Journey of Chicago's Ultimate Street Tough
Feds say Larry Hoover runs a drug empire from his prison cell. He sees gangs as a force for good.
CHICAGO — Wearing an orange jumpsuit and blue canvas sneakers, Larry Hoover steps into a windowless visitor's cubicle on the eighth floor of a federal prison in downtown Chicago. A slight man with a goatee and unlined face, he doesn't look the part of one of America's most powerful gang leaders. The only hint of his gangster past is a blue "H" tattooed on his left arm.
But in March, US marshals will lead Mr. Hoover one block north to the Dirksen federal building, where he will stand trial for allegedly running a $100-million drug empire as chief of what by many accounts is the nation's biggest street gang, the Gangster Disciples (GD).
US prosecutors charge that since the early 1970s, Hoover, a convicted murderer, has masterminded from behind prison walls an elaborate, 30,000-strong criminal organization that stretches to 40 major cities. Secretly taped conversations and other evidence link Hoover and his associates to GD narcotics sales and killings, they say. The government's goal: to exile Hoover to a maximum-security prison in Colorado, cripple the GD leadership, and ultimately bring down the gang.
For his part, Hoover scoffs at his accusers. He portrays himself now more as a Malcolm X than an Al Capone. Over the past decade, he says, he's worked to transform his gang's law-breaking ranks into a force for bringing prosperity and power to Chicago's poor, disenfranchised black communities. He says his indictment masks a conspiracy by Mayor Richard Daley and other officials to halt the GD-backed voter registration drives, election campaigning, gang "peace summits," and protests that have won Hoover support from prominent Chicagoans in recent years. He is, he says, a political prisoner.
"My politics are what prompted them to keep me in jail," Hoover said last week at the Metropolitan Correction Center. It was his first interview since he and 38 alleged GD leaders were indicted after a sweep by federal agents in August 1995.
Hoover leans forward, rests his arms on the table, and speaks in the slow measured tones of his native Mississippi. "Street gangs," he says, "could be the salvation of the community."
To many, Hoover remains an enigma. Over the years, he has shown a chameleon-like ability to give starkly different impressions to different people. To Chicago gang investigators, he's a shrewd, ruthless, and greedy thug who rules the city's most lucrative drug turf. To community activists, he's a gangster gone straight who mobilizes young black men behind their causes. To thousands of Gangster Disciples in the ghetto who have never laid eyes on him, he's "the old man," an almost mythical hero.
One thing about Hoover, though, is certain: When he speaks, many people pay attention. Hoover's influence is such that police, activists, and gang members alike predict that if he is convicted and confined to a distant federal prison, the power vacuum could cause a citywide eruption of gang warfare.
Indeed, as gangs and their lethal feuding spread rapidly across the United States, with an estimated 650,000 gang members and 25,000 gangs nationwide, Hoover's life offers a graphic inside look at the rise - and possible pell-mell decline - of an American supergang.
Although Hoover is perhaps the gang target most sought after by law enforcement officials, he is far from the only one. A second wave of indictments of dozens of GD leaders is expected imminently. Moreover, investigations similar to the sweeping GD probe are under way in Chicago's other major gangs, police say.
Yet even if authorities succeed in "neutralizing" Hoover and decimating the GDs, some observers believe gangs will thrive as long as joblessness, ignorance, and poverty plague urban America. "The problem is larger than Larry Hoover, and Larry Hoover is not the problem. He's a symptom, and a victim, too," says Eugene Perkins, a longtime social worker and author of "The Explosion of Chicago's Black Street Gangs." Police disagree, saying the removal of Hoover and other top leaders could severely weaken the grip of Chicago gangs.
Hoover's story - his scrappy youth as a street tough in the 1960s, his reputed rise in state prison as the leader of a sophisticated, corporate-style gang in the 1970s, and his high-profile forays into Chicago politics in the 1990s - begins in the poor, black neighborhood of Englewood on the city's South Side.
Hoover first felt the pull of street life in 1964, as black youth gangs staked out many of Chicago's depressed communities. The Supreme Gangsters, a group of about 50 older boys, controlled the blocks around Hoover's apartment at 68th and Green St. Hoover was 13 and wanted to join, but he had a problem.
