The visiting room at the Dixon Correctional Center looks like a high school cafeteria. On a weekday in late December, prisoners are sitting around circular tables with their families, chatting, eating hamburgers, dealing cards. Kids are playing video games in the corner or buying candy from the inmate-run commissary. A bearded inmate in denim who seems no different than any other walks in, yet everyone somehow notices his arrival. He walks over to one table, where a skinny, elderly black inmate sits with his guests. “This is Larry Hoover,” the inmate says.
“Of course,” one of the guests says. “Mr. Hoover. A pleasure.” Hoover poses for a snapshot with the group, shakes hands, and moves on. At another table, a portly white inmate sits with his family. “Kids, this is Mr. Hoover,” he says to his three grandchildren. A woman shakes Hoover’s hand. “We’ve heard so much about you, Mr. Hoover. Happy New Year to you.”
Hoover poses for another picture and continues to work his way across the room, shaking hands as he goes. He’s carrying a Federal Express envelope under his arm. It contains letters from newsmagazines and CNN; they want to interview him.
Hoover’s fame extends beyond the Illinois prison system. He’s the leader, police say, of the Gangster Disciples street gang. But Hoover maintains that he’s transformed the Gangster Disciples into a community-service organization called Growth and Development. He’s unquestionably encouraged GDs and friends from prison to form 21st Century V.O.T.E., the political action group that’s making a lot of old-time politicos nervous. And he influenced Chicago’s controversial “gang summit” of October 1993. Thousands of young men, former and current gang members, hang on his words and ideas. When Hoover speaks, even though he’s been in prison for 20 years, people pay attention.
He says his gang days are over, and Growth and Development is a political organization. His life and education in prison, he says, have given him a new conception of power. “It’s a natural state of evolvement,” he says. “Everything’s changed. As you mature, you change. Your priorities change, your perspectives change. The difference between a gang and an organization is the principles and the goals that they apply. If you live by morals and principles, then the Gangster Disciples, or Growth and Development, ain’t no different than the Elks or Masons or some other organization. It’s principles that you live by, and it takes time to move from one stage to another. But you peer toward that stage. Every ethnic group, they start out with these street gangs, but as they mature they turn into something far more legitimate and something that could be a credit to the community. And that’s all it is, it’s an evolvement. You go from one stage to another.”
Hoover was born in December 1949 and grew up on the south and west sides. In a personal statement he wrote for a parole hearing two years ago, he described his childhood as a time of togetherness and community. “The inner-city neighborhoods I grew up in were basically segregated (all Black) and somewhat impoverished, but my fondest memories of life are from events that happened during this period of time. Childhood was very joyful; I lived with my whole family: mother, father, sisters, brothers, grandparents and other close relatives. We shared many wonderful experiences, simply being together. My family provided a healthy environment for me to be a happy child, to learn and grow, and enjoy the fun things little boys love to do. There was school, picnics, trips, baseball games (which I truly loved) and playing with friends. There existed no such thing as drive-by shootings, either at night or in the day time. For the most part, many neighborhood friends were raised in a similar manner; allowed to enjoy childhood without the threat of violence causing fear and death.”
In the 1960s, wrote Hoover, “being a teenager in a major urban city like Chicago became a violent experience, especially for black youths such as myself. . . . My attitude (and behavior) was greatly influenced by popular western and gangster movie stars, and the hustlers who lived in the immediate neighborhoods. It seems that everyone believed violence and guns were the best way to settle conflicts, to get real respect and power . . . the only way to be recognized as someone important. And I found myself believing this also.”
Hoover grew up during the rise of black street gangs in Chicago, and he gravitated toward the center of power: the Gangster Disciples were involved in the city’s largest gang conflict when he came of age. The situation that led to the rise of Hoover’s GDs began in the late 1960s, when another gang leader, Jeff Fort of the Blackstone Rangers, made public statements about turning his gang into a positive force for social change. Fort promised gang peace on the south side, and he consulted with national Democrats and Republicans about how to better conditions in inner-city neighborhoods. Fort, now in federal prison for life, attended Richard Nixon’s inauguration, and the Blackstone Rangers shared amply in nearly $1 million of federal antipoverty funds sent to Chicago. Fort used some of the money to form El Rukn, which grew to be the most powerful drug-running organization in the city.
The power of Fort’s gang led other gang leaders to seek alliances. David Barksdale, the leader of the Black Disciples, was one of those. He pulled together his BDs, the Gangster Disciples (of which Hoover was now a member), and other, smaller gangs to form the Black Gangster Disciple Nation. He could now give Fort a run for his money. Members of Barksdale’s gang began using the six-pointed Star of David as a tribute to him, and his influence grew. In 1974 Barksdale was murdered, and the gang almost immediately split in two, with Jerome “Shorty” Freeman taking control of the Black Disciples and Larry Hoover, now nicknamed “King,” assuming leadership of the Gangster Disciples.
But Hoover didn’t gain absolute control of the GDs until he was behind bars. On February 26, 1973, he and a GD named Andrew Howard murdered William Young, who had been named at a meeting as one of three persons who allegedly stole drugs and money from the GDs. Howard and Hoover were each sentenced to prison for 150 to 200 years. Another young man, Joshua Shaw, who testified at a preliminary hearing that he saw Howard abduct Young, was murdered before Howard and Hoover were tried. Neither was charged in Shaw’s death, but the state’s attorney’s office has continued to cite it in opposing parole. Likewise the apparent murder of a “John Tucker”–who actually is still alive and could be produced, Hoover’s attorney insisted at the 1993 parole hearing.
Hoover says he continued to belong to the Gangster Disciples from prison until 1987, when he was transferred to Vienna, a minimum-security institution near the southern tip of Illinois. He said in a written statement to his parole board in 1993: “It is an undeniable fact of life that gangs and their attendant activities have always been and will continue to be an inseparable part of the social dynamics that establishes and maintains the only true semblance of the prison’s order and the relative peace. . . . In the midst of a severe austere prison environment that is charged with the potential for violence at any given moment the lone individual is vulnerable. . . . One’s safety in prison is a tenuous proposition at best. On the bottom line, survival becomes the paramount pre-occupation, your well being is a matter of constant concern, the only reality one can count on is right now, the present, this moment, tomorrow is fraught with uncertainty.”
