Life on the streets is hard. Leaving it behind is even harder

Escape Routes


By: George Papajohn
Chicago Tribune Magazine
October 1, 1995

Fred “Bobby” Gore, retired Vice Lord, examines the tattered black and white photo showing the leaders of the gang- himself, Pee Wee, Cupid, Alfonso and Leonard. They are standing on a sidewalk with their canine mascot, “Tiger.”

“He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead,” Gore says, pausing. “The dog’s dead. I’m the only one left from the group.”

At 59, Gore is a survivor, a guy who relinquished his gang leadership and moved on. A reminder that leaving the gang is rarely easy but not impossible. Gore doesn’t have any photos of them, but he mentions a couple of police officers who are former Vice Lords. He adds, “ They wouldn’t want anyone to know.”

Yes, ex-gangbangers are cops. They are also preachers, lawyers, mechanics, meter readers, city employees, even students. One example: “Will Kill,” a former gang bodyguard, is studying for his master’s degree in social work.

After leaving, ex-gang members- like ex-drug addicts-often want to lend a helping hand to those who are like their former; more dangerous selves. Gore, for instance, works and agency that assists released convicts. A founding member of one Latino gang takes an interest in the neighborhood children who hang out at his hot dog stand, counseling them to stay in school. He also assists a pastor who is trying to reach gang members.

Politics is another refuge. Ald. Ricardo Muñoz (22nd), who hung out with the Latin Kings in Little Village as a youth, says he never officially joined the gang but agrees it’s fair to describe him as a fringe member. There are other officeholders who have similar back rounds, though most try to keep it quiet. The city’s most famous ex-gang member is also its most famous mayor: Mayor Richard J. Daley, a leader of the Hamburg Social Club, and Irish clan of softball players and street brawlers.

Daley, like Muñoz, didn’t exactly seek out the label of ex-gang member either. Most former gang members, even those not in the limelight, would prefer not to talk about it; if they do, they’d like to make sure their names won’t be published, or they try to gloss over the mayhem they created. So, their stories often go untold or incompletely sketched.

Academics, meanwhile, have only a limited understanding of what motivates a gang member to quit. Researchers tend to be more interested in why kids join gangs than in how they leave them.

Firm numbers in gang research, in general, are hard to come by. For instance, the total number of gang members, male and female, in Chicago can be only estimated, though that may too be generous a word for what is clearly guesswork.

“There’s no membership list,” cautions Donald Hilbring, commander of gang investigations for the Chicago Police Department. He says there are “approximately” 50,000 to 70,000 gang members in Chicago, fewer than five percent of them female.

Hilbring doesn’t see girl gangbangers as a growing sector. Wilfredo Gonzalez, a gang intervention worker for the Chicago Commons Agency (and a former gang member), tells a different story; 30 to 40 percent of Near Northwest Side gang members are girls, he says, far more than a decade ago.

Guessing how many of what percentage of males and females leave the gang would be sheer folly. Here’s a ballpark estimate: “not enough to mention” and “more than you would think.”

Says Gonzalez: “The numbers, as far as success stories, are not very high.”

But numbers, even if tallied by the U.S. Census Bureau and interpreted by a team of social scientists, never could completely explain this phenomenon. Perhaps only people like Bobby Gore or the others profiled on these pages really understand.


Why do they quit? Juan Ramirez has a simple explanation. “Once you have something to lose, you become ineffective as a gangbanger,” he says. For Ramirez, it was a wife and a child and a budding career as an actor that saved him-people and aspirations that he no longer could put in jeopardy.

In the examples here, individuals found something to replace the camaraderie and structure of the gang. For Connie Morris, it was religion. For Hector Escalera, it was a loving home. For Gore, it was education and his social work. It does not always happen this way, but all of these former gang members have left their old neighborhoods.
Their stories are more than personal histories. Told together, they become a compelling history of gangs in Chicago and how they have evolved from the days when they resembled rough-and-tumble boys clubs, to an era when they were awarded federal grant money for community minded projects, to modern times, when drug money and the availability of deadly weapons prompted the Chicago Crime Commission to label street gangs “Public Enemy No. 1” earlier this year.

But for all the tough-talking denunciations of gangs by the crime commission and the cops, former gang members often are the most stinging critics of gangbanging. That’s probably because they feel more empathy for the young lives being wasted, and they understand that, with a few breaks, those lives can be redeemed-that it’s not too long a journey from the street corner to a college classroom.
Even T.J., featured here because he’s still in the gang but wants to get out, considers gangbanging a foolish pursuit. “It screwed up my life,” he says.

They all know what’s at stake, which is why they agreed to talk so openly of their past. Says Gore: “I would hope the story would turn out where somebody would learn some sense from it.”

Bobby Gore still goes back. Two or three times a week, before he heads home to the south suburbs, he takes a detour to the Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side. Sometimes he carries job applications with him. Or condoms to distribute to teenagers and adults. He usually leaves Lawndale with his wallet a little lighter, after underwriting a woman who needs a loaf of bread or buying candy for some children. The young ones call him”Uncle Bobby.”

Gore’s reaction to the spectacle of neighborhood kids playing in the Douglas Parkway—tumbling, turning and soaring in an unscheduled show of acrobatic prowess—is typical.

“All they need is a chance,” he says.

He tells the children that they’re good enough to be part of the famous Jesse White Tumblers. He promises to contact the politician about them, then warns them to watch out for glass shards in the grass.