"My mother was real strict," recalls Hoover. "I used to have to come home when the street lights went on, earlier than most guys I ran with."
So, on most nights, Hoover waited until his mother went to bed, slipped out the window of their two-flat building, and dropped down to the sidewalk below. "She didn't find out I was in a gang until I was shot the third time," he laughs.
Born in Jackson, Miss., in 1950, Hoover was the eldest of four children. He moved to Chicago with his mother and siblings when he was 4. His father stayed behind. The two haven't spoken since 1966. Hoover's family faced hard times, as did most Englewood residents.
"I was always trying to make a buck," recalls Hoover. He sold Jet magazine on "el" mass-transit platforms, carried groceries, and cleaned furnaces. His mother worked odd jobs at restaurants and laundromats. Still, the family relied on welfare "a large part of the time." Often, Hoover stole what he couldn't buy. He pilfered clothes and hid them at a friend's house, where he changed before walking to school. "I wasn't satisfied with what [my mother] could provide," he says.
A self-described introvert, Hoover had mixed feelings about school. As a freshman at Francis Parker High School, he played basketball and did well in math. Wilford Bonner, then a school counselor, remembers Hoover as "a little above average" student. But he was taunted for stuttering and would "break out in a sweat" whenever asked to read aloud.
Gang feuding abruptly ended Hoover's school career. On his first day as a sophomore in 1965, a rival gang member from another school shot him in the thigh just outside the principal's office. For Hoover, it was one fight too many: He was expelled.
"I felt inadequate in a school setting," he says. "My street activities compensated." Hoover rose to lead his gang, which offered him camaraderie and protection. "Nobody could prey on you because you had a brotherhood, somebody on your side through thick and thin."
Hoover and his gang extorted money from local vice peddlers - pimps and prostitutes, gambling parlors and drug dealers. Like most boys, he was fascinated with guns, and recalls one Chicago policeman who let him climb into his squad car and handle his revolver.
As turf battles intensified, Hoover by his own account was shot in six different gang fights by his 16th birthday. In 1967, the King Cobras made a grab for his territory. But Hoover boasts that his Gangsters stood their ground against the much larger group. Hundreds of Cobras "flipped" to join them, forming the Black Gangster Nation.
By 1969, Hoover says his gang had spread across much of Chicago's South and West Side, winning some 5,000 followers. His big break came that year, when he merged his gang with David Barksdale's estimated 10,000 Disciples. On the street, power came in numbers. Taking a crossed pitchfork and six-pointed star as symbols, the two leaders created the Black Gangster Disciple Nation and crowned themselves "kings."
Some say "King" Hoover was actually Barksdale's henchman. "He was more or less a hit man, a killer," says Rick, a retired Chicago gang detective who knew Barskdale. Hoover, in contrast, viewed the stocky, articulate Barksdale as a mentor. "I saw [him] as glamorous and I emulated [him]," he says.
Through Barksdale, Hoover was first exposed to political activism. In 1966, Hoover had watched gang members rally behind Martin Luther King Jr.'s open-housing march on the white community of Marquette Park. In the summer of 1969, the Disciples and two other big gangs, the Vice Lords and Stones, mobilized behind another civil-rights cause. This time, they joined a campaign to shut down construction projects and pressure Chicago's building unions, which were 97 percent white, to hire more blacks.
Meanwhile, Chicago police were waging a massive crackdown on street gangs, indicting scores of members in what Hoover saw as a reprisal for their protests. He began sporting a dark blue beret, the symbol of gang militants.
Still, for Hoover, civil rights paled next to the business of crime. In coming years, from a basement headquarters dubbed "the underground" at 67th and Halstead, he says he sank deeper into vice. He opened a crap house and sold marijuana, heroin, and other drugs.
Often at night, Hoover would trade his beret for a fur-felt fedora and expensive cashmere coat. Then he stepped out, sometimes with his girlfriend, Winndye Jenkins, or fellow gang member Wallace Bradley, to dance and drink at South Side nightclubs such as Guys and Gals and the Green Bunny. Each morning, Hoover resumed the work of crushing threats to his growing power.
