Twenty-First Century V.O.T.E.
This is The Hole, six 16©story red brick buildings at the
north end of the Robert Taylor Housing project on the South Side of
Chicago. The structures loom straight and stark. High above,
shadowy figures drift behind cyclone fence mesh that drapes the
open air walkways. At the foot of the buildings lies a nightmare
landscape, rusted green garbage compactors, a ruined playground.
In an eruption of violence the week before Easter in 1994
there were 300 shooting incidents in the area of the Taylor Homes.
Gangbangers pumped shots from hi rise to hi rise, ambushed each
other in the dim lobbies. Four young men were killed. In times
like those, the only sound to cover the pop of gunshots and the
howl of police sirens is the unconquerable Chicago wind.
It was quiet here last winter. A gang truce was negotiated
after the bloodletting. Shootings were down forty percent.
But even with the gang truce the Chicago Housing projects are no
place to grow up or grow old. Over the course of a year, a
resident of the Taylor Houses has a better than 1 in 10 chance of
being the victim of a violent crime. Nationally, the number is 1
in 135. If the gangs are not on the move, the police are. Dogs.
Sweeps. Midnight raids. Even the ice©eyed Nation of Islam guards
hired for security in some projects, look wary as they man the
front door metal detectors at night, their bright red bow ties
glowing like targets.‘
It is late February, a week for election day. Wallace "Gator"
Bradley, 43, a former enforcer for the Gangster Disciples, the
G.D.'s, a mega street gang which rules much of the South Side and
twenty©two of the twenty©eight buildings in the Robert Taylor
Homes, is running for Alderman here in the Third Ward against the
incumbent Dorothy "The Hat" Tillman. Backed by a renegade political
action group, 21st Century VOTE, Bradley is telling people he is
the only one who can bring peace to the bullet©pocked landscape of
the Robert Taylor Homes.
Bradley's white sound truck covered with orange campaign
posters rolls slowly into the blasted courtyard of The Hole.
Instead of a shrill metallic voice petitioning for votes, deep,
soothing words from the truck's speakers waft up the stone
"Much respect to the residents of The Hole. Out of respect to
the people in The Hole, Gator Bradley is comin' through here at
5:30. Come out and meet him. He needs your vote. Dump Mayor
Daley by Dumping Dorothy. Punch 115."
Gator Bradley personally negotiated the Chicago gang truce.
Still, he is reluctant to campaign in The Hole without meticulous
introduction. The Hole is a ghetto within a ghetto. When the
Taylor homes, the largest public housing project in the world, was
constructed in 1962, there was careful screening. But by the time
the north end was built, the screening process had broken down.
Troubled families spawned angry young men and the area became a‘
free fire zone known as The Hole.
There is another reason why Bradley hesitates to charge into
The Hole, knocking on doors. These six buildings are not
controlled by the Gangster Disciples, Bradley's allies. Somewhere
in the complex shifting of boundary lines among Chicago street
gangs, the Hole had become property of a small but fierce cadre of
Mickey Cobras. Traditionally, the sight of a Gangster Disciple in
the Hole means somebody is about to get shot.
There are no trees left here to bend in the punishing wind.
Slowly, the young men of The Hole, the M.C.'s, spokesmen for their
neighborhood, whether by default or violence, drift from the
doorways toward the Bradley van with their heads down and their
hands in their pockets. Cal and Fly, Bradley's campaign workers in
the van slouch with feigned unconcern.
"What up, Money?"
"Gator's runnin'. He needs your support."
A dark reed of a lad peers into the back of the van. "B.D.'s
votin'," he assures Gator's people.
The Mickey Cobras are sometime allies of the much larger
B.D.'s, Black Disciples, once brothers now mortal enemies of the
"Gator goin' all the way," Cal, the driver, predicts.
"What if he don' make it?"
"Just come back again next year. There's a meeting tomorrow
at the Boys and Girls Club." Cal names a spot farther south in the
M.C.'s don' go there," the slim kid reminds. Then he recounts
what happens when boundary lines are treated too casually.
"Money got free tickets from Hoover's wife,' he says,
referring to Gangster Disciple chieftain Larry Hoover, serving a
150 to 200 year sentence for a 1972 murder. It was Hoover who
conceived 21st Century VOTE and launched the G.D.'s into politics.
"We went to the concert," the young Mickey Cobra continues.
"Thought it was chill. Shit. Mad G.D's there. Money flipped."
The young man remembers the aftermath of the ill©considered concert
attendance. "Shootin' much G.D.'s," he recalls.
"Gator ended all that," Cal steers the subject from mayhem.
"He brought the peace."
"Naa, we did that," an M.C. corrects. "But it's all good now,
Money. We got no problem with y'all."
The M.C.'s wander back to their doorways and Gator's workers
continue their gentle campaigning.
"Vote for Gator," Cal whispers over the loudspeaker to a young
woman leaning into the wind. She makes her way to the window of
the van. "You have my undying support," she promises.
At 5:30 a.m. Life rises from his mattress in the back bedroom
of his sister's apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes on the South
Side of Chicago. He pulls on a pair of baggy white denim pants,
laces up a pair of factory fresh red and black Fila sneakers, and
slouches into the bathroom. In the mirror Life's khaki eyes catch
the sparkle from his gold tooth. Life is twenty©six years old. He‘
graduated from Du Sable High School on State Street and has
fathered three children, but this is the biggest day of his life.
Outside, there is a dull rain and glorious possibilities.
Just two years ago at this hour of the morning Life would have
been sliding into the apartment after a night of selling crack in
front of his building, fingering a damp wad of bills in his pocket
and thanking his stars for making it through another night. His
credo in those days consisted of three words, "Watch your ass."
The customers would try to rob you," he tells. "The police, the
competition and even your own people might move on you." Life's
own people © then and now © are the Gangster Disciples.
