Chicago’s deadly border crossings: lives in the balance

There are no barbed wire adorned border walls. You won’t see unsmiling heavily armed solders toting automatic weapons as you wait nervously in a long line for clearance to cross over. You won’t have to show a passport or have your car torn apart during a search for weapons or drugs. In fact unless you are an expert at modern urban wall art, you may not even realize you have crossed one of these Chicago borders.

They are the ever shifting boundaries in Chicago’s gang and turf wars.  What the Associated Press has called, “a Sandy Hook Elementary School attack unfolding in slow motion”, caught the attention of the national media with the killing of 15 year old South Sider  Hadiya Pendleton

Chicago police Superintendent Garry McCarthy called it a gang shooting, and that Pendleton, who had no gang affiliation, was a victim of “Mistaken identity — wrong place at the wrong time.” Leaving aside the issue of where is the right “place” and when is right “time” to get shot, this statement tells us nothing.

But I heard another explanation at a South Side meeting about the education crisis.

According to a community leader familiar with the neighborhood where the tragedy took place, the gang shoot-out which resulted in Pendleton’s death came about because of a poorly planned and poorly executed school boundary change. Two groups of kids with longstanding issues had been thrown together into a single school and the situation “exploded”.  

Hadiya Pendleton

Hadiyah Pendleton


Local community activists and other adult leaders had pleaded with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) not to go ahead with the change, but it was part of a long term plan to help gentrify the South Side Bronzeville community through school closings, consolidations and boundary changes. Profit was the priority.

Hadiya Pendleton was caught in the crossfire of two gangs that did not even exist before this ill-conceived CPS strategy.

School closings can kill

Living on the West Side of Chicago, Dwayne Truss is very familiar with a 15th Police District map of gang boundaries, carefully color-coded for easy understanding. Within the map are the locations of neighborhood schools in the West Side Austin area. 

Referring to the map at a February West Side meeting, Truss, who co-chairs the Austin Community Action Council said,”This is what our babies, our kids have to go through.” Referring to the children of those who sit on the Board of Education Truss continued by saying,”Their kids don’t have to go through this.” —-from Austin Talks

Dwayne Truss and Valerie Leonard

Dwayne Truss (with Valerie Leonard) at a February 27th press conference at CPS headquarters


In January 2013 CPS took high schools off of the list of potential school closings because even the normally oblivious CPS leadership decided that the danger of crossing gang borders was just too great. As of March 2013, that still leaves 129 grade schools on what many Chicagoans call “Rahm’s hit list”, a grim wordplay in a city where gang affiliations can reach down as far as middle school and grade school.

CPS has been sponsoring a series of community meetings across the city where thousands of students, teachers and parents have come to plead for the survival of their  neighborhood schools. The meetings have also become scenes of massive vocal protest against school closings.  The issue of student safety when crossing gang boundaries comes up repeatedly in passionate, sometimes tearful testimony.  There is suspicion that the meetings are just a charade in front of the stony-faced CPS representatives; that life and death decisions about which schools to close have already been made. 

The Walton Foundation funds these meetings. The Waltons own Walmart. Their concern for the sanctity of human life can be seen among the charred bodies of South Asian textile workers who died making Walmart products in appalling sweatshop conditions.

Gang borders are the most lethal in the areas of the city hit hardest by racism and its accompanying poverty. These include South Shore, Englewood, West Englewood, North Lawndale, Humboldt Park and Austin. These are communities suffering from disinvestment, unemployment, foreclosures, withholding of city services, schools deprived of the most basic needs and what author Michelle Alexander calls the The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration as a form of social control. 

Not surprisingly, these areas of the city have suffered population loss. Using questionable numbers one analyst called “wildly inappropriate”, CPS now says the schools are “underutilized” and may need to be closed. This is after decades of CPS malign neglect, what the Chicago Teachers Union calls educational apartheid. One of the factors that caused the exit of neighborhood residents was the deliberate CPS policy of withholding resources  needed by schools in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. 

