Friday, August 11, 2006

The Saddest Thing I Ever Learned

When we launched, we promised to tell stories, true ones and imaginary ones. The one I have today is of the weirdest variety—the true kind that seems like it was made up.

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."

39 comments:

John Gooley said...

Eye-opening stuff Marcus, and as you say all so very sad. But from a fiction writer's point of view, incredibly meaty material. I really like the line "Gang tags have been springing up all over Baghdad". No explanation required. (Or not much, it's so evocative) And also "ten $60 Chinese-made automatics beat one $600 SIG-saur". Great. Also gang leaders paying for college or even law or business school to homegrow their own legal and financial teams. That suggests a strength and structure in gangs I wouldn't have believed existed. I sometimes think it's best to do no research at all because writing's about transferring your imagination into the reader's imagination, and the real world just gets in the way. But I never would have imagined gang members tagging buildings in Baghdad.

Libby Hellmann said...

Fascinating post, Marcus.

It would be interesting to compare the organization of the street gangs to the those of... er-- the Outfit-- and other mafia families. I suspect you'd find several points of comparison, especially among the ones who go into the service, and the underwriting of higher education for the few.

The other thing I wonder about is the organizational sophistication of gangs who have surfaced in the past 10-15 years, ie the tongs, and the Russians. Will they someday have the same hierarchy as the Latin Kings or the GDs? Will they provide the same "benefits" and challenges to their members?

Duane Swierczynski said...

I agree with John and Libby--excellent (and sad) material. We've had a hell of a summer here in Philly, with an absurd amount of gun violence. Sounds like things are even worse in your neck of the woods.

And yeah--gang tagging in Baghdad? That's amazing. Has this been covered by mainstream media anywhere?

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Great post, Marcus.

Gang tagging in Baghdad? That's amazing. Has this been covered by mainstream media anywhere?

There was a decent story in the Sun Times a few months back and I think either the Tribune or the NY Times (or both) covered the story as well. It's compelling stuff.

Also, there's a terrific story about Marcus and The Blade Itself at the outstanding Chicago culture site Gapers Block.

D.A. Davenport said...

Denver has been having problems with gangs as well, organized off-shoots of the huge gangs out of LA. Generally if one of them kills or gets into trouble here they head to LA to hide and visa-versa. It challenges our police force quite a bit.

It was a strange day when part of my son's first middle-school parent's assembly dealt with the growth of gangs starting to show up among 6th, 7th and 8th graders. You never knew if your own child could get caught in the middle of a cross-fire and never come home again. It's the kind of subliminal terror my parents never even dreamed of.

Sad, that between the gang presence and insane students murdering classmates, a Mom heaves a sigh of relief when her child graduates college because she feels he will actually be safer away from a campus, at any grade level, these days.

ab said...

Thanks, Marcus. News do me about the development in later years. Sad and upsetting and enlightening.
Makes you wonder what we do about it. What would the veteran police officers, those with the experience, like to see done?

johnny dangerous said...

Thanks for the info, Marcus. My stories take place in rural Illinois, where there is a growing Hispanic gang presence, given the immigrant population and concentrations of young Latinos in agricultural operations and construction.

Marcus Sakey said...

That suggests a strength and structure in gangs I wouldn't have believed existed

You ain't kidding.

Though it's kind of misleading, too. Because your average gang is not that well put together, nor is your average banger that cognizant of an organizational structure. The impression I got was that it was only the more advanced sets of the more advanced gangs that were thinking that way--the Latin Kings to a point, MS-13, some sets of the Black Disciples.

You want to be scared by gang facts, though, Google MS-13. The FBI is pretty well terrified of them--US paramilitary-trained Salvadorans with rigid structure and a rep for ruthlessness. Oh, and about 30,000 members in the US.

On other news, thanks for the shout-out, Kevin--very cool.

David Terrenoire said...

Marcus,

I agree with everyone - this is a great post. Thanks for sharing some of your more eye-opening research.

My favorite? Close tie between the gang tags in Baghdad and the scholarship fund for promising kids.

I wish our government had that kind of foresight.

Dee said...

Very powerful stuff, Marcus.
It all seems so hopeless to combat on the streets...so sad.

as a side note...there has to be a great novel in the idea of bangers in Bagdad.

thanks for sharing such a slice of life.

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