But Life isn't thinking about rock cocaine these days. It is
election day and he is thinking about votes. Life is one of
Bradley's Political Directors. For the past six months he has been
heading a voter registration drive in his project, coordinating
community rallies, and recruiting gang "shorties" for the political
Life's apparent conversion is one of a series personal
transformations of South Side gang leaders that have left most
Chicagoans throughly unconvinced. Candidate Gator Bradley went to
jail for armed robbery in '75. When he emerged four years later, he
seemed a changed man. During lengthy prison conversations with
charismatic Gangster Disciple leader, Larry Hoover, Bradley
concluded that no matter how much loot he had made on the street,
it wasn't worth the prison time. Ń
But it is Hoover's self described metamorphasis from warlord‘
to political leader that elicits the most suspicion and outright
fear throughout Chicago. The figure of Larry Hoover seems to float
over the South Side like the Wizard of Oz. Police portray him as an
evil mastermind. Community leaders and ministers recoil at his
name. But respected African American political leaders, like former
Mayor Eugene Sawyer, have championed Hoover's petitions for parole.
And the blank©eyed baby gunmen of Chicago's black ghettoes, the
ambitious street operators like Life will listen to no one else.
Even though still incarcerated, Hoover is so revered he is known on
the street as "The Chairman" and "King", and he was voted "most
admired" person by a Chicago High School student body. He even has
a popular line of hip hop clothing that sports the logo "Ghetto
Prisoner" and his corrections department number.
When Hoover changed the name of the Gangster Disciples to
Growth and Development and started preaching political empowerment,
his message whipped through the Illinois prison system and into the
South Side housing projects, converting thousands of gangbangers at
least temporarily into true believers. "Think of it," Life muses
on his way to campaign headquarters, "from stickup kid to dope man
to political man."
But for now, there was no money in the fledgling political
movement, and a battle raged in Life's psyche, his allegiance to
Hoover and his desire to do the right thing against a tide of
suppressed cravings. "A Lex (Lexus) and a Rolex," he dreams out
loud, even as he steers his twelve year old Buick Skylark with
frayed tires and bent rims over to the Bradley campaign‘
The slender Life executes the duties of daily existence with
studied ease, his voice a honeyed whisper, but there is a
devoutness to his personality that made him a formidable figure on
the street and makes him an asset to 21st Century VOTE. A
diabetic, he injects himself with insulin every morning, he has had
to fend for himself for a long time in other ways. Life's father
was born with gray hair and gray eyes. "People said he was
cursed," Life recalls. His father left when he was ten and Life
was raised by his mother. When he talks about "the old man," Life
is referring to Larry Hoover whom he has never met. "I wouldn't
mind if he was my father," he admits.
Life's mother suffered a stroke when he was twelve years old
and he passed into manhood Chicago style, joining the Gangster
Disciples. Even as a teenager Life never dressed flashy, "I was
always righteous and conservative, not radical," he maintains. He
stayed cool and minded his business. But Life's business was what
he calls "street activity." As a fleetfooted boy he and his crew
robbed the freight trains that run along the tracks behind the
projects. "They'd come by all loaded and they'd slow down. We'd
jump on with bolt cutters. Just like Jesse James." When a Chicago
sports team won a championship the young marauders hit the
commercial districts on the South Side with a vengeance. "It was
like we won the 'Lottery'," Life quips. "One time we shut the
whole city down. We stopped the busses, everything. People were
just lookin' out their windows." Ń
All Chicago was mesmerized by the Third Ward race. Gang
membership numbers, the arithmetic of rumor, are unreliable. Both
police and gang members have reason to exaggerate. But one thing
is sure, the Gangster Disciples have tens of thousands of members.
In the summer of '93, 21st Century VOTE turned out ten thousand
people, mostly young men with gang affiliations, who surrounded
City Hall, and helped force an end to a confrontation between
teachers and the city that was headed for a strike. In a city
where ten thousand votes could swing any election, the
possibilities were obvious. At the same time, the truth about 21st
Century VOTE remained maddeningly elusive. Ń
Whether a long©awaited inner city political empowerment
movement or a crude grab for power, 21st Century VOTE is under the
closest surveillance by Chicago police and the FBI. Referring to
a 21st Century VOTE sponsored event, a Chicago law enforcement
official says, "We were in it. We were around it. We were above
Gang participation in the electoral process "scares the
bejeesus out of me," Richard Kozak, Deputy Director of Public
Safety for the Chicago Housing Authority, moans. But in the
hothouse of Chicago politics gangs have been players for a long
time. Al Capone paid for his politicians with bootleg whiskey
money. The current Mayor Daley's father in his youth was a member
of the Hamburgs, a brawling street gang with political ties. In
the '70's, Blackstone Ranger leader, Jeff Fort, was invited to
Nixon's inauguration. A convoy of Rangers, Vice Lords, and‘
Disciples helped escort Martin Luther King through the howling
white mobs in Marquette Park in 1966. When a rock struck King in
the forehead, the Disciples were ready to do what they did best,
rumble. "But we held back," Gator Bradley remembers. "We were the
shorties then. Our leaders told us not to retaliate. We followed
Gangster Disciples still follow orders. Its impressionable
young members crave the quasi military hierarchy, gang slogans, and
signs like the Disciple's signature six point Star of David with
crossed pitchforks at the top. Below the star insignia on a wall
in the Taylor homes is scrawled, "If I should die have no pity.
Bury me in sin city. Tell King Hoover that I did my best and put
two pitchforks across my chest."
Gang membership can mean different things. For some Gangster
Disciples the group represents an identity and a protective shield.
The first thing a South or West Side teenager is asked on the
street is, "Who you ride?" What is your gang affiliation? A
member is required by gang law to "represent", to identify his
gang, no matter how dire the consequences. For other members, the
gang provides a ready vehicle for criminal activity.
