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Excerpt: Renegade Dreams


An excerpt from Laurence Ralph’s


“Nostalgia, or the Stories a Gang Tells about Itself”

At the West Side Juvenile Detention Center, inmates hardly ever look you in the eyes. They almost never notice your face. Walk into a cell block at recreation time, for example, when young gang members are playing spades or sitting in the TV room watching a movie, and their attention quickly shifts to your shoes. They watch you walk to figure out why you came. I imagine what goes through their heads: Navy blue leather boots, reinforced steel toe, at least a size twelve. Must be a guard. That’s an easy one. Then the glass door swings open again. Expensive brown wingtips, creased khakis cover the tongue. A Northwestern law student come to talk about legal rights. Yep.

Benjamin Gregory wears old shoes, the kind a young affiliate wouldn’t be caught dead in. Still, the cheap patent leather shines, and, after sitting in the Detention Center’s waiting room for nearly an hour and a half, the squeak of his wingtips is a relief. It’s a muggy day, late in the spring of 2008. “I’ve been coming here for five years now,” he says. Mr. Gregory is a Bible-study instructor. “It’s a shame, but you can just tell which ones have their mothers and fathers, or someone who cares about them at home. Most of these kids don’t. Their pants gotta sag below their waist, even in prison garbs. All they talk about is selling drugs and gym shoes.”

Though I generally disagree with Mr. Gregory’s assessment of today’s young people—“hip hoppers,” as he calls them, not knowing I’m young enough to be counted in that group—his observations are, if not quite accurate, at least astute. The relationship between jail clothes and gym shoes is direct, with gang renegades—young gang affiliates that seasoned members claim don’t have the wherewithal to be in the gang—at the center. Until recently, Mr. Gregory couldn’t tell you what a gang renegade was; I educated him on the topic when he overheard inmates tossing the term around for sport. According to gang leaders, I tell him, renegades are to blame for gang underperformance. They are the chief instigators of “senseless” violence, say the leaders, and thus deserve any form of harm that befalls them, be it death, debility, or incarceration.

Ironically, Mr. Gregory’s generalized depiction of drug- and shoe-obsessed young inmates (shared by many prison guards, teachers, and even some scholars) can be compared to the way that gang members view renegades. Just as community leaders criticize the actions and affiliations of longtime Eastwoodians, older generations of gang members level critiques at young renegades. In what follows, I complicate the assumptions many have made about renegades by examining subjective versions of the Divine Knights’ contested—and contestable—history. Investigating the gang’s fraught past will help make clear the problems facing them at present. In the midst of unprecedented rates of incarceration, the anxieties that gang members harbor about the future of their organization are projected on to the youngest generation of gang members—and their gym shoes.

More precisely, in Eastwood gym shoes are emblems that embody historical consciousness. For gang members currently forty to sixty years old, the emergence of gym shoes signaled the end of an era in which affiliates pursued grassroots initiatives and involved themselves in local protest movements. Meanwhile, for the cohort of gang members who came of age in the “pre-renegade” era—those twenty-five to forty years old—gym shoes recall a time of rampant heroin trafficking, when battalions of young soldiers secured territories within a centralized leadership structure. As the younger of the two generations remembers it, this was the moment when loyalty began to translate into exorbitant profits. That these two elder generations of the Divine Knights hanker for a centralized and ordered system of governance places an enormous amount of pressure on the current generation, those gang members who are fifteen to twenty-five years old. We’ll see that just like the game of shoe charades that inmates play in jail, a renegade’s footwear can reveal his place in the world.

In the Divine Knights’ organization, wearing the latest pair of sneakers is considered the first status marker in the life and career of a gang member. For new members, having a fashionable pair of shoes signals one’s position as a legitimate affiliate. Later, in your teens and twenties, success is measured by whether a person can afford a nice car or your own apartment. Because most of the teenagers referred to as “renegades” have yet to progress to that stage, however, a fashionable pair of gym shoes is the pinnacle of possession.

