BATTLE IS FIGHT FOR STREETS
CHICAGO - On the streets west of
Humboldt Park, in front of busy liquor stores and
boarded-up churches, gang-bangers hang out day
"They are out there 24-7," neighborhood
activist Jimmy Simmons says. "They sell rock
(crack cocaine), intimidate old ladies and
recruit our kids. . . . They create fear, and
that fear stifles our quality of life."
So why aren't the police arresting them?
They did, at one time.
From 1993 to 1995, police hauled in more than
43,000 suspected gang members under a novel
"gang loitering" ordinance that allowed
police to arrest gang members and those who
loiter with them if they refuse to obey a police
order to move on. Fewer than 1% of those arrested
were ever prosecuted, but the police, City
Council members and many neighbors say the
unusual law helped clean up even the meanest of
But three years ago, the law was struck down in
state court as "vague and arbitrary."
And now, in a major clash between individual
rights and community interests, the Supreme Court
will consider whether the Chicago law is
The case will be heard in December or January,
and how the court rules could determine the
future of the "broken window" theory of
community policing currently in vogue among the
nation's law enforcement officials and urban
leaders such as New York Mayor Rudy Giuiliani.
Attacking low-level disorder such as broken
windows, loitering and aggressive panhandling,
proponents say, will help preserve a
neighborhood's quality of life and deter
more-violent crime. "What we have here is
'broken windows' meets the Constitution,"
says Roger Conner of The Center for the Community
Interest, which has helped dozens of cities enact
and defend such laws. "Not allowing the
police to do this means the gangs will win."
Predicting the outcome of the court case is
difficult. Since the 1960s, the Supreme Court has
emphasized the rights of individuals over police,
especially in cases where minorities were targets
of police abuse. Anti-loitering and anti-vagrancy
laws were often used as weapons against blacks in
the South, and the court struck several down.
But times, and the Supreme Court itself, are
different. And some minority communities, instead
of opposing the laws, are asking for them.
To drive home that point, Chicago has taken the
unusual step of presenting the court with
petitions signed by 14,000 residents in favor of
the gang ordinance. The city hopes to convince
the court that community standards - which the
court considers in other contexts, such as
defining obscenity - matter in the context of
fighting crime as well.
"Like other forms of order-maintenance
policing," the residents said in a friend of
the court brief, "the ordinance promotes
obedience to the law primarily through its
positive effect on community social norms."
The case is one of the most closely watched of
the coming Supreme Court term. Cities across the
USA struggling to deal with similar gang problems
are intrigued by Chicago's novel approach. It has
won support from a host of city, county and state
organizations, as well as the attorneys general
of 31 states and the Justice Department.
Law has its opponents
Despite broad support for the law, there are many
in Chicago, including some community activists in
areas hardest hit by gang violence, who oppose
When the City Council adopted the ordinance, 11
aldermen, all of them black or Hispanic, voted
against it. And while Rep. Luis Gutierrez,
D-Ill., supports the law, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.,
D-Ill., has joined the NAACP and the National
Council of La Raza in opposing the ordinance.
"It's an anti-freedom-of-assembly law that
has been applied mostly against young people of
color," says Warren Friedman of the Chicago
Alliance for Neighborhood Safety.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing
66 people arrested under the ordinance, says the
law gives police far too much discretion and
violates cherished freedoms such as the right of
association and the freedom to move freely and to
travel. For example, the named plaintiff in the
case, Jesus Morales, 17, was arrested while
hobbling home from the hospital on crutches.
Police stopped him because he was wearing blue
and black, typical gang colors in Chicago.
Another defendant, Gregorio Gutierrez, was jailed
for 27 days after he was arrested standing on a
corner with his brother and another man, eating a
"The police are just arresting people
willy-nilly," says Harvey Grossman, legal
director of the the Illinois ACLU. He says
current laws that prohibit intimidation or
gathering for the purpose of committing crimes
give police adequate power to keep gang members
off the street, when they are acting in an
But Mayor Richard Daley, who calls the estimated
100,000 members of Chicago gangs "the No. 1
menace to our cities," says the law is an
important tool in the city's community policing
strategy - as simple and as effective as removing
grafitti or repairing broken windows. Besides,
Daley says, "Community support was
overwhelming - and it came from all parts of the
For Simmons, who is African-American, the issue
is not racism but creating the sort of
neighborhood where Burger King doesn't have to be
convinced that it's safe to build a restaurant
and developers don't have to be cajoled into
building 16 townhouse units, as happened in West
Humboldt Park, a blue-collar neighborhood midway
between downtown and O'Hare International
It's also about creating an environment where
residents feel safe standing in their yards or
walking to the store without having to cross the
street to avoid young toughs.
"Those judges who said this is
discriminatory, they don't live down here. Let
them come down one weekend and see how they like
it," Simmons says. "I'm sure no one is
selling crack in their neighborhoods."