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Making Counter-Law: On Having No Apparent Purpose in Chicago

NCJ Number
British Journal of Criminology Volume: 49 Issue: 2 Dated: March 2009 Pages: 131-149
Ron Levi
Date Published
March 2009
19 pages
This paper examines how Chicago residents' and city aldermen's understandings of law as a pragmatic tool were critical to investing in the gang loitering ordinance as a political response during a time of heightened anxiety and insecurity.
In response to Chicago's surge in violence in 1991, the City of Chicago enacted a gang loitering ordinance, making it an offense to have 'no apparent purpose' on city streets. The theory motivating the Gang Congregation Ordinance was the city's view that the very presence of gang members, even with abstaining from illegal activity, produced a harmful and menacing environment. The ordinance was designed to police the doing of 'nothing'; it addressed the present harms said to result from gang members' visibility on the public way. Most recent research explored the governmental rationalities that inspired the ordinance. However, there remains little emphasis on how the ordinance was produced, how having 'no apparent purpose' was identified as harmful, and how this ordinance was adopted as a strategy to quell Chicago's violence. In an attempt to answer this question, this paper focuses on the testimony of Chicago residents before City Council's Committee on Police and Fire. Everyday Chicagoans spoke of the problems they faced during the violence in the early 1990s, and how law might be marshaled to help in their struggles. The residents spoke of their fear of gangs, and of the disorder and related neighborhood concerns. This paper analyzes the testimonies of Chicago residents and aldermen to draw out the lay narratives of insecurity that underwrote the ordinance. References