The Gangster Disciples chain of command travels from
"Chairman" Hoover to a Board of Directors then to a network of
Governors, Regents and Directors. The sight of a G.D. Regent
convening an open air meeting attended by several hundred teenagers
and men is not an usual sight to people in the Taylor Homes.
Still, estimating the level of real control possible over such a‘
huge street organization as the Gangster Disciples is as puzzling
as the true motives of Larry Hoover.
Part diplomacy, part symbolism, and part fear, Hoover's
power on the street is mysterious. One thing is sure, Hoover
controls the prisons in Illinois. When he was transferred out of
Vienna State Prison in late 1994 the guards complained, fearing the
institution would fall into chaos in his absence.
Gang culture, a kind of tribalization, grows when social
structures have withered. In the black and latino neighborhoods of
Chicago, schools, community organizations, and family units all
began to disintegrate in the '60's when industrial jobs disappeared
and nothing came to take their place. "You are not talking about
fallen heroes," a West Side minister explains, "you are talking
about a fallen society." The result has been a phantasmagoria of
street gangs. Besides the Black Gangster Disciples, Gangster
Disciples, Mickey Cobras and Vice Lords, there are the Traveling
Vice Lords, Conservative Vice Lords, Insane Vice Lords, Mafia
Insane Vice Lords, Latin Kings, Four Corner Hustlers, and a dozen
In the 80's Chicago gangs started calling themselves "Nations"
instead of gangs, both to avoid prosecution under anti gang©laws,
and to emphasize their right to recognition as legitimate political
entities. Ten years ago, Larry Hoover √
changed the name of the
Gangster Disciples to Growth and Development, and began issuing
anti dope and stay in school directives.
"Lions do not walk among sheep," declares one such G.D.‘
communication, entitled, "Who are We?". The document distributed
to members reads, "Our transition from a lifestyle of ill repute to
one of respectable and productive people is not from fear or
force.... There are many who promised to assist us on our war on
oppression, but proven themselves to be unworthy deserters and
cowards, afraid to tread unconquered territories." The second page
of the letter lists rules of silence and secrecy as well as a ban
on drugs, stealing, missing school, confronting the police, and
even littering. All members are forbidden to "use membership in
the group to extort funds or favors from any member or anyone in
the community." The communication assures that the "Honorable
Chairman" is pleased with the positive changes and achievements of
a few of you."
When hordes of young men like Life started showing up at
protests and political rallies it became clear that Hoover's idea
had given the youth something their hearts yearned for even more
than gold chains and state of the art sneakers. But political
organizers have long been wary of relying on youth notorious for
their lack of wisdom and short attention span. Many of the gang
members would not be able to vote for a year or two. It was time
to hold their imagination with a victory in the Third Ward. "We've
got to win," a leader of 21st Century VOTE said, "We just got to
It wouldn't be easy. Dorothy Tillman had the savvy and the
political connections throughout the city. But she did have
weaknesses in the Third Ward. Once viewed as a bonafide community‘
activist, she now rarely enters the projects for any reason. Ń
Life is on the phone at the Third World People's Organization,
Bradley's campaign headquarters, talking with a girlfriend. "No,
I don't have no money. I √
money. Money don't mean shit to me.
No, I ain't trippin'. Do for you? What you want, furniture?
You're materialistic. I guess I"m just a good guy gone bad," he
says wearily and hangs up. Living within the law isn't easy on the
South Side of Chicago. "I'm down to my last crumb," he admits to
his friend across the room. Life picks up the telephone and
cradles the receiver contemplating his sorry state. Recently, he
has been shorn even of his signature gold chain. His jewelry and
his small savings were robbed from of his apartment. Even though
he knows who did it, he cannot retaliate in the way he would have
just a year and a half ago. "Naa," he says," deciding not to call
the girl back. "Got to let it go. I'm easy. I'll wait my turn."
The Taylor Homes run hard by State Street on one side, the
railroad tracks and the Dan Ryan expressway on the other. Built to
stop the spread of blacks into surrounding white neighborhoods, the
project runs two miles from 35th to 54th street, and houses 40,000
people. According to census reports, it is the poorest district in
the country. Here waiting for a bus is a status symbol. It means
you have somewhere to go.
sized moon floats pale above the building tops. The
night is cold but blessedly windless. At 4845 State Street two
security guards behind a metal detector and a thick window disavow
knowledge of the neighborhood political meeting known as a coffee‘
sip. But a hundred feet away, down an unlit tunnel, eighteen women
and six men sit on plastic chairs listening to Wallace Gator
Bradley. The candidate, in an exuberant yellow sweater and a Kente
cloth fez, is the picture of ease among his people. Short, full™shouldered and slim©waisted, Bradley is in good shape and full
"I did four years and a day in Statesville pen. In '89 I got
a full pardon from the Governor," Gator is telling. "The Chicago
crime commission, called me public enemy number one," he brags.
Actually, the commission, a dusty relic from the Capone days,
called gangs "the number one problem."
"This transcends the Third Ward," he begins. "They don't want
me to win because it will send a message to people in the ghettos
all over the country. They ain't nothin but a bunch of Euro
Gentiles," Bradley charges. "They say the gangs are killin' in the
name of Larry Hoover. Hell, those fifteen to twenty one year olds
shootin' never seen no Hoover. I got no problem reachin' out to
them (gangs). The authorities are after me now, not because I'm
sellin' crack or guns or pimpin' women. Because I believe the
ballot is more important than the bullet. Ń
Bradley begins to lay out some principles of his community
program. "We want a twenty percent discount to seniors on
Wednesday." Then he offers his self©improvement message.
"Children must obey their parents. I'll have an 800 number. If
you got a hardheaded child call me. 'Fore you know it, he'll be
washin' windows." The crowd of mothers chuckles appreciatively. ‘
"We ain't havin' no abuse and no stalkin' young girls. We're
talkin about this here."
