CHICAGO — “Vacant…vacant…this one’s got some people in it…there’s a liquor store over there.” Circling around the block on 51st & Ada on Chicago’s South Side, Xavier McElrath-Bey takes stock of the neighborhood where he grew up. Though Back of the Yards isn’t nearly as violent as it was back in the late 80s, when McElrath-Bey and his fellow gang members patrolled the block looking for fights, he can’t help feeling like the South Side neighborhood is a shell of its former self.
“Man, so many of these places are empty now,” he said. “You just have nothing going on here, nothing for anyone to do.”
He waves at familiar faces as he drives past each boarded row house, calling a few old friends over to the driver’s window of his car to ask how they’ve been. Somehow it’s as if he’s never left Back of the Yards, even though he hasn’t lived here since before his nearly-3-year-old daughter was born, before he moved to Logan Square and started working for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, before he served a 13-year prison sentence for the stabbing and beating death of a gang rival.
Now, in his late 30s, McElrath-Bey hops out of the car and stares down at the spot where he and his childhood friend had carved their gang nicknames in the concrete.
“All these little monuments to what I did, they’re everywhere–they still hang over me,” McElrath-Bey says between drags on his cigarette. “It’s strange to think that that’s who I was, that that’s what my life was.”
Since getting out of prison in 2002 McElrath-Bey has been on a mission to help youth in the area leave the monuments of their own violent lives behind them. Between touring different cities for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth and helping gather data for a Feinberg School of Medicine study on street behavior, he volunteers with local teens at the Precious Blood Blood Ministry of Reconciliation here in Back of the Yards.
The sharp about-face in his life attracted documentarian Julia Peterson to begin producing a film chronicling McElrath-Bey’s life and his efforts to reform the criminal justice system for juveniles. Peterson said she hopes the documentary, called Born Bad? will “change people’s attitudes so they can understand stories like Xavier’s, so that kids who make these mistakes won’t continue to be demonized.”
The Chicago Bureau sat with both inside Precious Blood, and we asked McElrath-Bey about the system that landed landed him in prison, and the efforts his organization is making to try and reform it.
The Chicago Bureau: You’ve spoken about growing up in poverty with a mother suffering from mental illness and a violent, abusive stepfather. What kind of effect does that kind of unstable home life have on a child’s development?
Xavier McElrath-Bey: Personally it gave me a sense of unfulfilled needs, and a lack of emotional connection to anything. I was always living in fear, like I needed a sense of stability that I didn’t have. Looking back I don’t think I can remember one time when my mother came and hugged me and told me that she loved me. It’s just something she didn’t ever do. I mean she tried all the time to protect us, and she always went above and beyond to feed us–sometimes she waited in welfare lines for hours for us–but fact that she was jobless and dealing with mental illness, and it distracted her from the emotional aspects of raising a child. With me, it’s not like I woke up one day and decided to join a gang…but I can see now in retrospect where I was lacking. I can see I never was a bad person, I was just in a criminal-centric atmosphere and never got that sense of emotional support at home.
Chicago Bureau: What kind of impact did foster care have on your life?
McElrath-Bey: Then when I was 6 they ended up taking us away–my little sister who was a baby went to a different home, they put her with a different family, me and my brother shared a room in foster care, and that was our life for two-and-a-half years. The woman we were with, I don’t understand why she had us in the first place. She got money I guess, but she wasn’t working. I have faint memories of going to school and stuff, but one thing that stands out was that we were constantly doing chores and stuff that was no fun. Y’know, when my [2-year-old] daughter verbalizes to me that she’s bored, I say “OK, let’s do something, let’s go to the playground or something,” but for this woman, she had no sense of that. There was nothing maternal toward wanting to give us fun, and most of my memory of her was actually her coming in and hitting us because we were making noise. And when you have a couple kids in a room with nothing to do and no entertainment, of course they’re going to make noise. Kids are going to look for fun and take risks no matter what, and you need to find ways for them to do that in a healthy way. You know when I look at it, no one is going to be able to care for a child more than their parent. So I really don’t think it was necessary for them to take us away just because my stepdad was abusive–he should have paid for what he did, they shouldn’t have put us into that environment—my mom made a lot of poor decisions, and she was in a desperate situation. I mean it’s just why like I joined a gang: when you’re falling down a hole, you’re going to grab onto anything you can to stop you. And that’s why when it came down to it my mom stayed with my stepdad I think.
Chicago Bureau: What makes gang life so attractive to so many youth in the South Side?
McElrath-Bey: You’ve gotta ask: What do children seek in life? Some things typical of all children is that they need fun, they tend toward risk-taking behavior, and a lot of times they’re really developmentally incapable of appreciating the consequences of what they do. I mean that’s why you see kids going on skateboards, trying to grind on railings and stuff like that. They need sense of adventure and fun. And there’s a point in your adolescence when your primary group you spend time with is your peers, not your family, and they’re going to start influencing what you do more. That’s why in some of best communities in the city they have programs for positive peer interaction–you know, boy scouts, organized sports, stuff like that–all these things reinforce positive development. So for me growing up in a neighborhood without any programs like that, I recognized the gang as wellspring for all things I yearned for. I keep saying, in a lot of these neighborhoods gangs are far more advanced than any other institution in terms of giving kids a sense of confidence, safety, self-worth…I mean as soon as I joined, I definitely felt safer. And I remember once I got a gun I would always make sure my stepdad knew I had it, like “you’re not gonna be hitting us no more, or there’ll be trouble.” It’s strange to think now how empowering it was as a kid to have that sense of belonging.
Chicago Bureau: What were the events that led to your murder conviction?