In 1978 Hoover and 20 other inmates were charged with inciting riots at the Pontiac Correctional Center that left three guards dead. The charges against Hoover were dropped for lack of evidence. But in August of 1993, the Chicago Tribune quoted Cook County state’s attorney Jack O’Malley as saying, “Hoover’s involvement was evident throughout the investigation.” The same article also said, “Hoover was disciplined by prison officials after the riots.”
When Hoover went to prison in 1973, he was functionally illiterate, reading at a third grade level. But once in prison he began to study, eventually obtaining his GED and an emergency medical technician’s license. He read and learned about politics. “For a black man to have anything to say about what goes on in the world, he’s got to be involved with what controls the blacks, and that’s the political apparatus,” he says. “Our black elected officials, a lot of them sell out, they vote the way the mayor tells them to vote. They don’t vote with the interest of the people. They vote with their own self-interest. If black people are to have anything to say about what goes on around them, they are going to have to get involved in the political process.”
The earliest evidence of Hoover’s political awakening comes in a 1981 memo that Hoover and his GD board of directors circulated. It said in part: “Through business and politics, we can build an economical base that will insure us boundless power and wealth.” In the mid-80s Hoover officially changed the name of the Gangster Disciples to Growth and Development, and began to articulate a different mission for his organization. He explains where the name comes from: “It sort of evolved out of the Gangster Disciples. There are prominent people within that organization that choose to follow that doctrine, and they mean to build with the pieces that affect our lives and our community. It’s old guys that realize, that are looking at it a lot differently, and that’s basically what it is.”
Hoover claims he’s several steps removed from his days as a Gangster Disciple leader, and that he and the “old guys” can lead young blacks toward political power. “We have the same social conditions and life experience,” he says. “Most black males now come through the prison system. That’s what binds us. Guys who come from the background I come from are in a unique position to help the black males. We have to listen to them to try and turn around the cycle. We can galvanize the sleeping giant in the black community. Street gang members don’t trust the system, don’t use the system, because they believe it can’t work for them. By them not taking advantage of the system, things are going to keep on going in the direction that they’re going in. But if somebody leads them, wants to bring them in and show them that they can get involved and they can impact and they can make some changes, then they’ll listen. At least you’ll get their attention.”
The most striking statement of Hoover’s political ideas is a 45-page manifesto that has been circulated to GDs and members of 21st Century V.O.T.E. during the last couple of years. At times repetitive and didactic, often obtusely spiritual and philosophical, Hoover’s “Blueprint of a New Concept” presents a few concrete political goals and strategies for achieving political power. But these appear only at the end, and the rest of the document has the tone of a preacher speaking to his congregation, telling them to shape up.
On the first page of the “Blueprint,” Hoover states the goals of the “New Concept,” which, he writes, “is slowly, but firmly, molding our lives into a network of Principles and Rules for the guidance and appraisal of our conduct. In the least, we are being fused into morality: A conscious effort to do what is ‘right’ and in accordance with our teachings. We are fast becoming a working, thinking, and planning group of people with common goals that unite us around an ideological concept of ourselves.”
He continues, lecturing on the topic of preparedness: “This is a large part of our struggle. We must PREPARE our own alternatives to save our brothers who are trapped in ‘penal warehouses’ without a purpose or mission in life. Death or incarceration have been the most widely-used exits from our frustrations. We must begin to PREPARE other exits.” Later, he writes, “Our New Concept teaches that our organization is based on GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT. GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT builds in stages: It is not cool and romantic; it is stalking and being stalked; it is ‘the system’ rising above our level of intelligence to repress us; and it is our membership learning how to counter their repression and again pull ourselves above their efforts to destroy us.”
Hoover sounds, in turn, realistic and paranoid in describing as a common enemy of his organization “anyone WHO supports or condones the ‘systematic warehousing’ and destruction of our people. By allowing themselves to become tools of this system, these people perpetuate it and its inherent evils. Liberals are just as guilty as the extreme right, because by tolerating these injustices, by adjusting to society’s discrimination, and by simply remaining silent, they compromise their own integrity and allow the evils of this system to endure.” He writes, “In the midst of a hostile, racist nation, whose racism is rising to the surface at a phenomenal speed, WHO, of us, are still so blind to our struggle for educational, economical, political, and social development that they are continuing to function in futile, petty ways??? We will not succeed until we fully understand the fact that the enemy is aware, disguised, determined, and mercilessly counter-intelligence. We must begin to understand that the . . . attempts to explain away . . . our ability to change does not end when we are released. These ‘mental acrobatics’ are political in nature and are designed to discredit our movement by reducing it to a criminal organization, a ‘gang.'” He also writes, “Our knowledge of this deliberate form of destruction should steel our hearts with an obsessive desire to become more organized and unified. Instead, as soon as our anger subsides, we allow our adversary to move in and re-take the ground it has been forced to give. We must fear this mistake far more than the strategy of our adversary. For us to GROW & DEVELOP, we must face and overcome these challenges.”
The balance of the manifesto outlines what Hoover calls the ” Six Universal Laws of Existence” and the “Six Principles of Growth & Development: Love, Life, Loyalty, Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding.” Of love, he writes: “LOVE is now used (more often than not) as an emotion controlled by our individual feelings, wants, and desires; instead of as the 1st Principle necessary to our survival. Why is this so? Perhaps because we find it easier to continue living in the same manner which we are familiar with, such as: Drugs, pimping, prostitution, gangbanging, extortion, etc., etc., etc. Or, could it be that we are out to get ‘TURNED ON’ instead of ‘PLUGGING IN???’ If we continue to allow our neighborhood conditions to keep our ability to LOVE blocked by negative thoughts and attitudes, then we are standing in the way of our success.”
