There’s new exhibit in Chicago that challenges visitors to rethink their understanding of public institutions and power hierarchies. Called Report to the Public, it showcases the history of the Conservative Vice Lords, a gang that operated in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood. (The CVL are a subset of the larger Vice Lord Nation, which was established in the late 1950s.)Report to the Public opened in mid-2012 and was created by Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, which is known for its innovative programming. Yet in an effort to make it more accessible to the larger Chicago community, the main exhibit is not at the Hull-House Museum itself but rather in the public gallery at the In These Times offices, where it’s not hidden behind the museum’s intimidating pillared façade. There’s also a subsidiary “pop-up” exhibit that moves physically around the Lawndale area.
The exhibit runs through January 25, and its tagline is An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords. Wisely, it makes no claims about whether this is the “real” story or whether other, equally valid stories might exist. Said untold story is loosely organized around a moment in the late 1960s when the Conservative Vice Lords sought to remodel themselves as an activist community organization. The rebranding effort spanned years and used multifaceted strategies—from clothing CVL members in classy uniform sweaters, to a breast cancer testing drive, to conversations with the Rockefeller Foundation. For a brief time, the CVL seemed well on their way to legitimacy and genuine political power. Of course, they had criminal roots, but as Hull-House Education Coordinator Lisa Junkin told me: “A core group truly had rejected street gang behavior, although those at the fringes did not. CVL leaders had great intentions and the gang was not mired in scandal, unlike others of its kind.” (Full disclosure: Lisa is a former colleague and longtime friend of mine.)Besides, the CVL were far from the only political group with criminal roots. At the same time that they were laboriously building their reputation, the Chicago Machine—nurtured by the Irish gangs that produced Mayor Daley and other high-level politicians—was gaining power too. Other gangs collaborated and curried favor with the CVL during their own political journeys.Unluckily for the CVL, those gangs reached the finish line first, then used their power to take down the competition. Lisa said: “My favorite artifact in the exhibit is a photo of George Collins, a Lawndale alderman, and he’s standing with the State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, and they’re both under the Teen Town sign that the CVL would hang. On the surface, it looks like this moment of great support. They’re together with the CVL, with their thumbs up. But if you know the history, you know that less than a year later, Hanrahan turned on the CVL and launched the ‘War On Gangs’ with Mayor Daley.”That 1969 “War on Gangs” led to a swift official investigation into the CVL, after which key members were jailed. Soon, the Rockefeller Foundation’s support melted away. It goes without saying that gangs are associated with violence. It’s hard to stand in the exhibit without remembering that in 2012, Chicago had the most gang members of any US city and saw a spike in gang-related shootings. It’s impossible to forget the countless tragic headlines, the stray bullets.But the exhibit also makes the context of that violence unavoidable: Chicago is “False Confession Capital” of the USA, for example, and the racial targeting of the “War On Drugs” across the country is appallingly clear. And did the “War on Gangs” really fight these conditions, or make them worse? Lisa noted, “This moment in time [shown in the exhibit] speaks to some of the roots of the Prison-Industrial Complex that we see now—the way that African-American gangs were selectively targeted.” This institutional violence wiped out emerging African-American leaders; contributed to negative racial stereotyping; and left communities fragmented, disempowered, and alienated.“There was a question we asked in the exhibit,” Lisa went on, “which was: Can gangs bring peace to the streets today? And a lot of people would say they can’t. Gangs today are more violent, they’re better armed, and the structures that create them are different. But I think there was a moment in time when things could have been different. Scholars have insisted that the way to stop gang violence is to appeal to the aspects of gang members’ identities and personalities that want good things for themselves and their community, friends and family. To educate people to understand that the conditions they’re facing have larger societal roots, and those roots can be changed.”One reason Report to the Public works is that Lisa is so experienced with community engagement. She’s very willing to cede credit and authority to great community partners—crucial for an exhibit documenting a gang within which Lisa herself had no previous experience. Among the partners Lisa mentioned were exhibit co-curators Benneth Lee, a former Insane Vice Lord and a founder of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated, and Bobby Gore, the former CVL spokesman.Of course, Lisa encountered some pushback while researching the exhibit—much of it within the Lawndale community. (She was unable to get in touch with any of the white politicians who came from gang roots.) “For a while,” she said, “I would encounter people around Lawndale who were skeptical of this project. They didn’t understand why the museum would celebrate a problematic history. Some were people like Black Panthers, who felt like others had been doing this kind of community work at the same time as the CVL—so why would you draw attention to an organization that was so problematic? After all, the CVL were violent, protective of territory, etc. But as a public historian, I strongly feel that my role is not necessarily celebration.”But wasn’t there bad press in the mainstream media? Apparently not. “I’ve learned that as long as you do it right, you can push pretty hard,” said Lisa, “though of course the goal is never to shock. You have to cover every single base, talk to every single scholar, know the criticism before you launch anything. I feared bad press, but we didn’t get any. It turns out that we are our own worst censors.”Ultimately, though, inclusiveness has its limits. Every artist, activist, and educator makes compromises in order to reach the public. So plenty of ideas ended up on the cutting room floor. For instance, curators scaled back their plans for the opening wall of Report to the Public, which is spread with photographs underneath the question: “What is a gang?” Lisa explained that “we had a lot of different thoughts as to what that section might be. We talked about including pictures of groups that former CVL members have compared to gangs, like the Boy Scouts. Or Congress! But as we started looking at these potential controversies, we realized that those choices would be so quickly criticized that it could distract the audience from the rest of the exhibit. In the end, we decided to explore the real gangs in Chicago’s past. One of the gangs we pictured went on to become a Boy Scout troop, and several went into politics. So it was a reminder to me that you can rely on the real history to say something, instead of feeding your point to the audience.”The lessons displayed in Report to the Public are far-reaching—and they aren’t just about gangs, or race, or even Chicago. They’re about how revered institutions like the Hull-House can bring their reputations to bear on behalf of untold stories. They’re about the mechanisms of hierarchy. And they’re about how politics can turn on a dime, and how those changes can rebound on gigantic communities. If Congress is a gang, then what is international relations? Why do we see tribalism as primarily an African problem when it’s clear that humans all over the world, including the USA, fight violent and bitter wars with our neighbors and in our backyards?Sticky notes and pens scattered around the exhibit invited commentary from visitors. Under the question, “What other groups would you include in a list of gangs?” were handwritten answers such as “family,” “Wall St.,” “police,” and a sketch of the Earth labeled “the human race.”The exhibit is up the In These Times offices, 2040 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, through January 25.
Lydia Laurenson is an arts & culture writer who has served in Peace Corps Swaziland and designed games for White Wolf. She works as a social media strategist in San Francisco and Chicago. Find her on Twitter @lydialaurenson.