He was charged with aggravated battery, attempted murder, and murder, but never convicted. Then in February 1973, according to court records, Hoover ordered the execution of William (Pooky) Young for robbing one of his narcotics houses. A week later, at about 8 p.m. on Feb. 26, a car pulled into a South Side alley. Several shots were fired, and shortly afterward Mr. Young was found shot six times in the head.
"When you live in the street, you can't let nobody take advantage of you or disrespect you," Hoover says coolly. He now admits to ordering the murder but denies pulling the trigger. "That was the way of life, how we dealt with conflict resolution." Hoover went into hiding but was arrested seven months later for a traffic violation. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 150 to 200 years. "It was silly," says Hoover, shaking his head. "If I was going to hide, I shouldn't have been hiding in Chicago."
Hoover was 23 years old when he entered Stateville, a maximum-security prison 20 miles southwest of Chicago in Joliet, Ill., leaving behind Ms. Jenkins pregnant with his son.
State prison, he found, was "predatory." Rape and extortion were common among inmates. But with hundreds of gang members, many of them Disciples, incarcerated with him, Hoover saw the potential for a new type of organization inside prison walls.
After Barksdale died in 1975, the Disciples split. In prison, Hoover formed the Gangster Disciples, while another Barksdale associate, Jerome (Shorty) Freeman, led the Black Disciples. Ironically, Hoover, like other gang leaders, thrived in the cramped quarters, conformity, and daily drill of life in confinement. Behind bars, he could recruit more easily and demand stricter loyalty from GD ranks, which soon expanded to some 2,000 followers.
In 1978, Hoover flaunted his muscle by organizing a work stoppage at Stateville to protest bad food. For that, he was kicked out and sent to a prison in Pontiac, Ill. Three months later, a major gang riot there left three guards dead. Hoover was accused of being the ringleader, but he was found not guilty for lack of evidence. His reputation established, Hoover would incur no more serious disciplinary infractions.
Instead, Hoover says he started "establishing guidelines" for his followers. He issued memos prohibiting rape, stealing, fights with inmates, confrontations with guards, and other violations of prison rules. "Before I came in, there was no communications, no guidelines. It was just chaos," he says.
While solidifying his own recruits, Hoover began holding covert weekly meetings with the jailed leaders of the Vice Lords, Latin Kings, and El Rukns (formerly the Stones). Through these meetings, broader gang alliances known as "people" and "folks" took shape. These alliances imposed a new level of order on the gangs, helping to contain their rivalries. Increasingly, when conflicts arose involving the GDs, prison wardens turned to Hoover to keep the lid on, law-enforcement officials confirm.
"One thing about prisons is they are real volatile," Hoover says, leaning back in his chair. "It could be calm one minute and the next minute, it could blow up. I kept it from blowing up."
When Hoover was imprisoned in 1974, he was diagnosed as functionally illiterate. "I had never read a book in my life, not even a comic book," he told a 1995 parole hearing. Soon, however, Hoover corrected the weakness. He earned a high-school diploma and began poring through an eclectic variety of books.
His favorites ranged from Machiavelli's "The Prince" ("It's like required reading, just to be able to stay in a conversation in the yard") to Ayn Rand's political novel "The Fountainhead." Most of all, Hoover liked "Boss," the 1971 biography of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. "It was very motivating, because it showed you can make a transition from a street gang to a socially acceptable gang," he says, referring to the Irish and other white immigrant gangs in Chicago in the early 1900s.
Books like these, along with his years in prison and maturation as a gang leader, began to bring about a transformation in his outlook in the 1980s, Hoover claims. "It was a combination of getting older, and seeing all these kids come into the system," he says, stroking his beard. "These kids needed some help, and if I wasn't going to help them, who would?"
In 1982, Hoover began to circulate a new "vision" among gang members. It came in the form of an idealistic and often abstruse 45-page manifesto known as "The Blueprint." In this compilation of writings, Hoover urged his followers to shun crime, educate themselves, learn about business, and aggressively take part in politics to build up their community.
