Truth in numbers: Former gang members discuss the reality of Chicago's rising homicide numbers
Last weekend was a bloody one: More than 50 shootings were reported, nearly 20 percent of those were fatal. Summer after summer, Chicagoans are consumed by violence and a seemingly exponential murder rate. And, it seems, summer after summer, we talk about the need for whole families, better education, jobs and police boots on the ground—yet, the cycle continues.
Neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides have been hardest hit by homicides—the concentration of crime is typical; and while crime, overall, is down, homicides are on the rise. Last year, between January and May, there were 144 homicides; this year, there were 208. Last year, 56 of the 144 victims were in their 20s; this year, 103. These areas have been likened to a war zone. In fact, if it was a war zone, it would be deadlier than Afghanistan.
According to the Department of Defense and FBI data, 2,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. During that same period of time, more than 5,000 Chicagoans were killed.
Estimates put Chicago’s gang population at roughly 70,000 members. But experts say these once organized, structured groups have splintered. Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said the "fracturing" of larger gangs into smaller ones has doubled the number of factions and conflicts. And former gang member Benny Lee agrees—there’s a total lack of accountability on the streets.
When Lee was a young leader in the Vice Lords, there were older members keeping him in check. Because even though he was running his own crew, the Apache Vice Lords, his Geronimo-inspired sect was still a part of the greater Vice Lord nation. But eventually Lee found himself in and out of jail. And each time he returned, his Austin neighborhood was a little worse. The older Vice Lords who kept him—and the community—in check were gone. And so were the resources.
Lee has tried to be a resource for the men in his family and community. He serves as a community liaison and reentry specialist for TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) and founded the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated Mentor Program. He’s also a professor at Northeastern University in the Center for Inner City Studies.
Lee has a lot in common with Eddie Bocanegra. Both men worked as violence interrupters with CeaseFire. Bocanegra was featured in the award-winning documentary, The Interrupters. Lee and Bocanegra joined Afternoon Shift for a frank discussion about the rise in violence, strategies to quell it and the realities of life as an ex-offender.
Lee’s story is featured in an upcoming exhibit at the Hull House Museum: "Report to the Public: An untold story of the Conservative Vice Lords" opens June 22.