Even though gang leaders claim that nowadays fashion trends of young gang members are too beholden to mainstream dictates anddon’t represent Divine Knights culture, gym shoes remain the badge of prestige most coveted by renegades. Exclusivity—whether or not the shoes can be easily purchased in ubiquitous commercial outlets like Foot Locker or only in signature boutiques—goes a long way in determining a shoe’s worth, as does pattern complexity: the more colors and textures that are woven onto the canvas of the shoe, the more valued that shoe becomes.

Over a two-year period during which I listened to gang members in informal settings and in facilitated focus groups with Divine Knights affiliates, I was able to sketch an outline of attributes concerning the five most popular gym shoes worn by young gang members in Eastwood. In some cases, the most popular brands and fashion trends evoke a past that has ceased to exist. Behold, the renegades’ “ Top 5” (in ascending order of significance):

№ 5

“ Tims,” or Timberland boots ($180), are not technically a gym shoe. But in Chicago, the term is used as a catchall for various types of men’s footwear. The construction boot of choice to tackle Chicago’s harsh winters, Tims serve a functional purpose in addition to being appreciated aesthetically. The tan “butter-soft” suede atop a thick rubber sole with dark brown leather ankle supports are staples of any shoe collection (and are typically the first pair of boots a renegade purchases). If in addition to the tan suede variety a person has Tims in other colors, he or she is thought to be an adept hustler in any climate.

№ 4

“Recs,” or Creative Recreations ($150), are a relatively new brand of sneaker popular with young renegades because they are available in an array of bright colors. Multiple textures—metallics, suedes, rubbers, and plastics—are combined on the synthetic leather canvas of each shoe. Recs also have a distinctive Velcro strap that runs across the toe. Considered the trendy of-the-moment shoe, Recs are held in high esteem by young renegades because they can only be found in a select few of Chicago’s signature boutiques.

№ 3

As the Timberland boot is to winter, the Air Force One, commonly referred to as “Air Forces” or “Ones” ($90), is to the other three seasons. This shoe is a staple of the renegade’s collection. If a young gang member has only one pair of gym shoes, they will likely be Ones. Although they come in a variety of color combinations, most affiliates begin with either white or black, with the expectation that their collection will grow in colorfulness. Moderately priced and available in a vast number of different styles, these might be the most popular gym shoes in the Divine Knights society.

№ 2

Signature shoes ($165). Young renegades are also likely to purchase the signature shoe of their favorite basketball player. For some, that’s LeBron James; for others, Kobe Bryant or, perhaps, Chicago-local Derrick Rose. As a gang member, one’s affinity for a particular player can override the aesthetic judgment of his or her friends. Still, purchasing a signature shoe entails several calculations, including when the shoe was released, which company manufactures them, and the popularity of the player in question at the moment. Given the danger that one’s signature shoe may prove undeserving of the time and effort invested in its purchase, no current player’s footwear can surpass the model by which the success of his shoe will no doubt be measured: Michael Jordan’s.

№ 1

“Jordans” ($230) are the signature shoe. A pair of Jordans is valuable to the young renegade for a number of reasons, chief among them that Michael Jordan, considered the greatest basketball player of all time, made his name playing for the Chicago Bulls. Thus, a particular geographic pride is associated with his apparel. Second, the risks involved with purchasing this particular signature shoe are greatly reduced because Jordan’s legacy is cemented in history. Third, since the first shoe one buys are not usually Jordans (because they are so expensive), there is a sense of achievement connected with finally being able to afford a pair.

Pre–renegade era Divine Knights can recall down to the year—sometimes even the day—that they purchased the same model of shoes currently being worn by young renegades. That older gang members hypocritically hassle renegades for the same consumer fetishes theythemselves once held dear bolsters the point that gym shoes have accrued additional symbolic value. At once, they point to the past and the future, similar to Eastwood’s greystones. Recall that greystones reference the past, specifically an era of Great Migration during which blacks traveled from the South to the Midwest in search of manufacturing jobs. At the same time, greystones are the primary form of capital for governmental investment. Just as city planners project future tax revenues based on empty and abandoned domiciles, a young renegade speculates on his future by buying a pair of Jordans.

