Social Media and the North Side Gang Life

This is an era where people put all aspects of their lives on display through social media, and those they choose to call our “friends” on Facebook and Twitter are not the only ones who are watching.  Companies and organizations monitor the online presence of their employees and potential hires.  Universities pre-screen their applicants and are more than willing to throw out a brilliant one if they swear in their status updates or hold beer cans in their profile pictures.

So it may surprise to hear that street gangs in Rogers Park, and elsewhere, have been chronicling all sorts of illegal activity on the Internet for anyone to see.

Consider just Rogers Park. Over the last few years, a well-documented feud between two rival factions of the Gangster Disciples street gang in the Far North Side Chicago neighborhood has turned into a vicious cycle of hits and retribution.  The two groups, one based on Farwell Street (known as the I.C.G.s) and the other on Howard Street (known as L.O.C.s), have engaged in several acts of violence against each other.  In July of 2013, Blake Lamb, 22, was shot not far from Howard Street in the East Rogers Park area.  Lamb was reportedly associated with the L.O.C.s, and was allegedly shot by a member of the rival group.

Members showing signs and weapons on social media
Members showing signs and weapons on social media

Not long after, a member of the Farwell group, who goes by the name “Bang Da Hitta,” released a music video on YouTube taunting the man’s death in a song called “Die L’z”, referring to the L.O.C.s.  In the video, the singer and several other members of his crew wave what appear to be pistols and assault rifles, aiming them at the camera.

The lyrics explicitly imply violence against the L.O.C.s, with lines like “I’m die Howard like insane/half power that 30 on/I swear to god that b—- bang.”  In one of the final frames of the video, which has since been banned from YouTube, Bang Da Hitta mocks the death by superimposing a Facebook post from a profile with the pseudonym “Luck Solo Smuck,” mourning for “Bleak Loccity,” or Blake Lamb.

In February 2014, a masked gunman opened fire into a group of teens standing at a McDonalds at the corner of Clark Street and Pratt Boulevard. The shooter was reportedly aiming at a member of the I.C.G.s, and wounded him, but the lone fatality was Markeyo Carr, 17, an unaffiliated, innocent youth who had just gotten home from school. Later, suspected gang members were accused of posting photos of the memorial on social media, as if it was a “trophy” of their violent act.

The violence between these groups dates back to 2010, when a street fight broke out on Howard, resulting in the death of a Farwell member and a failed prosecution of the alleged perpetrator.  There have been several deaths, and the two groups don’t seem to be at any sort of a truce.  The video was not even close to the first straw – it was simply the act that pulled the feud into the public spotlight.

But if the video was shocking, what may be even more so is the fact that these gangsters are active on other forms of social media, and are marketing themselves as gangsters – including to youth to boast about their lifestyle.

Several members of both groups, including Bang Da Hitta, have Facebook accounts, and some even have Twitter and Instagram.  They post pictures of themselves holding guns, smoking what looks like marijuana, and wearing insignia of their affiliations.  Several people, including community organizer Chris Patterson, author of 21: The Epitome of Perseverance and director of the Ceasefire outreach program, believe that this is a common problem among affiliated youths.

“It’s all they do,” said Patterson, who himself had a history in crime and has since devoted his life to violence prevention and community work.  “People fill their entire pages [by] antagonizing each other, through gang slogans or personal jabs.”

screenshot_98In Rogers Park, violence as a whole is on a downswing.  According to published reports, homicides in Rogers Park have declined by 71 percent since 1990.  However, the violence between these small groups has worsened, and this, as well as the increase in the use of social media among gang members, may be related to a recent shift in the gang landscape.

Gangs have always had a structure, with “gang chiefs” providing leadership to the organizations.  Recently, however, many of the chiefs on the North Side of Chicago have been killed or jailed, and the larger structures have deteriorated.  With these groups eroding, gangs have divided into smaller sects – or microgangs that pop up in a vacuum – based on neighborhoods, and the I.C.G.s and the L.O.C.s are prime examples.  Without a central figure uniting everyone, violence can break out within these sects, and this is exactly the case in Rogers Park.

Even more, the lack of leadership may be a large part of the reason these individuals are revealing themselves as criminals through social media, as they have no one to advise them against it.

Since this shift, the territories that these two groups occupy have become rigid and unchanging.

When Farwell area members cross into the Howard area, and vice versa, fights can break out at the drop of a hat.  And the rivalry between these two neighborhoods may have some very serious ramifications that unfamiliar minds will overlook.

For example, Gale Math and Science Academy, a K-8 school right off Howard Street, has experienced severe funding issues and perpetually low test scores, and Ald. Joe Moore (49th Ward) threatened to close it entirely in 2013.  However, there is no other elementary school in the area that can hold the students currently enrolled at Gale, except for Eugene Field Elementary School and Kilmer Elementary School, both located in the Farwell neighborhood near Morse Street.

As of today, Gale is still running, and a potential disaster has been avoided – for now. But in a city with an under-funded public school system, the potential for issues of this nature is always fairly high. Had Gale shut down, Howard area students would have to cross over into rival territory.

“For every school in the nation, that school has a rival,” said Patterson.  “Sometimes you throw toilet paper at your rival school, in other communities you get mean looks across the football stadium.  But in Chicago public schools, where there are gangs involved, you shoot.  That’s how rivalries are settled here in Chicago with some students.  There are some older students in Gale that are partial to this gang violence… We are looking at a direct safety issue here.”

