In The Chi, respect is everything because reputation precedes everyone. That reputation can either be in front of you as a shield, protecting you from unruliness of the streets, or as a bullseye, inviting any and everyone to target practice. This season of The Chi has placed viewers in the unforgiving streets, showed how the manipulation of black women and children is the basis for a lot of the show’s depravity, and the latest episode demonstrates how all of those decisions are forever attached to the people who make them, no matter how unfair that fact is.
Sometimes the black cloud that follows young black men are of their own making. After Jake says he plans to throw up gang signs for picture day, Papa asks him if he wants that image of gang affiliation to follow him forever. Jake’s reply that he’s “63rd Street for life” (even though, earlier in the season, he admitted to Kevin he thinks the gang life is stupid) is painful to watch, especially seconds later when he reveals his gang logo tattooed on his arm. Before he graduates from middle school, Jake is deciding, against his better judgement, to make gang life inextricable from the identity he presents the world, a decision that has plagued thousands of black men long after the fact.
For decades, the Chicago Police Department compiled a controversial database of more than 160,000 people identified as gang members, including more than 33,000 juveniles, according a 2018 Chicago Tribune report. Outside of people admitting their gang affiliation, people could land on that list for any number of reasons, including getting a gang tattoo like Jake did. Local Chicagoans railed against the list, partly on the basis that many people were still on the list decades after they had been part of any gang activity.
Chicago’s Inspector General Joseph Ferguson told the Tribune that being placed on the list can preclude those from employment and educational opportunities, showing how a decision as a teen probably ruined many Chicagoans’ lives as adults. Jake’s eyes looked devoid of all emotions when he told Papa and Kevin that he’s with his gang for life, as if the possibility of ruining his chances at a normal life as an adult is not only absent from his mind, but not a concern for him if it does follow him for the rest of his life. As reprehensible as Jake’s decision to join a gang is, there’s something inherently heartbreaking about watching him make this decision, knowing this pre-teen may have ruined his adult future for a decision he made in middle school.
We get a glimpse into the shadow his gang affiliation can cast on his life later in the episode. His brother Reg’s decision to rob a rival gang earlier in the season made Jake a target for the younger brothers of members from that rival gang. That tension only resulted in a food fight, but you can easily imagine how the hail of milk cartons and lunch meat could easily be a hail of gunfire and blood. Tattoos weren’t the only way young gang members were unwittingly bringing unwanted attention themselves throughout the episode.
Reg also chastises his younger gang members for posting videos on social media of their gang activity because he thinks that’s how the police have been following them. In today’s age, social media is a maker of self-incrimination, often being a repository of people’s worst decisions. Nineteen-year-old Lamanta Reese of the South Side of Chicago was murdered in May 2017 by Quinton Gates after taunting rival gangs on YouTube and sending disrespectful emojis on Facebook. Social media-fueled murders such as this one prompted the CPD to spend millions of dollars on the Dunami software to monitor Chicago residents’ social media accounts. That is the same software used by the FBI to scan for radicalization in America. Young men can be, and have been, viewed by the government the same way they view terrorist organizations simply based on a few social media posts.
Then there’s Ronnie, newly released from prison after beating the case against him over the murder of Coogie Johnson. But, once he made the decision to kill Coogie, that murder became permanently attached to him like Jake’s tattoo, dictating how the world sees him. Ronnie can’t go to the hospital to tend to his injured grandmother without her aide, Jada Washington (Yolonda Ross), peering into his soul as if she’s trying to find the humanity in a monster. He can’t even go to the store without a random black woman spitting in his face because she, too, had a son murdered by a killer that wasn’t imprisoned. From now on, it seems Ronnie is forever a killer and everyone knows it.
With The Chi firmly making a stance that past decisions can influence future episodes, it’ll be interesting to see what decisions us viewers may have overlooked from previous episodes that define the characters in future ones.