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Character Witness

In Chicago gang territory is now defined online through profiles, posts and uploaded music. No-one can claim to be neutral anymore with 58 gang factions within a six-mile radius.

Gangs are territorial, every street, every block is mapped out according to who’s in charge, where. It’s still true today. But now that the internet is where we do so much of our social lives, gangland has also gone online. Territory isn’t just where you physically operate, but where the mind wanders as well, but what happens when staking out territory online is then used as evidence to convict you in the real world? In this episode, we’re looking at what this means for the people caught up in gang warfare, how a social media profile can keep you safe but at the same time be used as a character witness against you. Featuring former gang members and gang mediators from Chicago Aleks finds out how social media along with poverty is trapping young people in fractured communities, into a cycle of violence and revenge.

Produced by Kate Bissell
With thanks to YBH Honcho for the use of his music

Available now

28 minutes

Professor Forrest Stuart

Forrest Stuart is a sociologist from Stanford University and he conducted a two year an in-depth study of social media use by Chicago street gang members. The majority of their online challenges, he found, do not generate offline violence but discovered that social media profiles are being used by the courts as character witnesses against young people affiliated with gangs.

Rakown, Alexzandrai, Tyquell, and Rodney Phillips

Rakown, Alexzandrai, Tyquell, and Rodney Phillips
From left to right Rakown, Alexzandrai, Tyquell and Rodney Phillips.  Rakown, Alexzandrai and Tyquell are from the West Side of Chicago where being  affiliated with gangs depends on what block you live on and who you post pictures with on social media.  Rakown left gang life after time in prison and now works at street level trying to mediate between gangs in the West Side of Chicago.  Alexzandria has lost many friends to gun violence and tells the story of an up and coming boxer who was shot and killed because of a 'beef' on social media. Tyquell or YBH Huncho is a rapper who writes and performs tracks about life in the West Side of Chicago, which he puts online.  Rodney Phillips is from the South Side of Chicago and after time in prison he turned his life around and began working at street level as a gang mediator.  He now spends a lot of his time monitoring social media so he can step into to conflict before aggressive posts can escalate into violence and shootings offline.