Hanging Out with Chicago’s Scrap Metal Collectors
If you believe certain online news outlets or people who tell you things in bars, then you probably think the scrap metal collection game is the preserve of people who value heroin over their own teeth. However, by the looks of things in the documentary Scrappers, Chicago’s scrap collectors are of a much more wholesome, friendlier ilk—sucking on the industrial teat of the city and posessing a sixth sense for anything metal and shiny. A bit like Magneto, but without the lame costume and proclivity to be total dicks all the whole time.
The film follows the daily routine of Otis, a 73-year-old, self-confessed Casanova and father of 12, and Oscar, an illegal immigrant with a family in both Chicago and Honduras. It’s kind of good vibes, until the scrap metal market nose-dives into a deep, dark grave and leaves Otis and Oscar in gruel-level poverty. Anyway, I don’t want to ruin it for you, so instead I spoke to two of the co-directors—Brian Ashby and Ben Kolak—and found out about following their two protagonists around for three years and how the world of scrap metal collection is intrinsically linked to crime.
VICE: Hi guys. So why did you make a documentary about scrap metal collectors?
Ben: Well, Brian and I both studied here in Chicago on the south side of the city. There’s a nice university and money there, but it’s surrounded by other neighborhoods that very classically have inner-city problems that the whole first world is dealing with—the loss of manufacturing jobs, crime, guns, and drugs. We found the immediate landscape fascinating.
So how did you go about finding the characters in the film?
That was definitely the most challenging part of the process. We spent about six months hanging out at scrap yards, which in itself was a pretty life-changing experience. In the United States there’s a huge problem with scrap metal theft, so a lot of people who were selling were concerned that we were looking to bust them, or the scrap yards would be concerned that we were inspectors. One guy we met at a scrap yard—and credited as an associate producer—has a long history in the Chicago Mafia. He took us to a lot of yards, told us all kinds of funny stories, and really enlightened us to the situation.
Co-directors Brian Ashby, Courtney Prokopas and Ben Kolak.
It seems like there’s a lot of crime that goes hand in hand with scrapping.
Yeah, it’s a frequent enough news story involving people who smoke crack and kill each other over the metal or something like that. It’s a commodity that’s been tied up with gang issues and definitely something that’s tied up with race. A lot of the construction trade in Chicago has shifted from the Polish and African-American communities to the Latino communities, and since construction is a big source of this scrap metal, the race shift has gone with it, too. So those traditional racial tensions have definitely translated into scrap metal.
So the crime is still there?
Brian: Yeah, but all the scrap metal yards have very close relationships with the police. They don’t last very long if they don’t. Most of them have police there almost every day because people are always bringing in stolen stuff. Nonetheless, tons and tons of material gets thrown on the pile and processed with everything else, so it’s not black and white—it’s impossible to really tell what’s stolen, which made it interesting to us. Also, the whole trade is so necessary—the city would stop functioning without it. You can’t look too closely or regulate it; it’s just kind of impossible.
So last week Young Money third-stringer Mack Maine got into some sort of tussle with Chief Keef affiliate Tadoe, who’s best known for holding guns in Keef’s videos and getting pranked on video by his fellow GBE crew members, although he’s actually a way better rapper than the perception of him as another guy’s weed carrier might suggest. This being hip-hop in 2012 the beef quickly moved onto Twitter, with Tadoe calling Mack Maine a “BITCH” and Mack Maine responding with some vague nonsense about “peasants” throwing “pebbles” at the “throne.”
Tadoe was the clear winner in the exchange despite the fact that no one who’s not obsessively deep into the Chicago drill scene knows who he is, while Mack Maine is at least a name that’s familiar to pretty much any guy on the street wearing too much heavily branded streetwear. Mack Maine lost major points by fronting like he owns a throne when in fact his overall image is closer to a guy who lives in an Extended Stay America by the airport, while Tadoe earned about a million points for referring to him as “Mack Mané,” which is probably a typo but if you pretend the accent mark is some kind of super subtle burn it’s incredible.
All in all this is a completely uninteresting story that no one outside of Tadoe and Mack Maine’s closest friends should even care about, except for one thing. In Tadoe’s tweet where he calls Mack Maine a “BITCH” he also refers to him as an “opp,” and the beef’s blog coverage was the first time I had seen the term used outside of Chicago. In fact it was one of the first times I had ever seen it appear on the Internet outside of the comments section at Fake Shore Drive and the Twitter account of drill queen Katie Got Bandz.
Katie’s not only an up and coming rapper who critics all over the world are keeping tabs on, she’s also a teenage girl from a youth culture scene on Chicago’s South Side that’s kept itself fairly impenetrable to outside eyes despite the amount of media attention that’s been directed its way this year. So basically she knows about all sorts of crazy slang that the rest of the world has no idea about. Since about three-quarters of her recent tweets have had the word “opp” in them, and since the only results from an Urban Dictionary search for it are related to Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.”—which come on, it includes that definition right in the song—I decided to call her up and get the info direct.
VICE: Hey, what’s up Katie?
Katie Got Bandz: What’s up?
