute,” Jamilah added. 

Emanuel has not been as vocal about gun violence as his New York counterpart, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he has periodically spoken out, particularly when the press reports a spike in the number of shootings. He noted that a police crackdown seemed to have significantly reduced violence in Englewood, and last week he called for a similar strategy in Greater Grand Crossing, a neighborhood where two people had been shot in the middle of the afternoon. 

That shooting had been near the Charles Deneen Elementary School, where on other days the best of Chicago is on regular display. Parents line the fence outside the school each afternoon, waiting for their youngsters to come out. Among the fathers there Tuesday afternoon was Gary Greenwood, who said he had done time for drugs in his younger years and was now having great difficulty finding work. He has only the best of hopes for the son he now saw emerge with his Spiderman backpack, the air filled with the happy chatter and laughter of youngsters who seemed so rich with new life in a school where more than 88 percent come from low-income families. 

Flemister Greenwood, 8, smiled on seeing his dad and his dad smiled back as if he had no troubles at all. The two set off for home together.  

“I’ll let him decide what he wants to be,” Gary Greenwood said of his son’s future. “As long as it’s nothing bad.” 

At the end of the block, they passed two cops who were part of the new crackdown ordered by the mayor. 

“That’s us!” one of the cops said. 

Back over in Terror Town, Bruce Finley was pedaling his bike to work past the corner where he easily could have been the ninth person shot. He continued down the Killer Block and a few doors further on exchanged greetings with a figure in shorts, T-shirt and sandals who held not a gun but a spray nozzle attached to a yellow garden hose. Jim McCloud is a retired cop who has lived in the neighborhood for 21 of his 73 years. He had just finished watering his front lawn and was now watering his neighbor’s lawn. 

“We take care of each other,” he said. “We do things for each other.” 

As he angled the spray further onto the neighbor’s grass, it caught the late morning sun and formed a rainbow as if in some magical confirmation of the spirit that keeps Terror Town a place of more good people than bad. That says more about the resilience of this remarkable city than any water tower. 

The question of what to do about the bad causes McCloud great concern. “I do a lot of thinking,” he told me. 

McCloud has a grandson in the Marines who just returned from Afghanistan and who has grown up to become so admirable as to confirm the grandfather’s philosophy about raising children. “One to 5 are the years you need to train a kid,” he said. 

Up on the Gold Coast and along the Magnificent Mile, two radio cars were posted on the street where the wilding crew had trooped down the week before. A horse cop clip-clopped down the drive-through alongside the McDonald’s by the Red Line the police say is an assembly point.  

“A ride through!” somebody called out to the cop, who did not smile. 

Ladies and gentlemen who lunch at the outside tables of the RL Grill looked as relaxed as if the world had no troubles at all. Some proponents of social justice might suggest it would be good for even more wilders to make it clear that Chicago is one city, after all. Others, like Pollack of the Crime Lab, suggest that shaking up the well-to-do would likely only cause them to hunker down. Their first concern would be their own safety, and they would be even less inclined to support innovation and intervention and change in those other neighborhoods where life is so much wilder than wilding. 

The result would only be more radio cars diverted to the Magnificent Mile when they are more critically needed in Terror Town and elsewhere. There likely would not have been eight shootings on the Killer Block if a radio car had been posted there. 

In the meantime, the police seem to be doing the best they can in all the city’s neighborhoods. A special firearms team got a tip Wednesday night about some gun traffickers on the far South Side. The cops approached a trio of teenagers, who immediately scattered. 

One teen turned and fired, hitting a cop in the leg. The cop returned fire, wounding the shooter. The teenager is expected to recover, and unless something else happens should live to see his next birthday. That will only be his 16th, which in itself is wild.