Youth Gangs: The Conservative Vice Lords and the Power in Self-Determined Change
Livin' in this shit, ain't nothing for 'em to do but drink and start fighting each other. They don't have no reason except that they live in the ghetto and don't have nothin' to do. And if you look for somethin' to do, you look for something wrong to do. --A Nation of Lords
We were being so abused by white society that we took it out on the closest things near us - our black brothers. --Lord Thing
We didn't have malt shops...we didn't have recreation halls where we could go and socialize, learn to cook, learn to read...we had what you'd call "the bare bones." --Bobby Gore, from an interview with John Hagedorn
The Mayor's Architects Advisory Committee. c. 1980
In the late 1950's there were 300,000 people living in Lawndale, a community on the West Side of Chicago, and there were 70,000 people living within one square mile. The crowded conditions and the steady buildup of a ghetto were new to the area, as it had once been a prominent neighborhood of white middle class Jews. Classic white flight - the Jews moved out as soon as black families began moving in. But the housing prices went up; the only way people could afford to live in the neighborhood was by sharing, jamming, and cramming several families into a space once designated for only one (white) family. When one's environment feels like the most rundown anyplace could ever be, and when people live on top of one another, the emotional and psychological atmosphere turns ugly. Anger must rise when people have no hope in life ever changing - due to continuous social and economic oppression, by a system so sour that it boasts the cleverest of ways to feign freedom, to feign true democracy where it does not exist.
Freedom for so many youths came through a certain type of amalgamation of dependency and independence, in the form of joining a group or club in order to find an identity. Traditionally gangs are viewed as groups of youths bred out of fundamental criminality, that gangs are an absolutely negative, core disruption to a community, and the cause of all ghetto ills. Professor John Hagedorn's working definition of gangs, written in his book People and Folks works through the idea the gangs are organizations of the street, composed of either "the socially excluded" or the "alienated, bigoted elements of a dominant racial, ethnic, or religious group" (Hagedorn "Post-Industrial Gang Research and the Political Economy of Cities"). Hagedorn's definition of gangs severely departs with the notion that gangs are solely violent and unreflective; gangs, for Hagedorn and other gang researchers, are actually very self-defined. In this sense, gang formation relies on the concept of self-determination. This emphasis on self-determination makes gang formation a political act, and this was the critical concern of those who controlled "the system," i.e. lawmakers, authorities, and politicians. The Daily Defender of July 31, 1969 covers a House committee meeting formed to discuss the radicalization of youth forces and investigation of crime, citing that youth crime is becoming a conscious act of political rebellion. The committee concluded that the politicization of youth crime "poses the most serious threat to the already uncertain stability of our national community." Through politicization efforts, the established "underdog" no longer sees him or herself as powerless, and that empowerment becomes threatening to the establishment.
For Bobby Gore and other founding members of the Conservative Vice Lords, youth group involvement began in the form of joining social-athletic clubs. Gore started out in the Baby Dragons, a baseball team that later turned into the Vikings. He has said that "nobody was forced to join" (Dawley 6), but instead youth chose to do so in order to not only have something to do, but also have an identity. Fights broke out over baseball games, and later morphed into fights pertaining to territory. Yet when the Vice Lords started to form, in 1958 at the St. Charles Reformatory, the goal for fights was not to kill, but to build a reputation through struggle and winning the fight.
The Vice Lords grew to become one of the largest gangs in Chicago, and one of the most notorious. Members were pulled in when the VL would conquer the territories of other gangs, like the Barons and the Imperials. The goal was to do just enough damage to members of those groups, so that they would know who truly lorded the streets. Leonard Calloway designed the name of the Vice Lords - they were to be the lords of all vice. Usually the white man was known as the lord of vice, but they, this group of young African American men, were to take that title for themselves (Lord Thing). Being distinctive was also a top priority in forming the club. The VL adopted the dress of Lords, some wearing black capes (good to hide weapons under), gold lettering, and an earring in one ear. Only those who could afford these symbols would wear them, however, but others expressed affiliation through the symbols of the top hat, cane, and gloves. These were the symbols of white riches, but the Vice Lords re-appropriated them in order to carry a message of empowerment, similar to the re-appropriation of their name. Symbols are designed to materialize a group's identity.
