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Chicagoans fight drug dealers and gangbangers with grilled meat

The smokeout is a recent, effective community crime-fighting technique in Bridgeport and Canaryville.

Photograph: Elizabeth Jochum

The smokeout seems like a community crime-fighting technique that could only have been dreamed up by Bill Swerski and his Polish-sausage-addicted posse of Chicago superfans.

Neighborhood residents in the Bridgeport and Canaryville neighborhoods circle their gas grills at a targeted ’hood trouble spot—usually in front of a suspected drug dealer’s house or on known gang territory—then throw on some raw meat and hold a public barbecue. Police officers show up and take crime reports, area politicians give up-with-the-people speeches, and the law breakers witness a united citizenry showing its strength in numbers.

“The drug dealers and the gang members are here. We know where they are, and it pisses us off,” says Daniel Pugh, 37, director of the Bridgeport Citizens Group, as the neighborhood’s first full season of smokeouts comes to an end. Along with the local Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy beat group, BCG organizes monthly smokeouts spring through fall when weather permits. “But if they start seeing the neighborhood as a difficult place to do business, maybe they’ll move.”

Last summer, Bridgeport held its first smokeout in front of a “trouble house” near 32nd Street and Lituanica Avenue, where an alleged member of the Satan Disciples lived. The property is across the street from Pugh and his wife’s home. “The absentee landlord was renting to a gang member, there was drug dealing out of the building, and every other week there were fights out in front of the property,” says Pugh, a ceramics studio technician at Lillstreet Art Center. “At least on four separate occasions, a rival gang member came and shot at the building.”

After the smokeout, Pugh says District 9 police and 11th Ward Ald. James Balcer noticeably perked up. “Together, we collected a lot of information about the separate incidents at the address, reports were filed, and finally the Buildings Department went into the property and generated a series of fines for different violations,” Pugh says. “The owner finally got the message, and he kicked that guy out. The street fights, the gunshots—all that calmed down.”

The smokeout concept originated just south of Bridgeport with a CAPS group in Canaryville. The working-class neighborhood has been using propane grills as community safety tools for about four years. “I’ve found them to be effective,” says Balcer, whose ward encompasses both Bridgeport and Canaryville. “It’s confrontational in a positive manner. You have the police there, and everyone’s working hand-in-hand in identifying a problem. Police cannot do it alone. The more tight-knit the community is, the better it is in deterring crime.”

In June, Canaryville held a smokeout, which Police Supt. Garry McCarthy attended, at 44th Street and Union Avenue. Residents had spotted gang members selling drugs and spraying gang tags in front of the Union Avenue United Methodist church. “We’re running the gangbangers out,” Balcer announced, taking the microphone, “and if they hear me, get out of our neighborhood! Leave the community!”

A smokeout in September was occasioned by a gang-related shooting near Canaryville’s little league diamond. John Clemens of the Canaryville Improvement Association was manning a barbecue grill when he spotted a known gang member making his way through the crowd. “Sometimes those being targeted by the smokeout show up, and we let them know they’re welcome,” says the 44-year-old Illinois Institute of Technology systems analyst. “We can show them that there are alternatives, that they’re part of the community, too.”

Clemens told the man to grab a plate and served him up a cheeseburger.

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