For the Divine Knights, this form of speculation has, historically, required a young affiliate to position himself as a noteworthy member, thereby attracting the attention of a gang leader. Ideally, that leader will take a young Knight under his wing, bestow that affiliate with responsibilities, and reward his hard work with a share of the organization’s profits. In such a climate, adorning oneself with the most fashionable pair of shoes is a precondition for a person to prove himself worthy of the gang’s investment. A symbol of speculative capital, gym shoes—like greystones—are endowed with a double quality: They express highly charged notions of social mobility for one generation; and for another, older generation, they evoke a sense of nostalgia.

To fully understand the way in which the renegade’s gym shoes trigger an idealized notion of the past, it’s productive to dwell for a moment on the idea of nostalgia itself. From the initial use of the term—in 1688, when Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor, coined the term in his medical dissertation—nostalgia has been used to connect forms of social injury to the physical reality of the body. Hofer combined two Greek roots to form the term for this newfound malady: nostos (return home) and algia (longing). It describes “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” Among the first to become debilitated by and diagnosed with this disease were Swiss soldiers who had been hired to fight in the French Revolution. Upon returning home, these soldiers were struck with “nausea, loss of appetite, pathological changes in the lungs, brain inflammation, cardiac arrests, high fever, and a propensity for suicide.” One of nostalgia’s most persistent symptoms was an ability to see ghosts.

To cure nostalgia, doctors prescribed anything from a trip to the Swiss Alps to having leeches implanted and then pulled from the skin, to sizable doses of opium. Nothing seemed to work. The struggles of ensuing generations only confirmed the difficulty, if not impossibility, of a cure. By the end of the eighteenth century, the meaning of nostalgia had shifted from a curable, individual sickness to what, literature scholar Svetlana Boym once called an incurable “historical emotion.” The burdens of nostalgia—the pressing weight of its historical emotion—are still very much with us. Interrupting the present with incessant flashes of the past, nostalgia retroactively reformulates cause and effect, and thus our linear notions of history.

“I love this walking stick,” Mr. Otis says to me. “And it’s not just ’cause I’m an old man, either.” He taps the stick on his stoop, adding, “I’ve had it since I was your age.”

Of all the Divine Knights symbols, the cane is Mr. Otis’s favorite. This is ironic, given that young gang members increasingly need canes as a consequence of the very violence Mr. Otis laments. Still, this seasoned gang veteran doesn’t associate his cane with injury but with pride and a masterful breadth of knowledge about his organization. When he was young, Mr. Otis tells me, canes, a symbol of gang unity, were hand-drawn on the custom-made shirts the Knights wore. Nowadays, Mr. Otis’s generation often contrasts the stability of the cane and its understated sophistication against the extravagance of sneakers. Why, I ask on a dusky October evening, is the cane his most cherished emblem? Mr. Otis clenches his hand into a fist, then releases one digit at a time, enumerating each of the gang’s symbols.

“Well, the top hat represents our ability to make things happen, like magicians do,” he says, wiggling his pinkie. Next comes the ring finger. “ The dice represents our hustle. You know what they say: Every day as a Divine Knight is a gamble. The playboy rabbit,” he continues, “represents that we’re swift in thought, silent in movement, and sm-o-o-th in deliverance. Of course, the champagne glass represents celebration.” Mr. Otis pauses briefly. “You can probably tell that all of these symbols have the young boys thinking that gang life is about trying to be pimps and players. But the cane”—signified by the pointer finger—“the cane represents consciousness. The knowledge that you must rely on the wisdom from your elders. The cane represents that we have to support one another—and support the community—to survive.”

We can’t see much on nights like this, but that doesn’t stop us from sitting on the stoop and watching the corner. The lights on Mr. Otis’s street either don’t work or are never on. In fact, were it not for the lamppost at the street’s end that serves as a mount for a police camera, the streetlights wouldn’t serve any purpose at all. Residents dismissively refer to the camera as the “blue light.” The device, which rests in a white box topped with a neon blue half-sphere, lights up every few seconds. Stationed to surveil the neighborhood, the blue light fulfills another unintended purpose: in the absence of working streetlights, the intermittent flash nearly illuminates the entire street. It is a vague luminescence, but just enough to make clear the molded boards of the vacant houses across the street. You can also distinguish the occasional trash bag blowing in the wind, like urban tumbleweed.

