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What does it mean to be a 'documented gang member?'

Opinion

August 12th, 2014 12:59 PM

Samuel Walker Sr. and his son, Samuel Jr., were shot to death within a week of each other on the West Side last month. (File)

By Marshall Hatch Jr.

As senseless shootings and killings continue to plague the city of Chicago this summer, the police and others continue to "tag" many of the African-American male victims as "documented" or "known" gang members. The most recent example of this is the slaying of 12-year-old Samuel Walker, who was gunned down last month on the West Side near Lexington and California. 

Walker's aunt, Maribell Ruiz, says he was coming from school and probably went to get some chips, like he normally does, and got caught in the crossfire. Six other young males were injured in the shooting as a car reportedly drove by and opened fire. Walker was the only fatality. 

The Chicago Police Department insists that Walker was a "documented gang member." But Ruiz and other local community residents said this was not the case. 

Less than a week after Walker Jr.'s murder, the victim's father, Samuel Walker Sr., was fatally shot at 9 in the morning by a lone gunman near Division and Keeler. 

Walker Sr. had just finished getting a haircut and was on his way to buy cigarettes from a local store when a gunman approached and chased him up Keeler. A Humboldt Park neighborhood resident witnessed the chase, and after hearing the fatal shots lamented, "That's a cold motherf - - - - - who wants to shoot a motherf- - - - - in the morning." 

Like the victim's son, police concluded that the homicide was the result of gang-affiliation. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Walker Sr.'s family and friends give "conflicting accounts" about his gang member status. Some say he was gang-affiliated while others contend he was not. Despite this, all agree that Walker Sr. was a "good person" who "looked out" for folks in the neighborhood.

What a tragedy for a father and son to have nearly the same fate in the span of six days. Even more tragic is that the remaining family members feel the need to protect their loved ones from being branded as gang-members even in their death. 

What does it actually mean to be a documented gang member? Is there an extensive city-wide database that shows a list of all "known gang members?" If so, how is this list calibrated? 

Are police surveying community residents, or sifting through arrest records to determine the gang status of an individual? If one is documented as a gang member —and it is actually true, but the individual has since renounced that gang affiliation — then are they removed from such a list, if it exists? And how do the police define "gang?" 

In Walker Jr.'s case, the police did not cite an arrest record or anything of the sort. They simply said he was a documented gang member without sharing the source of such information. The aforementioned questions are important ones because the term gang seems to be used loosely to explain away the madness in our streets. 

It's as if the police stop investigating a homicide once they conclude the perpetrator or victim was in a gang. It is also as if city leadership uses the city's "gang problem" as a pretext to only direct policy toward gangs, and not neighborhood investment, poverty, subpar public schools, and high unemployment. 

These questions are also important for young victims like Walker Jr. 

As soon as he's deemed a gang member, the sympathy that's otherwise evoked by the tragedy of his life is then stripped away. In public discourse, and in the shaping of our public imagination, gang members are equated with "terrorists" worthy of death. Young Samuel is not here to say whether he was, in fact, in a gang, but we have to ask ourselves: does it truly matter if he was? Are so-called documented gang members beyond healing and saving? All individuals have a right to the "tree of life," especially our youth who have the greatest potential to change.

There have been countless talks and meetings about how to stem Chicago's gun violence, but very few actually incorporate the perspectives of our youth. Very few actually tap the strong voices of young people who have been directly traumatized by these acts of violence. When will we hear them? 

We most certainly can't hear them if we continue to demonize their already marginalized status. We can't hear them if our city leadership and police over-generalize them as documented gang members, and if we only see them as the face of the problem and not the solution. And we won't hear them unless we start listening. Until we see all God's children, even the documented gang members, as beloved sons and daughters, no effective solution to address the issue of gun violence will surface.

Marshall Hatch Jr. is a divinity student at the University of Chicago