A Community Turns To Its Tormentors
WHEN gang shootings at the Robert Taylor projects got so bad that buying food meant crossing a war zone, Ethel Washington approached the only force she thought could halt the killing: the gangs themselves.Skip to next paragraph
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"I got tired of hearing the mothers screamin' and hollerin' " says the resident of a battered high-rise overlooking some of Chicago's prize drug turf.
As police tactics failed, Mrs. Washington phoned 21st Century Voices of Total Empowerment (VOTE), a gang-run political group. Soon, street-wise envoys from Chicago's biggest gang, the Gangster Disciples,
showed up at her door. Within days, she says, the gunfire virtually stopped. "They came - nobody else," recalls Washington, who still cooperates with the gang members.
The late-1993 incident underscores how one of the country's most powerful gangs has extended its reach beyond its corporate drug empire. Following a path well-marked by the Mafia and other organized-crime groups, the Disciples have maneuvered deep into the frayed social fabric and political life of inner-city Chicago.
From housing projects to schools and churches, the 30,000-strong Gangster Disciples (GD) has used its muscle, money, and manpower to impose a brute order on neighborhoods. It has infiltrated police and security forces, monitored school hallways, mobilized protesters, and registered voters, residents and officials say.
A federal investigation and trial have recently produced new evidence of the GD's control over inner-city life. Seven Gangster Disciples leaders were convicted in federal court on March 6 for running a multimillion-dollar drug conspiracy. The convictions included charges that they used narcotics proceeds to fund 21st Century VOTE, which finances candidates, rallies, and voter-registration drives. GD chief Larry "King" Hoover is scheduled to go on trial in October.
Federal prosecutors charge that the Gangster Disciples' foray into social and political activism in the 1990s is a calculated effort to legitimize an organized-crime gang and win parole for Mr. Hoover, who is already serving a 150- to 200-year sentence for murder.
"Hoover wanted to portray himself as a leader children could look up to," says assistant US Attorney Ron Safer.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and other local politicians have slammed Hoover's alliance with 21st Century VOTE, which is under investigation by the Illinois Board of Elections for failing, in its campaign disclosure documents, to account for tens of thousands of dollars.
"Organized crime, dope dealers, have always sought legitimacy," Mr. Daley said last month. Crime is the keystone of gang power, Daley says, and it is naive to believe gang leaders will renounce lawbreaking.
Not so, counter defense attorneys and some community activists. While condemning the GD's drug sales, violence, and other "anti-social behavior," they claim that Hoover and other gang members have embraced a positive political agenda. The GD and other gangs, they assert, could shun crime and become a street-toughened force for black empowerment.
"How can we discourage [the gang] from getting involved in political activities when we know the other side is them shooting each other?" says defense attorney Standish Willis, chairman of the Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers. "We have a vested interest in bringing them to the table."
Political ties that bind?
Indeed, prominent black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Operation PUSH and Chicago Urban League president James Compton, have joined in a voter-registration drive with 21st Century VOTE, despite its gang links.
Candidates for Congress, City Council, and local school councils have in recent years accepted support either from 21st Century VOTE or close Hoover associate Wallace "Gator" Bradley, a GD member and political activist. These include US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois and Cook County Commissioner Danny Davis, who last week won the Democratic primary in Chicago's Seventh Congressional District.
"Gangs are involved in politics, just like the Fraternal Order of Police," said Mr. Bradley from his pager phone. "I am not telling youth to go to the corner and sell drugs, I am telling them to vote - a ballot is better than a bullet."