Chicago Tribune Feb. 11 1998
The Saints have grown more violent and more diverse since forming in the 1960s.
By Steve Mills and Diego Bufiuel
In the heart of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, around the park where Saul Alinsky got his start in the late 1930s working with juvenile delinquents, the Saints street gang has long been an unwelcome and dangerous institution.
When the formed in the early 1960s, the Saints were made up mostly of Polish-American youths whose parents worked in the nearby stockyards and in the small shops on Ashland Avenue. Their main activity was hanging out.
These days, the Saints sometimes are called the Almighty Saints or the Latin Saints-a reflection of their current membership of mostly Mexican youths whose families have displaced many of the Poles in this neighborhood of framer houses.
In a city known for it's fearsome supergangs- criminal enterprises like the Latin Kings and the Gangster Disciples- the Saints stand out as an example of the street corner gang that still hangs on in many neighborhoods.
Their territory is smaller and their involvement in drug trafficking is limited-although they can fight viciously over it. The Saints represent another facet of neighborhood gangs in the 1990s. They often are a mixture of races and ethnicities that mirror the community.
Where it not for the shooting last week of two teenagers, allegedly by a 12-year old boy who had recently joined the Saints and donned their colors of light blue and black, the Saints would still be one of the dozens of gangs in this city known only in their neighborhoods.
But the shooting outside a church at West 50th and Paulina Streets, has lifted their profile and has helped dispel the myth that street gangs are made up of youths of only one race.
While these smaller gangs harken back to Chicago's white ethnic gangs of decades ago, they stand out now because of their access to guns their sporadic outbursts of violence.
They have always been a low key gang, said David Jarmusz, the Chicago police gang specialist who followed the Saints for a decade in the 1980s and 1990s. Real, real violent crimes were never their forte.
If that is changing now it is happening on the streets around Davis Square Park, the city green where Alinsky did some of his first work as a community activist and organizer. Teachers in nearby schools speak of gang war between the Saints, who range from 43rd to 47th streets, and their rivals to the south, the Latin Souls.
Gang combat and the potential for violence it brings means that neighborhood children are especially vulnerable, both in recruitment and stray gunfire.
Each weekday at around 1:30pm, Assistant Principle Tony Perez stands outside the Chavez Multicultural Academic Center keeping a watchful eye on the students pouring out. Come on, go home! You don't want to be shot, he yells into a megaphone.
Perez believes these instructions are crucial. I dont have a choice. This is serious, he said. At the corner over there, there have been five shootings in the past year.
On Tuesday, school officials and community activists, who came together to form the Back of the Yards Educational Coalition, put the finishing touches on a program to help keep school children safe each day. In an effort similar to the one now used at the Robert Taylor Homes, adult volunteers next week will walk students to and from eight community schools, including Chavez.
Furthermore, area schools will receive more city funding for after-school programs to keep middle school children busy throughout the afternoon, officials said.
We are trying to fight the way gangs recruit children, said Daniel Alvarez, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Human Services. We need to give kids meaningful activities between the crucial hours of 3 and 6 p.m.
What Saints care about is turf, a commodity worth dying over if you are young and a devoted member of the gang. Walk the streets and you see graffiti marking the territory, especially the Saint's stickman figure with halo.
On the south side of the viaduct, the word Souls is spray painted. Four streets define who you are, not your race or who you are, said one 14 year old boy who used to be a Saint. It does not matter if you are Latino, white, or black, although the Saints several dozens members are mostly Mexican with some whites .Gang experts says most gangs are willing to accept any population.
As a new population moves into the neighborhood, the gang changes just like the neighborhood, said Ervin Spergel, a gang expert at the University of Chicago. They really do accurately reflect the community.
Some gangs have underwent complete makeovers, from being multi white decades to being multicultural or largely Latino today.
The Saints took shape in the early part of the 1960s around West 45th and Wood streets, and their goal was to control the neighborhood. They took their name from the popular television program that stared Roger Moore and they even borrowed from the show their graffiti, said Jarmusz.
In some depiction, the Stickman is standing on a cloud, smoking a cigarette, and holding a staff in the shape of a cross according to a police handbook.
They started out as a group of kids hanging on a corner acting tough, said Sue Malone a longtime resident and manager of Back of the Yard Journal, a weekly newspaper in the neighborhood . They'd stay out there until dark, until their folks called them in. Their most serious offense was throwing rocks. But in the 1970s as Latinos begin to move south from Pilsen and Little Village communities, that gang began to change. At some point that gang changed their name to Latin Saints, although many simply use Saints today. When Jarmusz began following the gang in 1982 ,there were still a good number of Polish Amercian youths on the gang, although the majority were Latino. At the same time the gang got into some drug sales, but not on a scale to challenge bigger gangs. Jarmusz said that the gang never numbered more than 100 or so members. If they had rules, they were not strict. Many gang members dismissed the notion that an initiate had to kill someone to gain membership.
A few years ago, the gang started pulling in more kids. It also face more battles with rivals, including black gangs from further south, and echo of the war that the teachers described.