The lean, sallow man in thhe back row is Mack, about forty
years old, one of Gator's campaign managers. "We're usin' the
American way," he says to a tenant seated in front of him. Next to
Mack is Life, who, along with the president of the tenants' group
organized the coffee sip. "It's all good," Life says.
Bradley is jamming now, "Don't talk to me about no gangs. The
governor is irish, the sheriff is irish, the Mayor is irish.
They're four percent of the population and they run everything.
The mob who is attacking our communities is the Irish mob. Who
killed (Black Panther) Fred Hampton? Not no gangbangers.
Gangbangers never bombed no church. They touch me and I'm comin'
after their first born."
Life leans over and whispers to Mack, "Lady cop had me down,
had her gun in my mouth. She says, 'I'll blow your head off' I
just smiled. He opens his mouth wide and round, performs a smile,
and leans back in his seat with a sigh of contentment. "Tired of
bein' the lowest scum on earth. This here is the beginning of
something. In twenty years I want to look back and say I helped
start this here."
Gator Bradley is winding down, but before he can wrap up, an
ocher©skinned woman in the center of the room launches a raucous
harangue. No one, including Bradley, tries to shut her up. "Let
me tell you...don't tell me shit," she hollers. It seems there is
no way to stop the woman until the door swings open and a larger,‘
louder, lady claims the stage. She is only about twenty five but
strapping and tougher than trouble.
"I ain't havin it," she booms. "Beat him down? Naaa." A
conventional candidate would have blanched, fled to a waiting car.
But Bradley has lived all his life in this maelstrom. He stands
his ground and questions the woman calmly. It seems the police
snatched the woman's son off the street for no good reason. A cop
was seen slapping the boy to the ground. In a moment, Bradley and
his campaign operatives, Mack, Life, and Cal, trailed by a gaggle
of residents, head over to the police station located in a building
a few hundred feet away.
The wolf faced, light©skinned sergeant is not happy to see
Gator Bradley. The police, black and white, despise Bradley and
those who support him. Some have been spotted wearing 21st Century
VOTE buttons upside down, knowing the practice of upending of an
insignia is an insult in the gang culture.
"Sit down," he orders Bradley, who faces the booking desk with
ten Taylor residents behind him.
Bradley remains standing. "This woman has a complaint of an
officer beatin' on her son. Simple as that."
The sergeant locks eyes with the candidate. Cal, standing in
the doorway, snaps a picture of the scene. At the flash, a
plainclothes officer across the room takes immediate offense.
Apparently, he is concerned a photograph will compromise his
plainclothes activities. Veins bulging, he pushes his way across
the room to confiscate the camera. Ń
"Stupid shit," a Bradley follower hisses. "Everybody know all
"You took my picture?"
"I didn't take √
picture," Cal explains, holding the camera
behind his back. The cop lunges and Gator steps between the men.
Two white cops quickstep from the backroom. The sergeant bellows,
"Sit down," nodding to his officers to back off, "and," he says,
his voice softening to a purr, "everything will be love."
As tensions ease, the sergeant finally gets to the heart of
the matter. "There was a physical arrest, Cannabis Misdemeanor."
"Pickin up thirty a night. Is that the deal?" Bradley wants
to know. He is talking about the police interfering in the
election by tearing up voter registration cards and arresting his
campaign workers. "Brought them attack dogs out last night," one
lady complains. "Said we couldn't be more than one hundred feet
from our apartment."
"We don't run a head count operation," the sergeant says, "We
ain't part of it."
Bradley nods knowingly to his people at the tacit reference to
a quota system.
When all is said and done, Bradley gains points for
statesmanship. The police allow the mother to inspect her son. A
moment later, she emerges from a back room satisfied.
Outside, in the icy moonlit night, Life shows Mack a piece of
notebook paper with his creed written upon it. He had distilled
his philosophy into a list of phrases and transcribed them in‘
careful hand. "Life is a tragedy, Face it," one reads. Another,
"Life is a duty. Perform it."
Mack, Wali, and Fly are a block away from the Taylor Homes in
the Bradley campaign headquarters on 47th street, making last
minute preparations. Forty©Seventh Street was once a mecca for
blacks who had taken the "blues highway" north from Mississippi.
Now, the men who warm their hands by a fire in a garbage can nearby
call the shabby street Tobacco Road. One of the reasons Life wears
a spotless red cap, new shirt, and sneakers even when he can't
afford them is that for him the first sign of wear harbingers a
descent into the ragged despair he sees all around him. Ń
One of the tragedies here is that too many of the teenagers
have raised themselves, passing on impressions and unformed ideas
to each other as knowledge. But today, the shy youngbloods stand
quietly and listen as Mack and Wali, like wise older brothers,
explain campaign strategy. "Ask the girl if she's registered.
Just ask her to vote for Gator. It's a way to break the ice."
Mack and Wali are no nonsense middle©aged men. But their age
would not be enough to bring them respect from the young men in
this world. These youths have seen too much unwholesome behavior
to look up to their elders. It is Mack and Wali's connection to
Bradley and by extension to Larry Hoover, that gives them what the
teenagers call "props", proper respect. Dwight Conquergood, a
professor at Northwestern University who has studied gangs, spoke
in Hoover's behalf at his last parole hearing. Conquergood
believes that this precious mentoring factor is enough to take a‘
chance on releasing Hoover. "I don't know if he is totally
rehabilitated," Conquergood says. "No one can really know that
until he gets out. But it would be cost effective to parole him.
He has the potential to be worth more to the youth than scores of
social workers and psychologists, and any number of programs they
Later in the day, there would be a large Growth and
Development orientation session over at the Boys and Girls Club.