 

Curious as it may sound, Fred “Bobby” Gore once thought that he could provide those opportunities, enriching young lives and the neighborhood, through the Vice Lords. That was almost 30 years ago, when he was at the forefront of a movement to transform the gang into a legitimate neighborhood group, make the “Vice” in its name obsolete.

By the mid-1960s many Vice Lord leaders were no longer teens and had begun to see gang violence as a dead end. Gore, who had turned 30 and was a vice president in the gang, already had acquired his limp, a souvenir from a shotgun ambush as he relaxed on a front porch one night.

But another change, just as dramatic, slowly was taking hold of him; he had begun to see that the Vice Lord leaders needed to forget their grudges with rivals and focus on Lawndale’s youths, make sure they stayed in school, stayed away from guns and drugs and grew up to be responsible men. Otherwise, the neighborhood would continue its plunge into despair.

This was a time when gangs still were seen as groups of trouble boys, rather than criminal organizations or emerging mobs, and drug distribution was not a major source of income for the gang. It also was a time of social upheaval, civil rights marches and black political awakening. There were plenty of liberal activists, politicians and corporations, even a West Side police commander, who believed gangs could be cultivated for the community good.

The Vice Lords, which had been formed in the St. Charles juvenile detention center, became the Conservative Vice Lords—a reflection, it was said, of new goals and values. Grant money poured in from government and private sources, and the CVLs became an incorporated entity, opening an ice cream parlor, an arts and crafts boutique and a business office on 16th Street.

And then, just as quickly as it started, this brief moment of promise was over. The political climate changed by 1969, and the money dried up. The Vice Lords couldn’t sustain the businesses or contain their violent members.
Unless you count Gore, barely a trace of that effort remains in Lawndale.

“Sometimes, it makes you want to cry,” Gore says during a tour of the neighborhood, with its empty lots, outdoor drug markets, shuttered businesses and pervasive air of desperation.

The Vice Lords, of course, remain. But Gore feels little empathy toward the gang and what it now stands for—drug money and drug turf.

“I’ve always been against them,” he says of drugs. “I knew it would bring killing. I knew it would bring a lot of disharmony.

“Everyone’s in it for the dollar from what I see; from what I’ve seen, nobody has time for the kids anymore. I don’t condone it. As a matter of fact, a lot of those guys, I’ve come face to face with ‘em and I tell ‘em, “I’m ashamed of what you’re doing.”

He relinquished his leadership position while in Stateville Correctional Center in the early 1970s and became an inactive gang member; he felt out of touch with the younger members and angry about the gang’s growing interest in the drug trade.

By then, he was hitting the books, first to earn his high school equivalency certificate and then two undergraduate degrees. He lent his leadership abilities to a prison chapter of the Illinois Jaycees.

In a 1973 book about the Vice Lords, author and Vice Lord associate David Dawley wrote, “Bobby demonstrated an unrelenting gut determination to survive, to grow—an inspiration to the many young people he urged to give up territorial jealousies, to stop violence, to find a better way.”

Gore served 11 years in prison for a murder committed outside a tavern. It’s a crime he has steadfastly maintained he didn’t commit. That’s not something he’s ever likely to prove conclusively. But what he has demonstrated for the last two decades—inside prison and out—is his desire to help people and to work constructively within the system.

He’s now a counselor in the Cabrini-Green office of the Safer Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps convicts adjust to life outside prison and find jobs. Before that, immediately after his release, Gore worked for the Cook County public guardian, Patrick Murphy. Murphy had defended him in his murder trial. He represented a lot of Vice Lords while in private practice; most of them were probably guilty, Murphy now says. But not, in his view, Gore.

“I just think he’s a phenomenal guy,” Murphy says. “He was just a guy who took to the gangs as a way to help other people. The gangs today are entirely different.”

Even after prison, Gore had the opportunity to cash in on the new drug economy and the respect his name still garnered in the gang world. “You could be filthy rich,” gang leaders told him. Gore declined.

Instead, he married again (prison ruined his first marriage) and moved out of Lawndale, helping to raise four stepchildren and eventually settling in south suburban Lynwood. All his stepchildren attended college, he proudly notes, and two graduated.

It’s with regret that he talks about his son from his first marriage and that child’s struggle with drug addiction, his difficulty holding onto a job. Gore wasn’t around to raise him, and he blames himself. Sometimes it is not the prisoner but his family that prison destroys.

Though he left the gang behind, Gore still clings to some of the same beliefs he held in the 1960s: that most gang members are redeemable, that black neighborhoods and black children are purposely ignored by the white power structure, that CVL leaders never got enough credit for what they were trying to accomplish.

Along 16th Street, there’s a new sign about an old motorcycle club announcing the latest tenant, the B C & B Not for Profit Private Social Club. Gore and two friends (one’s an inactive Vice Lord who now installs floors) have leased the space.

Once they get running water and other essentials, they want to open it up to children during the day and adults at night. The money they make from club membership fees would go toward starting a social service center next door, giving Gore a Lawndale office again.

In the late ‘60s, Gore offered Dawley this hard-nosed assessment of his life: “Rather than get pats on the back for what we’re doing now, we need to be kicked in the ass ‘cause we should have been doing this 10 years ago…..You gotta see that your kids have a better chance. To hell with us. Our lives are wasted.”

Since then Gore has proved he wasn’t just talking a good game. He also proved himself wrong: His is not a life wasted.