The “Die L’z” video was a clear indication of the rivalry between the two territories, and illustrates the extreme potential for violence in the neighborhood.  This video, however, wasn’t the first incident in Chicago that involved gang-rappers making public threats on social media.

Keith Cozart, known as Chief Keef, a rapper from the South Side of Chicago known for the hits “Love Sosa” and “I Don’t Like,” famously became involved with a gang-related feud that resulted in the death of teenage rapper Joseph Coleman, known as Lil’ Jojo.  Cozart later mocked the death on Twitter, saying in a tweet (that he later deleted), “Its Sad Cuz Dat N—- Jojo Wanted To Be Jus Like Us #LMAO”.

Cozart was also the subject of controversy after he posted pictures of himself aiming a pistol at the camera on Instagram.  Many believe that Cozart represents a dark, violent side of Chicago and sets a bad example for the youth. Most gangs have rap groups, and want to emulate Cozart, the model of the successful Chicago gangster-rapper.

“He is the poster boy,” said Brandon Murray, an outreach specialist for Ceasefire, a controversial anti-violence group in Chicago that uses ex-gang members to ‘interrupt’ the cycle of shootings and revenge.  “He was young, 16, out of the hood, with a six-figure car and a six-figure house.  Kids see it as him saying, ‘if I can do it, you can do it.’”

Violent crime on the South Side of Chicago is an epidemic that has captured the attention of millions nationwide.  According to the website Hey Jackass!, there have been 290 shootings and 45 homicides in the Englewood neighborhood thus far in 2014, where Cozart grew up.  It’s simple to assume that videos like “Die L’z” would surface down there, and not in the tight-knit, up-and-coming neighborhood of Rogers Park.  However, gangsters on the North Side have started to make their presence known, seeking the same street cred that they believe the South Siders have.

A caution that too often goes unheeded on Chicago's streets
A caution that too often goes unheeded on Chicago’s streets

“For a long time, the guys on the North Side never really got the respect or the spotlight like guys from down South or out West,” Murray said.  “Now, it’s a big thing.  They’re saying, ‘we’re doing this over here, if you try to come over here, in our territory, we will deal with you.’”

Although many of these individuals have protected accounts and don’t use their real names on Facebook and YouTube, some of what they post is visible to any one who chooses to look.  This includes the police, and law enforcement agencies are not standing pat.

Since the video was posted on YouTube, two of the people in it have been arrested.  The first was Durane Oden, 22, who was discovered with 38 grams of crack cocaine and a weapon when police searched his home upon suspicion that stemmed from the video.  Oden was on probation for a prior charge.

Then, Darvis Hurt, 21, was arrested for violating parole.  The Chicago Police Department was able to track Hurt down after identifying him in the video, and they nabbed him on weapons charges.

Authorities are actively tracking social media by hiring Internet-monitoring contractors to follow the activity of suspicious individuals.  The customer base for these agencies has multiplied since Facebook and Twitter have exploded, and now, anything that people post online can be used against them.

Bang Da Hitta was arrested on February 24 of 2014 on one count of possession of marijuana with intent to sell, although it is unclear whether or not his arrest was related to the video.

So if law enforcement agencies are actively monitoring social media, why do these gang members feel the need to promote themselves in that manner on YouTube and Facebook if it could mean getting thrown in jail?  One big reason is intimidation.  These individuals like to take photos of themselves with weapons or gang signs in order to intimidate others.

“They’re bragging, they’re basically boasting,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.  “It helps them strike fear into their rivals.  But it can also be used against them.  It’s a double-edged sword.”

“They want to be looked at as gangsters,” said Patterson.  “They want to be looked at as hard.  They want to be looked at as being proficient enough to be able to buy pistols.  They’re not necessarily thinking about the ramifications of their actions.”

Another theory says that gangsters take pictures and record videos of violent acts as a way of reliving the events.  These individuals engage in their lifestyle because they get a rush from fighting or stealing, and video or photographic evidence is a way for them to get that rush again.

“It’s a way to relive a crime,” said Arthur Lurigio, a criminologist at Loyola University Chicago.  “When a criminal takes a video of them performing a beating, for example, watching it again later is almost a way for them to vicariously celebrate the act.  They feel the same type of adrenaline rush as they did when they did the beating.”

Regardless of why these gang members are marketing themselves on social media, they are a real threat to the area of Rogers Park, and they make the gang landscape a whole lot more visible.

Once subject to frequent violence, Rogers Park is now praised for its close community and friendly streets. Street crimes and gang violence that once devastated the neighborhood have become less of an issue over the years due to efforts from Chicago police and city planning.  But now, these gangsters are coming back into the spotlight in a new way.

It’s been over a year since the “Die L’z” video first surfaced. But the violence in Rogers Park still strikes fear into the hearts of residents and law enforcement alike.

There were 10 recorded homicides in Rogers Park last year, and gang activity continues to coarse through the Internet, to the point where Rogers Park Police Cmdr. Thomas Waldera called the online interactions “technological kerosene.” Just as the Internet has changed the world, it has changed the gang landscape, as well.

“There are a lot of people who are very concerned,” said Murray.  “You see these videos, and you notice, ‘Oh my God, I live right down the street.’  You can get caught up in the crossfire.  Your life could be gone because of something you had nothing to do with.”

Maya Voelk and Angelene Sun contributed reporting this story and produced all media, including the below graphic and video.

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