by Glenn Reedus
A number of Black comedians are prone to ask “Dr. King stood for non-violence, so why in every city is the street named after him, the most violent street in that city?”
Having worked on Chicago’s King Dr. the last several months I can attest that the most violent tag fits - sometimes. But what comedians, public officials, cops or anyone else who traverses MLK won’t tell you is about the brothers of MLK Drive.
These are young men who carry and brandish a pistol as readily as some of their suburban counterparts keep skateboards in tow. The white T-shirt brothers are out on the streets before most “squares” go to work, and are still hanging out long after we’re retired for the night.
Of course they look and sound menacing standing eight-10 to a crowd, peppering their speech with curse words and terms of the day for Black females. The crotch-grabbing, T-shirt twisting and stomach rubbing might seem mandatory to the casual observer. In fact the casual observer may have a lot of difficulties distinguishing how the brothers look, and definitely will be unable to discern their circumstances. But perception is not necessarily reality.
The difficulty distinguishing lies in the fact that these young Black men in any city’s MLK are seen but rarely heard. In my short trips between the office and the store a few yards away I get the opportunity to chat them up. I am not looking to take up a lot of their time as I don’t want to appear to be prying, or worse yet, working for the Chicago police.
Even in the short trip to the parking lot I have learned that taking the time to be truly interested when I ask “what’s up” or “how ya doing” yields some street gems that I wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. And I always come away with the feeling these brothers are appreciative someone outside of their peer group and not associated with law enforcement.
One will readily explain that few people understand the difficulties of living in a complex that doesn’t allow any loitering or downtime in its vast courtyards and mini parks. He quickly sums it up at the only thing to do is come across the street and “just hang.” At more than $2 per ride, kunch can often be cheaper than bus fare.
And the brother next to him explains that situation is compounded because there are no jobs within walking distance, and if you don’t have a job to have steady bus money, then you’re stuck on the street.
Every day it is the same every time, the more I shut up and listen the more they talk – about their situation and circumstances. They opt not to talk about their time in prison but how stifling it is being back in the world- “I go in a tell them I have a record, and if they let me fill out an application I never hear from them again.
Sometimes I just check the box on the application and don’t say nothing. I know if I lie and then find out then I get fired and then what. I be right back here,”
To a man they all had complaints about the over-aggressive policing in the area. Just being outside on a sweltering summer day is cause enough for five or six police SUVs to pull up and within seconds manhandling the young men (and sometimes their female friends) against the vehicles. But ask them about being rousted and they shrug it off, maybe because it is so common and breaks the monotony of the day.
They prefer to ask about jobs that don’t have background checks or working some side hustles. They’re bright. They have ideas but usually no one to bounce them off of, and if one of their “partners’ doesn’t agree with the idea then the questioner is the target of some biting ridicule.
It’s not unusual for them to motion and say “lemme talk to you a minute” and the ensuring conversation is away from the group. And if it has merit to the listener, then the talk ends “well hook me up bro.”
Then another white T-shirt replaces the first and has an idea he doesn’t want to share en masse. Out of four or five one will even say “thanks”
And the dialogue flows day after – as long as the focus is listening. A few weeks ago when the 16-year-old brother was shot to death across the street, and the white T-shirts numbers dropped dramatically. Those who were still around said with their eyes it was neither a good time to talk nor listen.
Slowly the numbers are starting to return to earlier levels. The killing is not a topic.
It is clear that these young men in their 20s and 30s think about changing but the world they are considering is vastly different from the one they’re in. They don’t need more challenges but someone to lend an ear, share a bit of advice.
The menacing looks and loud talk are for those who would do them harm. Believe me, more than most of us realize; many of these brothers are waiting for the “lemme talk with you a minute,’ moment.
Glenn Reedus was described not too long ago as a "typical journeyman newspaperman" I agree with that description with the exception of the word typical. As a teen Glenn was gifted with a clear vision he wanted to be a newspaper reporter as adult. The vision was realized and reinforced with jobs at papers in Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. Today Glenn's passion is exploring ways to marry traditional journalism and new media. He currently lives in his hometown of Chicago Illinois with his wife Michelle. Glenn also has three adult sons.