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Barbershop: Former Members Talk About What Led Them To Join Gangs In Chicago


All this hour, we've been talking violence in Chicago. We've been talking about this because of the sheer numbers. To be clear, other cities have higher murder rates per capita, even worse gun violence on a per capita basis, but nowhere are the sheer numbers as high as they are in Chicago. So far this hour, we've heard from local and national officials and academics and activists who've been trying to address this.

But we also wanted to hear from people who've been involved with violence, especially people who've been involved with gangs. So we reached out to Edwin Day, Mario Hardiman and Andre Evans. All of these men grew up on the South Side of Chicago and were introduced to gang life in their early teens. Edwin and Mario grew up in the early '90s when the city was experiencing its last big spike in violence. Andre grew up there more recently in the late 2000s. All of these men are now activists who try to steer kids away from gang life, and they're all with us now. Gentlemen, thank you all so much for being with us.

EDWIN DAY: Thank you.



MARTIN: So Mr. Day, Edwin, I'm going to start with you because you're a teeny bit older, so, you know, what most people want to know is what's the appeal?

DAY: Wow. The appeal - I think that when you think about it, young people who are looking for something to gravitate toward, that feeling of ownership or belonging. And so I think they just kind of gravitated towards it because of that. I think that if there were other avenues or outlets or resources that was available, then they would particularly gravitate towards that...

MARTIN: Can you tell us your story a little bit?

DAY: Yes.

MARTIN: What is your story?

DAY: Yes.

MARTIN: What happened with you?

DAY: I experienced being involved in gang life, gang activity at an early age. As an early teen and adolescent, my mother passed which was my rock, my everything, and so once she passed, that caused me to not necessarily know how to grieve in that grieving process. And over time, it changed our living situation - ended up moving with the grandparents and eventually ended up kind of gravitating towards that which caused me to be involved with gangs, to be involved with drugs. And, yeah - that's pretty much the story, but glory be to God that I was able to make it out.

MARTIN: Mario, what about you? What's your story?

HARDIMAN: Well, I grew up in the (unintelligible) houses which is - which they tore those projects down and rebuilt it to what is called West Haven Park now, I believe. So I was born there about - roughly about '79 and so coming up there, I came from a pretty dysfunctional background where most of my uncles and aunts were getting high off heroin, cocaine and some of the - some of my female relatives were prostitutes.

So - and in that environment, most of the other people in the neighborhood were the pimps, drug dealers, dice shooters, ticket scalpers, some type of hustler, some type of, you know, shyster. So I looked up to those characters and eventually became somewhat of a few of those characters myself - gambling and selling drugs, using marijuana. So coming from that dysfunction, all of those behaviors are learned. So a lot of these guys that are carrying out these shootings and acting up on the streets - it comes from a lot of times the uncles, other older males in the neighborhood. It's pretty much all of this stuff is learned.

MARTIN: Andre, what about you? What's your story?

EVANS: So my story, you know, I was born in Detroit. I'm actually a triplet, so, you know, my biological father was on drugs. And so we moved from Detroit to Inglewood, so I grew up in Inglewood where my grandmother still lives. And then from there, I bounced around to 2644 which is more closer to the West side, but still, you know - still is still on the South side. And now my family's in Chatham. And so, you know, I bounced around - but anyway, it's the same pattern. You know, I felt isolated, you know - the whole emotional thing. You're just dealing with my emotions and not having my biological father in my life.

And so that really compelled me to - that was the number one source of why I wanted to - why I got involved in GDN. And I think the second reason was really to protect my brothers as well. You know, there would be a lot of times when, you know, people would be having hits out on my brothers or things happening to my brothers and just in a lot of ways, it was a way for me to protect them. And I'm the same thing with Mario. I was more of a hustler. I was more of a thing to do enough what I had to do to kind of fit the role. I fit the part where, you know, like Dre's cool. He's down. But I never had to, you know, like I said, God bless that I never had to kill anyone or anything of that nature. But I was always fighting, always in the streets, always doing different ways to make money. But I never did get involved with the drug scene or more so, you know, like I say, killing people.

MARTIN: Edwin, what about you? Did you ever shoot anybody?