"We have found ourselves gangbanging, shooting, robbing, and killing each other," it reads, calling gangs "byproducts of the same environment that produced the 'gangster era.'" But "the answers to our problems cannot be found in carbon copy Al Capone," it says. "Rather, our approach to society's injustices must become innovative and original."
While spreading his "doctrine," Hoover says he began reforming the Gangster Disciples to live up to a new name: "Growth and Development." He also changed his official title from "king" to the more business-like "chairman" and set up a "board of directors" of incarcerated gang leaders.
Hoover says he distanced himself from his gang's drug-dealing and other criminal activities but never withdrew as its top leader. "I realized that if I stepped down from the GDs and started a new group I would lose the people I was reaching out for," he explains.
Indeed, both Hoover's gang and his influence were growing rapidly at the time. Illinois's controversial 1980 early-release program was freeing hundreds of GDs to return to Chicago and start bolstering the gang's network there. The constant flow of members between prison and the street made communication simple.
Within a decade, GD ranks would swell to an estimated 30,000, as its members spread to as many as 35 states, say law-enforcement officials. Of the 38,000 inmates currently in Illinois prisons, an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 are GDs, they say. And GDs have infiltrated the ranks of prison guards and Chicago police, officials say.
Hoover's ability to maintain contact with GDs on the street was eased further in 1987, when, as a model prisoner, he was transferred to a minimum-security prison in Vienna, Ill. Vienna was a fenceless facility with the atmosphere of a college campus. Hoover went shopping in a nearby town and had scores of visits, many of them from fellow GDs. By the early 1990s, Hoover was confident enough to make a major push for parole. At the same time, he sought to prove that he was reformed. He made one of the riskiest moves of his career: He launched the GDs headlong into Chicago politics.
In 1990, Hoover says, he started 21st Century VOTE. By 1993, the Englewood-based group was mobilizing thousands of GDs in political protests on City Hall, voter-registration drives, community cleanups. In elections the following year, 21st Century backed the unsuccessful campaigns of two alderman candidates with Hoover connections, Gator Bradley and Hal Baskin, an old schoolmate of Hoover's. "See, it's 40 percent African vote in Chicago and that's our folks. That's folks in the projects, the poor people," Hoover told Vice Lord leader Willie Lloyd in a recorded 1992 phone call that shocked the city. He referred to 21st Century as his "political action committee."
Hoover assumed a higher profile. In the fall of 1993, he gave a prerecorded speech to a picnic gathering of some 10,000 GD members and supporters in rural Kankakee County. He used his influence with gang members to back a citywide gang "peace summit" in October 1993 as well as a range of community programs, from after-school sports to a gang "deactivation" project at Englewood High School.
At parole hearings in 1993 and '95, Hoover won endorsements from several prominent Chicagoans, including former Mayor Eugene Sawyer, academics, social workers, ministers, and from 4,000 gang members and residents who signed a petition organized by 21st Century.
In 1994, Hoover was transferred at his request from Vienna, 300 miles south of Chicago, to a medium-security prison at Dixon, Ill., only 100 miles from the city. Hoover was gaining recognition - and, in his mind, freedom seemed within reach.
At 4 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1995, as other inmates slept, guards awakened Hoover at his cell in Dixon. They told him to get dressed; he was wanted "out front." At the warden's office, Hoover was met by three carloads of federal agents. They handcuffed him, put him in an unmarked car, and drove him to an airport to be flown to Chicago's Meigs Field.
In Chicago, a federal judge told Hoover he was being indicted on drug-conspiracy charges, which could bring a mandatory life sentence without parole. "I was kind of stunned," Hoover says. He pleaded not guilty.
Meanwhile, some 250 federal agents swept the South Side, seeking to arrest 38 others, many of them ranking GD leaders who had visited Hoover in prison. Of those arrested, eight were tried and convicted last March. US prosecutors say tapes they obtained of Hoover's conversations with other GD leaders in late 1993, along with testimony from gang informants, will prove that Hoover runs the Gangster Disciples and its narcotics trade, and that he used 21st Century to launder drug money.