The “underutilization” argument is chutzpah in the first degree, especially since students from shuttered schools will likely have to cross gang boundaries to get to their receiving schools. That will only encourage more families to pack up and leave. Now combine this with the number of private charter schools that are opening up and competing for students. Do the math and the whole CPS “underutilization” rationale reads like a piece of satire from The Onion.

No wonder some veteran community activists feel that City Hall’s school closing blitzkrieg is really about emptying out areas of the city for redevelopment. New office buildings and condos will net banks and real estate moguls millions in profit. It will also make a whiter and more politically obedient city. Go ahead and label these battle scarred community activists paranoid and delusional if you want.  I think their assessment is on the money…literally.

Pardon my bitter sarcasm, but City Hall probably views all of this as a “kinder, gentler” ethnic cleansing, as opposed to the variety which swept across the former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. 

Rahm sends in the Top Cop

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy appeared on WLS-Radio in mid February and announced that his department would guarantee the safety of Chicago grade school students who might have to cross gang borders resulting from school closings. Yes, he really said that—after one of the most violent years in recent Chicago history, with 506 murders and an average of 21 reported shootings a day. 

At a press conference held at the Chicago Board of Education in late February, West Sider Angela Bowman talked about some of the dangers faced by young children:

“My concern with these school closings is the safety of our children. The CPS Board is not walking through these neighborhoods while they are making up these things about underutilization and why they want to close these schools… A lot of people live in drug infested, gang infested and pedophile infested neighborhoods. Students will have to get up extra early and walk in the dark, especially in winter time. Walk in the dark to these schools and then walk back in the dark.”  —

Angela Bowman

Angela Bowman


There are 129 public grade schools still on the closing list. And what about the high school students who are already crossing gang borders? And the charter school students? Don’t they deserve some protection also? How will City Hall pay for this and hire all the extra cops? I hate to ask you to do the math once again, but think about it.

McCarthy admitted that there was “a lot of work to do.” He referred to a plan to set up “safe passages” to be staffed by Chicago cops. Parents will be told of safe corridors from home to school that their children may travel. There was such a plan for school year 2011-2012 but McCarthy admitted that the scheme “had some problems”.

Police Chief Garry McCarthy

Police Chief Garry McCarthy


It’s hard to take McCarthy’s vague assurances seriously. He appeared on radio at 7 am on a Sunday morning, not in front of the TV klieg lights with a stern and concerned looking Rahm at his side nodding at strategic moments. 

McCarthy’s low profile announcement suggests Rahm has his scapegoat in place if everything goes to hell and back at the start of the 2013 school year. He’ll be shown the same exit door that Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard was pushed through when the negotiations with the Chicago Teachers Union turned into a political embarrassment for the Mayor.

Rahm wants Chicago companies to pony up $50 million

Unlike the nearly clandestine revelation about 2013 “Safe Passages” from Superintendent McCarthy, Rahm’s declaration that he would seek $50 million from Chicago CEO’s for anti-violence programs was greeted with intense, respectful & uncritical media attention.

Emanuel is putting his formidable fund-raising skills to work to raise money for early intervention programs for younger kids and provide jobs, mentoring, recreation and conflict-resolution programs to give troubled teens an alternative to the gang violence that claimed the life of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton. —–Chicago Sun-Times

He named Allstate CEO Tom Wilson and Jim Reynolds, CEO of Loop Capital Markets to co-chair the fundraising committee. The idea is raise $50 million over the next five years.  Wilson grew up in Englewood, one of the areas plagued by gang violence:

“As I looked at the needs of the community, we needed to get involved, get back in there and make this city as great as it should be. But we can’t be a great city unless we really bring along all sectors, [including] the young people on the South and West Sides.”

Wilson is right about the South and West Sides, but the devil is in the details. There is supposed to be an “advisory committee of criminal justice experts and community leaders” to oversee the finances. Who decides who sits on the committee? 

Rahm’s normal pattern would be to stuff it with his political cronies and cronies-to-be (those present community “leaders” whose souls are up for auction). After contracts are carefully padded and then awarded, some money will actually get to anti-violence programs, some of which will help. Summer jobs and recreation programs can get some kids out of harm’s way at least some of the time.

