CHICAGO – Don didn’t hesitate to give an honest answer when I asked him how he makes his money.
“I rob, I sell drugs,” he said. He wore the long, tight braids you see on NFL players, a flat-brimmed ball cap and hooded sweatshirt with an airbrush logo of a name he uses for his rap music act.
Don fit a pretty typical mold of a kid who turns to the gangster lifestyle. His father was not around and his mother had more children than she could afford. He started hanging out with gangs when he was about 9 years old. Referring to members of his section of the violent Vice Lords gang, he uses the word “family.”
Don’s specialty is robbing people.
While planning a robbery earlier this year, he sought the help of a childhood friend and fellow vice lord who goes by the name Red. “He told me about this hit he was going to do,” Red said, “I went and told one crew that he was plotting on.”
That’s all it takes to earn the death penalty on Chicago’s violent West Side. Word got back to Don that Red had leaked information about the robbery. “I was going to shoot my…you could say my ex-friend,” Don said.
Red then heard through the grapevine that Don was coming for him. “Judging on the man I know he is, you feel me, he stays strapped,” Red said, meaning Don carries a gun. “So, from my perspective, kill or be killed. Kill or get killed.”
The seeds were planted for another gun battle on the blood-soaked pavement of the West Side. It is all part of the messy world in which members of the same gang often fire at each other. The shooters have no firearms training or the discipline to aim well. Innocents are frequently caught by stray rounds.
Tio Hardiman and his small group that he calls violence interrupters heard about the feud and got themselves involved. Hardiman says he has a proven technique for de-escalating feuds. Essentially, he isolates the feuding parties and talks them down.
With the mediation, Don and Red listened. They didn’t agree to put down their guns but did agree not to shoot each other.
“We ended up cool, but it’s not tight, you feel me,” says Red. “I don’t trust him. He probably don’t trust me. It is what it is.”
Last year was Chicago’s bloodiest in decades. Seven hundred sixty six people were killed by gunfire, most of it gang related. The city is on pace to rival last year’s death toll. In fact, February showed a slight uptick in the number of shootings from 2016.
President Donald Trump frequently talks about sending in the feds or federal resources to battle violent crime in Chicago.
“Once we give local police, local law enforcement the right to go in and fight it and we back them monetarily and also otherwise, we’re gonna win that one. We’re gonna win it fairly quickly,” Trump said on Monday.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded that Trump should pay up or shut up.
“The better question I’d suggest is,” Emanuel said, “whether the president cares enough about violence in our city to do more than talk or tweet about it.”
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has been calling for tougher sentencing for gun crimes. The Rev. Jesse Jackson has called for a national summit to discuss urban violence.
These are all macro-solutions. Hardiman has come up with another way to end the violence.
Hardiman works in troubled neighborhoods gaining the trust of the gangsters. He said that so far this year, his violence interrupters have talked guys out of 15 murder plots.
“If you interview somebody and they cannot tell you the last time they stopped a killing or stopped a potential shooting, they need to shut up!” Hardiman said emphatically. “Because the only way you’re going to get out here and make something happen, you have to hit the concrete jungle.”
The blessing and the curse of violence interrupters is that they are street guys. Many of them are former gang members and convicts. They carry their habits with them. They’ve been accused of dealing drugs and withholding information from police.
The tricky part, however, is that if they are not street guys, young gangsters wouldn’t give them the time of day.
“I only listen to people that I know from the hood that I grew up on. I don’t trust no new n----,” Red said.
But many police officers don’t like interrupters and politicians seem to be scared of them. With a state and city strapped for cash, the group’s government funding disappeared. Hardiman once had 55 workers operating under the name Cease-Fire Illinois. Now he is down to six violence interrupters trying to predict and prevent what the president has called carnage in Chicago.
“I would like Donald Trump to understand, we have organizations like violence interrupters in Chicago. I’m not out here trying to get rich off nobody,” Hardiman said.
Chicago police say most of the gunfire in the city can be traced back to 1,600 guys living a violent lifestyle. Don is one of them. With no high school degree and no hope of a prosperous future that doesn’t involve violence and crime; he has no plan to change.
“I got to do,” he said, “what I got to do to survive.”