Fifteen-year-old Deon Gilbert was killed in the south side of Chicago on the night of November 7th by a single gun-shot to his abdomen. This promising young man attended Ellis Avenue Church almost every Sunday since he was about three years old, had hopes of playing football and studying architecture perhaps at Florida A&M. The church which attracts a good number of African American young people has the question of urban violence regularly brought to its attention during prayer time by these young people who seek prayer for a neighbor, a classmate, a relative or friend who has been shot or killed. But this time, it was not one that we did not know. It was one of our own children. The worship on Sunday was somber and mournful. It was not yet time to think of hope and resurrection. It was just time to mourn.
On Saturday morning, November 8th, shortly after receiving the news of Deon’s death, I spoke to the Religious Educators Association (a professional organization of scholars and professors of religious education) at their conference in Oak Brook, on the question of Unmasking Violence. The insights for my presentation came from the present SCUPE class I am teaching together with Dr. Clinton Stockwell on Public Issues in the City.
In that class, we talked about Sudhir Venkatesh’s book Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (Penguin Books, 2008). This is the story of a University of Chicago sociology Ph.D. student’s immersion in the gang culture in the Robert Taylor Homes – one of the poorest housing developments in the country at the time. We used it as an example to understand the principles of ethnography, to understand the limits of our knowledge and our methods of acquiring that knowledge.
We recalled that those buildings, which non-residents usually called “projects” and residents called “community,” did not automatically appear – they were created, as a means of warehousing people away from mainstream society. These massive buildings housed some 1000 families each, and there was no economy in the immediate neighborhood to support jobs for all the people who needed them. To find a job, the residents had to travel to the suburbs. Imagine the difficulty for a young mother, who needed to travel two hours each way by bus, train and bus, only to have to pay half her earnings to the child care worker! Naturally, an underground or informal economy sprang up.
Some informal economies are illegal as well. This was the case with the drug trade. The income was small. For a foot soldier in a gang, it would be less than $20,000 a year. But the costs in terms of risk to life and limb were very high. This too was the case with prostitution. Police are as corrupt, says Venkatesh. They are often paid off by the gangs, and often have sex with the women they arrest. The buildings are patrolled and secured by gangs. If you want to be safe, you need to pay the gang to look after you. They have guns and will be brutal with those who will harass those they protect. Even though Robert Taylor Homes is no more, the illegal underground economies flourish particularly in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, as is the case in some communities in the south and west sides of Chicago. Much of the gun violence in our communities is a part of this informal economy. Click here to continue reading on scupe.org