Late in the morning, money is briskly changing hands in the Dearborn Homes, a dreary complex of faded brick buildings scattered along three blocks of South State Street. In a lobby streaked with graffiti and rank with trash and urine, an orderly line of junkies bends around an L-shaped corridor, awaiting clearance to a dark stairwell and the drug supermarkets on the second and third floors.
Wearied by years of crackling gunfire and the relentless toll of homicide, residents here know this business at their doorstep is deadly--police and even drug dealers say it's responsible for Chicago having the highest number of murders in the nation last year.
Yet people living in the crosshairs of powerful street gangs are helpless to stem the 24-hour flow of customers. Tens of thousands of dollars are made here each day, steady money in a dire and dangerous place.
The same transactions are happening in the fenced-in exterior hallways of the Rockwell Gardens high-rises on the West Side, in what remains of Cabrini-Green in the shadow of the Gold Coast, and on decaying blocks and street corners across Chicago. A $10 bill is palmed; a tiny bag of cocaine or heroin is delivered. Vials of crack are hustled. Plastic bags of marijuana move fast.
While downtown bankers and businesspeople wrestle with multimillion-dollar transactions, this economic engine outside the Loop is efficiently generating untold millions every year--and costing hundreds of people their lives.
With large sums of money in play, guns and violence are natural partners in the business of dealing drugs, putting this underground economy at the heart of Chicago's murder problem.
Cook County Assistant State's Atty. Michael Smith, supervisor of the gang prosecutions unit, says at least 70 percent of the homicides in Chicago can be blamed in one way or another on the drug business.
The vast majority of the city's 115 homicides so far this year have occurred in the poorest neighborhoods, where unemployment rates are highest and drug dealing is the most rampant:
Roderick Young, 21, was killed in a drug-related drive-by shooting Jan. 26 on the West Side; a day later, Quincy Sartin, 19, a member of the New Breed street gang, was shot to death over a drug dispute while driving his car on the South Side; on Wednesday night, Marcus Johnson, 29, was shot 10 times by rival gang members in a dispute over drug turf in the Austin neighborhood.
"In this game, you've got to be strong," said a 28-year-old West Side drug dealer who says he has been shot four times and witnessed the murder of two close friends. "In this game, you can't trust nobody."
Young, Sartin and Johnson were all black, highlighting a disturbing demographic of homicide in Chicago: Nearly 75 percent of male victims from the first half of last year were black, according to the most recent police data available. Police expect that figure will hold once the rest of the year is tabulated.
Part of the reason murders are so prevalent in the black community is that, in many areas of the city, the drug game has become the largest employer of black men.
Over the last three decades, the narcotics business has filled the economic void left by manufacturers who fled the city's industrial corridors on the South and West Sides. Anchored by gangs that control territory, slinging dope has become, for thousands upon thousands of young black men, the only avenue for employment.
"The gangs run the economies in these neighborhoods. They're really the hiring hall, and drugs are the way you make money," said John Hagedorn, a gang expert and associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "It's no wonder there are high rates of violence in Chicago. When you cut people off from jobs, from social networks, that's what's going to happen."
Residents in the gang-infested Dearborn Homes have learned not to stand close to windows for long, for fear of stray bullets.
Dealers past and present say the drug business is strong in many of the Dearborn complex's 16 buildings, with any active building having the potential to generate $20,000 to $30,000 a day in sales. With that kind of money rolling in, violence is ever-present.
Eleven of the 12 buildings on the south side of the complex are controlled by the Mickey Cobras street gang--one remains neutral. The four buildings to the north are on Gangster Disciples turf. The two sections are divided by a large field that would be a perfect place for children to play, were it not for routine gunfire between the two gangs.
The cold winter kept the gangbangers at bay, but residents say shootings and skirmishes have started up again, and it's only a matter of time before another life is lost.
"It's heating up around here," a resident on the Mickey Cobras' side said, looking across at the Gangster Disciples buildings. "Plenty of people are going to die this summer."
Faced with such a numbing reality, outsiders often question why people don't find regular jobs, why they don't just work their way out of the problems that surround them. But sociologists and economists say that the "just get a job" mentality can't be applied to these urban areas where poverty and hopelessness have become common.
Those who choose the criminal life are by no means blameless, a fact gangbangers themselves readily admit. Tio Hardiman, an outreach worker for CeaseFire, an anti-violence organization in Chicago, said certain people embrace the drug game and get hooked on the violence and adrenaline rush.
