By Julie Littman
Gangs are taking out their disputes in the streets of Chicago, where residents have been tormented by a dramatic increase in homicides and shootings this year. Blood has pooled with the dirt and crime of the poorer, grittier West Side district where 24 homicides occurred during the first half of the year. The West Side and equally impoverished South Side are not alone either. The uppity, downtown area where business travelers make million-dollar deals and tourists visit caged animals in the Lincoln Park Zoo, have also experienced their fair share of shootings. Police statistics, reported to the “New York Times,” reveal that homicides and shootings are up 38 percent and the first half of the year claimed the lives of 240 people, 66 more than last year. Not every person killed has been a gang member; a seven-year-old girl, on the West Side, was killed earlier this summer by a stray bullet. News articles say the plus side of all this is that at least 900 people aren’t being killed annually such as during the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1990s.
Even so, Chicago is getting much more of its fair share of violence than the rest of the country. Squints at the FBI reveal that violent crime is actually going down nationally. Despite supposed common knowledge that recessions and high unemployment breeding social unrest and violent crimes, this does not seem to be the case currently. Incidents of robbery and aggravated assault are each down by 4 percent while forcible rape experienced a 2.5 percent decline. Murder and non-negligent manslaughter are down by almost 1 percent. Robert Weisberg, a criminal justice expert from Stanford Law School, told the San Francisco Chronicle that recessions also create “communal solidarity” meaning people would much rather come together and rebuild their communities in light of lost jobs and people losing their homes instead of killing one another for no reason.
So why all this violence in Chicago? Over the last two years, gangs splintered into 600 different factions from 500—all with access to guns. Gangs, too, create a common bond amongst young men and women who might be suffering financially because a parent lost a job. Therefore, more kids are taking to the streets, taking up arms and finding solace in the shadows of abandoned buildings. Cuts to extracurricular and after-school programs leave more youths with nothing to do. Kids, statistically, turn toward their friendly local gangs to shoot the breeze, blow off steam and deal drugs just to pass the time in order to keep their minds off the fact that their parents can’t pay rent.
Chicago cops are strapped for cash, too, after the mayor reduced police spending by $67 million, reported the New York Times. The mayor did this by removing 1,300 department jobs that were already left unfilled but taking up a portion of the budget. The police department is also trying to refill positions left after retirement, but 450 positions remain vacant. The cops are also tracking gang activity by writing “contact cards” where officers stop people, document gang affiliations for a database. Cops hope to prevent retaliatory shootings by auditing gangs, finding out about members, turf battles and long- festering grudges.
Chicago isn’t alone. Oakland, Calif. has also experienced its fair share of gang uprising and violent crime. Morning news stations report on shootings, every other day, coming out of Oakland and its infamous International Blvd. continues to be a hot spot for gang hangouts, drug deals and shootings. The “San Francisco Chronicle” reported a 6 percent increase in violent crime in Oakland. Although this is still a 19 percent decrease from 2008, it has gotten so bad in Oakland that the state’s governor is sending California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers there to help with managing some of the city’s worst neighborhoods. And the same dynamics are at work in Oakland as in Chicago; Oakland laid off 80 officers and 21 cadets in 2010. Special squads dedicated to monitoring gangs, parolees and gun activity, went from 10 to only two. And response time takes 15-to-17 minutes for the poor saps calling 911, who could easily bleed out during that time.
Back on the East Coast, New York City has also experienced a decline in violent crime. According to one article by “Salon.com,” violent crime in parks and playgrounds has been up, which makes sense _ where many gang members meet up to shoot some hoops, to blow off a little steam after a tough day on the streets. Over the summer 41 people were hurt or killed in city parks and playgrounds. A 14-year-old girl was shot in the head by a stray bullet on a tennis court, and, only two days later, a four-year-old also died from a stray bullet while at a playground. Parents taking their kids to play on swing sets, dig in the sand or kick around soccer balls, are fearing for their children’s safety. Gangs, instead, are playing games of shoot-shoot, bang-bang in the hopes they will win the next fight in the never ending street wars.
Fights, kids ditching school, drug deals, and shootings now plague these parks and playgrounds of New York City. Park safety is typically handled by the Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP), but they don’t carry guns, only batons and pepper spray, which certainly can’t and won’t contain gang members with pistols. And even then there are only 100 of them to patrol parks and playgrounds. In the 1990s, there were 450.
Money is contributing to where these 100 PEP officers are deployed. Hudson River Park and Battery Park, in the rich lower Manhattan where bikers and parents walk their spawn in strollers, have 27 PEP on duty. Grants from the Hudson River Park Trust and Battery Park Authority are footing the bill for these PEP officers. Meanwhile the Bronx, with 1.3 million people, has five PEP officers.
With the current recovery slow and barely manageable, cities like Chicago, Oakland and New York will continue to have budgetary restraints which means that laid-off cops won’t be returning any time soon. Gangs will continue to rule the streets with their guns and knives, taking revenge over empty and meaningless quarrels. And those living in the poorest areas of the city will watch on, behind their curtained houses and apartments hoping that they will be lucky and that the next stray bullet doesn’t come their way.