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Guns, Money, Death, and the Dude — Welcome to Chiraq

The ongoing gun violence in Chicago is enraging and sad for a group of men standing on a South Side street corner. But it also has its own kind of inevitable logic.

by Charlie LeDuff
Jun 24 2015, 5:20pm

Watch Charlie LeDuff's report from Chicago on 'The Americans'

The problem with Chicago is geography.

It is a giant, sprawling city where men cannot cross unfamiliar streets, alleyways, or expressways. To do so is to gamble recklessly with one's life.

Yet still, men gamble. After trending downward in 2013, murder and gunplay in the city are back in fashion. There have been more than 200 killings so far this year in Chicago — up about 15 percent. And there have been more than 1,000 shootings.

More Americans have been murdered in Chicago in the last 15 years than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

Much of the mayhem happens on the South and West sides. The black and brown sides. What they call Chiraq. In the racial mathematics of America, a black person is six times more likely to be the victim of a murder than a white person, and eight times more likely to be the murderer.

Why is that? I went to Chiraq to ask.

Whenever I travel, I avoid the corridors of power, the clubs of high importance, the restaurants with starched table clothes. You'll get no answers to real life there. You have to go to the alley. A meeting with a group of men was set up for me on a South Side backstreet.

"Why are black men slaughtering each other?" I asked one of the assembled men. He was dressed in a dark hoodie. He was handsome, goateed, and worn. Not old, but not young. Sullen and intense. He gave me no name. So I called him Dude.

Related: Watch the VICE News documentary series 'Last Chance High,' filmed in Chicago

"We're bust in our communities," Dude said. "We're overpopulated. Look around. Do you see any stores? Do you see any places where anybody can work? It's not enough jobs for a third of us… any of us. We're standing in front of an abandoned building."

Dude, who describes his occupation as a minder of his own business, is an informed man. Consider: Black unemployment tops 25 percent in Chicago as compared to 7 percent for whites and 12 percent for Latinos. That number skyrockets to 92 percent for black teenagers.

'Guess what? Some people got to die for some people to live.'

Another man, this one much larger than Dude, said, "There ain't no jobs. A man's gonna do what he's got to do to feed his family."

A third member of the crew, a man with a tattooed neck who was dressed in a Captain America t-shirt, explained the attractiveness of warring with your own. You can't fight City Hall. You can't fight police. You can't fight globalization. But you can fight the shadow across the alley. You can fight him for control of low-slung buildings with their windows smashed out. You can fight him for title to the local playground. You can fight him for the drug business of black and white customers alike.

You do him before he does it to you. A Malthusian two-step.

"We don't want to keep going back and forth killing our youth and our brothers," Captain America said. "But guess what? Some people got to die for some people to live."

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Charlie LeDuff answers questions on VICE News' 'On the Line'

The majority of inmates at Chicago's Cook County Jail are black and doing time for drug sales or drug possession, according to Sheriff Tom Dart. The main branch of government with which black people deal on a regular basis is the criminal justice system. Police who drive through South Side neighborhoods are routinely greeted by teenagers with a wave of the middle finger.

Adding to the dissonance is Chicago's Superintendent of Police, Garry McCarthy. When asked recently about the violence, McCarthy got snippy with the press. "There are a lot less shooting than there were last year," he said. "I don't know if you are aware of that."

Actually, shootings in the city have risen by about 20 percent. That's according to numbers supplied by McCarthy's own Chicago Police Department.

Chicago's schools, especially in black sections of the city, are underperforming and underfunded. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has closed nearly 50 of them, many on the South Side. Now the school buildings sit empty, mocking. More outrageous, the superintendent of schools recently resigned under a federal corruption probe, having allegedly steered $20 million in no-bid contracts to her own company. Stealing from babies.

Other parts of Chicago are doing great. Public money has been pumped into private development projects. But few jobs go to south siders. Meanwhile, vapors are steaming from the neighborhood streets. Manufacturing jobs are long gone, and one of the few careers left is holding up the corner. A never-ending swirl toward the drain.

"The real color problem in America is green," one of the men said. "People around here don't got it. Then you're fighting like rats."

And so the corner must be defended.

Related: Detroit's 'Walking Man' Walks On

"Can't you just get away?" I asked Dude. I may as well have been asking if he had the power of resurrection.

"How?" he spat. "By what means? Pack up and just wander around out there and hope I make it? Shit. I don't even make enough to pay my rent. I ain't saved up to go out of town. Kids needs clothes. Shit."

The rain started falling like marbles. The men began to scatter.

"It's raining," I said to Dude. "Maybe nobody dies tonight?"

"No," he replied, pulling up his hood. "They gonna die tonight."

Follow Charlie LeDuff on Twitter: @Charlieleduff