Unearthing an underground empire: Cut off the head and the body will fall

By Managing Editor

“Mourning when they kill three of ours is getting six of theirs.”

From the backseat of a car creeping down a bleak alley in North Lawndale, Edward Robinson, a leader of the Conservative Vice Lords, glares through the windshield, his eyes fixated on the dead end where three of his fellow Vice Lords were shot and killed by a rival gang just two weeks prior. The car slows to a halt as Robinson, stoic yet vulnerable, climbs out and walks to the center of the street. Each step is deliberate as he recalls the night he watched his friends die.

“A lot of dope sellin’ goes on down over here,” he said, standing on the patch of asphalt where the bodies fell. He points to the Metra train tracks behind him. “So me and my friends was standin’ over here, and a group of Gangster Disciples came runnin’ down them tracks, and bang!”

A look of anguish momentarily paints his face. “I took off runnin’. They didn’t get me.”

He stands completely still, gazing somberly into the distance before he snaps out of his trance and begins marching back to the car.

“Let’s keep movin’. It ain’t too safe around here.”

Death is just another part of life in the area of North Lawndale known as Holy City, headquarters of the Conservative Vice Lords, a faction of one of Chicago’s largest street gangs. Robinson, 32, said the area has many dead-end streets, so rivals typically don’t cross into Holy City for fear of getting trapped inside. But the violence in Robinson’s neighborhood has escalated in recent years despite its geography, and he said it’s only getting worse.

North Lawndale witnessed 72 violent gun crimes in 2012, compared to 33 in 2005—a localized reflection of a citywide spike. In 2012, Chicago saw 16,108 violent gun crimes,  a 52 percent jump from 10,598 in 2005.

Saddled with the nation’s largest gang population, Chicago has long been home to a thriving gang culture. But in recent decades, there has been a gradual shift in values among younger generations, giving rise to chaotic violence and causing veteran gang members to question the vitality of the empire they helped build.

“Back in the day, it was about what you could do for the nation, not what the nation could do for you, so you was doing things for the nation as a whole,” said Larry Burns, 33, a former leader of the Black P Stones who still has gang ties. “The millennium rolled around and they locked up all the good leaders … structure started falling more and more, and now it’s just every man for himself. It’s not really gangs anymore, if you ask me.” Burns, whose 

Burns, whose name has been changed for this article, said the current generation has fallen out of touch with the founding principles of Chicago’s gangs. As hard drugs were introduced and established leaders were jailed, the gang hierarchy began to crumble, leaving young men without guidance and spawning today’s more volatile gang scene, Burns said.

“It went from black people sticking up and standing up for each other and standing together to just the opposite,” Burns said. “The block I lived on, no one ever came shootin’ at us. Now these wild little dudes with no structure do that all the time, got my parents all shook up and everything.”

Gangs’ founding principles have been gradually lost on incoming members, partly because police began targeting the leaders who were integral to enforcing the laws, Burns said.

In the 1990s, former Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered the Chicago Police Department to aggressively target gangs and arrest leaders, according to Maurice McFarlin, a gang expert and professor at Northeastern Illinois University. The loss of leaders on the ground level—such as Watkeeta Valenzuela Fort, leader of the Black P Stones, and Willie Lloyd, a founder of the Vice Lords, both of whom were jailed in 1994—dealt a hard blow to street gangs, suddenly destabilizing them.

“If you take away the head, the body will fall,” Burns said. “Most likely the leader is the smartest one and the one who runs things, so when you take him away, of course the rest will just crumble.”

Left without leadership, some attempted to assume positions of power, but the structure could not be replicated, said Aaron Wright, 42, a former chief enforcer of the Mickey Cobras, leaving the gang population without discipline.

“Back in the day we had to go through a chain of command before we could even shoot a shell,” Wright said. “Now, there ain’t no laws, ain’t no structure. These guys that’s representin’ these gangs don’t even know what the gangs is all about.”

Traditionally, gang leaders were expected to keep followers in line, but the loss of enforcers left young gang members to act without fear of punishment. Each gang had its own set of rules—and repercussions—that governed members’ behavior to ensure they were properly representing themselves and acting in accordance with the gang’s values, Robinson said.

Members who violated the gang’s basic tenets would be issued a “violation,” or punishment, that usually consisted of  a beating, Robinson said, explaining that the severity of the violation depended on the rule that was broken.

Conduct that elicited violations included putting oneself before the rest of the gang, leaving a fellow gang member alone in a fight or attacking the wrong person, according to Burns. He said the act of issuing violations was common among most gangs of the time but widely fell out of practice as police arrested leaders. As violations became less common and disappeared entirely in some gangs, young members grew unruly, to which Burns credits Chicago’s recent storm of unintended homicides associated with gang violence.

“They need to bring the consequences back, truth be told,” Burns said. “All these senseless killings, shooting and hitting the wrong people—you would get beat for that, so you would start makin’ sure you aim closer and get the right person.”

While violations worked to keep gang members in line by ensuring obedience, Robinson said today’s gang members don’t really understand gang values.

“When they go to jail, and it’s gonna happen ‘cause they livin’ the life—you hear that so much, ‘I’m about that life,’ but you actually not—and when you go behind the wall of Cook County Jail and the real Vice Lords ask you what they [oath] is and you can’t recite it, you in big trouble ‘cause you false-flagging,” Robinson said. “You sayin’ you this, but you don’t even know what it means.”

Originally, many gangs established roots on Chicago’s South Side as a way for the marginalized black population to band together.

