CI: Unpacking “Chiraq” – Repression, RICO, and War on Terror Tactics

June 19, 2013 at 6:54 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex, White Privilege

Print Friendly

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

Unpacking “Chiraq”: Repression, RICO, and War on Terror Tactics
by nancy a heitzeg

Editors Note: Wrote this one for my people at Prison Culture and Project NIA. Located in Chicago, a city increasingly labeled –  by both friend and foe – as “Chiraq”. This piece is a follow-up to Unpacking ‘Chiraq’ #1: Chief Keef, Badges of Honor, and Capitalism – please read it. It is brilliant analysis of how “Chiraq” is claimed in “elegies of survival” by those who live through it everyday. “Chiraq” is normalizing while pathologizing, glorifying while vilifying, the total link between domestic/foreign “enemies”.  Today we explore the latter…

What does it mean to call a city a War Zone? To write entire Black and Brown neighborhoods – and all their inhabitants – out of the United States of America and into a script that so effectively “others” them that they are now a foreign enemy state? What does it mean for public perception? What does it mean for police state response?

While the term “Chiraq” may have one set of meanings for those who survive Chicago’s high gun violence rate (see Unpacking ‘Chiraq’ #1: Chief Keef, Badges of Honor, and Capitalism), it serves to legitimate, without question, already solidified stereotypes of youth of color. “Chiraq” also links, per usual this violence to gangs. “Chiraq” implies that the already draconian domestic police approach to gangs is insufficient, and that a military response is now needed.

What other message could one take from the recent edition of HBO’s Vice Episode #9 Chiraq ? Where segments of a major US city are described like this — “The South Side of Chicago is basically a failed state within the borders of the U.S.”? Where viewers are blithely taken from Chicago’s Southside to then “hunting oil pirates in Nigeria”?

The lethal combination of gangs and guns has turned Chicago into a war zone. To see why the Windy City, now dubbed “Chiraq,” had the country’s highest homicide rate in 2012, VICE visits Chicago’s most dangerous areas, where handguns are plentiful and the police and community leaders are fighting a losing battle against gang violence. In the neighborhood of Englewood, we patrol with police, visit with religious leaders, and hang out with members of gangs – soldiers in a turf war that has spread into new communities as projects are destroyed and residents are forced to move elsewhere.

“Chiraq” means War. Literally.

“Chiraq” and The Racialized War on Gangs

Almost without question, the violence in Chicago is attributed to “gangs” who are portrayed as in perpetual “war” over turf and the drug trade. The War on Drugs has also been a War on Gangs. Gangs have always always always been understood to be racial /ethnic minorities and/or immigrants. Increasingly there is fear of “transnational gangs”. From the earliest literature on Italian and Irish street gangs to more recent fears of Black Latino and Asian gangs,  “gang” has been one of those ostensibly “race-neutral” markers for race and a major feature in the on-going efforts to link race and “crime”.

chi-298x146In the midst of the War on Drugs and media fixations on youthful violence, nearly all states began to specify offenses related to gang activity. 46 states and the District of Columbia (DC) have enacted some form of legislation relating to gangs. 36 states and DC have legislation that defines “gang.”  Most states and cities that have gang-legislation use a penalty-enhancement approach, meaning that the offense is defined as legally more serious and subject to harsher sentences if it is deemed to be committed for the benefit of a gang.

Illinois is certainly included here (there are claims that the state has the largest gang population in the nation at 100,000 members) and in many respects has been at the fore. A partial list of their gang-related legislation by topic includes:

  • Gang-Related Definitions,
  • Enhanced Penalties—Sentencing,
  • Curfew and Truancy,
  • Drive-By Shootings and Weapon possession,
  • Gang Activity and Forfeiture,
  • Gang Databases,
  • Gang Participation and Gang Recruitment,
  • Threats and Intimidation,
  • Gang-Related Clothing, Dress Codes, School Uniforms,
  • Gangs and Correctional Facilities,
  • Eviction,
  • Graffiti and Graffiti Tools
  • Loitering and Public Nuisance,
  • Gangs and Schools, and
  • Probation, Parole and Gang Associations.

