|They were gang members, yes. But they were also our children.|
We meet every Monday night. Fifteen guys or so, most in their teens or early 20s, in a circle of mismatched chairs. We read and discuss, we ask questions and reflect. Then we eat pizza. We’ve been at it for two and a half years.
Several of the guys who come on Mondays were students of mine back when they were in grammar school. Now, many of them are dropouts. Most are gang members. Some are on probation or recently released from prison. Whatever their stories, they show up on Mondays to meet with Father Bruce Wellems, the South Side Chicago priest who initiated these sessions, and a few other interested adults.
Benji, who rarely misses a meeting, was a floppy-haired 6th grader the first year I taught in the neighborhood. Back then, he read books about Houdini and wanted to be a magician. At 20, his head is shaved close, and he talks about one day becoming a cop. And a good cop, too, he’s quick to point out. Not like the ones he knows.
Our topic on this night is justice, and Benji kicks off the discussion. “The cops around here take advantage of their badge,” he says. “They push people around. They look at us and they think, You’re a gangbanger. You ain’t got no goals. You ain’t gonna be nobody in life. You belong in jail. So they try to lock us up for any kinda reason.” Around the circle, heads nod in agreement. The fellas understand. And from the outside looking in, so do I. But I didn’t always.
When I began teaching in Chicago’s public schools in 1990, my view of gangs was pretty simple. I saw it as me against them. I believed I was in direct competition with street gangs for the minds and souls of the children I taught. It was, to me, a classic scenario of good guys vs. bad, and there was no middle ground.
It was a couple veteran teachers who showed me what I was missing with this hard-line attitude. I was failing to distinguish between the institution of gangs and the kids who found protection, respect, and even love within their ranks.
So I began to look more deeply. Slowly, my guard came down. The better I got to know my gang- affiliated students—reading their essays, talking with them during lunch, playing basketball together—the less I saw them as some amorphous group called “gangbangers” and the more I saw them as individuals. Tavares and Robert. Jason and Khanden. LeSean and Tim.
These were the same kids who’d proudly counted off the hundredth day of school as kindergarteners; who’d sung corny songs in 3rd grade assemblies; who’d constructed homemade electric circuits for their 6th grade science fair project. They were gang members, yes. But they were also our children.
Of course, it’s hard to see gang kids as our children—or as anybody’s children, really—when they’re portrayed as violent thugs or “superpredators.” In the media, the gang label has become a sort of shorthand, a quick and easy answer for what’s gone wrong in urban neighborhoods— even in the country as a whole. Gangs are cited as the explanation for everything from drug use to gun violence, from crime rates to dropout rates, from the crumbling of communities to the unraveling of the national fabric.
But as I’ve observed my students over the years, I’ve come to see gangs more as effect than cause. Kids like Benji look around their communities and see shuttered factories, abandoned storefronts, jobless men standing on street corners. Crossing neighborhood boundaries means getting hard looks— or, in some cases, much worse—so their world becomes smaller, their dreams confined to the space of eight square blocks.
At school, they feel disconnected from the curriculum and are often labeled as behavior problems or tracked into low-end classes. And even if they tough it out, even if they defy the words of the counselor who says they don’t have what it takes to graduate, they understand only too well that a high school diploma doesn’t mean what it once did. So when guys like Benji finally do join a gang, it’s not always so much a choice as a surrender— an acknowledgment that, in their eyes, there are no better choices left.
Back at our Monday night session, the guys continue to recount stories of mistreatment at the hands of Chicago police. They tell of having their faces shoved into snowbanks, flashlights shined down their underwear, their front doors broken down, their cars taken for joyrides— their rights violated in every way imaginable.
“But what does that gotta do with justice, though?” asks James, who is 21.
“That’s injustice, dumb ass!” one of the fellas shoots back.
“So what is justice?” Father Bruce asks, trying to steer a more productive course.
“There ain’t no justice!” several of the guys answer, almost in chorus. I listen, trying to fight the despair I sometimes feel creeping in. Or maybe I’m just frustrated at not knowing how to respond.
“There’s so much injustice in the world that it’s hard to notice any justice,” James says. “You live all your life not knowing justice, so you get used to not having any at all.” Father Bruce reminds James that after a recent shooting in the neighborhood, James went after the perpetrators in his car. “You went looking for justice,” Bruce tells him.
“Yeah,” says James, “because if I can’t get it from the police, I’m gonna get my own justice, y’know? And even if it means doing something bad—there’s some kind of justice in there somewhere.” The look on James’ face says he wants desperately to believe this. Still, he seems to sense that this notion of justice as revenge isn’t wholly satisfying.
We talk some more, trying to arrive at some sort of consensus, but we never get there.
‘People talk about ‘liberty and justice for all,’ concludes James, ‘but it’s not really like that no more.’
What becomes clear is that the guys don’t really think about justice in philosophical or abstract terms. For them, it’s about the concrete, the lived experience, the day-to-day. And while they clearly understand the principle of leveling the scales, of making things right, they mistrust the system that’s supposed to make it happen. “People talk about liberty and justice for all,” concludes James, “but it’s not really like that no more.”
A few minutes later, the fellas bow their heads, and Father Bruce leads the group in prayer. As the guys call out the names of friends or family members who are locked up, I look around the circle and ask myself a question I’ve asked many times before: Why do they come each week? The free pizza doesn’t hurt, but it can’t be just that. What is it that keeps them coming back?
I think the guys are searching for something. They sense that a lot has gone wrong in their lives, and they admit that they’ve made some poor choices, that they’ve caused pain to themselves and others. But they also know a lot of their suffering is not of their own doing. So the question becomes one of how to right the wrongs.
For Benji, James, and the rest of the fellas, part of the answer seems to be that they show up on Mondays. They try to face their anger and talk about their struggles and their fears. It’s a small action, maybe, and in the big picture it may not seem like much. But they’re doing something—in this case, something good. And I agree with James. There’s some kind of justice in there somewhere.