The current version of Vice Lord symbols:
The Vice Lords attracted youth of all ages. They were one of the first gangs to bring in what were known as peewees, kids ages nine to thirteen. There were three divisions: pee wees, juniors, and seniors. VL member Cupid used to feel like there was no other way to be, but be a member of the gang. He shared the sentiment of most youth in his neighborhood, that there was no use in going to school because all you have to do to learn what you need to learn is go out on the streets. Cupid remembered how "school didn't interest me and most of the time when I did go, me and the teacher would get into it. Once a teacher hit me with a ruler so I went back and as he was sittin' at the desk, I hit him across the head with a chair" (Dawley 101). The schools did not understand the youth of Lawndale, and of greater Chicago; the schools were doing very little to teach students about their own history and how to think independently. Members of youth gangs rebelled against going to school because of the top-down nature of the system; information was being pushed on them, information that they felt held no relevancy to their own daily life, and information that they did not think could empower them.
On an evening in July, 1964, Bobby Gore, Alfonso Alford, Calloway, Pep, and J.W. were, according to Gore, "hanging around shooting pool and sipping wine, then one of the younger fellas said he wanted to take about 50 others on his fall. We asked him why, and who he wanted to fall on. Had anyone misused him? We told him we saw people begging not to be hit anymore with a baseball bat or a chain, how guys got cut up, how people and the police would hate their guts. How they might be the ones who got killed. And they said, 'Well, we got to do something. We can't get jobs. We're too old to go back to school. We're too big to play games. What else is there to do?' That started the older guys thinking. They wanted to change the conditions that caused a man to get a gun and hold up a store...to make him drink cheap whiskey...to make him forget about the conditions in which he lives" (Lord Thing)
And so the Vice Lords became the Conservative Vice Lords, building a new kind of organization for themselves, a new Nation of Lords. Between 1967 and 1969, the former gang opened businesses and community programs in Lawndale, contradicting notions held by politicians and government officials that a neighborhood club, a gang, in the ghetto could not help and empower themselves without governmental contribution. The problem was that civil rights and governmental programs for urban ghettos did not actually "know" the people. The civil rights groups "were supposed to have been for the grass root but the middle class was running them. They didn't know the people" (Dawley 108). Self-determination was the key for invigorating change. This was the reason that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Lawndale. He told the Chicago Daily News, "I don't want to be a missionary in Chicago but an actual resident in a slum section so that we can deal firsthand with the problems. We want to be in a section that typifies all the problems that we're seeking to solve in Chicago" (Chicago Daily News, "Dr. King's New Address Just Off 'Bloody 16th St." Tuesday, January 25, 1966). Perhaps he knew that the "hard core" folk felt he was out of touch with them. King invited the Vice Lords, Blackstone Rangers, and Disciples to a rally at Soldier Field that winter, but some of King's spokepeople made comments that their movement didn't need gangbangers. This statement happened on the cusp of when these three gangs were trying to change, and work through the system by doing good works - the statements brought some members of the organizations back to not truly believing in the way of King.
The CVL wanted to fight the system by working through it, and so with the help of David Dawley, who was working for TransCentury Corporation to do research on federal program reform, they became incorporated. In the summer of 1967, with the unexpected help of commander George Simms and alderman George Collins (two African American Chicago authorities), the CVL along with the Egyptian Cobras and the Roman Saints formed Operation Bootstrap, a business-gang mutualism, between these former gangs and businesses like Sears-Roebuck, Ryersons Steel, Illinois Bell telephone, and Western Electric. The businesses were mostly located on the Westside, and so in exchange for help in founding community programs, the CVL promised protection against rioting on the Westside; the businesses would lose millions because of rioting. CVL decided that all CVL programs would have to be completely CVL owned and managed, and that CVL would decide where to allocate $15,000 from the Rockefeller foundation. Again, delf-determination was essential to the CVL. Though they worked somewhat within the system, or with the cooperation of key figures of the system, control still had to be theirs.