Legal definitions of what constitute a gang are often vague and subject to police interpretation. Typically state statues – including Illinois — define gangs as groups of  3 or more people who share a name common symbols and a pattern of criminal activity. This could be the KKK or Wall Street or any old typical Fraternity, but of course it is not. Much of the meaning of “gang” is deeply connected to racial imagery and stereotyping, so the interpretation of gang statues rest as much on the race, class, gender and age of the person in question rather than the letter of the law. Analyses of police gang databases indicate that this is indeed the case. Youth of color are vastly over-represented in these databases, which are often complied via simple street interrogations and observations rather arrest data. As Jordan Blair Woods observes:

Cultural stereotypes not only shape how the general public views crime, but may also influence the perceptions and behaviors of police officers and prosecutors. Gang stereotypes within the police and prosecutorial realms can have especially damaging consequences for racial minorities. The harmful process begins at the level of law enforcement, where racially slanted gang stereotypes can shape how police departments perceive and report crimes. Gang stereotypes may drive some officers to categorize crimes committed by groups of racial minorities as gang crimes, even if the suspects have no ties to gangs or gang members.

The racial impact of gang ordinances were made clear in The City of Chicago v. Morales ( 1999) where the Supreme Court struck down a gang loitering ordinance as unconstitutionally vague. The ACLU of Illinois noted :

During the three years that the law was enforced, Chicago police engaged in periodic “street sweeps,” dispersing about 45,000 people and arresting an equal number of individuals who allegedly refused to disperse. Most of the people targeted were African-American and Hispanic residents – many of whom were not even gang members. Contrary to the selective presentation of crime data by the City, the ordinance had no discernible impact on the incidence of crime.

Despite evidence that harsh police tactics may solidify rather than dissipate gangs, the militaristic get tough model is the one preferred by both legislators and law enforcement. And so too Chicago. Already this year, the city has spent most of the 2014 overtime budget by flooding key neighborhoods with an additional 400 officers and “targeting” key gang members. And already there are the typical premature and spurious claims that this additional police presence has reduced the homicide rate.

But more policing is just part of the strategy. “Chiraq” calls for more – including expanding the criminal labels to “racketeers” and ultimately, as “Chiraq” would imply, re-defining gang members as “terrorists”.

Repression in “Chiraq”: RICO and the War on Terror

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly referred to as RICO is federal legislation that was enacted in 1970. RICO provides for both civil and criminal penalties for patterns of activity that occur in an on-going criminal organization.

chi-298x146RICO was intended to hold leaders of such organizations accountable for crimes committed by their members. Predicate offenses include:

  • Any violation of state statutes against gambling, murder, kidnapping, extortion, arson, robbery, bribery, dealing in obscene matter, or dealing in a controlled substance or listed chemical (as defined in the Controlled Substances Act);
  • Any act of bribery, counterfeiting, theft, embezzlement, fraud, dealing in obscene matter, obstruction of justice, slavery, racketeering, gambling, money laundering, commission of murder-for-hire, and several other offenses covered under the Federal criminal code (Title 18);
  • Embezzlement of union funds;
  • Bankruptcy fraud or securities fraud;
  • Drug trafficking; long-term and elaborate drug networks can also be prosecuted using the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Statute;
  • Criminal copyright infringement;
  • Money laundering and related offenses;
  • Bringing in, aiding or assisting aliens in illegally entering the country (if the action was for financial gain);
  • Acts of terrorism.

RICO was initially passed to prosecute members of the Mafia but was expanded in 1980 to include gangs. While the constitutionality of this approach has long been in question, recent analysis highlights the implications with regard to race. In Systemic Racial Bias and RICO’s Application to Criminal Street and Prison Gangs , Woods analyzes all “gang – related” RICO prosecutions between 2001 and 2011; there were a total of 160 cases involving over 2900 affiliates. 86% of these cases involved gangs that were Black and/or Latino. He observes:

…this labeling may be driven by systemic racial biases that marginalize entire racial minority groups and privilege non-immigrant White communities. These systemic biases are characterized by converging constructions of race and crime that fuse perceptions of gang-related crime with images of racial minorities. Conflating gang activity with racial minorities enables the government to rely upon denigrating racial stereotypes in order to engage in racial profiling and conduct sweeping arrests of racial minorities under RICO….

Gang stereotypes disadvantage racial minorities by bringing specific criminal groups tied to racial minorities, such as the Bloods, the Crips, MS-13, and the Mexican Mafia, to the forefront of law enforcement and prosecutors’ gang radars. Gang stereotypes also make law enforcement, prosecutors, and members of society more prone to assume that crimes committed by groups of racial minorities—especially Blacks, Latinos, and Asians in urban neighborhoods—are gang related, whereas crimes committed by groups of non-immigrant White individuals are not gang related.