And you can spot the T-shirts—all of the young Eastwoodians in white tees—but that’s about all the blue light at the end of the street can brighten for Mr. Otis and me. From where we sit, you can’t identify the owners of those shirts; their faces aren’t perceptible, not even their limbs—just clusters of white tees floating in the distance, ghost-like. Mr. Otis, a veteran both of Eastwood stoops and Eastwood’s oldest gang, sees the ghosts as fleeting images of the “good ol’ gang,” as he calls it—a gang about to sink into oblivion.

Mr. Otis watches the street intently, as if he’s being paid for the task. And in a sense, he is: central to Mr. Otis’s work at the House of Worship’s homeless shelter is the supervision of his neighborhood. His street credentials, however, are far more valuable than anything he can see from his stoop. Mr. Otis was one of the first members to join the nascent gang in the 1950s. This was during the second Great Migration, when African Americans moved from the South to Chicago, settling in European immigrant neighborhoods. Back then, black youths traveled in packs for camaraderie, and to more safely navigate streets whose residents resented their presence. Because they were known to fight their white peers over access to recreational spaces, the image of black gangs as groups of delinquents emerged.

Mr. Otis became a leader of the Divine Knights in the 1960s, around the age of twenty-six. For the next forty years, he was—and remains—prominent both in the gang and in the community. Nowadays, he speaks about his youth with a mix of fondness and disdain. The two great narratives of his life, community decline and gang devolution, are also interwoven. “ Things were different when we were on the block,” he says. “We did things for the community. We picked up trash, even had a motto: ‘Where there is glass, there will be grass.’ And white folks couldn’t believe it. The media, they were shocked. Channel Five and Seven came around here, put us on the TV screen for picking up bottles.”

In these lively recollections, Mr. Otis connects the Divine Knights’ community-service initiatives to the political struggles of the civil rights movement. As a youngster, Mr. Otis was part of a gang whose stated goal was to end criminal activity. Around this time, in the mid-1960s, a radical new thesis articulated by criminologists and the prison-reform movement gained momentum. These researchers argued that people turned to crime because social institutions had largely failed them. Major street gangs became recipients of private grants and public funds (most notably from President Johnson’s War on Poverty) earmarked for community organization, the development of social welfare programs, and profit-making commercial enterprises. The Divine Knights ofthe 1960s opened community centers, reform schools, and a number of small businesses and management programs. Such were the possibilities when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. relocated his family to a home near Eastwood.

In local newspaper articles, King explained that his decision to live on the West Side was political as well as purposeful. “I don’t want to be a missionary in Chicago, but an actual resident in a slum section so that we can deal firsthand with the problems,” King said. “We want to be in a section that typifies all the problems that we’re seeking to solve in Chicago.”

King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), geared up for a broad attack on racism in the North. Their first northern push focused on housing discrimination; and they referred to it as “the open-housing campaign” because the SCLC wanted to integrate Chicago’s predominately white neighborhoods. As the SCLC gathered community support for their cause in May 1966, they developed relationships with Chicago’s street gangs. On Memorial Day, a riot broke out after a white man killed a black man with a baseball bat. Chaos ensued, resulting in the destruction of many local businesses. Gang members were rumored to be among the looters. Some civil rights leaders, in turn, feared that a spate of recent riots might jeopardize their campaign of nonviolence. When, during a rally at Soldier Field, a gang affiliate overheard a member of the SCLC state his reluctance to involve “gang fighters,” Chicago gang members (including many Knights) took this as a sign of disrespect and threatened to abandon King. A Chicago gang member was quoted as saying:

I brought it back to [a gang leader named] Pep and said if the dude feel this way and he’s supposed to be King’s number one man, then we don’t know how King feels and I believe we’re frontin’ ourselves off. Pep say there wasn’t no reason for us to stay there so we rapped with the other groups and when we gave our signal, all the [gang members] stood up and just split. When we left, the place was half empty and that left the King naked.

