Chicago’s Politicians Run with the Gangs

This story is amazing and perhaps explains why Chicago is as crime-ridden and violent as it is. One the one hand, it’s shocking. On the other hand, it doesn’t appear that much has changed in Chicago in 100 years. Only the names have changed.

A few months before last February’s citywide elections, Hal Baskin’s phone started ringing. And ringing. Most of the callers were candidates for Chicago City Council, seeking the kind of help Baskin was uniquely qualified to provide.

Baskin isn’t a slick campaign strategist. He’s a former gang leader and, for several decades, a community activist who now operates a neighborhood center that aims to keep kids off the streets. Baskin has deep contacts inside the South Side’s complex network of politicians, community organizations, and street gangs. as he recalls, the inquiring candidates wanted to know: “Who do I need to be talking to so I can get the gangs on board?”

Baskin—who was himself a candidate in the 16th Ward aldermanic race, which he would lose—was happy to oblige. In all, he says, he helped broker meetings between roughly 30 politicians (ten sitting aldermen and 20 candidates for City Council) and at least six gang representatives. That claim is backed up by two other community activists, Harold Davis Jr. and Kublai K. M. Toure, who worked with Baskin to arrange the meetings, and a third participant, also a community activist, who requested anonymity. The gang representatives were former chiefs who had walked away from day-to-day thug life, but they were still respected on the streets and wielded enough influence to mobilize active gang members.

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The former chieftains, several of them ex-convicts, represented some of the most notorious gangs on the South and West Sides, including the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, Black Disciples, Cobras, Black P Stones, and Black Gangsters. Before the election, the gangs agreed to set aside decades-old rivalries and bloody vendettas to operate as a unified political force, which they called Black United Voters of Chicago. “They realized that if they came together, they could get the politicians to come to them,” explains Baskin.

The gang representatives were interested in electing aldermen sympathetic to their interests and those of their impoverished wards. As for the politicians, says Baskin, their interests essentially boiled down to getting elected or reelected. “All of [the political hopefuls] were aware of who they were meeting with,” he says. “They didn’t care. All they wanted to do was get the support.”

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Many forms of political corruption—taking bribes, rigging elections, engaging in pay-to-play deals—are plainly unethical, if not illegal. But forming political alliances with gangs isn’t a clear matter of right or wrong, some say. In many Chicago neighborhoods, it’s virtually impossible for elected officials and candidates for public office not to have at least some connection, even family ties, to gang members. “People try to paint this picture of bad versus good—it’s not like that,” says a veteran political organizer based in Chicago who specializes in getting out the vote in minority areas. “Everybody lives with each other, grew up with each other. Just because somebody goes this way or that way, it doesn’t mean you’re just gonna write them off automatically.”