Of loyalty, Hoover writes: “A man who lives without LOYALTY lives without the basic INTEGRITY and DIGNITY of humanity. NO LOYALTY implies no purpose, and life is so designed that it will not support a man who has no purpose. Although we can pity him, even this we cannot do for long if the signs of him SERVING A PURPOSE do not surface soon.” He also says, “Each member has to undertake a ‘positive approach’ toward their community, or wherever they pursue their normal lives.”
Urging knowledge, Hoover exhorts his followers to read. “Our illiteracy has been used to turn the burning hostility of poor people against one another,” he writes. “For a man to be illiterate and not struggle to remove his illiteracy means that he has accepted being a slave to those of a higher intelligence and the destiny of his life will continually be dictated by forces opposite his true purpose. Brothers, we can no longer afford to allow our destiny to be at the mercy of our illiteracy. For there is no mercy for the illiterate; only exploitation, slavery and death.”
Turning to wisdom, Hoover talks about a new “attitude about the world” that he wants his followers to adopt. “Because of tunnel vision, we have found ourselves gangbanging, shooting, robbing and killing each other because ‘he wore a certain color’ or, ‘he tilted his hat a certain way’ or, worse yet, ‘he believed in a different concept/ideology than ours.'” The section called “Understanding” continues this idea. “The answers to our problems cannot be found in ‘carbon copy’ to Al Capone’s and Frank Nitti’s. While we may be the by-products of the same environment that produced the ‘gangster era,’ it is evident (by the vast expansion of the penal system) that we cannot successfully live ‘carbon copied’ lives of ‘gangsterism.’ Rather, our approach to society’s injustices must become innovative and original.”
Hoover suggests that he and his followers “guide our lives not only by the futuristic implications of our Leadership’s vision, but also by the mistakes of other organizations such as TWO, P.U.S.H., BLACK PANTHERS, etc., which have happened to live before us. Most importantly, we cannot afford to blindly accept cash, favors, or support from the powers-that-be; through WISDOM, we can clearly see the ulterior motives of such support.” And he sketches a political program that includes a universal ban on guns, the legalization of drugs, an economic development program “such as the sale of positive products and services which are in great demand by our communities,” and, most importantly, aggressive participation in the political process.
More than anything, Hoover’s “Blueprint” calls for a complete transformation of the street gang structure that gave him his original power base. Sitting in a private room in the Dixon Correctional Center’s visiting hall, separated from the other inmates by glass, he talks about how that’s going to happen. “It’s been laid on the shoulders of public figures in the organizations,” he says, “because the organizations out there nowadays, they look to their leadership. They got more respect for their leadership than they got for their mothers and fathers, than for their preachers, than for Operation PUSH, the NAACP. To get out of the state they’re in, they are going to have to work within the system. They got to become part of the system, they can get something by putting people in that really have their positions at heart. You gotta fight for yourself, you gotta make some noise. You don’t make some noise, then nothing’s gonna change. It’s going to be business as usual. You need to have a movement, because you don’t have a black movement nowadays. They [young people] have nothing to point to. They have no Martin Luther Kings or Malcolm Xs.”
Much of Chicago was shocked in August 1993 when 21st Century V.O.T.E. headed a drive to release Larry Hoover from prison. Hoover’s parole had been rejected ten times previously, but his colleagues were determined to see him freed on the twentieth anniversary of his sentencing. They circulated petitions, receiving thousands of signatures, and obtained letters from more than two dozen prominent black politicians and citizens, including current Democratic mayoral candidate Joseph Gardner, state representative Coy Pugh, aldermen Allan Streeter and Virgil Jones, and activists Lu Palmer and Eddie Read. “I’m not ready to say that Larry Hoover is such a bad man,” Virgil Jones was quoted as saying in the Tribune. “I’m not sure Al Capone was such a bad person either.”
The most prominent person to support Hoover was former mayor Eugene Sawyer, whose participation in the parole effort moved Hoover’s story to the front page of both dailies and to the top of the evening news. As Hoover’s level of support grew, people quickly began to take the idea of paroling him more seriously. An assistant high school principal from the south side wrote to the parole board saying, “For 20 years now, Larry has been a model prisoner. During this time he has sought and achieved a higher education in prison which will also contribute to his new goal to be an upstanding, productive member of society. His self-worth and self-image have been changed, from his own cognizant perspective.” Joe Gardner praised Hoover for leading an “attempt to end the horrific cycle of gangs, drugs and violence. By his support for this effort, he has energized and motivated leaders in the business, religious and civic community to join in this effort. It is a true testament to his commitment, dedication and leadership that he has had such an effect while incarcerated many miles from the City of Chicago!”
Sawyer wrote, “Mr. Hoover has been instrumental in motivating young men who had been involved in committing acts of violence and distributing drugs into individuals who are making sincere efforts to transform their lives.” He added, “As you may be aware, my stand on this matter will be looked upon with a jaundiced eye in many circles. However, I have observed how people with nothing to look forward to resort to criminal activities to support themselves and their families. I see how the prospect of fast money and power can lure individuals to a life of crime. If Mr. Hoover can make even more of a difference in the lives of these individuals when he is released, then I fully support his assistance in these troubled times.”
Appearing before the parole board on August 4, 1993, Sawyer testified on Hoover’s behalf, saying, “Our young people are not listening to us. With the help and support of strong African American men, it could make a difference. It’s no secret that he has a lot of influence over thousands of people, and for one person to have that kind of influence sometimes can be dangerous. But we want everyone to have influence, everyone in society.”
Among black politicians, only U.S. representative Mel Reynolds wrote to the parole board opposing Hoover’s release. “It’s absurd to say we have to look to the prisons for role models in our community, and the ones who think we do are the real ones who are out of contact,” Reynolds told the Tribune. “Are we in this community supposed to be afraid to speak up for what we believe in?” Roland Burris, then Illinois’s attorney general and now an independent candidate for mayor, went on record as having “no position” on Hoover.