Days after the Soldier Field incident, in an effort to mend fences,King set up a meeting in his apartment and reassured gang membersthat he “needed the troops.” The Divine Knights were among the Chicago gangs to subsequently reaffirm their allegiance to King. After meeting with various gangs, top SCLC representatives were confident thatgangs could not only be persuaded to refrain from rioting, but might alsobe convinced to help calm trouble that might arise on their respective turfs. Moreover, “the sheer numbers of youths loyal to these organizations made them useful to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s objective of amassing an army of nonviolent protesters—even if including them came with the additional challenge of keeping them nonviolent.”

In June 1966, the Divine Knights were persuaded to participate in the two marches that Dr. King led into all-white neighborhoods during the Chicago Freedom Movement’s open-housing campaign. Inspired by the movement’s demand that the Chicago City Council increase garbage collection, street cleaning, and building-inspection services in urban areas, the Knights organized their own platform for political action. They scheduled a press conference with local media outlets to unveil their agenda on April 4, 1968. But just before the reporters arrived, King was assassinated. Less than twenty-four hours later, East-wood erupted in riots. The fires and looting following King’s murder destroyed many of the establishments along Murphy Road, Eastwood’s major commercial district at the time.

Many store owners left the neighborhood when insurance companies canceled their policies or prohibitively increased premiums, making it difficult to rebuild businesses in their previous location. This cycle of disinvestment, which peaked after King’s murder but had been steadily increasing since 1950, affected all of Eastwood’s retailers. By 1970, 75 percent of the businesses that had buoyed the community just two decades earlier were shuttered. There has not been a significant migration of jobs, or people, into Eastwood since World War II.

In the decades after the massive fires and looting, Mr. Otis and other gang elders maintain that the Divine Knights saw their power decline because they could do little to stop the other factions of the Knights from rioting. Neighborhood residents not affiliated with the gang were likewise dismayed. Here was evidence, with King’s murder, that the injustices allegedly being fought by the Divine Knights were, in fact, intractable. From Mr. Otis’s perspective, the disillusionment that accompanied King’s death, and the riots that followed—not to mention other assassinations, such as that of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton—all but ensured a downward spiral. The noble promise of the civil rights era was shattered, its decline as awful as its rise was glorious.

For Mr. Otis, the modern-day Divine Knights are as much about their forgotten history of activism as anything else. So on nights such as these—sitting on his stoop, watching the latest generation of gang members—he feels it his duty to share a finely honed civil rights legacy narrative with a novice researcher. “ Take notes on that,” he says. “Writethat down. We, the Divine Knights, got government money to build a community center for the kids. We were just trying to show ’em all: gangs don’t have to be bad, you know. Now these guys don’t have no history. They’re ‘Anonymous,’ ” Mr. Otis says sarcastically, referring to the name of one of many factions in this new renegade landscape, the Anonymous Knights.

Out in front of Mr. Otis’s stoop, ten or so gang members face each other like an offense about to break huddle. And then they do just that. The quarterback—Kemo Nostrand, the gang leader—approaches, retrieves a cell phone from his car, and then rejoins the loiterers. I ask Mr. Otis about Kemo and his crew: “Are they as disreputable as the younger gang members?”

“Look at ’em,” Mr. Otis says. “ They’re all outside, ain’t they? Drinking, smoking, wasting their lives away. They’re all outside.”

Nostalgia for the politically oriented gang is a desire for a different present as much as it is a yearning for the past. In Mr. Otis’s lamentations about the contemporary state of the gang, structural changes in the American social order are reduced to poor decision making. Mr. Otis and gang members of his generation fail to acknowledge that the gang’s latter-day embrace of the drug economy was not a simple matter of choice. The riots also marked the end of financial assistance for street organizations wanting to engage in community programming. When drug dealing emerged as a viable economic alternative for urban youth in the late 1970s, politicians had more than enough ammunition to argue that the Knights would always be criminal, as opposed to a political organization. The fact that both the local and federal government feared gangs like the Divine Knights for their revolutionary potential is airbrushed out of the romantic histories that Mr. Otis tells, where he invokes civilized marches in criticism of the gang’s present-day criminal involvement. In his version, for example, there is no mention of the gang members who, even during the civil rights heyday, were not at all civic-minded.

