Chicago communities “smokeout” crime

By Sophia Coleman

Fighting crime never tasted so good.

By serving up hamburgers, hot dogs and vegetarian-friendly grilled goods, the Bridgeport, Canaryville and Back of the Yards communities are taking a different approach to battling crime and gang activity.

These barbeque get-togethers, called “smokeouts,” usually take place in front of drug dealers’ homes or in known gang territory. Community groups, like the Bridgeport Citizens Group, round up residents, Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy officers and aldermen to attend the event and promote safety awareness.

“We make sure that everyone in the neighborhood knows we are there,” said Daniel Pugh, director of the Bridgeport Citizens Group. “We aren’t even opposed to the gang members coming out and joining us.”

Typically, the smokeouts take place in the summer months. However, most communities are unopposed to conducting the potlucks through late fall. Pugh said the smokeouts aren’t the ultimate solution, but in order to be effective, they must be consistent and held every month, when weather permits.

At the four events held in Bridgeport so far, at least 50 people have attended each time, rain or shine, Pugh said.

In summer 2010, Pugh held Bridgeport’s first smokeout outside the home of an alleged member of The Satan Disciples. The building was across from where Pugh and his wife, Lynn, live, and was owned by an absentee landlord. Pugh said there were drug deals out of the building and every other week, there were fights outside the property. He said he has heard shots fired there as many as four times, as well.

The dividing line between the turf of the Latin Kings and Satan Disciples is within the Bridgeport neighborhood, which results in heavy gang activity.

The smokeout tactic, which was originally thought of in Canaryville, was a way for all residents to take part without feeling singled out or threatened. Gangs are bold when the community is disorganized, but once they see the community come together and support each other, the gangs tend to move or dissipate, according to Pugh.

“There’s a lot of fear in the community about standing up and saying, ‘I don’t want this behavior,’ because they don’t want to face retaliation,” said Lynn, secretary of BCG. “Showing that there’s a bunch of neighbors on your side makes a big impact.”

Pugh said the overall goal is to change the normal dynamic of the community because drug sales and most gang activities are crimes of convenience.

“They’re not things that happen in an active community where a lot of people are present,” Pugh said. “Gangs require intimidation of locals into staying quiet or simply not being around. We’ve changed that dynamic.”

The Back of the Yards has also taken the smokeout approach to uproot crime and teach children the importance of community involvement.

Rafael Yanez, president of the Union Impact Center in the Back of the Yards, adopted the idea two years ago with the help of CAPS members after a murder occurred in the community.

Yanez was in full support because he knew smokeouts would send a few strong messages.

First, it would show criminals that residents were taking ownership of the community, and secondly it would let children know that they need to continue the effort and reduce violence by coming together.

“It’s more than getting together and eating hot dogs,” Yanez said. “It’s creating awareness that our communities need resources, like information about employment, mental health and foreclosure.”

Yanez said he makes a particular effort to hold the smokeouts in front of high schools or parks to make an impact upon children, because too often they leave the neighborhood thinking they cannot change it. He also said that a lack of resources is why some children turn to crime.

“[Smokeouts] teach children that they should embrace their community, so that when they become professionals, they don’t leave like many do,” Yanez said. “Instead, they should invest in their community and make it better. Smokeouts are a way of igniting that flame.”