The rank and file of Chicago politics opposed Hoover’s parole. Mayor Daley said politicians supporting Hoover’s release were “making a mistake.” Cook County state’s attorney Jack O’Malley said, “They just don’t know the facts. There’s no question he is continuing his activities. As we’re speaking, the gang he leads is murdering children.” In a letter to the parole board, O’Malley said, “Despite his protestations to the contrary, information gathered from the Illinois Department of Corrections, police gang intelligence, and official court documents in criminal trials reveals Larry Hoover remains the undisputed ‘king’ of the Gangster Disciples street gang.” On the same day Sawyer testified, the parole board heard testimony from Jack Hynes, supervisor of the Cook County state’s attorney’s gang unit, who said, “After 20 years, Larry Hoover still has the blood of William Young, still has the blood of countless other young men from the south side, the north side, from other cities, from other states on his hands. Through this orchestration of legitimacy, he’s trying to wipe that blood off. Please don’t let him do that. Please do not release Larry Hoover.” Hynes’s deputy, Tom Hennelly, said, “This Growth and Development is a sham. The only growth and development of the Gangster Disciples is murder and racketeering.”
The papers also came out against Hoover. A Tribune editorial argued, “Hoover is a leader, all right. He helped lead neighborhoods down a self-destructive road of murder, drug abuse and despair. His release would undermine the authority of law-abiding folks who lead by example, yet don’t get a parade of politicians to sing their praises.” The editorial concluded: “Let Hoover serve his time. If he has changed, and if he indeed commands his followers even behind bars, he can continue to do so right where he is. That will send two good messages. One, that bad people can change and do good works. Two, when you murder someone, you will go to prison for a long, long time.” The Sun-Times was slightly less harsh. Columnist Vernon Jarrett couched his criticism in quotes from black community members. A public school teacher said, “It’s embarrassing for me, a black person, to read where black leaders are trying to let free a murderer, a street gang leader, in order to influence the conduct of black children. The entire black community, especially our preachers, educators, business people, and all so-called successful people, should feel ashamed.”
Hoover went before the parole board on August 10. George Papajohn described him in the Tribune: “He was dressed as though on a European vacation: black loafers, black pleated slacks and a white, short-sleeve shirt. Looking younger than his 42 years, he spoke with a quiet force, politely acknowledging that he was a man of considerable influence.” Hoover said to the board, “I push all the youth down here toward education. They call me the old man. So as the old man I try to give them as sound advice as I possibly can. I stress the need to go to school, the need to get involved in the political process, the need to become entrepreneurs.” He also said, “I accept responsibility for the death of William Young. I was 22 years old at the time and didn’t have the same respect for human life that I have today. If I could go back and change it, I would do so.” The parole board also heard testimony from Robert Muzkowski, a businessman who said that he would hire Hoover if he were released, and from Winndye Jenkins, Hoover’s common-law wife for 27 years. Jenkins said Hoover should be freed to set an example for their two sons (now 21 and 25 years old) and other young black men. Hoover said, “Somebody’s got to reach out to them who they’ve got respect for. Somebody that’s one of them. Somebody that went through the same scenario they’re going through now. By me having a strong name, I can do some good out there.”
Hoover’s parole bid was rejected 8-0. Since he became eligible for parole in 1983, Hoover has never received a single vote to free him. This time the board told him, “After careful consideration of all the factors in your case, the board voted to deny parole. The board still believes that parole at this time would deprecate the serious nature of your offense and promote disrespect for the law.” Before the decision was made, board member Joseph Dakin said to Hoover, “One thing I’ve come away with is you’ve got some power. I’m just not sure whether it’s good or bad.” Hoover’s supporters claimed he was now a “martyr” and “political prisoner.” Jack Hynes called the decision “good news. His continued incarceration is one of our top priorities.”
21st Century V.O.T.E. occupies two apartments above an abandoned storefront on West 63rd Street. The paint is peeling, the window shades are cracked, the carpet is worn, and the wallpaper’s fading. Desks, tables, and folding chairs furnish the space, along with a few filing cabinets and a television and VCR. The walls are unadorned, save for ward and congressional district maps, and a listing of 21st Century V.O.T.E.’s “six-point principles: Total Commitment, Promptness, Responsiveness, Accessibility, Communication, and Legitimacy.”
In a back room, Charles Kellogg sits on a table in front of more than a dozen young black men. They’re about to start the first of four hour-long classes that will introduce them to 21st Century V.O.T.E. and teach them how to be the loyal legmen of a political organization. Kellogg, a 21st Century V.O.T.E. board member, is lecturing them, essentially, on how to build a political machine from the ground up. Just an hour before, the young men were certified as deputy voter registrars. Kellogg tells them what that means. “You’ve got the power to go out back into your community and register people for the vote,” he says. “Just like Malcolm said, ‘It ain’t a war of the bullet, it’s a war of the ballot.’ Now when you register each person to vote, that’s like having a gun. The more you register to vote, the more bullets you have in your gun. But it ain’t a lead bullet, it’s a ballot. Now you are with something that can truly change the conditions in the community. What you’re doing is giving them the power to participate in the election process, something the African American community hasn’t done in a long time. This is why they take us for granted, because we ain’t politically active. We don’t know how important a part that politics play in our lives.
“This is where you all come in at,” Kellogg says. “The grooming and training that you’re going to receive here, you take it back to the community. And you start with your fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, relatives, neighbors, friends, everybody. Tell them who we are and what we’re trying to do for them and the community, and let them know that they can join; if they’re interested in improving the conditions in the community, that’s what we’re here for. They can come on in, be a part of the organization, and begin to multiply.”
