“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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.