It was only the third week of school, and already 12 boys had been killed in gang-related shootings on the south side. Another 42 had been wounded. Shots rang out not just on street corners but in school hallways. In one month, close to four dozen Chicagoans would die in acts of gang violence.

This was not last summer. This was 45 summers ago.

It’s easy to blame gangs for what’s happening on Chicago’s streets these days, and it was just as easy to blame them in 1968. The harder task is to fathom the complexities of Chicago’s decades of gang violence, and to come to terms with how little has changed.

In their book The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of an American Gang (Lawrence Hill Books), Natalie Y. Moore, a reporter for WBEZ’s south-side bureau, and Lance Williams, the son of a former Vice Lord and an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University, use the notorious Chicago street gang as a jumping-off point for examining the genesis of the city’s enduring gang violence. They explore how Stones leaders Eugene “Bull” Hairston and Jeff Fort united 21 smaller gangs into a “virtual nation” of tens of thousands of members; how the Stones navigated (with varying levels of success) partnerships with civil rights and black power leaders, as well as rivalries with the Vice Lords and, later, the Gangster Disciples; and how the Stones were manipulated by the feds in the war on poverty, the war on drugs, and, in a bizarre turn of events, the war on terror.

Williams and Moore drill down to the block level of gang activity while simultaneously exploring the methods and motivations of the Stones’ upper echelon. In doing so, they show that, though Chicago has made little headway in curbing gang violence, there are still plenty of relevant lessons to be found in the past.

Lance Williams and Natalie Y. Moore delved deep into the Almighty Black P Stone Nation, the street gang that once claimed tens of thousands of members.
Lance Williams and Natalie Y. Moore delved deep into the Almighty Black P Stone Nation, the street gang that once claimed tens of thousands of members.Credit: Joe Davis (Williams); David Pierini (Moore)

Mara Shalhoup: There are so many similarities between what you guys unearthed about street gangs in the 60s and what’s happening now. In your introduction, you mention that you couldn’t help but think about the modern-day hand-wringing regarding youth violence in Chicago—that this isn’t a new problem.

Natalie Moore: I think that every generation thinks the one behind theirs is worse. I hear people in my own age group say that, and we’re the ones who were going to high school at the peak of the murder rate. There’s a misguided nostalgia. We found cases of folks going into CPS schools and shooting. If that happened today, I can’t even imagine what the uproar would be.

MS: But hasn’t there been something of a degradation over time with members of gangs like the Stones—whereas at first there was this willingness or desire to do good?

Lance Williams: If you look at the history of at least the three major black so-called street gangs—beginning with the Vice Lords, then the Stones, and then later, in the 90s, the Gangster Disciples—you see them get swept up in movements, from civil rights to black power. They become activists for social change. But at the same time, they still had one foot in the underworld, the crime.

MS: But it seems like today those two worlds don’t coexist like they coexisted in the earlier days of the Stones. It’s really one world now, because of the hold the drug trade has.

LW: I think that’s true to a large degree. When you talk to the youth who are involved in even the shells of these street gangs, they say that it was their predecessors’ involvement in politics and policies that really got them jammed. And so they have this kind of antiactivist mentality. They’re probably suffering from the same apathy that’s going on in the black community in general.

MS: The feds did set a terrible example by creating the discord they were ostensibly trying to erase. You have the treachery of the FBI [and the agency’s infiltration of the Stones] that you guys got into in the book in a really insightful way. And then you have money from other federal agencies being funneled to the Stones at the same time, with the intent to put an end to that havoc. It created a loop. Anybody would be apathetic after hearing about that.

NM: The apathy about activism we’re seeing from young people isn’t just coming from street organizations. We’re seeing it in individuals rather than across one big [street] organization that’s leading black male youth.

MS: What do you think is the most powerful message you guys reached in your research that’s being missed today?

NM: In 2011, Chicago had its lowest murder count in decades. I don’t want to sound callous or that I’m writing this off as no big deal, but the truth is that Chicago has always been a violent city. And for me the issue of not characterizing it accurately is that you won’t get to the root of the problem—and you won’t solve it—if you don’t understand where Chicago is in its history as far as violence goes. Especially with youth.