The CVL was trying to make a reputation for themselves, one that differed from the early days as a dangerous gang. One important new attribute was that CVL wanted to distance themselves from the violence and the mayhem associated with rioting, a popular form of expression in Chicago during the late 1960's. CVL Inc. did not participate in rioting, but instead passed out over 3,000 flyers addressing their community and bearing a message of nonviolence, after MLK was assassinated.
Little Brothers and Sisters, our Moses is DEAD.
But let's not destroy our hopes or his dreams for equality.
We realize, we as brothers and sisters who share you grief of this violent murder,
that there isn't too much we can ask of your personal feelings,
but let last night be the last of this destruction.
"Chicago Gangs Aid in City Violence Control Efforts" Chicago Daily Defender, Tuesday April 9, 1968
The Vice Lords operated a center to help riot victims with shelter, food, and clothing at 3720 W. 16th Street, not far from the very apartment where MLK stayed two years previously. At that time the Disciples and the CVL both collected $700 in funds, and truckloads of non-perishable food and clothing to be delivered to burned out people living on the Westside and other riot ravished areas of Chicago ("Two Gangs Set Up Centers for Helping Riot Victims," Chicago Daily Defender, Thursday April 11, 1968). Father Tracy O'Sullivan of the St. Cyril Church at 6428 S. Dante Ave., when asked about Mayor Daley's "shoot-to-kill statement," noted that the statement undermines the efforts of the former gangs. "It appears the police want the gangs to engage in some criminal activity so they would have justification of busting them" ("Businessmen Support Gang Efforts to Keep Peace on Southside" Chicago Daily Defender, Wednesday, April 17, 1968). Police feared that their authority would be undermined - they were supposed to be the "peace-keepers" (yet they always incited more anger, and themselves used extremely violent tactics for "keeping the peace").
CVL's announcement of their programs for community change were overshadowed by the tragic death of MLK and the tremendous backlash rioting happening in several Chicago neighborhoods. The newspapers ran stories covering the CVL's business ventures on that otherwise ill-fated day of April 4, 1968. The Conservative Vice Lords made an announcement to the public about their projects, holding a press conference for newsmen at the first of their newly opened establishments, Teen Town Restaurant on 3700 W. 16th St. At the press conference Bobby Gore announced that Teen Town, opened with their own funds, would provide income to supplement the grants from Operation Bootstrap and the Rockefeller Foundation. Teen Town as well as Tastee Freez would hopefully become establishments that could sustain the non-profit making projects of CVL ("Westside Gang Starts a Self-Help Program" Chicago Sun Times, April 4, 1968)
All CVL programs could be seen as having interlocking goals, goals pertaining to the betterment of youth life, education, and social awareness, as well as community empowerment. The "Report to the Public" outlines most of CVL's community programs.
A Vice Lord Project to develop an Afro-American identity for black residents of the Westside. This was a soul shop that sold clothing and accessories related in line with an African aesthetic. CVL desired to emphasize that a development of an Afro-American identity for Black Americans "should not be considered a separatist movement but rather a people's search for meaning" (Dawley 127). This contrasted with the Black Nationalist views of some factions of the Black Power movement. The CVL "Report to the Public" claims that "the extent to which black people can cope with ghetto life and fight to eradicate the sickness that perpetuates ghetto conditions Is the extent to which our whole society will have the strength to realize the dreams we all share" (127). The African Lion participated in the Black Expo of 1969 (Daily Defender October 9, 1969). The store was seen as a venue for an educative experience.
Management Training Institute
The U.S. Department of Labor funded this 20-week program that taught black history, self-awareness, reading, and business skills. The CVL sent many of its young Lords and Ladies to the program, as an investment in the future of community programming. These educational efforts may have had some of the most lasting results for community empowerment.
This was the Malcolm X GED program, for high school dropouts (Lord Thing). This program also fed into the Malcolm X Community College, so that many could continue education beyond high school.
Founded with a $130,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, to improve the executive skills of CVL, Inc. leaders. Through this program, CVL leaders came in contact with leaders in the white community.