"Some guys just have murder in them," he said.
But for many, the gangster life is simply a means to an end, something they got caught up in young and never escaped.
In many pockets of the city, children are growing up in impoverished homes set in communities where shops and businesses have been boarded up for years. Jobs are scarce, and those that are available don't pay well.
Drugs, however, are everywhere, and well-to-do dealers serve as models for a successful life. Those dealers are more than happy to throw money at young recruits to get them hooked.
Once they're in, a majority of young men end up arrested for low-level drug felonies, serve a short prison term, then return to the same poor neighborhoods. With a felony conviction, they're confronted with barriers that make finding a job even harder than it was before.
The Urban League of Chicago estimates that nearly half of Chicago's adult black men have felony records, and economists say businesses in the current tight economy can pick and choose whom they hire. Few are going to take an ex-felon over someone with a clean past.
"I can't get a grown man a job at Jewel as a stock boy, or a job at McDonald's," said Patricia Watkins, who runs an outreach and economic development group, Target Area Development Corp., in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood on the South Side. "If they've got a record, all I can do is hold their hand until they commit another crime."
Without question, people of all races deal drugs in Chicago, from whites to the tightly knit Hispanic gangs that now make up a large part of the city's narcotics distribution network.
The majority of the people who buy drugs are white--an Illinois Department of Human Services study last year found that 71 percent of drug users in Illinois were white, 14 percent were black and 7 percent were Hispanic.
But drug dealing has dug its roots deepest into the black community, according to criminologists, sociologists and outreach workers, the result of decades of joblessness and limited prospects.
"Drug dealing in the black community is born out of necessity," Hardiman said. "The whole idea of drug dealing for most is to make money and get yourself out of the projects. It's really the new economy."
Keith Young grew up in the ABLA housing complex on the Near West Side. Unlike many of the young men in the complex, he graduated from high school and had hopes of rising up out of the projects.
But the gangster lifestyle that surrounded him grabbed hold, according to a cousin. Young became a New Breed, started dealing drugs and fell in with the day-to-day hustle that consumed most of his friends.
He tried to escape the life a few times. The cousin recalls a six-month stretch a few years back when Young worked at a fast-food restaurant pulling down minimum wage. But the money wasn't enough to support him, his girlfriend and his daughter and son.
He couldn't find a second job, the cousin said, so Young went back to what he knew--slinging drugs.
On March 31, 2002, Young got into an argument with another man who claimed Young was encroaching on his drug turf. Prosecutors said that man returned to the lobby of the ABLA building where Young, 30, was dealing and shot him several times, killing him.
"He tried," the cousin said. "If he could've found a decent job, he wouldn't have been there at those hours. He might have made it."
Lavon Scott, 24, has known the same life as Young, and he says he's surprised he managed to live into his 20s. Scott grew up in a poor, single-parent home on the West Side. His mother worked long hours to provide for her family, and his father was never around.
His uncles were heavy in the drug game, always coming around the house and giving him and his family clothes, toys, a little money here and there. It seemed everyone he knew who had anything was dealing drugs.
"After a while, I wanted to be just like them," Scott says of his uncles. "When I was 11, I told them this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to make my own money. I wanted to provide for my family."
So they started letting him deal a little on the street corners, and before long he was pulling in decent cash, always managing to dodge the police. The uncles started calling him "a top-of-the-line hustler," and kids and adults in the neighborhood looked up to him.
"I started thinking I was doing something really good," he said.
At 15, Scott branched out on his own, hooked up with the Four Corner Hustlers street gang and formed his own crew. He was ambitious and followed what the gang higher-ups did, learned the trade and made it pay. It reached a point where his crew was pulling down $7,000 to $10,000 a day, he said, and his cut would average about $2,000.
"We sold marijuana, rock, heroin, it was like a one-stop shop," Scott said.
Still not old enough to drive, he owned several cars, nice clothes, stereos. He could help his family with bills and even stashed money away for the attorney's fees and jail bonds that would inevitably be needed.
And, of course, he carried a gun to help stake his claim in the underground economy. He was shot at, and, as he wrote in an essay from jail, "the feel of my wrath was deadly."
"Once you're in the drug business and you do well, you become a ghetto superstar," he said. "You have no choice but to carry a gun. It's a dirty game."
After a short jail stint following a 1997 drug charge, he got out and tried to go straight. But the few jobs within his reach--working as a janitor or flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant--paid so little that the risk of dealing seemed worth taking.