MS: [Stones leader] “Bull” Hairston originally kept the heroin trade out of the community—for a little while, anyway. But by the time the Stones were keeping the crack trade at bay, it was no longer for a moral purpose. It was pure business. How did the Stones’ thinking go from there being some sort of moral obligation to a very different attitude by the time of the crack epidemic?

LW: At one time, the leadership of the Stones was more influenced by the black power movement than by the streets. But the institutions within the community that had protected the community—the churches, the civil rights organizations, even the nationalist organizations—in many cases were coopted by their leaders’ pursuit of money. When these institutions got compromised, they didn’t have the same type of influence on the youth. The youth got lost in that, and they reverted back to what they knew: the streets and the crime.

MS: There’s that great scene early in the book when the Stones seem to be very taken by Dr. King and his account to them that you use water to put out fire, not fire to put out fire.

LW: Again, Dr. King came with a movement—he was a symbol for the movement. But he had a team of folks within the institution who supported his vision. He had disciples like Al Sampson who continued to have relations with the Stones. [King’s disciples] had actually prepared the Stones and some of the other organizations to form the coalition of street gangs: LSD (Lords, Stones, and Disciples). At one time all those individuals and their respective organizations were working together.

MS: Today, it’s harder for outside forces to influence street organizations when there’s so much revenue coming in from drugs.

NM: It’s not the same kind of organization. Now you just have these street crews. Chicago, with its segregation, has such a nation-state mentality. Your block is your world. Mobility is so limited. I had some students, black males in high school, who came to my office. They were like, “Oh, we don’t have a Dr. King these days to follow.” I said, “Well, what about you all?” And some of them said, “Just going to school every day and staying out of trouble is about the best I can muster.”

MS: I want to talk a little bit about [Stones leader] Jeff Fort as an individual. I know you guys must have lots of opinions beyond what you’re able to portray in the book. There are portions of the book in which he has this power to organize. There was also a point where people in the community are expressing the belief that he had power to stop the street gangs.

LW: I think Jeff had a lot of influence, but it was not the type of influence that was all-encompassing. Jeff was very influential among the young people in the organization. But he had a lot of difficulty controlling the older guys. To say that he had power to stop the gang, I would disagree with that. And I don’t think he ever saw it in his interest to stop the criminal aspect of it, because that’s one of the things he was able to manipulate into a power base for himself.

NM: I think the things that are needed in the community are resources to dismantle unemployment in poor, black, south-side and west-side neighborhoods, and break up that hypersegregation.

MS: I know you must be seeing similarities between school districts being redrawn in the 60s, having gang members crossing into rival gang territories to go to school, and the school closures going on now.

LW: One of the schools we talk about in the book is Gresham Elementary School. I did some work there in the late 80s through the mid-2000s. This school is on 85th and Green. It’s in a so-called Blackstone section. With the closures of Mahalia Jackson on 87th Street and Garrett Morgan, these kids will be coming to Gresham now. The kids from Morgan are coming from a Gangster Disciples school to a Blackstone school, and that might be viewed as problematic.

But that’s not the problem. Crossing these borders is not a gang problem as much as it’s a neighborhood problem. You have these interpersonal conflicts between folks from different neighborhoods that, when you come across borders, get magnified. Those neighborhoods have been fighting with each other intergenerationally, and it has nothing to do with gangs. This is going to happen all over Chicago where there are school closures. With most of the schools that are being closed, the kids are moving to new schools in close proximity. It would be better to send them to schools away from their neighborhoods, where they don’t have this interpersonal stuff going on.

MS: This might be idealistic, but couldn’t it also offer an opportunity—if the school district was willing to go there—to get people to face those problems sitting in a room together?

LW: That’s a very good question. And it’s really simple: engage the communities prior to something like this happening. I would definitely say that could be done. But here’s the problem: once people get organized, then the organization evolves. It matures. So we’ve organized around the schools; what are we going to organize around next? Let’s maybe organize around having an alderman who’s responsive to our needs. It’s not in the interest of the city controlling these institutions to engage communities in community organizing. It’s a delicate thing.