DAY: No. I haven't. I haven't shot anybody, but I've tried to shoot people...

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. Well, why?

DAY: Well, I was involved in gang life. I felt that there was others that was trying to do to me and my people bodily harm, and so we felt at the time that we would protect ourselves at all costs. And so there were times that I would pick up a gun and try to shoot people. I didn't - I've never done it or I never shot anybody, but I have shot a gun and tried to shoot people. And the ironic thing about that, I guess, things come full circle. I was shot. And so...

MARTIN: That's part of the story, isn't it?

DAY: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.

MARTIN: That people are as likely to be victims as they are to be perpetrators. Right? So why - what happened with that? Why did you get shot?

DAY: And so what happened was - like I say - we were involved in gangs and drugs, and so you're talking about monies being exchanged. And so that's what changes. That's where the violence heightens when you talk about drugs and monies and things of a sort. And so at this particular time, we were in what was called a gang war. And so guys would come in and try to shoot us and kill us, and we would kind of go back and forth try to shoot them and kill them.

And so one particular night, I was in a home where we were kind engaging in all of this negative activity. I was leaving out and actually prepared to go and put my gear on to go and cause somebody else harm. And so unknowing to myself as I walked down the stairs, there was a guy that was waiting for me on the side of the building in the bushes or what have you. And he could have killed me. I will say that he could have killed me because he could have waited 'til I got to the bottom step and just kind of walk right up on me and shot me in the back of the head, but he didn't. And I thank God for that.

He waited until I kind of got to the edge of the curb, and he rose up out of the gangway and he started to shoot me. And so as I ran, I'm running across the street trying to get to my house, and I kind of catch one in the back of my leg. And I felt that and from then I continued to catch numerous shots - my back, my leg, my arms - all over. It was a total of nine shots that I ended up receiving. I can remember it kind of like it was yesterday. I was telling myself if I can just make it to the other side of the street, I'll be fine. And so he continued to shoot, unload on me. And I did make it. I did make it to the other side of the street. And by the time I made it to the other side of street, I had caught so many shots that I just kind of collapsed right there. He was gone. I was down. And that's what happened.

MARTIN: Well, we're glad you made it...

DAY: Amen.

MARTIN: ...To the other side of the street. One of the reasons we're having this conversation today is that, as you know, there were more than 700 murders in Chicago in 2016. There were 4,000 people shot in 2016. Why is this happening? Andre, do you have some insights into this? I mean, people - there are - there's one argument that back in the day, these gangs were basically businesses. They were like organized criminal enterprises and that there were structures. Now, that isn't necessarily - that's not seen as a positive thing, but that there was more order.

Now people are saying that it's actually a lot more chaotic and that these are really loose affiliations that people just shoot each other over disputes that, you know, other people might have an argument about, but it becomes deadly. Do you - Andre, do you have some insights into that? And obviously I want to hear from the others, too.

EVANS: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I agree. When you have different factions, you don't have leadership, and people can kind of run amok and do what they want to do. Then, you know, you've got these kids - plus I see, you know, close down these schools. And they close down - what? - the 20, 25 schools in (unintelligible). It made it worse because now you've got these kids that are crossing into other territory, and they're forced to confront those things.

And that's why I mentioned that I think in this day and age, it can be even more risky because I've - I even know friends that, you know, that were shot at or that were always being jumped or that were forced to join gangs just because they live somewhere. And they be like oh, so-and-so come from this block, so we going to mess with him like that, you know, just do random pick-'em-outs, as they say, just because so-and-so comes from that side of the street per se. You know, and I had one of my best friends in high school who, you know, tried to join a gang, and they beat his jaw in with the gun. So, you know, I've - I can go stories for days on just different experiences that I witnessed and I've seen and just the impact of the divide of it all.

MARTIN: Edwin, what about you? Why is this happening?

DAY: Well, I feel like young people at this stage that we're in in Chicago, I think we have young people who are just kind of hopeless and giving up as it relates to life and doing something productive in their life. And so, yeah, that's what I think it is. Young people are just - they're caught up in a culture and a way of life, even saying I can - and that's a part of the reason why we do what we do today, you know, to go out and to mentor, walk with young people and try to get them to dream again, get them to have hope again is because I think that when we were out, you know, there was a certain level of violence and things that happened on in the community.