It caught up to him again, and he has been in prison since catching another drug charge in 1999. He'll be released this May, and is now in a transitional work center, determined this time to stay straight.
But for Scott, and for the nearly 18,000 inmates released into Chicago last year, the odds are not good.
On these streets, in the lobbies and hallways of public housing, the war on drugs appears to have been lost long ago.
Leo Hennings, 36, a former dealer who now battles his own addiction while trying to find work, lives with his girlfriend in a Chicago housing project. The easy access to narcotics haunts him as he tries to stay clean, forcing him inside and, above all, away from the grimy lobby where dealers are open for business around the clock.
"If you walk out the door, somebody's selling it," Hennings said. "The stuff is everywhere. You walk in the lobby and buy anything you want. Five out of 10 people are carrying."
A cocaine and heroin dealer who runs a West Side block says he pulls in an average of $6,500 a day. Like several other current and former dealers, he says most of his customers are white. The active business keeps him, the six people who actually sell the drugs and his two gun-toting security men on their toes.
Riding around his neighborhood, he points to street corner after street corner repeating the same phrase: "That's a dope spot. That's a dope spot. That's a dope spot."
"This just goes on and on," the dealer said. "It never stops."
Police officials know they face an uphill battle. But several recent initiatives have given the department a new sense of confidence.
Street-corner surveillance cameras have helped reclaim once-violent intersections, and an array of drug stings have led to hundreds of arrests. Dealers and gang members admit the heat is on more than it has ever been, putting a dent in business.
"It's not a secret as far as what the drug dealers can expect," said John Risley, police deputy chief of narcotics and gang investigations. "We're trying to let them know we're coming after them. We're coming after them full force."
And Risley--citing the direct link between gangs, drugs and murders--believes these efforts against the drug business are part of why the city's homicides are down from this time last year.
Timuel Black Jr., an author on the city's black history and professor emeritus of social sciences at the City Colleges of Chicago, said police are up against entrenched problems that can be traced back to the second great migration of blacks from the South to Chicago in the wake of World War II.
The migration happened as machines began to take the place of laborers in the cotton and tobacco fields of the South. Chicago, with its stockyards and booming steel industry, was a land of opportunity, leading many former agricultural workers to make the trek north.
From 1940 to 1950, the number of black residents in Chicago increased from 275,000 to more than 500,000, and by 1960 that number had reached about 1 million.
During the first great migration in the early 1900s, Black said, Chicago had a small black population that welcomed others from the South and taught them about city life, encouraging them to keep their families small and get an education.
When the second migration began, however, the city's established black population tended to shun the newcomers, viewing them as hicks and hayseeds.
"The new population from the second migration didn't have a welcoming structure in Chicago to guide them when they arrived," Black said. "They tended to have more kids, since they were from agricultural families where that was appropriate, and there wasn't as much of an emphasis on education."
At the time, an education wasn't necessary. The city was rich in manufacturing jobs, and just about any able-bodied worker could find reasonable employment and a way into the working middle class.
But in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, the stockyards began to close and jobs became less plentiful. The city's manufacturing base would suffer two more decades of steady decline.
Dan Swinney, executive director of the Center for Labor & Community Research, said the bottom dropped out in the 1980s, when companies like U.S. Steel, Wisconsin Steel and Sunbeam shut down. For the decade, 150,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, high-paying jobs that employed people with minimal education.
An additional 50,000 manufacturing jobs left Chicago in the 1990s, Swinney said, leaving only service-oriented jobs that generally paid about one-third of a factory worker's salary.
Black said the underground economy began to rise up around 1965, as people with limited education and few options began creating ways to get by.
"People came to believe that their only way to move up was to deal in illegal activities," Black said. "The hopes and dreams and opportunities that existed for many of the second migration had perished."
Swinney described the slow march from traditional jobs to the drug trade pragmatically: "It's a question of market substitution. People aren't going to starve."
By the 1980s a new government policy took effect that made the already growing problems in Chicago's poor black neighborhoods worse. It was called the "War on Drugs," a movement launched by the Reagan administration in response to the sudden explosion of crack cocaine.
The intent was to rid urban streets of narcotics. Instead, in Chicago and cities across the country, the program led to the mass incarceration of black men, most of whom served time, then returned to their neighborhoods with a criminal record, giving them even less of a chance than they had before of finding legitimate work.