The plan is to instruct palm card holders who will blanket the
Third Ward with Bradley fliers, organize building captains who will
get out the vote in the projects, and train pollwatchers to prevent
the Tillman forces from engaging in the vote stealing for which
Chicago elections are notorious.
A visitor from another city approaches Mack who is in a back
room fretting over organizational details and asks if he can attend
the orientation session. Mack shakes his head. "I deal in
protocol," he explains. The outsider approaches Gator Bradley
who motions the man into the hallway. Bradley's concern is
understandable. Even if 21st Century VOTE is everything its
leaders say it is, there are sensitive issues to be confronted.
Drug dealing is virtually the only viable business in the community
and some G.D.'s continue to deal drugs, of that there is no doubt.
Certainly, in this street alliance there are compromises to be made
to go along with admonitions. 21st Century VOTE has been taking a
beating in the press. Ń
"I'd like to go over to the Boys and Girls club and watch the‘
training session," the man tells Bradley.
He shakes his head. "Do you know what game we're playing here
in Chicago?" The vistor cocks his head.
"The murder game."
""Like Fred Hamton" the man asks, naming the Black Panther
murdered in his bed in 1969 by Chicago police. Bradley nods.
The threat of such an attack is probably not as serious as
Bradley believes, but the FBI has called 21st Century VOTE "the
new mafia" and authorities have taped hundreds of Larry Hoover's
telephone conversations in jail, including the one where he
broaches the idea of political action committee to a gang leader in
another prison. "We got the army," he said. "We got what nobody
else got out there."
In his tiny first floor office a mile from the Taylor Homes
Deputy Director Richard Kozak is sick with contempt when he talks
about Growth and Development. He has a heart condition but his
hand, keeps creeping toward the pack of cigarettes in the drawer of
his desk. In 29 years as a policeman Kozak has become steeped in
gang lore. Once he starts talking about gangs he can't stop.
"There were a lot of Chicago police dicks walking around with raw
(gang) data on 3 by 5 cards. When the state police got the Hoover
telephone tape, that was the smoking gun and we started pooling our
information." Kozak worries that in time 21st Century VOTE
movement will become legitimatized. "The Gangster Disciples have
more liquid cash than the Rockerfeller Foundation," he says,‘
shuffling photographs of gang members like playing cards.
Kozak contends that 21st Century VOTE is a device to hide
behind the First Amendment. "Gator Bradley calls a press
conference and talks about oppression and all this nonsense, but
people are not comprehending that this is organized crime." Kozak
alleges that the real role of 21st Century VOTE is to "funnel ill
gotten gains to candidates." He cites police intelligence reports
showing the influence of the Gangster Disciples spreading across
Illinois and the country to St. Louis and the West Coast. Ń
In the summer of '92 the Gangster Disciples held a picnic.
Ten thousand people attended, transported in 80 buses. Allegedly
the picnic cost $70,000 and the purveyors were paid in cash. "They
had an altar," Kozak says. "An altar to 'King Hoover'.
Kozak produces a "dues" list to show that the Gangster
Disciples collect a street tax depending on the profitability of a
dope location. "You know what they do when somebody on their count
messes up? He gets a sanction. One of the sanctions is a
'pumpkin head,' where they lay you down and tap you on both sides
of the head with the blunt end of a baseball bat till your head
swells up. Ergo, the 'pumpkin head.'"
There are no shortage of black community leaders who agree
with Kozak. Minister Jeffrey Haynes, himself a former Gang member
and now director of the West Englewood Youth and Teen Center,
claims to have helped thousands of kids get out of gangs. He gives
a tour of his neatly appointed men's shelter on the West Side. The
residents greet Haynes with the self consciously decorous manner of‘
men who are piecing their lives together.
"If you really want to see things change," Haynes says, "it's
not hard to believe in Gator Bradley. But If Gator got elected he
wouldn't stand for anything." Haynes wants to know how Bradley and
those who support him brokered the gang peace. "Did they do it by
negotiating boundaries for drug trafficking?" Haynes calls the
participation of gangs in politics "regression". "I was excited
for a minute, then I realized it was set up to exploit children.
Gator is scary. He's past scary."
On the other side of town, Tom Harris, Director of 21st
Century VOTE, scoffs at such talk. "They try to criminalize our
movement because they think we might be bad for business." Harris
has the short arms and mechanical movements of the old television
talk show host Ed Sullivan. But the man is no joke. Like the
Reverend Haynes, Harris is anxious to display his organization's
accomplishments. He hustles down the street from his office and
bounds up the unfinished interior stairway of a residential home
under renovation as a black history museum. "The police say that
the Gangster Disciples are in 120 cities. Jesse James didn't rob
all those banks and this is the same principle" he says. In
Chicago, minority Aldermen comprise nearly half the city council
yet little seems to change in the places like the Third Ward.
Harris rankles at so called "plantation politics." We're tired of
beggars and panhandlers. We won't stand with losers. They can
kiss my ass. We're not backdooring and not receiving funds from
Outside in the cold, Harris clears his throat and spits hard
across the wind. "Drug money? Everybody in the country got dope
on their money. If a dog sniffed it he would smell the dope. The
truth is we are not supported by the drug dealers. Talk to the car
dealers selling $45,000 cars and the lawyers. They're the ones who
live off the drug dealers."
Prince Asiela Ben Israel, a black community and religious
leader, supports Gator Bradley. In the back room of his spotless
Soul Vegetarian Restaurant he speaks softly, while a clear eyed
woman in a printed wrap serves lunch. "21st Century VOTE is not
just the gangs but the permanent underclass. We have to
participate in the political process or participate in our own
assassination." When the question of 21st Century VOTE's
association with those in the drug trade is raised, Asiela's face
hardens to marble. He opens and closes his hands slowly. "There
is not a sane, intelligent, black person who supports drugs." It
is Asiela's belief that the media's preoccupation with the drug
question is a device to demonize and derail 21st Century VOTE.
