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Mothers Against Gangs. New Chicago group says `Enough!' to teen violence

A new acronym has cropped up in this city: MAG. Mothers Against Gangs. The grass-roots movement, still in its budding stages, was started by Frances Sandoval, a young Hispanic mother and political activist, whose 15-year-old son, Arthur, was slain last year by a gang member.

The killing happened on a January afternoon when Arthur, a sophomore who was not a gang member, was out of school on a between-exams break. En route to pick up his mother, he made a detour through his old neighborhood to see a friend, Peter. Together, the teen-agers went to the elementary school where Arthur had been an honor student. They were looking for Peter's 12-year-old sister and found her with gang members hanging around the school grounds. A fracas erupted over her leaving. Arthur was knifed.

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A gang member is now serving a 35-year sentence for the murder; but he wasn't apprehended until Mrs. Sandoval went on a local radio station and offered $1,000 reward for information about the assailant's whereabouts.

Mrs. Sandoval's struggle for action and justice in the case led to the founding of MAG. During the months of turmoil, she became a magnet for other mothers facing similar crises.

Four mothers attended MAG's first meeting. Seven, plus one father, came to the second. Their bond is a strong one: All have had children killed by gangs.

The setting for MAG's meetings is the rectory living room of Assumption Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church on Chicago's Near Southwest Side. In this Hispanic area, incomes are low, the crime rate high, and there's no middle ground where the more than 15 gangs have carved out their turfs.

At night, cars roll along both sides of a wide parkway, but only a stray cat or two strolls the sidewalks. It's this emptiness that triggers a shiver in the visitor's spine. Here and there, fragments of light filter from behind covered windows, and down the boulevard the floodlights of Cook County Jail make umbrellas of white in the darkness, turning night to day.

As she drives to the group's second meeting, Sandoval stops the car in front of Arthur's school. She squints, searching for a crown painted on the building -- the symbol of the gang that murdered her son. For years, the crown was a giant piece of graffiti. It was no sloppy spray job, but boldly and meticulously painted in the gang's colors, clearly visible from a block away and plainly signaling that this was the gang's territory.

Armed with a bucket of gray paint, Sandoval had blotted out the symbol -- only to have the gang paint it on again. She painted over it a second time.

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Now, leaning out the car window, she studies the school building to see if the gang has replaced it. The night is too black. She's late for her meeting so she drives on. ``I'll check later,'' she says.

Sandoval may have a mission, but she firmly maintains that her mission is a ``cause,'' not a vendetta. She wants to bring safety to the neighborhoods, not avenge her son's death.

``I grew up in this community,'' she says. ``But it's changed. When I was young, if you missed school for two days, a truant officer came to your house. That's no more.

``And the landlords, they used to live right in the buildings. Or people owned their own homes,'' she continues. But now much of the housing is rental with absentee landlords. ``This makes it easier for gangs to be in the hallways,'' she says.

She explains that young newcomers to the area are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by the gangs. Surrounded by the strangeness of a new city, by poverty and joblessness, these youths look to the gang as a surrogate family. It offers camaraderie and the hope of survival. Unfortunately, the gang's viciousness is often obscured by the newcomer's desperate need to ``belong.''

The young male who stabbed Arthur was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. In speaking about him, Sandoval is forthright. ``I don't feel sorry for him. But let me say it this way: I do feel that he was used. He had been here just two years. He was a nobody. So he became what they [the gang members] call their `bad guy.' He was the guy that did things, you know. He carried the knife. He was the guy they said to, `Go stab 'im. Go stab 'im.' ''

And he obeyed, going after Arthur.

Divorced and raising her two other children alone, Sandoval is convinced that mothers can curb gang membership -- if they're willing. ``The child has a special closeness to the mother,'' she says, explaining her own personal philosophy about the issue.

``If he's doing bad things on the street, if he's robbing or getting picked up or whatever, too often the mother makes the mistake of condoning the activity. First she says, `You shouldn't have done that.' And then she cooks him dinner, and he feels accepted even though he did wrong.

``If a son is in a gang, the mother must make it clear to him: `I love you as an individual, but not as a gang member.' This point is not negotiable. There is no in-between,'' Sandoval insists. The mother should not cook for him, fix his clothes, give him car fare, or take sides for him at any time. ``It doesn't seem like a lot, but it's a most effective weapon -- withdrawing support,'' Sandoval says.

