Dead-End Kids, Chicago

Sometimes the kids get to you. I was riding with the Cook County Sheriff’s anti-gang unit sometime back. We were driving through the hopeless fourth-generation welfare towns that surround Chicago – Markham, Robbins, Ford Heights, what have you.

These drab little burgs are almost entirely black, heavily dependent on public assistance of one sort or another. The schools are lousy. Nobody is much interested in school anyway. Jobs are scarce, and people are scarcely interested. The main commerce is in drugs.

That night our idea was to put pressure on the drug trade and maybe reduce it a bit. Drugs are dominated by gangs. While chasing them doesn’t stop the flow of drugs – nothing does that – it makes it harder for them completely to dominate and terrorize the towns.

For the most part we were catching buyers. These were generally blue-collar whites buying small rocks.

The technique was to have a cop hide and watch the projects where the dealing occurred. We accomplished this from a junkyard across the streets from the “jets,” as cops called the projects. The owner didn’t want the drug trade near his business and let us peek through a hole in the high board fence that surrounded the junkyard. Across the road a car would pull in, the cop would see something change hands and radio the rest of the unit. When the suspect was some distance from the project, so as not to alert the dealers that they were being watched, the officers would pull the car over and make the arrest.

After a while, we decided to try to catch the dealers.

This is harder. They may not know where they are being watched from, but they know they are somehow under surveillance. To ameliorate this problem, they have the customers drive into the project so as to conceal the exchange. The dealers never have drugs on their persons. Instead they send a small kid, too young to be prosecuted, to get the stuff when a buyer drives up. This makes it almost impossible to catch the actual dealers.

We gave it a try anyway, rolling suddenly in between the buildings where the recon guy had seen sales. The apartments were low, two stories usually, and not really bad housing, if kept up. Most public housing is decent enough, if not destroyed by the occupants,

The cops checked out the dealers who we had seen going up to cars. Nothing. That was to be expected. Occasionally you get lucky.

The place was swarming with small kids. They were colorfully dressed, didn’t look particularly poor, and ran around all over the place the way kids do. They stared at us as if we were space men. The adults obviously didn’t like us. The kids thought we were fascinating.

Not yet having imbibed their parents’ hostility toward authority, and particularly white embodiments of authority, they asked the usual kid questions. “You ever shoot a robber?” And so on. They were nice tykes, curious about things, not intimidated.

While the gangbangers stood around watching—they knew the police couldn’t do anything to them at this point—the cops checked out likely hiding spots for drugs: under rocks, in grass by fences, on brick ledges. Nothing.

It was strange to see the contrast between the eagerness of the kids to meet a real po-leese man and the contempt of the gang members, the blank-eyed stares they affect. It wasn’t pleasant to know that in a decade the wide-eyed tykes would be the drug dealers. Kids look up to their big brothers, however unwisely, and want to imitate them. The dealers would let the junior crew work first as lookouts, or let them go get drugs from stashes. Step by step they would be swallowed by the drug trade. The girls would end up pregnant and on welfare. This is the pattern. And there is nothing in these sad towns to prevent it. Ten years, twenty years from now the same cycle will play itself out, again and again, unless something happens that no one can imagine.

We left, the adults staring at us with no affection.

The unit had caught a half dozen buyers, who might or might not do jail time, which in all likelihood would accomplish nothing for them or society. The dealers would continue dealing. In one of these towns, on another trip, I saw a guy dealing whom I’d watched being arrested the day before. He bonded out and went back to work. A couple of the children waved at us as we drove away. In a couple of years they would stop doing that.

The question is what to do about it. Cops know as well as I do that all we are doing is keeping a problem under a degree of control. We aren’t solving it. Cops don’t like to see kids on the assembly line that creates criminals, but they can’t fix things.

Another day at the office.

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