"Larry Hoover hasn't committed a crime on these streets for
twenty-two years," he says evenly. "If I am correct in interpreting
Christian philosophy, it is not immoral for a man who (once) broke
the law to participate in the political process."
At an Operation PUSH meeting, a national empowerment group
organized by Jesse Jackson, Bradley charms hundreds of concerned
citizens and well heeled politicos. These are black Chicagoans,
but they are from a different world than the people in the Taylor‘
Homes. From their vantage point in the middle class the PUSH
members have their own concerns, morality and style.
The crowd laughs politely at Bradley' jokes and smiles in his
face. Then Life and his boys saunter in the back of the hall to
warm up after distributing fliers out in the cold. Life, the hood
of his sweatshirt up and his hands wrapped around a container of
coffee, settles in next to a woman with a fox coat draped over her
bony shoulders. She recoils, her face quivering with distaste.
Life has not read many books but he is a student of
disrespect, and he is finally fed up. He has had it with the drab
image he has been seeing in the mirror lately, with his girlfriend
harping about money. This time, Life is anything but cool.
"What," he hisses at the woman. "What," he repeats, leaning
closer. There is trouble in Life's light eyes. Before he can
fully break his vow of restraint a hand settles on his shoulder.
It is Mack. The touch is enough to remind Life of his mission and
he eases. The woman arches her neck and slides her chair a foot
Late that night Fly cruises the Third Ward with another worker
in the campaign van putting up Bradley posters. As he rolls down
Michigan Avenue, a car pulls in fronts and Fly yanks the wheel,
jerking the van into oncoming traffic for a moment. At the light,
he stomps on the brake tossing his passenger forward in his seat.
"Watch out, Fly. You're gonna get us killed," the man cautions.
Fly grunts and bears down on the task. "I just got out of jail
last month," he explains, "did fourteen years."
"I'm not going to let Dorothy steal this election," Mack
announces at headquarters on election morning. Like Life, scores
of young men and women have gotten up at dawn. Outside polling
places they hunch in the morning rain, handing out palm cards with
Bradley's picture and whispering "Punch 115. Vote for Gator".
Life is carrying a walkie talkie, communicating with palm card
holders, making sure all polling spots are covered. Five white
vans arrive, probably supplied by 21st Century VOTE, as well as six
lawyers in crisp suits.
The atmosphere is buoyant. Mack is coordinating the
pollwatchers and Wali is chasing down problems. The denizens of
47th street outside sense a winner and wander upstairs to feel the
precious warmth of success. A blush of young men stands in the
office hallway waiting for assignment. It looks as if things are
being done the right way. There is even a subtle congratulatory
touching of hands as campaign workers pass each other. But soon
plans go wrong.
Tillman's minions are challenging people at the polls in the
Robert Taylor Homes. But Bradley's young pollwatchers are reticent
to do the same in the spots where Tillman has strong support. One
lad sits by blinking absently as Dorothy instructs the judges at
one of her strongholds. "Don't even ask for (registration) cards.
Folks get too intimidated."
The irony is heavy. The gangster insurgents are worried sick
that the respected incumbent will steal the election. The terrible
teenagers, lords of the streets, are too shy to challenge the‘
adults over voter registrations.
Nevertheless, people are pouring out of the projects. Two of
Gator's followers stand all day with a megaphone outside 5247 South
Federal. "We need everybody's support. Please come out and vote."
Not all the Disciples are so committed. A check reveals that
some palm card holders have abandoned their posts, including
Eightball. Mack is beside himself. "When a people never had
responsibility, they run from responsibility," he says.
"Damn," a well dressed campaign worker says, lamenting the
soft approach of Growth and Development. "What we need is some
P.H., a chilling reference to the old pumpkin head.Ń
At midday, Wali bursts into the control room at headquarters.
"Dorothy is performing," he says. Sure enough, Tillman sporting a
black leather hat, has been on television leveling charges, later
proven unsubstantiated, that Bradley campaign workers have been
attacking her workers, harassing voters, and breaking into her
office to steal poll watcher applications. Life was walking out of
a polling place when Tillman stalked toward him trumpeting her
accusations about theft and assault. Life kept his mouth shut.
"It wasn't my part to speak," he explains to Mack. "I just kept the
fuck on." News sound trucks swoop down on Bradley's headquarters
and he faces the lights.
"My burglary career was over in '75," he jokes."
More Bradley election workers are heading home early. Not
Life, he has been diligently traveling from polling place to
polling place encouraging palm card holders to stay at their posts. ‘
"What's goin' on at " 49th and State," he barks into his two©way
radio. "We need that covered. Come back to me with that info."
Bradley pulls up and beckons Life into his car. "We need you as a
poll watcher in the tenth precinct."
Mack is looking on, impressed. "Life you got it."
"Hey Mack. I'm nationwide." Life allows himself a moment of
"Freeze that shit," Bradley orders.
Suddenly, the 47th street headquarters is invaded by half a
dozen strange looking old gentlemen, campaign workers from the 27th
Ward, come by to pay their respects. Each wears a stingy brimmed
hat, three piece striped suit, and fancy shoes. Through a haze of
cigarette smoke, they look like Frank Nitti, a Capone enforcer in
the old Untouchables television series. Surely, they have lost
touch with reality. But the costumed oldtimers are not alone in
their folly in a country where gangbangers and mafiosi learn how to
dress and act by watching movies about themselves. Chicago gangs
did not use machine guns, Gator Bradley says, until they saw Al
Pacino with an uzi in the movie "Scarface". Bradley hugs each one
of the gents. Old Gangsters Disciples never lose their status.
