Hal Baskin could not outlive his past.
Although he had put away his gang affiliation long ago — choosing to be part of the solution instead of the problem — his past as a teenage gangster hung on.
He died suddenly on last Friday at 66 years old.
Baskin had left the gang life at 19 and eventually founded P.E.A.C.E. — People Educated Against Crime in Englewood — an organization formed to keep young people out of trouble.
He made several unsuccessful runs for alderman, was an unofficial peacekeeper at Englewood High School, a grass-roots community organizer, and a real estate developer.
Still, the headline on his obit read “Former Gang Member Became Voice for Peace in Englewood.”
It made me wonder how long should a person be stigmatized as a gang member.
After all, if men like Baskin can’t get a fresh start after nearly 50 years of being on the straight and narrow, what’s the point in others trying?
I met Baskin in the ’90s, when I was covering City Hall and politicians were in an uproar because this “former” gang member was seeking public office.
While most people expressed outrage over gang life, Baskin was unapologetic about the role gangs played in neighborhoods impacted by drug-trafficking, unemployment and poverty.
“These so-called gangs are, for the most part, institutions that do positive things. They raise folks’ children, act as surrogate parents and serve as protectors of the community,” he told the Chicago Reader in a lengthy profile published in 1994.
“At the same time, you’re going to have some bad apples in the bunch, renegades, agent provocateurs, who mess up the whole process through violence, and they need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said then.
As co-founder of the Englewood Political Task Force, Baskin was the go-to person for people seeking local political office.
But for most of his career, Baskin was treated like the side piece that isn’t taken on a proper date.
When an honorary street sign went up on a chunk of 65th Street in 2016, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the Transportation Committee, went ballistic.
“Even though he’s turned his life around, there’s the past history and the precedent that it sets,” Beale told committee members.
The honorary street designation was ultimately allowed, though the number of blocks it covered was reduced.
In recent years, Baskin was particularly burdened by the new wave of community violence and reached out via email:
“My heart is heavy with all the violence with black on black, brown on brown murders, there is some ways to alleviate some of the murders, but the voices of those who want to help haven’t been heard and the powers that be don’t want to hear them … Many of us want to be a part of the dialogue but [are] not invited. [The] older guys who are still around would work with an appointed violence [czar] if one is appointed and help critique a realistic plan of action.
“Remember many of us [have] experienced violence brought on our families as well, and we are tired,” he said.
Baskin’s own son was wounded by gunfire in 2013.
His last fight was over the Chicago Public Schools’ plan to close four schools in Englewood and build a $75 million school.
Apparently, his voice was heard.
In February, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the three schools slated to close in June would be phased out instead.
Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a close friend, worked with Baskin in the early ’90s to help bring down gun violence related to warring gang factions.
“I would say he is an icon, a truth teller and he stands on his morals regardless who he may offend. He was a man for the people,” Bradley said.
“He called me at 1 a.m. in the morning when U.S. Rep. Danny L. Davis’ grandson got killed. Hal Baskin’s organization asked the community to help us find the individual that caused the killing, and that guy turned himself in. Hal would always say, ‘it takes all of us,’” Bradley added.
Baskin will be missed, and not because he was a “former gang member.”
He was a community builder who earned his second chance.
Services for Baskin: Viewing is 5 to 9 p.m. Aug. 17th at A.R. Leak Funeral Home, 7838 S. Cottage Grove; the wake will be 10 to 11 a.m. Aug. 18th, with the funeral from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Freedom Temple, 1459 W 74th St.