Nathan Norman, a former member of the Gangster Disciples, now tries to recruit youth away from street life. RoundTable photo

Gangs of today’s Evanston differ in structure, composition and purpose from those in the ’90s, City and police officials say.

Detective Michael Andre of the Evanston Police Department’s Investigative Services Bureau defines a gang as “a group of people with common dress or symbols who act in furtherance of a crime.”

Det. Andre said some former distinctions of gang membership – colors, clothing and extreme loyalty, for example – are fading from the gangs of the 21st century. Membership is fragmented and fluid, and new, small gangs form and re-form. The antisocial aspects of gangs – the guns, the crime, the drugs and the violence – however, remain. Members of these new gangs have weapons, use drugs and commit robberies but do so for their own personal gain, not for the sake of the gang, he said.

Drugs, Guns But No Enterprise

 “Gangs are less organized now,” Det. Andre said. “They’ve evolved to become more disorganized so members can avoid the label of being a gang member. This is a national trend. They are more tech-savvy; there are fewer uniforms, and there is fragmentation.” Some gangs in Evanston, he said, are “affiliated with Chicago gangs.” He mentioned names of some of the gangs but the RoundTable has chosen not to print them.

These gangs make money through drug sales and robberies, said Det. Andre. “A lot of the activities center on drugs,” he said. Gangs can control an area through intimidation. “They intimidate people by standing on a street corner,” he said.

Kevin Brown, Youth and Young Adult Coordinator for the City of Evanston, refers to those groups in Evanston as “cliques” rather than “gangs. … Gangs had an enterprise and sold drugs, guns and stolen property. The difference today between gangs and ‘cliques’ is that [cliques] associate together but are not necessarily driven by enterprise. They have sort of a glorified idea of what a gang is. … These are groups of kids who are lost, alienated, disaffected [and] who are finding one another and forming these cliques.”

Nathan Norman, a former member of the Gangster Disciples who works as an outreach worker for the City of Evanston, said, “Since the late ’90s, there has been no structure in gangs. You have a bunch of displaced gang members who hang together. … They come together for the common cause of violence.”

By any name, these gangs or cliques are responsible for a significant number of violent crimes in Evanston.

Violence and Antisocial Activities

The City of Evanston Youth and Young Adult Division and the Evanston Police Department are each addressing the problem, working to hold accountable those responsible for crimes and to bring others into programs and support systems that will help them change their lifestyles.

There are about 400 documented gang members in Evanston, Deputy Police Chief Jeff Jamraz told residents at a joint Fourth and Ninth ward meeting on Sept. 10. A similar number, he said, appear to be members of gangs but have not been documented as such.

Gangs in Evanston are primarily composed of minority youth and young adults ages 16-30, said Det. Andre. Mr. Brown sets the ages only slightly differently – 13 to 26. They are for the most part but not wholly male, said Det. Andre. Young women who are either members of gangs or friends of gang members sometimes help them by selling or hiding drugs, Deputy Chief Jamraz said.

Conflicts between and among these gangs appear to be personal, said Det. Andre. The conflicts can be about family or drugs; some can stem from a long-lasting antipathy and “some are just conflicts of the streets,” he said.

Mr. Brown said, “The kids banter against one another on social media. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – that’s where the disputes occur. [The violence comes] when they come out of cyber-space into reality.”

Respect and relationships are the causes of most disputes, Mr. Brown said. “Someone feels disrespected. Or there is a fight over girls or boys – the typical kinds of things many of us experienced in grade school. Unfortunately, most of them have obtained weapons. Instead of fighting, they pull out a gun and shoot each other,” he added.

Mr. Brown’s estimate of the number of violent youth is much lower than the police department’s estimate that there are hundreds of gang members here. “There is probably a group of no more than 40 or 45 who will actually pull out a gun and shoot each other. There’s a small group of people who are violent enough to try to harm someone with a weapon.” 

Even so, said Mr. Brown, “Although these kids tend to target one another, in their efforts to get at one another, they can harm us. … That’s what alarms me. It’s dangerous for the entire community when even a few have guns.”

City Outreach

Mr. Brown’s division works to get kids off the street and connect them with resources that will help them further their education and prepare for a job. “Our strategy is to siphon them off from gangs,” he said.

To do that, said Mr. Norman, “I build a relationship with them, see if they are serious about leaving the street and wanting to get out. … The biggest challenge is to pull someone from that lifestyle.”

Mr. Norman said that, once a person indicates that he is serious, “we start then to connect them to the resources, let them know that [constructive] things they have done can be documented to build a resume. … When you show these young men they have some sort of support behind them – once you get that trust, it’s very easy to help them.”

Both men and women work on the City’s outreach team, said Mr. Brown. “They help these young individuals locate resources that will help them with their lives. … Evanston is a resource-rich community [but these young men and women] don’t know how to access or manage them. What the City has done is create a [program] – to reach out to these individuals and connect them to the resources. … Just increasing the number of jobs can help,” he added.

The Moran Center, Connections, the Youth Job Center, the Evanston Public Library, Evanston Township High School, the Howard Area Employment Center and Oakton Community College offer resources to help with legal problems, including sealing and expunging juvenile records;  GED classes and GED-preparedness classes; job training and job-readiness skills, Mr. Brown said. 

“I think we have made a difference,” Mr. Brown said. “We don’t have all the answers, but we have some answers.” He said he hopes the community will support the Youth Division in the upcoming budget process.

What the Community Can Do

The community can get involved to help eradicate gangs and the associated violence. They can help immediately by calling police about suspicious behavior, or they can help longer-term by becoming a mentor, said Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson.

 “It’s important to make that call immediately [if you see something], because if you wait, something could happen,” he said. It is possible to make an anonymous call or text, he said, but being willing to come forward is also important. “Police need witnesses,” he said. 

“The City is taking a two-pronged approach: ‘Let’s get it stopped, and, longer-term, get to kids before they’re in third grade,” said Ninth Ward Alderman Coleen Burrus.

Mr. Brown said residents can volunteer to mentor through the McGaw Y, the schools, Big Brother/Big Sister or other local organizations. They can also “visit local businesses and ask those businesses to hire our young people.”

“At the core is the need for education,” said Ald. Wilson. “You can get kids into a good school, but they have to see an opportunity at the end. We have a plethora of social services and not-for-profits. With the Evanston Cradle to Career Initiative, the idea is to get these organizations to work more cohesively together … [and] to make sure the kids have a safe environment at home and at school.

“I encourage everyone to volunteer. … It’s personal engagement that makes a difference in people’s lives. We’re not going to give up.”

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...