McElrath-Bey: Out of respect for the victim I don’t usually get into much detail about it, but he was about a year older than I was, and he was from Back of the Yards too. He was from our rival gang, and I had never seen him before, but our lives crossed when he was walking down the street, some incidents took place where he was taken into an abandoned building and beaten and stabbed to death. Now I wasn’t one of the guys who physically did it, but I played a crucial role in it, and in that way I’m just as responsible for his death as anyone else is. But to this day I tell people that his loss of life was is not in vain–I believe what I do today is because of him. I think to myself a lot that he was really no different from me, that it could have been me who was killed but that was for some reason it was him instead. So it’s my responsibility to know that I had a part, and if I cant stop the violence I need to try and address it.
Chicago Bureau: By your own admission you were pretty violent at the time you were incarcerated, but by the time you got out you had a bachelor’s degree under your belt. To what do you attribute your turnaround in prison?
McElrath-Bey: It was a combination of all the right things happening and all right people coming into my life. I truly believe that had my life never gone down that path, had I not gone to prison, I would have been dead. I mean I had been shot at so many times, it got to a point where I wouldn’t run anymore, I would just duck. I had gotten used to that life, and at a crucial point where my life could have been destroyed, it gave me time to look upon my life and gave me the opportunity to mature. I had this macho attitude that what defined me as a man was the ability to physically overcome others, and because of that I kept getting into fights in prison. At one point I assaulted an officer so I was transferred to Pontiac, which is the worst prison in our state, and I was kept in isolation. So now without anyone else around I was just reflecting on my life, and I was forced to face myself…I wasn’t distracted anymore by who’s saying what about you. And I remember going into yard–sometimes they would let us out into the yard for rec time–and right across from our yard there was another where I always saw this one man playing basketball by himself. I always asked why, who this guy was and why he couldn’t be around anyone, and I found out he was on death row. I looked at him and realized he wasn’t that different from me. I thought that’s where I was going next, not because I wanted to harm anyone, but one mishap, and that’s where I could have been. I realized I didn’t want to live like that anymore, and I was being surrounded by older guys always telling me to calm down, telling me to focus on my future, that [prison] is not the real world. Some of these guys were in for life and telling me I should be striving toward a future, that I should be wanting to go out and live a normal life. And deep down, I simply did want to live a normal life. So that led to some important decisions on my part.
Chicago Bureau: What is it about Chicago that makes it such a unique example of a failed criminal justice system for juveniles?
McElrath-Bey: Not only did we have very first juvenile court in 1899, but for the most part Chicago is a great example of how certain social ills can really lead to poor decision-making among kids. It’s no coincidence that the majority of kids going into detention in this city are mostly from the same impoverished disinvested communities. It’s all very black and white, and the needs we need to address in those areas are very clear: Kids lack meaningful programs and services, there’s a lot of unemployment and no jobs in this community–I mean you drive around here, and the majority of businesses are liquor stores. If you go into all these households and ask what they’re involved in, they’ll say nothing at all. In the summer you see kids running around without purpose, with a wealth of negativity surrounding them. A lot of people are homeless, or have untreated mental illnesses, and everyone is just doing what they can to survive. So kids have to grow up and bear witness to all this, they have to contend with forces that impress upon them that they’re not worthy of something better in life. They have no role models, and the majority of people you see with nice clothes and nice cars are those who are involved in drug sales, so what type of example are we setting? How can we expect children to be what they can’t see?
Chicago Bureau: A lot of people are resigned to the idea that some neighborhoods are just worse than others, and areas like Back of the Yards should just be avoided and put out of mind. Why should someone who lives in a more privileged part of the city care about the fate of kids in poorer neighborhoods?
McElrath-Bey: I sense that feeling too. Now I live in Logan Square, which is very different from Back of the Yards…we still have crime up there, but for the most part you can walk down the street and feel safe. But that’s why it’s so important for people up there to feel aware of the human aspect of it all, that these are real people who live down here. It’s so common for the media to shed light upon negative part of community, you know just showing violence and mug shots on the news, but no one knows details. In reality, what we’re really looking at here is children. If we morally and ethically treat children like adults, then these problems are on us. We know children are simply different, and we have to be responsible for them. I mean if I leave my daughter in the living room alone for an hour, there’s a possibility she can hurt herself, and I’d be responsible for that. So if we as a society are not invested in giving children in this area meaningful support, then it’s our fault that kids are going and harming themselves the way we are. It comes from our sense of responsibility as a society.
Chicago Bureau: What can people all over the city do to help break the cycle of poverty and violence in neighborhoods like these?
McElrath-Bey: Follow your heart and just do whatever interests you in the community. Volunteer or become a mentor, because relationships are crucial–decisions are based on our relationships, and our commitments to one another. If we’re expected to help kids we have to come with just as much willingness to invest in their lives as the gang leaders have. Just come into the environment and see where you can give assistance, whether you have job a opportunity, or work with the social service industry giving home visits, or going out to lobby and speak to legislators about easing punitive penalties for juveniles who commit crimes. We also have this program called the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN), which is a group of people who just want to shed light upon the fact that there is a capacity for positive change among these kids. And it’s not perfect, but there are so many great examples of people who even come out of prison and lead positive and productive lives. Now we know 50-60 percent of people who get out of prison end up going back, but we need to focus on the 40-50 percent who come out and are making a real difference out here. In fact the majority of guys I served with are now out living positive lives…some actually work with City Safe Passage, some are youth development program coordinators, one is teaching foreign languages to students, another is a YMCA safety initiative coordinator. The point is that guys once locked up serving time are now living normal lives, and proving themselves to be an asset to society. I mean some guys I met who were serving life would be asset to society if they were realeased today, I have no doubt. We all have capacity for change.
This story produced by the Chicago Bureau