“We made sure the community was straight,” said Wright, whose gang operated out of Robert Taylor Homes, a now defunct housing project at State and 53rd streets. “Us in those three buildings, it was a family. That’s one thing we did, we took care of our community.”

Although criminal activity was usually the motivation, in the eyes of police, Wright likened his gang’s efforts of the early 1980s to Robin Hood, recalling that he and fellow gang members would rob trucks carrying sneakers on State Street, then sell the shoes to local families for “dirt cheap,” claiming they did so just so the children living in the projects could own a pair of Air Jordans.

McFarlin explained this mentality was common in the early 1960s among black activist groups such as the Black Panther Party because society oppressed them, so they took it upon themselves to provide for their communities while still turning a profit. In the 1960s, engaging in criminal behavior to provide for blacks was part of the struggle for civil rights, McFarlin said, whereas gangs of the 1980s, despite having more civil liberties, continued committing crimes in an effort to assist one another—but their acts became more ruthless.

“When people are locked out of the mainstream occupational system, they develop into an underground economy,” McFarlin said. “Within that underground economy, they’re trying to still make the American dream, which is to make money and be successful.”

One source of income for many was drug dealing. Although drugs such as marijuana and heroin were already widely distributed, the 1980s marked the rise of crack-cocaine, Wright said, referencing the sudden popularity of hip-hop songs like Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” that glamorized the drug.

“Heroin back then was just too rich for the neighborhood to have. Everybody knew Mary Jane, that was a hippie drug—but in ‘88, ‘89, that’s when crack really hit the scenes in the projects,” Wright said. “People was gettin’ junked out.”

Hard drugs were never intended to be a part of gang culture, McFarlin said, but when crack-cocaine made its way to Chicago in the 1980s, the gangs seized the opportunity to industrialize and take advantage of the burgeoning market.

“What made crack work is that cocaine was usually for people who had some affluence; it wasn’t for the smaller people,” McFarlin said. “Once they made crack, that became a cocaine for the poor people. And because of its price and the way they made it, it was easier for people who normally couldn’t [afford] it to get it.”

Selling drugs, especially crack, was an easy way to make money during a period when it was difficult for a black man to get a job, Wright said, attributing a lack of opportunities in part to the way local policymakers treated blacks.

Wright said former Mayor Richard J. Daley and several aldermen neglected the South Side and instead focused their attention and finances on downtown, letting government-funded housing and social programs, such as boys’ and girls’ clubs, fall by the wayside and leading South Side residents to support themselves through illicit money-making schemes.

Wright said former Mayor Richard J. Daley and several aldermen neglected the South Side and instead focused their attention and finances on downtown, letting government-funded housing and social programs, such as boys’ and girls’ clubs, fall by the wayside and leading South Side residents to support themselves through illicit money-making schemes.

“I can’t just put it all on government because we destroyed [the area] too,” Wright said. “But why did we destroy it? Because if they didn’t give a damn, we didn’t give a damn either. So we did what we had to do to survive while they was eatin’ steak dinners and I was eatin’ peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

As members began losing touch with the history, laws and leadership of their gangs, they also began splintering into factions and associating with opposing gangs, Burns said, further weakening the structure and blurring gang lines.

“Us, we hung with what we was. If you was a Stone, you hung with Stones,” Burns said. “Nowadays, they hang with everything. You have a whole group that’s Stone, Gangster Disciple, Black Disciple, Vice Lord, and the Stone will help them fight, shoot, rob another Stone. There’s no loyalty.”

While members of opposing gangs began rubbing shoulders, existing gangs began dividing into cliques. For instance, Robinson said when two Conservative Vice Lords leaders, known as Papi and Coo Coo, died, two new factions—the Papi Gang and Coo Coo Crazy—distinguished themselves from the rest of the Vice Lords.

“If Papi and Coo Coo [were] still alive, they wouldn’t allow this separation,” Robinson said. “But in their honor and memory of them, we split up into cliques? They rollin’ in they graves. That’s not how they started, that’s not how they envisioned this to keep going.”

As gangs continued dividing into factions and losing ties to their foundations, Chicago violence also began to grow. Chicago surpassed New York City in 2012 as the nation’s murder capital, logging 506 homicides that year, with up to 80 percent of them believed to be gang-related, according to city data.

Wright said murders were much less common 20 years ago. Fist-fighting was the preferred method of attacking opposition because it exhibited one’s strength, he said; while guns were available, they were never the first approach to handling a dispute, as they frequently are today.

“When you so quick to grab a gun and shoot without doing nothin’ [else first], that means you a punk,” Wright said. “To keep your street cred, you’d rather go to jail for first degree murder than get your ass whupped? It’s backwards. I’d rather get my ass whupped than spend 50 years in jail. If you gotta grab a gun first, you a coward.”

Gangs still have a strong presence citywide, but Burns said he believes Chicago’s gang structure is a thing of the past. Some of his older peers think it’s possible to restore the framework and leadership, but Burns said the damage is irreparable.

“All that’s left is a bunch of rats, informants, snitches and people who don’t know what the hell is going on,” Burns said. “People just ain’t in that life no more, so what’s left of it ain’t much at all.” Although Chicago’s intricate gang structure is waning, the culture still thrives. Gang life isn’t escapable, but it is avoidable, Robinson said.

“I was told not to come here [to this interview], but I got an 11-year-old son, and if I don’t stand for something, he’ll fall for anything,” Robinson said. “So I’m putting my life on the line so that he’ll understand the gravity of my situation. It may be hypocritical for me to say, but I don’t want him to get [involved in a gang]. It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for him.”

Read Part II: A city divided