21st Century V.O.T.E. (the initials stand for Voices of Total Empowerment) has gained considerable recognition for a two-year-old political organization. That’s less because of its politics and plans for economic development than because so much of its membership consists of former and current gang members led by friends and associates of Larry Hoover. The organization is being taken seriously because it knows its mission well: to gain power by building a political organization on the order of the old Daley Machine, a wish that Larry Hoover’s had for years, since he first read Mike Royko’s Boss.
Last September, ABC News obtained and aired a phone conversation between Hoover and an associate, “recorded by authorities in late 1992,” in which Hoover said, “I got a political action committee, a 21st Century V.O.T.E. I got a political organization called 21st Century V.O.T.E. And now I’m putting together a PAC. See, it’s 40 percent African vote in Chicago, and that vote is our folks. That’s the folks in the projects, the poor people. You got them dope fiends and wineys, we can get that vote out. We can–we got the army. We got what nobody else got out there.”
Charles Kellogg makes the same point differently to his class. “In order to bring about a change or to bring about the growth and development of the community, a plan has to be established,” he says. “You’ve got to have manpower to do it. You’ve got to have an organizational structure. And this is what we put together, an organizational structure whereby we can work with all the organizations all over the state. Because our line of thinking is: If we can get all the youth educated, groom ’em politically, have ’em put all their numbers together, then that means that 21st Century V.O.T.E. will be in the position to decide who’s going to be the next alderman in this ward, who’s going to be the next state representative in this district, who’s going to be the next senator. We’ll put all of that manpower to work. Bring your girlfriend, bring all your girlfriends, have your girlfriend bring her mother, her sister, your friends, your neighbors. If each one of you can bring five people to the polls, guaranteed, we’ll win every election.”
But before Kellogg can tell his students how to go about working their neighborhoods for votes, he needs to give them some basic political lessons. “Who in here ever talked to their alderman?” he asks. Two hands go up. “You see that, two,” he says.
“Who is our alderman?” asks a kid in a black stocking cap.
“See. That’s what I’m talking about,” Kellogg says. “We don’t understand how politics works. Where do you live?” he asks the kid.
“Sixty-first and Halsted.”
Kellogg pauses. “Sixty-first and Halsted. Shirley Coleman. Never even heard of her, huh? That’s because–how long you been registered to vote?”
“I come today,” the kid says.
“That’s why you never heard of her. You’ll hear from her pretty soon now, because your name will be on what’s called a polling sheet. This is a list of all the registered voters in the ward. All politicians have this. If your name ain’t on there she don’t care nothing about you, because you can’t hurt or help her. How can you, because you ain’t registered to vote. You got an empty gun, you ain’t got nothing to shoot. No ballot. They look at that. All the people on that poll sheet, they send their precinct captain out to cater to them, give them a can of peanut butter when they’re hungry, help ’em solve their problems. So they’re catering to a few people that are politically active that are in a position to vote. Everybody else, they’re kicking to the curb, like most of our youth.”
“But I thought that everyone who hadn’t registered to vote means another ballot for the opposing party,” says the kid.
“How can it, if they ain’t registered to vote?” Kellogg asks. “They can’t vote for the opposition against Shirley Coleman. In order to vote in the state of Illinois, anywhere, you’ve gotta be registered, or you can’t even participate.”
“If you’re registered and you don’t vote, that don’t make a vote for the opposing team?”
“It’s a wasted vote,” Kellogg says. “A wasted vote. It’s not cast for anybody.”
Kellogg tells his class to be wary of people who want to label 21st Century a “gang” organization. “They say that we shouldn’t work with so-called gang members,” he says, “but we don’t ask anybody about their organizational affiliations. All we’re concerned with is you come here with a clear heart, with the right attitude, and pick up our program and work with that. I ain’t saying that organizations or gangs are good or bad. We ain’t here to condemn or condone. We’re here to do one thing, to improve the conditions of our community. And anybody that lives in our community, that wants to help our work along, they’re welcome here. It was a gang called the Hamburgers that functioned in the Irish American community, in Daley’s neighborhood, and they grew and developed into the most powerful political organization in the state of Illinois. They run the political machinery in the state of Illinois today. That sprouted from gangbangers. Daley’s dad, he was the leader of ’em. So what are they talking about? It was just that the time was right for them. They fought to get the same things that organizations in the African American community were doing. Then one day, somebody came to them, taught them about politics, how to organize a community. This is where the old Daley Machine sprouted from, and it’s been running this city and just about the state for the last 30 years.”
21st Century V.O.T.E. is at the center of a politically charged, highly polarized debate about the nature of gangs and their role in society. On one side are the hard-line law-and-order types, absolutists who see all gang members and anything “gang related” as a threat to society. On the other side are people who believe that gangs should be a force for community renewal. The truth, as it often does, probably lies somewhere between the extremes. Writing in the Sun-Times, Salim Muwakkil had this to say about 21st Century: “The message our city’s leaders seem to be delivering is ‘once a gang-banger, always a gang-banger!’ Some of this reaction is understandable; gangs have earned the suspicions and social enmity with which they are now regarded. But that message of rejection implies a social attitude that precludes the possibility of redemption.”
Dwight Conquergood, a professor at Northwestern University who has done extensive ethnographic studies of street gangs, wrote in a paper presented at an urban studies conference at the University of Chicago last November: “In the middle-class imaginary [sic], the gangbanger incarnates urban violence and anarchy and is one of the most powerfully distorting filters through which the respectable classes distance themselves from the have-nots of the inner city. . . . Labeling someone a gang member licenses the most rabid racism and class bias, and underpins a formidable apparatus of legal-judicial procedures of surveillance and punishment.”
Recently Conquergood had this to say about 21st Century’s steps toward political involvement: “It’s just that people can’t imagine it. To them, it’s the height of cynicism and a symbol of the breakdown of civilization. This is the menace from the margins that is right at the center of public consciousness. I’m the first to say that they’re not choirboys, but they’re not symbols of anarchy. They provide a lot of identity and community in urban neighborhoods. They are deeply problematic, but there are dimensions to them that are not available to the suburbanite watching the ten o’clock news.”
