For the last year, I've been at work on my second novel, a standalone thriller set in Chicago's south side, gang territory. Even saying that is something of a fallacy—the truth is that all but the most affluent neighborhoods of Chicago have some gang presence—but the south side has the poorest areas, so correspondingly the highest crime.
While the gangs are only one factor in my novel, they're a fascinating world, and I've spent a good chunk of time doing research. I've ridden with Chicago's elite Gang Intelligence unit, interviewed cops that work gang beats in South Central L.A. and New York, and pored over hundreds of pages of studies and autobiographies. I've toured the neighborhoods and stood on disputed corners that have seen seven, eight shootings in a single year. Some of the things I've discovered are funny, some are frightening, and almost all are sad.
As an author, one of the tricky parts is that you can't include all the research you've done, or even all the good stuff. You have to winnow and wean, because ultimately, research is secondary to plot and character and theme (Kevin wrote about this beautifully here.)
Luckily, there's The Outfit. So I can share a few of the more eye-opening things I've learned:
- In Chicago's Area One, a police district covering the most active neighborhoods, 6 – 10 shootings is a pretty average weekend. During the heat of the summer, it's more like 12 - 18.
- Graffiti is the newspaper of the street. Gang tags mark territory and issue warnings. Painting another gang's sign upside down is a serious insult—definitely not something you want to get caught doing.
- These guys—and it is mostly guys—are clever. A standard drug corner is a multi-man operation: one guy who talks to the buyer, another who takes the money, plus a runner, usually under 15, who fetches the dope. Serious players will also have lookouts posted with Nextel cell phones, the ones with radio capability, at the end of the block, or in a second-story window.
- The average gangbanger is recruited between 12 and 14 years old. The officers I spoke to had dealt with kids as young as 7.
- We're exporting more than democracy to the Middle East. A recent Sun-Times article claimed that a startling number of active-duty soldiers were also active-duty gang members. Gang tags have been springing up all over Baghdad, and more than 300 soldiers that have come through Fort Lewis alone have been identified as bangers. The article makes it clear these men are serving their country well, but it's hard not to wonder what happens when they return to their neighborhood armed with military training and connections.
- Gangs don't covet good guns. They covet more guns. From the gang perspective, ten $60 Chinese-made automatics beat one $600 SIG-Sauer.
- Many gangs have a "beat in, beat out" policy. Part of a gang initiation involves the crew beating the hell out of a prospective members, usually for a specific amount of time (one gang does it for the length of a cigarette). If a member can negotiate the right to leave the gang, he'll have to endure the same thing—only this time he's a lot less likely to survive.
- According to a high-level member of NYC's gang unit (who spoke on condition of anonymity), the more established gangs recruit the 'good kids' not to sling rock or do shootings, but to go to school. Gang leaders will pay for college and even law or business school, in order to homegrow their own legal and financial teams.
- And finally, the saddest thing I've ever learned. It comes straight from the mouth of a CPD Gang Intel officer, a twenty-year veteran. I was asking about the size of certain gangs, about their power structure, and this was his reply:
"You know the best way to gauge the power of a gang?" He paused, made me wait. "Count how many schools they have on their turf."