Tip of the Cap

Un-silencing the Gang: A Past Retold in the Present that Shapes Possible Futures

We would like to welcome Laurence Ralph in this latest edition of our feature, Tip of the Cap.
I got my start in gang research from working with non-profits. There, I met a sixty-eight year-old gang member named Mr. Otis. At first it surprised me that someone so old would adamantly affiliate with one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs, the Divine Knights. But I soon learned that the idea of “the gang” as a group of violent criminals meant something very different to Mr. Otis. For him, the gang was an organization that could actually improve the community, if given the chance. And he wanted to curate a gang exhibit to prove it.The exhibit took three years of planning. But when he began to lay the foundation for its construction, Mr. Otis found that he wasn’t the only person who harbored the unashamed dream of showcasing the Divine Knights’ civil rights roots. In the end, Mr. Otis and other longtime members of the Divine Knights teamed up with a reputable local university and a number of local museums in Chicago to reveal a past that was buried beneath the endless news reports that bemoaned gang violence.

The Divine Knights Gang exhibit was sobering compared to the sensationalism that accompanies those cosmetic portrayals of urban life, but not merely because it strove to fulfill some sort of “positive” image. It was sobering in its routine recollection of a past that should’ve never been forgotten; it was sobering in the same way that young Chicagoans now describe a present that shouldn’t be so—like when you listen to a teenager chronicle her walk home from school, and in the midst of the conversation you realize that for her, safety is provisional. Early death, the loss of limbs—the whole rotten ordeal—could come as easily as a spell of rain or a bout of sunshine. And because of this, Mr. Otis and the other Divine Knights who organized this exhibit didn’t have to embellish either their gang’s present-day exploits or its peaceful history to show how much things have changed: in their striking portrayal of a gang’s civic engagement, the pictures spoke for themselves.

In the photographs on display, I saw gang members from Mr. Otis’s era, the 1960s, wearing cardigans, wielding long wooden brooms. They were sweeping the same cracked concrete that too many Divine Knights now push themselves over in wheelchairs. In the exhibit’s images, members of the Divine Knights, past and present, were articulating another vision for their neighborhood. With the gang’s long political history in mind, the core question this exhibit asked was as resonant as any I’ve ever heard in Chicago: “What would it take for today’s gang members to bring peace to the neighborhood?”

In the face of contemporary experiences of injury, the gang exhibit suggested an alternative pathway of what Chicago’s streets could look like. It offered photographs of the recreation center and the small businesses the Divine Knights established in the 1960s, when service to the gang had nothing to do with the drug economy, back when a gang member’s duties were centered on the hard toil of writing grants to governmental agencies.

The advertisements for the exhibit promoted it as a “Report to the Public” in which everyone was invited to learn about the history of the Divine Knights, to meet former members, and to listen to their stories. “Consider the history and potential of gang members as community organizers,” it beckoned. The evolving, multi-sited exhibit showcased cultural artifacts of the Divine Knights’ political past in the vacant lots that usually serve as meeting places for feuding gangs to carve out their territory; the exhibit also reclaimed the lots that now served as desolate bridges between boarded-up buildings. And in doing so, this community-based project enlivened isolated spaces with artifacts from a vibrant gang archive—especially when the curators installed Mr. Otis’s precious photographs in these otherwise abandoned lots.

Finally, the cultural artifacts of the “good ol’ gang” that he held on to for so many years in his basement fulfilled a collective purpose. When heroin took over, Mr. Otis continued to talk about the gang’s political contributions. He never shied away or felt ashamed of his history, even during the heyday of the drug trade in the 1980s and 1990s when it seemed absurd, if not blasphemous, to speak of a “political” gang.

But how could I do justice to the complicated way Mr. Otis conceived of the past?

When writing my book, Renegade Dreams, I wanted to capture the nuanced way that people like Mr. Otis thought about their history. To do so, I drew from the work of anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillout. Inspired by his work, I decided that the most tenable approach was a concept of the past as an ambiguous space. In this concept, the past is both “what happened” and “that which is said to have happened.” In Silencing the Past, Trouillout describes the difference: The first term emphasizes a certain large-scale social or historical process, like mass incarceration; the second term highlights the ways that these processes are understood on the ground, by the people involved in them. This local understanding is effectively “silenced” if not unearthed through ethnography, by walking the streets and talking to people, by combing through historical archives with these local interpretations in mind.

I found Trouillout’s binary invaluable. This is why, soon after my research began I started to see a third side of this ambiguous space: history-as-emergent. I could see this emergent history in Mr. Otis’s gang exhibit. I noticed that, within the exhibit, the representations of the past felt palpable, alive. This was because the organizers were consistently thinking about the difference between how life was, how life is, and how life could be. For people like Mr. Otis, this comparison was forward-looking and future-oriented; and it allowed him to reimagine alternative pathways for the gang and his community, no matter the many obstacles between the is and the could be

The way Mr. Otis helped construct the gang exhibit to address the different implications about what serving the community means was a prime example of an alternate interpretation of how life could be. Indeed, his method of showcasing a different notion of gang involvement set him apart from a number of anti-violence activists that I met in Chicago, who hoped to convince young people to abandon their allegiance to the gang outright, and leave their violent neighborhoods as well, if at all possible. Mr. Otis didn’t think these approaches were realistic. He, for one, didn’t want to leave his past behind. He dwelled in a space between life and injury, and didn’t attempt to escape.

This is why I’m indebted to Trouillout’s work. It allowed me to see that the image of the gang that Mr. Otis hoped to change wasn’t some sort of nightmarish apparition. Every gang member that floated in the street—so many ghosts of the gang’s political past—carried a glow that Mr. Otis could see; and he cherished that elusive light, he continued to see it even when most were convinced that it had been extinguished, or believed that such light never existed in the first place. Inside of each member—each battered, injured, surprisingly resilient poor young black resident—he saw his renegade dream. I was just glad that toward the end of his life, when the gang exhibit was finally unveiled, he was able to make at least one of his dreams come true.

Works Referenced

Trouillot, M. R. (2012). Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Beacon Press.


One thought on “Un-silencing the Gang: A Past Retold in the Present that Shapes Possible Futures

  1. Pingback: DragNet: March 23 – April 5, 2015 | Anthropoliteia

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