Robert Dart, the retired head of the gang crimes and gang investigation units of the Chicago Police Department, is skeptical about 21st Century’s efforts. “I’ve never met a former gang member,” says Dart, now head of security for the Chicago Transit Authority. “When you join a gang, you’re in for the long haul. I see gang members rampant throughout 21st Century V.O.T.E. I don’t see where they have done anything to take the narcotics out of the neighborhoods that they’re involved in or to impact on the shootings. I can’t see how one can separate from the other, and if they were separate, we wouldn’t be talking about them.” Dart also says, “I don’t know if youth have ever had a voice in government or in leading people. They don’t have the experience, the maturity yet to do that. That’s why they have age limits on voting. If they are sincere, there are an endless list of organizations where they could become involved in learning about government. If you want to end street gangs, you certainly don’t join them. You stay away from them and become involved with government.”
The hard-line stance toward 21st Century is well exemplified by an article in the autumn 1994 issue of Illinois Police and Sheriffs News, a publication whose motto is: “Every good and excellent thing stands moment by moment on the razor’s edge of danger and must be fought for.” The unsigned article’s headline, “Menace ‘2’ Society: Gangbangers as Politicians,” sets the tone for what follows. The article acknowledges that “21st Century V.O.T.E. is a group to be reckoned with,” but warns that “the ‘incorporation’ of 21st Century V.O.T.E. should be viewed with the greatest skepticism and concern by people of good will.” It says the group is made up of “thousands and thousands of armed-to-the-teeth, sadly uneducated gang members” and laments a 1982 state law that prevents the Chicago Police Department from “gathering intelligence” about the group because it “purports to represent some political movement or course of action.” The article says, “The infiltration of anti-war protest groups in the late 1960s by members of the Chicago Police Department ‘Red Squad’ inspired the . . . consent decree–but now the Hippies, Yippies, and Weathermen are long gone and their criminal records, when reviewed, are no match for this new group . . . of what? Shall we be politically correct and refer to them as ‘community activists’?”
Some information about 21st Century’s business dealings is known. Between January 1993 and mid-1994, 21st Century rang up $114,899 in contributions. Of this, $2,500 was itemized, a donation from Save the Children Promotions, an organization run by Winndye Jenkins, Larry Hoover’s common-law wife. As of this month, Jenkins is still the group’s only itemized contributor. The Tribune reported last September that Nevest Coleman, one of the group’s founders according to its 1993 state incorporation records, had been charged with participating in the 1993 gang rape and murder of a woman in the basement of his apartment building. After his arrest, the Tribune reported, Coleman told police he was a Gangster Disciples member. 21st Century says Coleman is no longer affiliated with their organization.
The Tribune article listed criminal histories of other 21st Century founders. Most consisted of minor drug possession or drug trafficking charges but some were more serious, including a 1976 murder conviction against Charles Kellogg, who then served 16 years in prison. A Tribune editorial had this to say: “Someday, the people associated with 21st Century V.O.T.E. may have produced enough good fruit that everyone will hail them as a boon to the community, not a bane. Right now, however, their protestations of reform and their courting of and by politicians can’t efface the memory of the bloodshed, grief, and fear they caused as members of the Gangster Disciples. In some cases, they apparently are still causing them.”
The core constituency of 21st Century V.O.T.E.–young, inner-city black men–makes up 50 percent of the nation’s prison population. These young men live in neighborhoods whose economic bases have been stripped away by years of neglect and segregation, leaving criminal work, such as drug dealing, to provide the one significant opportunity for money, status, and respect as well as for violence, arrest, and punishment. Gang membership is often the only affiliation young black men have, says Howard Saffold, who heads the Positive Anti-Crime Thrust, a community education organization that deals with criminal justice issues.
“They’re an integral part of the future of Chicago,” says Saffold, a retired police officer who cofounded the African-American Police League in Chicago and the National Black Patrolmen’s Association. “It could be a negative or positive future depending on who tries to give them direction, futures, and opportunities. There’s a range of individual knowledge, hopes, and dreams, just like in any other group of young people. They deserve some help. These are individuals who are trying to find their niche in society like anybody else. The fact that they are black and poor works against them, causes them to be discounted. We have to realize that these are people who are already parents, involved in the criminal justice system in many cases, and we are just watching them flounder.”
Calvin Williams, a 21st Century V.O.T.E. member, is 28, the father of five children, and the supervisor of a maintenance crew at a college. He’s also a former Gangster Disciple and drug dealer, and he says the leadership at 21st Century told him to clean up his act. “When they first started, they asked me to come in,” he says. “I was like, no, I’m too busy doing other things. Hanging out with my buddies, drinking beer, just hanging out. I didn’t have time for it. . . . I never had nobody to talk to, I didn’t have a family, and these guys were there for me. Everybody who was working in the office, they were friends. When you had a problem, you had their home phone numbers, you could call and talk to them. I didn’t have family members, I didn’t have nobody to turn to. The only people I could turn to was somebody who’d say, you want a drink, you want a joint, or something like that. Nothing positive.”
Williams says he’d never given politics a thought before he signed up with the organization. “I didn’t even think about voting,” he says. “I couldn’t really tell you what the duties of an alderman were, what the mayor did. It really didn’t matter to me. They started teaching us, getting us politically aware of what the aldermanic duties were, state’s attorney, the governor, the mayor, what their duties are, what functions they hold, with Congress, state representative, even with the president. For instance, I didn’t even know who to call if my streetlights were out. I didn’t know who to call if a dead dog was laying in the alley for too long. I didn’t know who to call if I didn’t have adequate heat in my apartment. I just didn’t know. All I did was call my landlord. I didn’t know you could call and make an appointment with the city. They teach us those things.”