I wanted to talk to you about this slang term “opp” because I follow you on Twitter and you’re constantly calling people opps on there. I’m not sure exactly what it means but it seems like it’s something like “punk-ass.”
An opp is the opposition of a friend. An enemy.
We met with the leaders of Chicago CeaseFire, a prevention group that’s trying to tackle the city’s widely publicized violence problems. Watch Part 1
In Part 1 of Chicago Interrupted, we meet Tio Hardiman and Ameena Matthews of Chicago CeaseFire, a violence prevention organization that mediates potentially violent situations. We tag along with Ameena and some of her Interrupters as they diffuse an altercation in the street. We wind down the day at the Mosque, where we learn about the softer side of tough girl Ameena.
NATO in Chicago - Weekend Warriors
Nobody will know what it was like if you weren’t there, as the media and the PR and personal accounts are all over the place, decrying arrests and violence and terrorist threats. Actually, I was there, on the streets for 12-plus hours all weekend and I still barely have a grasp on what happened. Thousands of police patrolled downtown, even the river, drastically outnumbering protesters, as usual: billy clubs, riot shields lining the perimeter of banks, guns drawn on the street. I went where I was not supposed to, behind police lines. I ran through alleys and watched the police in the silent moments before they beat everyone.
Yes, everyone knows the story, demonstrator vs. police officer, and it happens like this to take the focus off what’s going on inside the buildings, the reason why we were protesting in the first place. It was deeply disturbing to see my city emptied out for the relatively few elite, leaders around the world that are wasting money and watching people get killed.
I have a poetry minor; I’m not a trained journalist. I don’t want to show the same stuff everyone else has been proliferating, all the protest porn. I had to keep taking breaks to look at the emptiness. Local business were slaughtered that weekend; the media told people not to bother showing up to work. So who really came and destroyed the city?
Friday night everyone was still upset about the unwarranted, illegal Occupy arrests that happened when the cops raided an apartment on the south side and took nine people away. Saturday, even with no evidence, three of them were officially charged with terrorism—coincidentally, it was the three who are not from Chicago—and their bond is now set at $1.5 million. Later on Saturday, two other individuals, in separate accounts (one of ‘em lives just down the street from me), were arrested on other charges of terrorism, something about Molotov cocktails that has also yet to be substantiated with evidence. Charges are getting vague and they keep changing, and no one can understand what’s happening.
The NATO Demonstrations continued throughout the weekend, beginning on Saturday on the North Side, when at least a thousand people gathered and marched to mayor Rahm Emanuel’s house. Later in the night, there were two more marches: one, an anti-capitalist gathering leaving from Haymarket Square, and the other, in solidarity for those detained from the illegal raids last week, from Daley Plaza. What started as a chaotic, disorganized couple marches turned into a living, breathing organism: Beautiful kids running their hearts out away from police telling them, “I can’t wait to smash your head in.” The march would split, scatter, get trampled and hit by the police. Then marchers would push and try to gain access down any one of Chicago’s wide streets. Then, pissing the police off, they would turn backwards and run the other way.
It seemed like a standoff happened every 15 minutes; meanwhile, two kids (one 12, one 14) were killed in drive-bys on Saturday night. While little kids were getting murdered and actual violence was happening elsewhere, the cops were beating up protesters in the ghost city of downtown.
Sunday was the big protest—it seemed like tens of thousands showed up, though official counts just say “thousands.” Girls with Forever 21 bags in Ugg boots joined in from a day out shopping. If you weren’t over 30 and balling, you joined. It was an organism that didn’t go the route of violence, mischievous yet innocent… young kids smiling and running in the streets like a fucking musical.
Ten city blocks were jammed tight with demonstrators chanting, a march organized by the Iraq Veterans Against the War. A rally made its way to McCormick Place around 3:30. Here, the vets tossed their medals back to the government and addressed a crowd of thousands. Police outnumbered protestors like 50 to one, it seemed. They weren’t allowed much freedom to move. It was slow and hot, and the police started some shoving. “GET ON THE SIDEWALK!” they yelled, or “GET ON THE STREET!” It was total chaos.
Around 4-ish, the permit ran out. We got orders to “move west” in English and Español. Eventually, according to a lot of people, undercover police threw some bricks and bottles. That’s when the riot police charged and demonstrators fought back. It was mayhem for an hour, with police slowly emptying the area. Forty-five people were officially arrested; at least 20 protesters were injured, many using makeshift clinics and not the hospital.
By 7 PM the crowd was gone, but still moved to march again. Catching police by surprise, a game of cat and mouse ensued for several hours. Demonstrators sprinted, tossed barricades, made a peace sign out of bodies and chanted, “Stop throwing shit!” at litterbug cops. Firemen were called in and were about to hose but decided not to.
Monday, today, there was a demonstration at Boeing that went through downtown. Everyone’s exhausted, and it’s still continuing tonight.
Mike de Leon went to Chicago a couple of weeks ago with the sole intention of doing a bit of people watching. For the record, we think it’s weird and a bit creepy that someone would travel 700 or so miles to take photos of unsuspecting people on the street, but that’s what he did. Click through for the fruits of his anthropological work in the Windy City.
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