But Wilson knows that $5 million a year is a drop in the bucket. In 2010 Wilson personally made over $8.5 million in annual compensation. His total worth is estimated at $23 million. But by Chicago CEO comparison, Wilson is only modestly wealthy. Sanjay Jha, CEO of Motorola Mobility, took in over $47 million in personal annual compensation.

Rahm’s $50 million over 5 years is a pittance and an insult to the working class people of the city. 

Chicago’s working class has a better idea

“We cannot fix what’s wrong with our schools until we are prepared to have honest conversations about poverty and race. Until we do, we will be mired in the no-excuses mentality [that] poverty doesn’t matter. Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who are distracted by their lives. Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who have seen trauma like none of us in this room can imagine.”— Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis

“Our analysis demonstrates clearly that high levels of poverty and income inequality are strongly correlated with elevated levels of violence, and that raising wages for Chicago’s low-wage workers, along with other targeted anti-poverty and employment programs, is the most effective means of achieving safer streets and stronger communities across the city.”-——- Stand Up! Chicago

All across the poorest working class areas of the city you can hear the same refrain. To get serious about defusing gang violence, people need good paying jobs and rational economic development to drastically reduce poverty. In areas of the city where poverty is minimal, there are no serious gang problems. There has not been a murder in the mostly white prosperous Northwest Side neighborhood of Edison Park since 2007. There were 128 murders in mostly black low income South Side Englewood since 2007.

This disparity is the direct consequence of Chicago’s traditional racial apartheid as well as the steep increase in income inequality in the USA as a whole. The map below makes this point.

Homicide map

Chicago has the 3rd highest US urban poverty rate and the worst African American poverty rate in the nation. One third of Chicago’s children are in poverty. Chicago’s income inequality is similar to that of El Salvador, a nation whose appalling income inequality fuels a shockingly high homicide rate. 

An appalling income inequality? A shockingly high homicide rate? Sound familiar?

The link between income inequality and violence has been shown by numerous studies around the world, which simply confirms what many Chicagoans already know from direct observation. The loss of Chicago’s once plentiful unionized manufacturing jobs and the current attack on wages from the city’s elite have made the economics of working class life more uncertain and more dangerous.

During the summer of 2012, the Austin neighborhood on the far West Side suffered the highest number of homicides of any neighborhood in the city. Unemployment in Austin stands at 22%. Disinvestment there is symbolized by the sprawling urban ruins of the once bustling unionized Brach’s Candy factory. The presence of a low wage Walmart on North Ave does little for the 27,000 Austin residents in poverty. Many Austin workers commute to downtown retail stores and restaurants and Austin is #1 among Chicago neighborhoods in providing workers to downtown department stores. These downtown workplaces are mostly non-union and often pay poverty wages.

Throughout 2012, there were numerous public protests by low wage workers who make the connection between the pain of poverty and the agony of neighborhood violence. They want a pay raise for Chicago's poverty level workers—a very substantial pay raise that will narrow the income inequality gap. They are also calling for more jobs at decent wages to help the unemployed, not more minimum wage work that cannot support families. They are determined to reduce the appeal of gangs and eventually dissolve those dangerous borders that many Chicago students must navigate.

Raise the minimum wage

Workers demand an increase in the minimum wage


The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) is one of the many groups addressing the central issues of poverty and racism that are at the root of gang violence. They have been leading the Fight for 15 campaign to raise wages in the downtown retail and food service industry to $15 an hour. 

Lorgio Velez is a 19 year old aspiring musician from the South Side Bridgeport-Canaryville community. In the past two years there have been 114 murders within two miles of Lorgio’s home. A former worker at McDonalds, Lorgio has been active in the WOCC Fight for 15 campaign:

“I’m from the city and gets a little rough out there. In the past month of November I lost two friends. One of whom was my best friend and the other was a good friend. You know, there is a lot of gang violence and a lot of times…I kinda fear for my life when I be walking around here.

