The horrific killing of 7-year old Heaven Sutton dominated the June 27 Chicago news, an inauspicious backdrop for my visit that day to a museum exhibit about the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL)—a West Side Chicago gang that went ‘legitimate’ in the 1960s. Today’s crime statistics demand that only shootings involving extraordinary circumstances warrant significant attention from the mainstream media. In the Heaven Sutton case, these heart-wrenching details include the victim’s young age and that she was a victim of cross-fire while selling candy with her family—just after having her hair styled in anticipation of an upcoming trip to Disney World. There have been over 200 Chicago homicides thus far this year. During the 2011-2012 school year, 24 Chicago Public School children were killed, and an additional 319 were wounded by gunfire. Whether media coverage of shootings consists of short blurbs in the metro section or a Pulitzer-worthy serial expose, one theme remains: the vast majority of shootings are flatly depicted as “gang-related.” This persistent motif trains us to understand loose associations of urban youth (“gangs”) as the inevitable cause of violence and disruption, a convenient—even if unthinking—way to avoid many of the structural social and economic foundations of inner-city violence.
Continual “gang violence” also makes it difficult to remember a time when some street gangs shifted from illicit activities and violence to community service and legitimate political activity. History shows that gangs often embodied complex notions of resistance, consciousness-building, empowerment, and community. At times, dominant political and economic forces have even enlisted gangs in collaborative social welfare efforts. Certainly the actions of Heaven Sutton’s killers fall far from such aspects of gangs. And it could be argued that the positive potential of street gangs happened in a historical moment, long since occluded by the national cocaine and heroin epidemic and the precipitous decline of Federal and municipal funding for urban social programs. Regardless, “Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords,” an offsite exhibit curated by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, looks back to the 1960s when the urban crisis called for innovative partnerships between legitimate institutions and some of the gangs once assumed to be among the root causes of that very crisis. This timely exhibit questions the absolute ties between street gangs and destructive violence, suggesting that groups of frustrated young people are not destined to wreak the community havoc so prevalent on the evening news. Continue reading ““Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords” [Exhibit Review]”