Police say Hoover still communicates with the gang and issues orders from federal prison. "To control the GDs, he has to show he still has a forceful hand," says Donald Hilbring, a gang unit commander with the Chicago police.
Hoover dismisses the taped conversations, saying they either have been tampered with or represent "just talk." The real intent of the federal crackdown, he says, is to fuel gang strife in black communities and halt his efforts to redirect gang members toward politics.
In a campaign to win support, Hoover has defended himself in a rap recording. T-shirts bearing Hoover's picture and the words "Free All Political Prisoners" are being sold by a business run by Jenkins, Hoover's common-law wife. In September, "The Blueprint" was published, with a preface lauding Hoover and his "post-Newtonian mind." This month, Bradley said he is setting up a Web site on the Internet to enable Hoover to make his case.
Nevertheless, many of Hoover's supporters have retreated and severed ties with 21st Century. Only two people spoke on Hoover's behalf at his latest parole hearing in February - Hoover and Bradley. On the street, some of Hoover's teenage footsoldiers are breaking rank. Hundreds have "flipped" to rival gangs. Others have splintered into GD factions with names like "Bone-Crushing Demons."
"No one thinks Larry Hoover is getting out, so they are starting to think why should they listen to him," says one self-proclaimed drug dealer and coordinator for a GD faction at the Ida B. Wells housing project. He says his group split apart after the GD governor above him was killed in a power struggle last summer. "Now there is no authority, no one to report to."
Hoover agrees that if he and other GD leaders are convicted, he could "see things getting more chaotic" on Chicago's streets.
"In our community, we need powerful groups of people. We need some unity," he says. "The kids [need] guidelines and structure. We have to bring [street gangs] into the political process. To say it can't be done is to say, 'Once a black street gang, always a black street gang.' "
Larry Hoover, In His Own Words
Larry Hoover, reputed to have built one of America's most powerful street gangs, spoke with the Monitor for three hours in a spare visiting room at a prison in Chicago. Appearing relaxed and laughing occasionally, he touched on subjects ranging from ward politics to gym shoes. Excerpts follow.
On prison life
"You become more conscious in prison - of life, of community, of your own mortality - so you better understand the need of survival. You don't just see what's happening to you, you see why it's happening, and can start thinking about making changes to make sure it doesn't happen to you and your offspring in the future."
On gang political activism
"I realized that these street gangs could be the salvation of the community, because street gangs were at the core of most of the negative things going on.... If the leadership would start thinking positive, then they could redirect that negative energy and become a viable part of the community."
"You can't deal with street organizations from the outside.... I've been out there, I've done everything they have. I've robbed and been shot ... so they can relate to me."
On drug dealing
"Most gang members sell drugs because there ain't no jobs out there.... It's doing a job, puttin' food on the table."
On plans to start a gang union
"My plan was to bring all the street organizations together and form a street organization union, collecting a dollar a week dues ... that would be $1.2 million to $2.4 million a year ... then we could get together and form a company that would manufacture gym shoes with the United in Peace symbol on the gym shoes. And those shoes would sell, because they are coming out of Chicago and Chicago is looked at as the gang capital of the country."
On Chicago politics
"[Chicago's political machine] can't control the apathetic vote, and that's what I was advocating that we wake up - street gang members, people who live in the projects, homeless. ... Mayor Daley is afraid of me because he understands the potential of the type of movement I'm trying to push...."
"I think 21st Century VOTE was my best effort, and my most costly effort - it motivated these indictments."
On secret tape recordings
"I think [federal] tapes [of his conversations] were sliced up and put together.... If all 65 hours were transcribed, it would show exculpatory evidence."
On his organization's future if he is convicted
"I could see it floundering, because any time there's a movement, you need a head. Without central leadership, I can see my move to galvanize youth most likely take the same turn as the civil rights movement took in the 1960s."
* Previous articles in this series appeared Feb. 27, March 28, April 8, July 15, and Sept. 27. All are available on the Monitor's Web site at www.csmonitor.com.