With a mixture of hope and apprehension, Chicago's inner-city residents are awaiting the fallout from the conviction by a federal jury of the top leaders of one of America's largest street gangs, the Gangster Disciples (GD).
"I'm hoping this verdict is a start," says Fredrika Lightfoot at her home in the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, an impoverished stronghold of the predominantly black, 30,000-strong street gang. "Until we solve the gang problem, we will not be able to solve anything else."
A federal jury on Friday found long-time GD leader Larry Hoover and six associates guilty on every count of wide-ranging narcotics charges. Mr. Hoover and four other high-ranking GD leaders face mandatory life sentences for conspiring to run a $100 million retail drug enterprise; two of the gang's drug suppliers face at least 25 years in prison, prosecutors say.
Yet the trial's quick end - the jury deliberated only 12 hours - is only the beginning of a drawn-out government battle to bring down a supergang, say law-enforcement officials.
Whether the government's top-down strategy can succeed will hinge on key developments in coming months: Will the removal of Hoover and his lieutenants to federal prison permanently cripple the GD hierarchy, causing the gang to splinter and weaken? Or will new leaders step into place? Will the federal crackdown curtail the gang's drug business and related killings? Or will it lead to a violent realignment of drug turf?
In Chicago's most desolate neighborhoods, where gang control over whole blocks, high-rise buildings, and schools is a fact of life - and death - some residents worry violence will surge after the verdict.
"I am just hopin' and prayin' no one gets hurt," says church worker Deborah Jones, as she prepares to take some youths from the GD-controlled Robert Taylor housing project out for pizza.
Police expect heated GD infighting this summer. Turf battles with rival gangs are also likely, though no other gang is currently strong enough to stage a wholesale takeover of GD territory, they say.
"I imagine there will be conflicts this summer," says Chicago Housing Authority officer Jeffrey Harris, who patrols Robert Taylor homes. "Because there is no leader ... they will fight it out among themselves."
Meanwhile, rank-and-file gang members appeared shaken by the convictions of GD leaders such as Jerry "Boo-G" Strawhorn, who ran Robert Taylor homes until his indictment with Hoover and 37 others in August 1995. "These young boys are in total shock. They really respected Boo-G, he was like a father figure to them," Ms. Jones said. "Now, they feel lost."
The crackdown offers an opportunity to encourage such youths to break their gang ties, community workers say. "This is the chance to ... scare them into going to work and going to school," Jones says.
Federal prosecutors agree. The convictions strip away the "veneer of legitimacy" that the gang acquired by using drug proceeds to fund works such as registering voters and hold education rallies through its political action group, 21st Century VOTE, they say. "The importance of that cannot be understated, because that's what people were falling prey to in the community," says Assistant US Attorney Ron Safer.
Hoover, who showed little emotion when the verdict was announced, plans to appeal the decision, says his attorney, Anita Rivkin-Carothers.