Federal RICO actions have been used against Chicago gang leaders Larry Hoover (Gangster Disciples), Jeff Fort (El-Rukn formerly Black P-Stone Nation) Augustin Zambrano and other high ranking Latin Kings, and the Insane Deuces. Last year, Illinois enacted its’ own RICO statue which allows the state to avoid the Federal requirement of inter-state activity. The first arrests/indictment were made last week with charges brought against 41 members of the the Black Souls.

In addition to the implications of RICO prosecutions, there is the persistent effort to link gangs with terrorism. The equation is both rhetorical and literal. Here is a headline from today regrading the Principal of William H. Ryder Elementary School: Jailer of Taliban Deploys to Chicago School to Foil Gangs. He is quoted in the following:

In any case, the violence helps explain why the district has handed some of its most challenging posts to people such as Rucker, who draws on all his experiences, from patrolling Chicago streets to walking a prison yard filled with Taliban detainees at Bagram Air Force base near Kabul, Afghanistan.

“I’ve watched over 37 prisoners that are hard core, that would like to slit my neck,” he said. “You think I’m going to blink? Sometimes, I feel like the mentality is that I have to go to war, meaning not necessarily against another regime, but against the ideas of gangs, poverty, ignorance.”

In addition to equating grade schoolers with the Taliban, there is more. The State of Illinois has named its’ complied Gang statues as follows: Illinois Streetgang Terrorism Omnibus Prevention Act. El-Rukn has been federally designated a terrorist organization , and Jeff Fort and other  members were the first U.S. citizens to be convicted as “domestic terrorists”. Much was made of Jose Padilla’s early involvement in Chicago’s Latin Kings before his conversion to Islam in a Florida prison and his subsequent conviction on terrorism conspiracy charges.

And so it is unsurprising that a substantial percentage of the inmates at ADX Florence — the nation’s most secure super-max- are not the infamous bombers or international terrorists or Al-Quaeda operatives, but instead, Larry Hoover, Jeff Fort, and a host of other gang members.

The guys from “Chiraq”.

Thoughts on “Chiraq”

“Chiraq” is made by those who profit it from it. No, not the rappers or the gangsters, but the power structure that feeds media-based fear, racialized policing and prosecution, and the prison industrial complex,  rendered now indistinguishable from the military industrial complex with the language and machinery of War.

chi-298x146“Chiraq” as a war zone – one filled with extreme and endless “others”, “enemy combatants” and war profiteers and foot soldiers — legitimates this repression. And whatever fear and anger those mean streets provoke, one think is clear: these tactics, in place now for approaching three decades, have never worked.

Little policy-oriented attention has ever been paid to the roots of gangs in institutionalized racism and classism. Too little investment in jobs. Or quality affordable housing. Or in schools. Chicago’s leadership has made the decision to invest instead in police over-time; all while presiding over the closing of 50 public schools the largest such mass gutting of public education in US history.

Too little attention paid to the possibilities. What if Fred Hampton were alive and Black Panther alliances with the gangs had been allowed to flourish? What if Jeff Fort’s Black P-Stone Rangers had guidance in spending their federal grant money?  What if the Vice Lord’s community programs had been encouraged to expand? What if Larry Hoover meant what he said about Growth and Development? What if Willie Lloyd could have taught his college classes and done anti-gang work in peace?

What if there was Redemption?

Then, Chicago……………..

KayWhitlock 1 Like

Thanks, Nancy.  This is exactly how it is.  Any scare tactic imaginable seems to work.  It's up to us to make sure it doesn't.


  1. […] of “race neutral” laws and law enforcement policies, ranging from “stop and frisk” to “gang” laws and policies, in and out of prison?  Why isn’t structural/systemic racism explicitly named as […]

  2. […] “Gang” is a red-flag word that stops rational thought and stymies debate. It is the domestic equivalent of ‘terrorists,” a term used to evoke dire racialized imagery, danger and threat to public safety, and questioning […]

  3. […] neutral” laws and law enforcement policies, ranging from “stop and frisk” to “gang” laws and policies, in and out of prison?  Why isn’t structural/systemic racism explicitly named […]

  4. […] with the War on the Poor, extensive criminalization of poverty/homelessness, Black motherhood,  appearance and the use of public space, the escalation of the War on Drugs and attendant mass incarceration. It too provides a convenient […]

  5. […] between the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex, replete wit the escalating rhetoric, weaponry and tactics of war. While this connection is long-standing, the post 9/11 War on Terror […]