Whether or not this glorious perception of a political gang persists (or if it ever existed in the way Mr. Otis imagines), it is deployed nevertheless. Like the shiny new surveillance technology responsible fortransforming a person’s visage into a ghostly specter at night, the rosy civil rights lens through which Mr. Otis views the gang helps fashion the image that haunts him. Nostalgia, this historical emotion, reorders his memory.

The interview unfolds in a West Side Chicago barbershop, long since closed. Red Walker, the short, stocky, tattoo-covered leader of the Roving Knights—a splinter group of the Divine Knights—reminisces about what it has been like growing up in a gang. Walker has been a member of the Roving Knights for twenty years (since he was nine). Now, as a captain of the gang set, Red feels that the organization’s biggest problem is a lack of leadership. Comparing the gang of old to the one he now commands, he says, wistfully, “When I was growing up, we had chiefs. We had honor. There were rules that Knights had to follow, a code that gang members were expected to respect.”

A few of the Roving Knights’ strictures, according to Red: If members of the gang were shooting dice and somebody’s mom walked down the street, the Knights would move out of respect. When young kids were coming home from school, the Knights would temporarily suspend the sale of drugs. “We would take a break for a couple of hours,” Red says. “Everybody understood that. And plus, when I was coming up in the gang, you had to go to school. You could face sanctions if you didn’t. And nobody was exempt. Not even me.”

Red’s mother, he says, was a “hype”—the favored West Side term for drug addict. His father wasn’t present, and he didn’t have siblings. Red did, however, have a “soldier” assigned to him, whose responsibilities included taking him to school in the morning and greeting him when he got out. “Made sure I did my homework and everything,” Red says. “ These kids don’t have that. There’s no structure now. They govern themselves, so we call them renegades.”

It’s likely I will meet a lot of renegades on the streets of Eastwood, Red warns. Most are proudly independent, boisterous of their self-centered goals. Red says, “ They’ll even tell you, ‘Yeah, I’m just out for self. I’m trying to get my paper. Fuck the gang, the gang is dead.’ They’ ll tell you, straight up. But, you know what? They’re the ones that’s killing it, them renegades. I even had one in my crew.” Plopping down in the barber’s chair beside me, Red indicates that the story he’s about to tell is somewhat confidential, but he’s going to tell me anyway because he likes me—I’m a “studious motherfucker,” he jokes.

“You know how niggers be in here selling everything, right?” Red says. (He is referring to the daily transactions involving bootleg cable, DVDs, CDs, and candy.) “Well, back in the day, a long, long, long time ago, niggers used to sell something the police didn’t like us selling. We used to sell”—here Red searches for the right euphemism, settling on “muffins.” “Yeah, we had a bakery in this motherfucker. And cops, they hate muffins. So they would come up in here, try to be friendly, they’d snoop around, get they free haircut, and try to catch someone eating muffins or selling muffins, or whatever. But they could never catch nobody with muffin-breath around here. Never.”

One day, though, the police apprehended one of the “little shorties” working for Red, and the young man happened to have a muffin in his pocket. “Now, this wasn’t even an entire muffin. It was like a piece of a muffin—a crumb,” Red says. “Shorty wouldn’t have got in a whole lot of trouble for a crumb, you know? But this nigger sung. The nigger was singing so much, the cops didn’t have to turn on the radio. They let him out on the next block. He told about the whole bakery: the cooks, the clients. He told on everybody. And I had to do a little time behind that. That’s why in my new shop,” Red continues, glaring again at the recorder, “WE. DO. NOT. SELL. MUFFINS. ANY. MORE.”

Red pauses, seemingly satisfied by his disavowal of any current illegal muffin activity, then adds, “But, real talk: That’s how you know a renegade. No loyalty. They’ll sell you down the river for a bag of weed and a pair of Jordans.”

To read more about Renegade Dreams, click here.