I just want to be able to pursue my dream and see my projects come to life …because everything is a struggle out here when you are making $8.25 an hour. I’m in these streets [at Fight for 15 demonstrations] rallying and marching and letting these voices be heard. It’s about time people see what’s going on.”

Lorgio Velez

Lorgio Velez


For me, this is personal– very personal

I once lived along one of those gang borders in the Logan Square neighborhood on the city’s near Northwest Side. 

I kept a can of white paint handy to cover over the graffiti that regularly appeared on our garage. Sometimes it was to mark the territory of one the last remaining white gangs, the Gaylords, fighting a losing turf war against one of the newer latino gangs intent on expanding their territory. Sometimes it was two latino gangs contending with one another. I lost a modest amount of time and money painting over this wartime propaganda. The young people in these local battles were paying with their lives.

As a teacher on the city’s South Side in the last quarter of the 20th century I had students from neighborhoods like K-Town, Little Village, Gage Park and Pilsen. I learned about “Folks” and “People”, which were the two loose alliances that most Chicago street gangs belonged to. 

I went to faculty orientations on the gang symbols of such organizations as the Latin Kings and the Two-Sixers, two of the more prominent gangs active in neighborhoods where our student originated. I was instructed to watch for gang graffiti on student notebooks and lockers. I learned some of the complex hand signals gangs used to communicate and the various “colors” which were their street attire.

It was an open enrollment Catholic women’s high school and yes we did have gang affiliated students there. But we also had a close-knit faculty and school community. For the most part, the school building itself was neutral territory. Some of the kids that I was reasonably sure had gang affiliations were good students and could contribute intelligent commentary in class discussions. But the war going on outside the schoolhouse door was never far away. 

Students told me of painful personal losses in their extended families and in their neighborhoods.  They spoke of community festivals where they were afraid to cross the street because a rival gang was patrolling the other side. A freshman student burst into tears one day when I passed out a Chicago Tribune article about gangs for a current events discussion. She knew one of the young men profiled in the article. He had been shot to death. Another student suddenly stood up in my 7th period world history class and started yelling incoherently. Two hours later she was a participant in a gang fight near the school. She knew she was going into combat and I think she was cracking under the strain. Some students displayed symptoms of PTSD.

As for me, I struggled against a tendency to develop a hard cynical self-protective exterior. A few teachers had succumbed to that and I didn’t like what I saw. 

Sometimes I would walk up to the end of the 3rd floor corridor and look at the skyline of the Chicago Loop where the wealthy were moving vast fortunes around while young people tried to survive a war they did not start and did not know how to stop.

The skyscrapers seem to meld together into a single Dark Tower of Mordor where greed and lust for power were keeping multitudes of people struggling for economic survival while as the poet Mathew Arnold once wrote, “…ignorant armies clash by night.”

That was more than a decade ago, but how much has changed? 

This is not the time to close a single school in the City of Chicago. There are lives in the balance.

Sources Consulted

Chicago Takes Leading Role In National Gun Debate by the Associated Press

Teen girl's killing ignites widespread outrage: 'Why did it have to be her'

Chicago shooting: A case of 'mistaken identity'?  by  Mary Wisniewski

Student safety No. 1 concern if Emmet Elementary closes, community members say by Ellyn Fortino

McCarthy: Police can safeguard students ‘crossing gang boundaries’ by Fran Spielman  and Lauren Fitzpatrick 

Chicago's $10 million CEOs

School-closings panel has conflicts of interest, group charges by  Lauren Fitzpatrick

Questions for the commission: enrollment, finances by Curtis Black

The High Inequality of U.S. Metro Areas Compared to Countries by Richard Florida

With Income Inequality Comes Violence by Michael Shank

Neoliberalism and Inequality: A Recipe for Interpersonal Violence? by Candace Smith,

Motorola Mobility CEO Jha's pay package triples to $47M by Sarah Skidmore

Fight For the Future: The case for raising wages to save lives by Stand Up Chicago

Emanuel launches plan to raise $50 million to help at-risk kids by Fran Spielman

Report: Don't Close CPS High Schools by Kyla Gardner

Teenagers 29% of Chicago homicide victims

Leave a comment