Distributed gangbanging pt. 2 | Bleader

Friday, April 25, 2008

Distributed gangbanging pt. 2

Posted By on 04.25.08 at 11:25 AM

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Mary Schmich has a good column today on the spring rash of homicides in the city. She talked to DePaul sociologist Greg Scott, whose observations track with what I've been reading and hearing for awhile--the CPD and the feds have done an admirable job breaking up Chicago gangs. "Chicago's gangs are no longer the big, centralized regimes of legend, Scott said. The problem now is thousands of small drug crews, loosely bound by the same name, like franchises; most members barely make minimum wage." In other words, the head is gone, but the tail still wags--the drug trade is more distributed and less hierarchical than it used to be.

And, perhaps counter-intuitively, it's a big problem, but a totally different one. Drug gangs are businesses--malevolent, illegal businesses, but businesses all the same (The Wire is a pretty good introduction, but if you don't believe fiction, read William Adler's remarkable Land of Opportunity), so they work on somewhat predictable principles and make some attempt to minimize risk. With the organizational structure gone but the market still intact and the low-level, odds-on-less-competent employees rotating on and off the street, there's chaos, the sort of chaos that often follows the demise of organizational hierarchies (cf. Iraq). Not to mention that when the system becomes less organized, the information that police rely on gets scattered; the more random the crime, the more difficult it is to investigate.

In his 2007, National Magazine Award-nominated article "City of Fear," William Langewiesche (a master of reporting on systems) describes how this works in reverse: police, guards, and prison administrators lost all control of a notoriously violent prison gang called the P.C.C., and conditions in Brazilian prisons, in some ways, actually improved--the P.C.C. committed ungodly murders, but they were organized, controlled, and followed from some kind of logical system, after the P.C.C. filled the organizational void that the badly-run Brazilian prison system lacked. Which isn't to say it was a good turn of events; as Langewiesche explains, the city of Sao Paulo is now fearing total societal collapse with the gang flexing its power outside the prison walls. Obviously you can't let violent, illegal gangs run things, but their absence creates a new and difficult set of problems.

In short: there's reason to believe that this spring's crime wave is the result of success, not failure. Which isn't to say that the success was a waste of time or a mistake, just that the next step is going to be complicated and difficult.

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