The House of Lords
There were two neighborhood establishments that were created as teen "hang-ins." The House(s) of Lords were designed to stop the police from arresting youths who might have been standing on the street corner instead. The spaces were closed during school hours, but for the two hours after schools let out, the House of Lords locations would devote time to homework help and tutoring. After those two hours, the places would turn into recreation hall-like spaces. These were spaces designed to make teenagers feel that they belonged somewhere, to a nurturing place, where people cared. (Bobby Gore interview with John Hagedorn)
Beautification - Grass Not Glass
A summer program started in 1968, was designed to do the job that the city was not doing - keeping the streets clean and physically safe. Youth from the Neighborhood Youth Corp and others spent the summer planting and cleaning up glass, trash, and debris from the once unloved streets of Lawndale. This enabled the youth to do something and then afterwards be able to say that not only did the product have an impact on them, but also thousands of others could benefit as well.
Tenant's Rights Action Group
Landlords of Lawndale often took advantage of the little tenants knew about their rights, and thus issued illegal eviction warnings to tenants. Tenants in Lawndale could bring their issues to the CVL and find out what they could do. CVL members were trusted to set things right.
Art & Soul
"An idea developed by CVL and the MCA, funded by Sesquicentennial Commission, Art & Soul began as a 6-month art happening in Lawndale. By providing the opportunity for the application of contemporary art techniques to black moods, the concept of Art & Soul becomes a medium for new forms of style and art...Because museums and contemporary art are strongly identified with white culture, Art & Soul, as a friendship between black and white artists will contribute to mutual respect and understanding..."
Don McIlvaine was the director of Art & Soul, who completed several murals around and on the building of Art & Soul. From the Chicago Daily Defender, July 15, 1970:
"In the painting ("Black Man's Dilemma"), a figure of death is carrying the Bible while chained to an Afro American who is clinging to the American flag. At the same time a black angel is pointing toward the African cultural symbol for dignity. McIlvaine said, "when I first planned the Mural, I thought it might be too gruesome to paint outdoors for everyone to see like an outdoors advertisement. But later I realized that what I'd planned was reality."
Fundamentally, Art & Soul was a project designed to educate both youth and adults, and provide a path for expression, with art that reflected both political and social issues. There was free instruction and it was an open space for art creation.
In Lord Thing a film by Dewitt Beall, Don McIlvaine is shown painting a mural of Frederick Douglas with children close by watching him. He asks one boy if he knows who Frederick Douglas was, after McIlvaine talks briefly about the murals of Diego Rivera on the University walls of Mexico City. The boy answers, "He fought for freedom. He graduated. He got married. He died." McIlvaine says "Yes, that's true. But he also became a great statesman and was an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, the only black man invited to speak with Lincoln. Did your teacher tell you that?" The child responds, "I had a white teacher." McIlvaine: "She didn't tell you that?"
McIlvaine's efforts at Art & Soul worked not only toward identity building, but consciousness raising, two elements of life that were not nurtured in Lawndale children's schools.
Youth Organizations United - Y.O.U
"Y.O.U. is the Washington based National office of some 350 former gang members working within the system to improve living conditions in their communities, and to provide education and job opportunities so their little brothers and sisters won't experience despair that drove them to strike out against the things that forced them so deep into the dirt" (from The Y.O.U. Story - http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Academy/8457/you1.html)
Warren Gilmore was elected the president of Y.O.U, and worked on this project as a member of CVL, Inc. Cities across the US had chapters of Y.O.U., composed of groups formerly known as gangs. These groups created mentorship programs, breakfast for children programs, classes for youth, anything that brings "something better for these cats" (Gilmore). As opposed to charity organizations, or church organizations, the youth programs of Y.O.U. were created by the very people who used to be the kids hanging out on dangerous corners. Y.O.U epitomized new sense of values of young people in the '60s, and the search for a more meaningful life - a self-determined struggle, and a struggle for self-determination.