By nine o'clock, it is clear that Tillman will not get her
majority, she has only 47 percent of the vote, Gator 31. There
will be a runoff. The News trucks are back. As Bradley stands
before the microphones, Life is by himself in a corner smiling
dreamily. "I'm part of this movement," he says. "I want to see‘
the headlines tomorrow. Black youth defeat dirty Alderman. I know
the Chairman is going to be happy."
The headlines came. Word that a convicted felon, backed by an
organization with ties to street gangs, has forced a runoff in a
Chicago election drew reporters form far and wide. The New York
Times and CBS Evening New With Dan Rather and Connie Chung run
features. An Italian News crew, the BBC, Biegel T.V. in Germany,
and CNN showed up. But the center could not hold. The very
morning after the election, Bradley, elated by his support in the
Taylor homes, and annoyed by constant badgering from reporters
about his gang support, blurted during a television interview, "I'm
a Gangster Disciple, O.K. I'm a Gangster Disciple that ain't gonna
let no more killing happen in his community by nobody." He didn't
say "former" Gangster Disciple. The furor was predictable, and any
chance Bradley has to widen his support, withered. But it was just
a matter of time before Bradley fell off his trembling tightrope.
It could have been a drug bust or a drive by, almost anything so
people could say, "I told you so."
The evening before the runoff five hundred young people file
quietly into the Boy's and Girl's center for an organizational
meeting. 21st Century VOTE has purchased 400 white shirts and ties
to fight the gangster image. Suddenly, all outsiders are asked to
The Boys' and Girls club meeting is followed by an unusual
affair. A Mickey Cobra Regent who had been convinced to attend is
impressed by the turnout and tone of the Boys' and Girls' club‘
gathering. "I'm on the wrong page," he says. Then he goes back to
The Hole and calls a crisis meeting of his own membership to
consider more active participation in the runoff. Within the hour
one hundred M.C.'s turn out at a Parks Department building in
nearby Fuller Park. The M.C.'s begin their meeting with a solemn
Cobra ritual, turning to the East their left hand behind their leg
in a fist, their right hand raised performing gang signatures. The
M.C. Regent addresses the gathering. "We can do other things
besides sell drugs. Whatever you want to be you can be. If you're
not down with it you can leave." Nobody leaves. "Gator is here
and I want you to give him respect."
After Bradley speaks he fields questions. One query cuts to
the heart of the matter. "I deal drugs. If you are elected are
you gonna shut us down?"
There is no proof that Gator Bradley either deals drugs or
profits from the drug dealing of others. In fact, his campaign
appears painfully strapped for money. But what can Bradley promise
as a source of income for those who live off drug money? Ń
Bradley answers this way. "If your drug dealing becomes a
problem for the community they will come to this gentleman here,"
he motions to an old M.C. who had invited the Regent to the Boys'
and Girls' club. The implication is that the man would then come
to Gator who would take action. "What I can do is stop you from
shooting this brother here."
This election day started differently than the one six weeks
before. Though the Chicago Board of Elections had reported that‘
there were no complaints of gang intimidation of voters, the police
were out early, in numbers.
At 8 a.m. a squad of eight uniformed police in an unmarked van
sweep the projects. They pull up quickly behind selected
buildings, pile from the van and charge into the lobby. At 8:30
the squad enters the Boys' and Girls' club, prompting complaints
are intimidating voters. But there are no gang members
to be seen and few voters.
Five unmarked cars with two plainclothes officers in each
cruise up to two teenagers standing in front of 3737 State Street.
A sickly morning sun filters through the thick glass of the lobby.
"Who you votin' for?" a black cop asks, without leaving his car
"Nobody," Antonio, a 17 year old Bradley worker answers,
afraid he will be roughed up. But Antonio and his buddy, Nuke, are
not planning to run for cover. They are building captains and plan
to knock on every door and get out the vote for Bradley. After the
police leave, they hurry into the lobby where they stand peering up
through a crack to see if the elevator is descending. "I wanna
win. All this shit I did." Antonio says. "Freezin' my ass off."
The boys start on the top floor hurrying up and down the
penned in walkways knocking on doors. Many people open up.
A silky skinned young lady with a graceful neck opens up and
eyes Antonio. "I'm checkin' to see if you votin'," he tells her.
The girl's head waves gently from side to side. She holds her
housecoat closed at the neck.
"What's that you doin'?"
"Remindin' you to vote for Gator Bradley." Antonio sucks in
a deep breath. The girl considers the handsome young man for
several seconds. Then her face blooms into a smile. "I'm a
vote," she says.
"Ahh," Antonio gasps, dancing away from the door. "They like
us here," he chortles, trotting down the dark staircase with nimble
feet. "Except for Mrs. B. She went on TV and said we was stickin'
Big Six, one of their buddies is out now too. "Get up and
vote," he bellows like Paul Revere, his voice echoing down the
walkways. "Stop sleepin' and get out and vote."
But not enough people were listening. In the lowest regular
election turnout in Chicago election history, Bradley tookk a
beating at the polls, losing the runoff by three thousand votes.
"I thank the people for votin'," Bradley tells a dozen
reporters who crowd the hallway outside his campaign office for his
concession speech. "This whole race was uphill. Thank you,
everyone who didn't get violent. With sixteen and seventeen year
olds there is another race comin' up in 1996. We will be in full
force, in full effect, on the street."
Out of the lights, Mack is bitter. "We just didn't have money
to make the deals they did."
Near midnight over at the Boy's and Girls' Club a young man
with his tie swiveled so it hangs down his back and his new shirt
hanging out of his back pocket like a giant white handkerchief,
shoots baskets. A couple dozen of his friends mill around eyeing‘
the refreshments for the planned victory party.
Bradley strides in, takes one look at the dismal scene, and
leaves. Wali is standing by the door. "There's a rule in poker,"
he says, "Let them try to beat you. That is what Dorothy did.
Waited for us to make the mistakes. It was like we were playing a
veteran and we didn't know the fine points." A moment later he
winces. "Makes me want to cry."