At the meeting, Sandoval sits on the floor with papers and sheets of statistics spread out on a coffee table. The mothers encircle her, some still wearing the black of mourning. Nobody says much. Sandoval waits. Then she tosses out a question. Before long, the dialogue flows, flipping between Spanish and English. The Rev. Larry Craig, who has worked for 18 years with youth, both in and out of prisons, sits on the sidelines, ready to fill in information when it's requested.

The meeting goes on for three hours. And although MAG's plans are not yet written in indelible ink, these are some of the group's goals:

Accompany the victim's family to court. ``Some mothers have never been inside a courtroom before,'' says Sandoval, who was in court 12 times during her experience. ``They don't know what to expect. They have no knowledge of what's happening. They must face all the friends and family of the guy accused of taking their child's life. And they feel, `Who's on trial here anyway?' If many mothers go to court with the victim's mom, she won't feel so alone. And the judge and gang members will see she's not alone.''

Inform victims of their rights. When a violent crime happens, confusion envelops the family. According to Sandoval, people frequently leave both the hospital and police station without being informed of the victim'sor the family's legal and compensatory rights. MAGmembers can help eliminate this communication breakdown.

Lobby for legislation that limits gang activity. Last year, Sandoval lobbied for the Illinois Safe Schools Act, which passed and went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year. It permits juveniles to be tried as adults if they're charged with drug trafficking or using weapons in a school or within 1,000 feet of the school.

Appeal for more protection. Through phone calls to police and aldermen, mothers can continue to request more patrol cars in school areas.

MAG members also seek more prompt response when incidents are reported. At the meeting, one mother said that she called police to report a gang rumble in front of her home and the police took an hour to arrive. Another told that she reported an incident on the 911 number. The police arrived shortly but shined a spotlight on her home, alerting gang members to who had informed on them, she said.

Eliminate graffiti on schools. ``Graffiti is wrong on a grammar school, any school,'' Sandoval says. ``If you're on the school board, you should not allow it. If the gangs put it on, you take it right off. Once you compromise by allowing it, the gang has won a battle. Our children go to school to learn. This is an impressionable age. Whatever that grammar school stands for, they learn. Now if they walk to school and see a gang symbol on the school, day after day and month after month, in their mind they will believe `this is what I'm going to be when I grow up.' ''

More cooperation between police and the victim's family. Because all mothers at the meeting felt uninformed about police action in their children's cases, they hope to help other parents monitor police progress in apprehending offenders.

Hotline. Set up a special phone number for receiving information on unsolved gang crimes.

Educating young people about gangs. Promote a campaign in both homes and schools that tells youngsters about the negative aspects of gangs. Sandoval believes mothers should say to their children, ``Hey, is this being cool? Is it cool that you can't go out of your neighborhood? You've put yourself in your own prison. You can't leave. You're so afraid for your own life that you can't go a mile away because that's a different gang over there. Is it cool not being able to wear the colors you want because those colors belong to a rival gang? That's not being cool.''

She acknowledges that adolescents often see gang membership as an armor against street terror. But to her, that's a false sense of safety. ``If you become a gang member, you'll either be killed or you'll be part of a killing that you'll wish you'd never been involved in,'' she says.

In addition to presenting the down side of gang membership, MAG hopes the schools will offer more after-school activities, giving youngsters a positive alternative.

Sandoval's background taught her how to forge through -- or skirt around -- the bureaucratic maze that shrouds the crime-and-victim scene.

Although she dropped out of high school in her junior year to marry and have her son, Sandoval took courses in the late '70s to obtain the equivalent of a high school diploma. From then on, she picked up know-how along the way.

After graduating from Loop Junior College, she worked in data processing, did a stint with a Spanish-language newspaper, served as an English-Spanish interpreter in court, and worked part time for four years with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, which helps indigents in civil matters. She's always been involved in community activities and currently works for Juan Soliz, alderman in the 25th Ward.

As expected, Sandoval is the last to leave the MAG meeting, but she doesn't go straight home. She drives by the school to look for the crown symbol.

It isn't there. A victory -- for the moment, at least.

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