The Lords, Stones, and Disciples decided to form an alliance and work together along with Reverend Jesse Jackson's group Operation Breadbasket in order to join a coalition against racial discrimination by Chicago trade and construction unions. There was no possibility of promotion for black workers, and little to no job training. The black community did not have control over construction in their own communities, and they did not benefit from city works employment opportunities. During a mass picketing on the Circle campus of University of Illinois, the Reverend as well as three leaders of the former gangs (Leonard Sengali of the Black P. Stones, Frank Weathers of the Disciples, and Lawrence Patterson of the CVL) were arrested on charges of trespassing, though the campus was public property. They were defying a court restraining order against protestors. "Realizing the strength in their numbers and cashing in on the reputations they may have earned as street gangs, spokesmen rather bluntly say they had the overseers of labor in utter fear" (Daily Defender, October 9, 1969) Jackson delivered his "I am Somebody" chant to the crowd as he was arrested ("Arrest Jesse, 3 Leaders" Daily Defender Tuesday, September 9, 1969).
Bobby Gore was arrested on November 14, 1969 and falsely indicted for murder, and on December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panther party were murdered in their sleep. The State Attorney's office claimed that Gore's indictment "disproves the myth about the constructive activities of gangs," but Gore urged young CVL members to not give up the fight against hopelessness: "Brothers, this is where you live. There's no place else to go that is not the same. So make what you already have a beautiful thing. If you succeed, then the system can't deny blacks nothing because what he calls the worst of humans proved him wrong. Never forget, WE ARE SOMEBODY!"
By looking at youth gangs as political entities, we can stop both the age-ist and racist oppressive notions that prevent individuals from forming clear ideas about the world they live in. Educational programs and other youth oriented programs may be the way to fight the system non-violently. The programs of the CVL tried (and succeeded) in creating networks of information and people-to-people connections, so that future generations could grow up with a sense of empowerment and self-worth.
Inequity of education and economic resources is still an incredibly large problem in an America that is supposed to value freedom - the freedom to move and to change, to create one's own destiny. The Conservative Vice Lords, Inc. serves as an example of how to bring sustainable (soul) power to the people.
We must ask ourselves the question of what it means to be free...What role does self-determination have in (re)producing freedom? And to what extent can anything be self-determined? How do you want to look at history, the history of one's self, and the history of people or "groups" that "made a difference"? Too often do we look to the canonized civil rights leaders in teaching children about the history of oppression vs. the history of freedom movements. A history of an organization like the Conservative Vice Lords provides another bit of the continuous constellation that comprises the struggle against injustice.
A poem by the educator Enid Lee:
Let's ask the question:
What is history?
If we take the hand of history
We can learn from the past
We can explain the present
We can write a new future
In taking history's hand we must ask
Whose history is this?
Whose voices are here?
What messages are hidden?
What messages are missing?
~Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching, 223
Beall, DeWitt. Lord Thing. 1971
Dawley, David. A Nation of Lords: The Autobiography of the Vice Lords Waveland Press, Inc. 1992
Hagedorn, John. "Shattered Dreams" http://www.gangresearch.net
-text of "Report to the Public"
-video interview with Bobby Gore
Menkart, Murray, View. ed. "Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching" Teaching For Change: 2004
"The Y.O.U. Story." http://www.geocites.com/Athens/Academy/8457/you1.html?200818
Chicago Daily Defender articles:
"Arrest Jesse, 3 Leaders," Faith C. Christmas. September 9. 1969
"Businessmen Support Gang Efforts to Keep Peace on Southside" Donald Mosby April 17, 1968
"Chicago Gangs Aid in City Violence Control Efforts" Sally Fitzgerald. April 9, 1968
"'LSD' Working for a Better Black Area" October 9, 1969
"People and Pictures in the News" July 15, 1970
"Two Gangs Set Up Centers for Helping Riot Victims" April 11, 1968
"WestSide Gang Starts a Self-Help Program" April 4, 1968
"Youth Crime is Political" Charlotte Moulton July 31, 1969
Chicago Sun Times:
"Westside Gang Starts a Self-Help Program" Chicago Sun Times, April 4, 1968