But it's so much worse now. And so we want to try to go in, and we want to try to clean up what we did because I think that our young people just really don't have the hope. They can't see themselves outside of that 8 to 12-block radius or they can't see themselves doing well for them and their families outside of committing violent acts.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, obviously, the hopeful part of our conversation is that each of you found a way out. And so I just wanted to ask each of you what is your story about how one can get out? And by extension, what would fix this? What would change this so that we're not continuing to have this conversation year after year after year? Edwin, do you want to start?

DAY: I think that it starts by really having a love and a concern for someone other than yourself, to be able to go out and say, you know what? Let me go in and let me grab one. I'll just grab it. It doesn't have to be a whole group of young people, but let me grab one and talk to him. I think that it starts with love. It starts with compassion. It starts with caring for someone other than yourself.

MARTIN: Mario, what about you, Mario Hardiman?

HARDIMAN: Yes. I don't have a clear answer for that, but I can say that my experience is with traveling a lot and seeing that the world was bigger than Chicago and understanding that black people weren't doing the same things everywhere I went. I've been to - last year alone I went to like 10 different cities to experience what the black experience was in different places, and I saw that Chicago - that's small, you know. Chicago is very small when you look at things outside of that and what's happening outside of it.

I start realizing though through travel that I really wasn't living life because in Chicago, despite - when the people come here and they love the city and they see Navy Pier and they see downtown, they see Lake Shore Drive, that's all beautiful. But most of us that come from Chicago, we stay within probably a eight to 10-block radius and don't go too much further than that. So we're pretty much confined because we're scared of the violence. So people are saying that, you know, there's so many people are afraid especially like white people right now in the city, but black people are more afraid than anybody in the city because we're the ones who are confined to these radiuses and the violence around us.

But I don't know how we could do this, but we need to have, like, maybe a special correlation (ph) that comes from the government and that will aid the black community and stand behind the black community and let the black people lead their own efforts to solve some of these problems because the problem is a lot of people of these social service organizations and a lot of these other institutions - they don't actually understand what's going on there.

MARTIN: Andre, what about you? Final thought from you.

EVANS: I think that everyone has to find their hustle. So for me, you know, I'm a motivational speaker. And maybe a lot of that comes with the Navy. I've been to Compton. I've been to Miami, St. Louis. I go to a lot of any major city. And I just go to the different hoods and I - in those urban communities, I try to speak to them from my experiences in Chicago. And I'm always being able to relate to them.

Compton showed me so much love. You know, (unintelligible) - so it's really for me is like they - one of the other gentlemen mentioned before, it's, you know, Chicago has our issues, but there are a lot of ties and a lot of parallels in other black, urban communities. And so really for me what - trying to tie it together - what I'm really trying to say is about find your hustle is, for me, speaking - motivational speaking is my hustle. That's my way, you know, right now of giving back to the community, but I think that there are multiple ways to tackle if you want to look at Chicago alone, deal with the situation.

MARTIN: But before I let you go, may I ask you all do you have hope? Do you believe that in your lifetimes this can be fixed?

DAY: This is Edwin. I believe that things will change, I mean, because even now as we sit at various places at this roundtable and just kind of talking about it - starting with the dialogue, and you have younger people - even though you have violence that's going on in the community, you do have young people who are trying to affect change in their communities, that are raising up. And I do believe it's not going to take one of us, but it's going to take all of us.

And so I believe that the tide is changing. But what gets publicized is the negative, and so times are going to change, and we just have to keep our hands to the plough and continue to move forward with the change that we want to see in our community and our world.

MARTIN: Edwin Day, Mario Hardiman and Andre Evans are all former Chicago gang members. Mario Hardiman and Edwin Day are speaking to us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Andre Evans joins us from Charleston, S.C. Andre is actually a graduate of the Naval Academy, and I do want to mention that all of them are now activists who work to steer other kids away from involvement in gangs. Thank you all so much for joining us today and happy New Year to you.

DAY: Thank you.

EVANS: Thank you.

HARDIMAN: Happy New Year to you as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.