Williams, who spent two years in college on a football scholarship, now devotes his spare time to educating young men within the context of 21st Century V.O.T.E. “We grab ’em and take ’em and show ’em, and they learn,” he says. “You’ve got to sacrifice. Stay away from that dope. Stay away from those drugs. I used to sell drugs, but it ain’t nothing good when you sell your drugs and you look around and police are coming after you to get you on a secret indictment. It’s no good. Just do what you gotta do, work, work, work. You’ll get there. It’s just a process.” He says he’ll work with anyone who’s willing. “You can never look at a person, say he’s GD, Growth and Development, and say he’s all negative. It tickles me, it really does. If I had taken 21st Century V.O.T.E.’s advice years ago, a long time ago, I would be four years ahead of myself. I’m set up pretty nice, I make a nice salary, I’m able to provide for my kids. But if I’d paid attention to this four years ago, I’d be ahead of myself. Instead of renting, I’d probably been owning.”
There’s been excellent original reporting on 21st Century by John Kass and George Papajohn in the Tribune, and good coverage in the Sun-Times, a lot of it by Mary Johnson. But much of the coverage of 21st Century V.O.T.E. has been based on hearsay, and it’s taken the attitude that the alleged ties between gangs and the organization are irrevocable and irrevocably negative. ABC intercut shots of 21st Century V.O.T.E. workers registering voters last September with shots of drug dealers on street corners, insinuating a connection between the two activities while providing no clear evidence of one. Introducing the two-part report, Peter Jennings said, “We’re going to focus tonight and tomorrow on one of the meanest and cleverest street gangs in America.” A so-called Gangster Disciple seen at a political march told ABC, “I don’t really know what the march was about, but they had us down there. We don’t ask no questions why we gotta go there, we just do. They wanted to see a lot of people show up there. I don’t know why.” Correspondent Erin Hayes reported, “Gang investigators have told ABC News they are convinced the 21st Century V.O.T.E. political organization was created primarily to protect and expand the power and influence of the Gangster Disciples.”
A few days later CNN correspondent Jeff Flock reported, “Police say Chicago’s biggest, baddest family, or gang, the Gangster Disciples, controls the political organization 21st Century V.O.T.E.”
In his hour-long lecture to new members, Charles Kellogg tells them to take advantage of the media. “You’ve got to read the newspapers every day,” he says. “Anytime the government, city, state, or federal, intend to do anything, they have to inform the people in the community about it. And the only way they can inform the people in the community is through mass media, TV, radio, and newspapers. So if you read the newspapers every day you know what’s going on in the community, what they have planned for the community, and guess what? If it’s not in the best interest of the people in the community, you can organize and protest it and stop it. If it’s in the best interest of our people in the community, then we can still organize and make sure that we get our share. We have to make sure that our best interests is observed there, make sure that we get what we got coming. And by reading the newspapers you become politically aware, you become educated about the issues. Read only the articles pertaining to Chicago politics. Them’s the only articles we’re interested in.”
One recent afternoon a reporter from the Associated Press who apparently has been trying to get the scoop on 21st Century for a while stopped by the office and offered a taste of the way the organization and the media approach each other. He sat down with Tom Harris, 21st Century’s spokesman:
“Can you tell me a little bit about how 21st Century V.O.T.E. got started?” asks the reporter, “Whose idea was it?”
“It was done by a guy named Dwayne Harris,” says Harris, referring to the group’s chairman.
“Is he around today?”
“No, Dwayne’s not around. I do all the speaking.”
“Can you tell us a little bit about Dwayne Harris?”
“Well, what do you want to know?”
“His background, who he is.”
“He’s a young guy, went to college, played football.”
“He went to one of the state colleges. Northeastern, I think.”
“Yeah. Does he have a job?”
“Uh-huh. He’s working right now.”
“What does he do?”
“He works on a construction crew. That’s basically what he does. I won’t tell you the company, because I think it would be up to him to make that decision. He was an interested young guy who started something. He just tried to show that young people can do something.”
“You know, a lot of times,” says the AP reporter, “you talk to someone in the political organization and they usually have their spokesman who does what you do. But usually the chairman is not–”
“That’s their choice, they decide how they want to do it. We have a choice of our own.”
“How come the chairman doesn’t come forward?”
“Because he doesn’t want to talk about it now. I do all the speaking. Dwayne has been quoted in several things, but when it come to this kind of thing I do the talking. We got some clear-cut things we want to put out, and certain things we might not want to discuss with you.”
“Can you tell us a little more about what Dwayne Thomas got–”
“Dwayne Harris. He got the idea. Where did he get the idea?”
“There were some other people that he knew, and they were all talking, and they decided they wanted to do something together.”
“Who are the people?”
“Some people. They started the corporation, and that’s how it really got started. It was just that simple. There weren’t no long-range goals, except by the 21st Century to have the job done, and it would take people to get it done, people who have some know-how. And we try to bring as many aboard as we possibly can.”
“Did you bring in people who had worked on elections before?”
“Yeah, did Dwayne Harris?”
“Let me kind of explain to you how that works. We personally, as an organization, do not back candidates. Our main focus is to give the kids an opportunity to work on different elections with different politicians that they feel that they want to work for, because we’re not involved in that at all. We don’t have a group where we endorse or finance candidates. We don’t do that. Our thing is strictly educational. Voter education and voter registration.”
Later, Harris starts to get mad at the reporter. “I understand you have to print bad stuff. The good stuff don’t sell your papers. You know what I mean?” he says. “And I don’t really have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is that everybody asks the same questions over and over and over again. And you’re going to get the same answers over and over again. It’s getting redundant to some point. It really is, because you asked me the same questions a month ago. Asked me the very same question a month ago about Dwayne Harris.”
“But you didn’t answer it,” the reporter says.
“OK. But you asked me the same question again. Why don’t you ask me something new? You should have that in your notes. Now I’ll show you how specific I want to be about it.”
“I told you to come in because I thought you’d get a chance to see the people from the Board of Election Commissioners in there. Show you that we’re legitimate about what we’re talking about. And I don’t want to answer the same questions again, so if you ain’t got no new ones I ain’t going to answer no more. Because if you don’t want legitimate information from the kids then we ain’t got nothing else to talk about. It’s redundant. I know how you would feel, if I came to you over and over with the same bullshit.”