Nearby, Life rocks back and forth, his arms folded across his
chest. There has been no grand beginning. "What am I gonna do?
What a black man does best, keep comin' up in this world they call
Eight weeks later it was summer in the Robert Taylor Homes and
fever hot. Conditions in the projects had been so bad for so long
that the Federal Government had just taken over the Chicago Housing
Authority. There had been plenty of speeches but no sign of change
yet. Hundreds of young men face the desultory day in the slim
shade of the buildings. Over in the Hole the basketball game flows
back and forth without pause. Life is still clinging to the 21st
Century VOTE program, pushing yet another voter registration
initiative, and trying to stay out of trouble. His status as a
convicted felon is making the difficult task of finding work near
impossible. This morning he walks over to the bedraggled mall near
his home to pick up chicken and ribs for the barbecue he is having
for the residents of his building.
In the early afternoon Gator Bradley quits the South Side and
heads down the toll road to the Dixon Correctional facility to see
For two hours, waves of farmland roll toward Dixon. Postcard
vistas, no farm animals, no growing crops, no human beings. There
seem to be no living things in the town of Dixon either. A road
off the highway loops past graceful homes, wide porches, easy
living. Nestled in a corner of Dixon, the medium security
Correctional Facility, once a mental institution, looks like a
college campus tucked behind double rows of razor ribbon. Ń
Larry Hoover is one of the few "C" series inmates, left in the
Illinois prison system, which means he was sentenced before the
indeterminate sentence laws were changed in '78. The authorities
can keep him in jail indefinitely and it looks like they will. The
man convicted with Hoover of the 1972 murder has been out of jail
for years. Ex Chicago mayors, mayoral candidates and community
leaders have visited Hoover in prison, supported his applications
for parole. Still, he has never received one positive vote from
the parole board.
There are no partitions or looming guards in the wide visiting
room. Larry Hoover enters in his own clothes, a maroon ensemble
with matching alligator shoes, and crosses the room, nodding to
other inmates as he goes. His demeanor is shy, almost sweet. He
is about five foot ten with narrow shoulders and thick hands. His
sideburns are shaved to a point, as if he had too much time to
experiment with his appearance. He has a soft chin but his hair
glistens and his skin is so smooth it looks powdered. In the drab
surroundings he looks like a sultan.
When Hoover entered prison he was already co-leader of the
Gangster Disciples. Before long he had achieved the status of an
Ayatollah. "I do run the prisons," he offers with a soft smile.
Hoover's influence in the jails is so strong that when there is a
problem at a correctional institution across the state he is called
to the Warden's office at Dixon to help solve the conflict.
Like a traditional politician, Hoover starts by listing his
accomplishments. "When I came into the Illinois prison system it
was daily practice to rape the young guys. They'd size them up on
the fish (orientation) line, and then at night you could hear them
screaming. I stopped all that. I saved them from being punks and
that is appreciated." Hoover does not say how he stopped the
rapes. "If somebody wants to move up in my organization," Hoover
continues, "he has to go to school. Guys don't talk about what
prison they went to now they talk about what 'university'."
It is easy to see what the young inmates men see in Larry
Hoover. He is thoughtful and stern like the father they never had.
And funny. "Brother in here just became a Muslim," he says. "Then
the Oklahoma City thing happened and the police thought the Muslims
did it, so my man changed his name back to Jeff, quick. Threw away
all his Muslim shit."
The charge against Hoover is that he runs a violent drug gang.
His contention is that Growth and Development is a movement within
a wider organization. "Of course there are people in the
organization who sell drugs. People who support me who sell drugs.
And I do have some influence over them. But they don't give me‘
their money. The police try to portray the G.D.'s as an octopus
that sucks money up to the top. It doesn't work like that. The
drug dealers may listen to me on some matters. But I can't tell
them to stop selling drugs, to stop feeding their families."
Hoover sheds some light on how he influences activities on the
street from his position in jail. "Sooner or later the guys on the
street know they will probably come inside. Then they know they
will have to deal with me."
In the middle of his talk Hoover rises to "walk the yard," to
get away from any listening devices in the visiting room. He has
known for some time that there have been microphones concealed in
the visitors' passes. He and Bradley pace an enclosed grassy
area. Hoover listens and nods, speaking every few minutes.
Hoover's disciples in Chicago and their brothers in inner
cities across the country are the lepers of our society. Hoover
can touch them. But where will his guiding hand lead, and perhaps
more important than the question of his character, can any leader
bring this flock into the American family without the restructuring
of a shrinking economy?
When Hoover returns he talks about the Black middle class.
"Sure they see themselves as apart from us. But they are not
exempt in the long run. They are like the jews in Germany who
believed that they would be spared when Hitler came to power. Ń
Larry Hoover is the picture of reason but he is at the rudder
of a ship that floats on violence. Even if you accept the
proposition that he is a reformed man trying to change things, he‘
is never far from the murder game.
Last year, a Gangster Disciple in the prison at Pontiac
refused to move out of his cell and was set upon by a squad of
guards called to move him. In the melee the inmate's cellmate was
killed. It wasn't long before a supervisor at the same jail was
murdered, allegedly by Gangster Disciples. The finger pointed at
Hoover. Informants were sent to record an admission that he had
ordered the hit. "I'll tell you the same thing I told the warden
here. He has it on tape. If I was going to have somebody killed
it would have been (Correction Commissioner) Lane." The words are
soft but gravestone cold.
"They may never let me out, he says slowly. "They locked up
a whole generation and they're locking up another right now,"
Hoover continues. "Nothing is going to change unless the young
people get involved. Chicago is the place where it can start.
Because that's where we have the organization."
Back in Chicago over in the Robert Taylor Homes, Life is
betting what slim chance he has left in this world that Larry
Hoover is a visionary not an ordinary villain.