Certainly, the first principle is that every situation is different. What's going on in different cities is not the same thing as what's going on elsewhere. However, we do know that whether it's Chicago in the early 20th century or the Chinese cities of the last couple of decades, when people come to cities from the countryside in large numbers, their kids tend to hang out in gangs. The old ties of authority and the countryside are there to be rebelled against in the city. You have a whole new world that's happening. So, forming gangs is normal. In this situation, it's normal. We see it around the world.
What you described to me, briefly, is also pretty normal as there are many different ways that gangs can form, and there are many different kinds of more serious problems. It's one of the things that, I think, we've learned from studying gangs, that when these kids are forming these wild groups, it's important not to decide that this is basically a legal problem, a problem for police, a problem to crack down. Because these are kids that can go all sorts of different ways.
A hundred years ago, when they first studied gangs in Chicago, you had all these little groups of kids who were fighting with one another over different ethnicities, religions, one neighborhood against the other. However, in some neighborhoods, organized crime was very strong, and the kids moved into the Italian neighborhoods and moved into organized crime. In other neighborhoods, for instance, in the Irish neighborhoods, the political machine was very strong; So, the kids were pulled into elections and pulled into making sure that the Irish candidates won. But often the mistake is from legal authorities, “Oh my gosh, we have a crime problem here.” And the police are the answer to that, which typically makes things worse. They need to be more discerning of which groups to look at and which ones to just try to figure out how to divert into something else.
So, my impression from your point is that the authorities need to treat them on a case by case basis.
They need to make a concrete investigation. So often there are gangs, and some of them are criminals, and then, they're all looked at as criminals. The really good police officers, the people who are there on the streets, they know the difference between the kids who are screwing up, doing things that are sort of rebellious, or whatever, and those that are serious about illegal business. So, in a way, it's good intelligence, but it means that the police have to make sure they're being surgical in their operations and not painting with a really broad brush, taking up everybody that's involved with rebellious activities and treating them as criminals.
So, can we assume that some deeper underlying troubles might steer such gangs towards criminal activities?
Somewhat. An organized crime is a function of the lack of opportunity in areas where job opportunities aren't there, where there's not another legitimate outlet for kids. If you don't see a future, you turn to crime. The best example is today in Chicago on the south and west sides in the black communities where you have no hope at all. There's an official 50% unemployment rate among the youth in the black community in Chicago. So, why would you not expect people to look to try to make some money in petty crime?
So, on the one hand, you have to deal with the lack of opportunities. On the other hand, organized crime is not just about a lack of opportunities. It's an institution. There's an international criminal economy, there's the trafficking of drugs worldwide, and there are people that are very serious. In the case of the cartels in Chicago, who are bringing the drugs in, there's not a lack of opportunity. These are millionaires that are doing this stuff. This is a very big-time business.
So, again, what you're asking for with law enforcement is to use their heads, to try to make distinctions. Instead, where there aren’t job opportunities, we should pressure the government to provide them. There are things where there needs to be policies and need to be tailored to the situation.
One of the lessons of Chicago is that organized crime is a constant. It's been there and it's been allied with the political machine. It can stay so strong only with support. It doesn't flourish without corruption. In Chicago, we've had organized crime since the 19th century. It's changing, but it's an ongoing institution. And kids are attracted to the power and the money that goes along with it.
What should be done in regards to the very young people who join gangs and perhaps commit criminal activities? Do you see a rising trend in such cases?
I don't know if it's a trend. When you go back a hundred years in Chicago, you see pre-adolescents who are involved with gangs. So, I think it's more of a constant that very young people are attracted to wild groups, gangs, etc. It's the same issue that we've been talking about. You got to treat a nine-year-old differently than an 18-year-old. For a nine-year-old, providing jobs isn’t the answer. My friends on the west side of Chicago, where the rates of violence are the highest in the city, keep saying, “There are no centers. There are no places for these kids to go to that will keep them out of trouble and out of wild streets.” When you're dealing with these really young kids, you have to recognize that they have some different needs. You can't treat the gang as one thing when they have 18-year-olds and nine-year-olds. You need an approach for those very young kids.
One of the things in Chicago and the United States that I've been involved with was testifying at trials or re-sentencing of kids in the 90s who had killed more than one person. The Supreme Court has said that they have to be re-sentenced because you can't automatically sentence them to life without parole. You would be amazed by the changes that prison makes in these young people. There was a time when they were 13, and they killed two people. Now, 20–30 years later, their lives have changed because when they were 13 years old, they were completely different human beings. You got to look at these young kids and realize that they have all sorts of potential and that even if they do terrible things, this is just part of being really young and doing stupid stuff. It doesn't mean they're a career criminal at age nine. You can't treat them that way.
What can the media do to alleviate and perhaps help solve the problem?
That’s a great question. Yes, the media is so much of the problem. It sensationalizes crimes and violence and demonizes the gangs. It paints the gangs as being made up of young kids that are evil. It is just as important for the media to make distinctions as it is for the police. It's really important for the media to not paint with this broad brush and not to demonize these young kids. Saying that gangs are made up of different kinds of kids is hard for the media to do because they want to have one simple idea for everybody to get. But your job, the job of people that are a little bit more enlightened, is to insist that the media make distinctions and not sensationalize and demonize which only makes the problem worse.
And, do you have any final points you’d like to share with our audience?
Best wishes to the people of Iran. I was thinking about it today. In this country, Iran is demonized like gangs are. I'm very happy to have a chance to speak directly to the people of Iran.