In 1970 the total population of Illinois prisons was 7,326. As of Thursday, the population was 43,945, a sixfold increase that experts say is the direct result of the increased drug convictions that began in the 1980s.
Of the nearly 10,000 people convicted of drug offenses who left prison in 1999, nearly half were back in prison within three years, according to an Illinois Department of Corrections report.
Black said this hopeless cycle of drug dealing and incarceration has allowed homicide to become just another part of doing business.
"They see this as the only way they can survive," he said of the violent drug business. "It's local warfare. For these young men, the story's over. Where can they go? They have one skill that they know, and that is the use of a weapon."
Jimmie Nance is a 30-year-old ex-felon who has spent half his life selling drugs and running with the Four Corner Hustlers. He grew up on the West Side with a mother who was an alcoholic and no father, immersed in a world where the only successful people were drug dealers.
He has been shot five times, has three cousins who are in jail, an uncle who's a dope fiend and more friends than he can name who are either dead or incarcerated.
Nance says he's been out of the drug business for a couple of years now, living off the generosity of family and friends in Rockwell Gardens. Determined to stay straight and be there for his six young children, Nance has tried to find a job, but with nearly 10 interviews in the last year, there have been no callbacks. Some potential employers have told him flat-out they won't hire ex-cons.
He doesn't apologize for the lifestyle he has led but struggles daily with a conscience that knows the drug business is an evil game.
"You can just sit down and think about it real hard sometimes and just cry because you know what you're doing is wrong," Nance said. "But then, you're just trying to feed your family. If I ever have to do what I have to do, I'll be back out there."
To help people like Nance, state and Cook County lawmakers are working to make changes that would knock down some of the barriers ex-offenders face when they return from prison.
Cook County Commissioner Bobbie Steele has worked with more than a dozen other commissioners to form a job-training program for ex-offenders who have served time for non-violent felonies like drug possession. The program would provide those who qualify with a yearlong internship doing work for the county or for vendors who do business with the county. They would be guaranteed at least minimum wage for one year and, once that year is up, would be eligible for a certificate of good conduct and an opportunity to keep the job.
"I would describe it as the first step toward restoring people and communities," Steele said. "These are people who have completed their time in prison but still have not been set free from their conviction. Their conviction serves as a barrier hindering them from successfully re-entering society. They can't get jobs, they can't provide for their families, they can't get housing. In a sense, their sentence has become a life sentence, even though they've served their time."
Aside from many companies' unwillingness to hire ex-offenders, bureaucratic barriers are also in place. According to B. Diane Williams, head of the Safer Foundation, a group that helps ex-offenders find employment, there are nearly 60 state-licensed occupations for which people with felony convictions can be restricted from getting licenses. These jobs include barbering, embalming, dead-animal disposal and roofing.
Williams said the importance of opening up jobs to ex-offenders can't be overstated. Her foundation estimates it costs more than $20,000 a year to incarcerate one person in Illinois, and that doesn't take into account any of the costs of a criminal investigation, apprehension, pretrial detention and prosecution.
The Safer Foundation, which helps between 5,000 and 6,000 ex-offenders a year find jobs, has shown that the rate of recidivism for those who are employed for at least 30 days drops from nearly 50 percent to 16 percent.
"To me, the proof is in the pudding," Williams said. "Work works."
While programs like the Safer Foundation and transitional work centers operated by the Department of Corrections make an impact, they serve only a tiny number of the thousands of prisoners being released each year.
"I think the vast majority of people being released, if there weren't so many barriers in front of them, they would probably choose a different lifestyle," said Jerry Butler, vice president of community corrections at Safer Foundation and a retired 31-year veteran of the Department of Corrections. "But if they have no support network and no guidance, they revert back to what they know. I believe that's human nature."
Scott, the 24-year-old who is wrapping up his sentence in a transitional work center in North Lawndale, has seen how much a little support can help.
In his time at the work center, Scott has held temp jobs at a department store and a steel company. He's now pulling minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant and knows he stands a real chance of continuing to work once he's released.
The pay may not compare with what he used to make, but the lifestyle is less stressful--and significantly safer.
"The game is hard," Scott said. "I've seen my best friends get killed, shot standing right next to me."
But he's quick to note that before he got involved with the work program, he spent his time in prison daydreaming about returning to the streets, scheming to stack thousands in drug money and live the only life he knew.
"If I'd never come through this place, I would've been right back in it when I got out of here," Scott said. "Before this, that's all I'd think about. Get rich or die trying."
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