“But is it wrong to ask for more information about Dwayne Harris?”
“I gave you a ton of it the first time. I explained it to you, sat down in a restaurant I explained it to you, we talked on the phone I explained it to you. The answers will always be the same. We ain’t about lying. There ain’t no game here. This is serious business with us here.”
“And when you really recognize that, it will be easier for you to get answers from me. Because we don’t mind telling you anything you want to know.”
The reporter pauses, and fires off: “How old is Dwayne Harris?”
Harris sighs, “About 26.”
“What school did he go to?”
“I think it was Northeastern he went to. As a matter of fact, we’ll send you a copy of his resume.”
“You probably have it here somewhere, right?”
“When he wants to release it to you. Until he tells me, I won’t give you anything.”
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” the reporter asks.
“No, no, no, no. I’m a straightforward guy. I’m nasty at times. You personally I can’t be mad at. You’re trying to do a job. But I’m telling you, you’re wasting your time. Now if you told me something about the neighborhood I didn’t like, I would tell you to shut the fuck up and get out, because you don’t know. I would tell you literally, get the fuck out of here.”
“So tell me a little something about the neighborhood. This is the heart of Englewood, right?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Um, OK,” the reporter stutters. “What’s the average income here?”
The AP reporter leaves 21st Century at about three o’clock. A half hour later, Dwayne Harris comes into the office. He’s just gotten off his construction job. Former gang crimes commander Robert Dart says Hoover picked Dwayne Harris to head 21st Century because he was a GD with a clean record. Tom Harris says Dwayne Harris was never in the gang.
In May 1993, Dwayne Harris organized a march of 5,000 people on City Hall to protest municipal cutbacks in health care. Vernon Jarrett, who attended the march, wrote in the Sun-Times, “I felt good being introduced to Dwayne Harris, 25, a building maintenance worker, who heads a group called 21st Century Vote.” Jarrett added, “Meanwhile, a word of warning. Don’t believe all those reports about the Friday march being ‘mostly street gangs.’ My research says that they were there only as a numerical minority. And I can think of worse activity for a group of disenchanted youth than marching for a worthy cause.”
In September 1993, 21st Century held a gathering in rural Kankakee County called the Illinois Family Day Voters Picnic. In August, Winndye Jenkins had applied for a permit to hold the picnic in Kankakee County State Park. The state Department of Conservation rejected the application, saying the site could not handle a large crowd. So the event was held instead on private land, and the crowd was large indeed: more than 10,000 showed up, many of them wearing the Gangster Disciple colors, blue and black. “Let’s not assume what you see is what it is, because you really don’t know,” said Tom Harris. “We invited everybody all over the city, every youth on the street. Some of these are young Democrats, some of them belong to Operation PUSH, some of them belong to the NAACP. We don’t go around and say, ‘Who do you belong to?'” Kankakee County sheriff Bernie Thompson tried to stop the event and failed. “If there were the same number from a white gang wanting to assemble, I would oppose them just as strongly,” he said.
The gang colors and cocked hats were gone two weeks later at a 21st Century rally called Real Change 1993 Summit. The Wednesday rally, held at Englewood Technical Preparatory Academy, was attended by only about 150 people. Speakers included state representative Coy Pugh, aldermen Allan Streeter, Arenda Troutman, and Ricardo Munoz, and John Stroger, now chairman of the Cook County Board. Pugh said, “21st Century is the vehicle for you to be involved. Until we do that, we will continue to be undereducated and overincarcerated.” Walter Burnett Jr., chairman of the Young Democrats of Cook County, said, “What I always say is, God created all kinds and everybody deserves a chance to change. If the Democratic Party would not have accepted me because I come from Cabrini-Green, I never would have been involved. I probably would have been a gangbanger myself.”
In December 1993, Mayor Daley criticized Stroger, his political ally, for meeting with members of 21st Century. Stroger had come under attack from Aurelia Pucinski, an opponent for president of the Cook County Board, and Daley, while continuing to support Stroger, agreed with Pucinski. “I think the day that we highlight the Al Capones or John Gottis of America, whether it’s a 20-year-old gangbanger dope dealer–these are not our real heroes of our society. The drug dealers are not. The gangbangers are not. There are good people out there.”
Stroger accused Pucinski of race baiting. “What we have witnessed these past two days has not been a discussion about the issues but a veiled personal attack that aims to taint Cook County government with the divisive politics of Chicago’s City Council wars,” Stroger said in a prepared statement. After winning the Democratic primary, Stroger came under attack again during the general election campaign and felt obliged to return a $100 campaign contribution from 21st Century, as well as $200 from a private corporation called Growth by Development Contractors, Inc. “This money is stained with blood,” said Joseph Morris, Stroger’s Republican opponent. “John Stroger should have refused it.”
21st Century played its own race card when it attempted to launch a boycott of stores in Englewood owned by Korean Americans that it contended were exploiting black customers. After months of negotiation with the merchants and also the city’s Commission on Human Relations, 21st Century staged a march on December 18, 1993, during the same week that a citywide Korean merchants group presented 21st Century with 50 gift baskets for distribution to the poor. In turn, 21st Century solicited Korean business leaders for $500 contributions to its Christmas fund. “I don’t know what kind of an organization it is,” said Myung Chang, president of the Korean-American Englewood Businessmen’s Association. “I try to figure out.” Negotiations with the city collapsed last February. Clarence Wood, chairman of the human relations commission, accused 21st Century spokesman Tom Harris of manipulating public opinion through the press, and both the city and the Koreans remained wary of making concessions because of 21st Century’s gang ties.
Tom Harris continued to accuse Korean American merchants of selling “counterfeit merchandise” and overcharging. Even now he blames “foreigners” for draining money from the African American community. “Some of these people aren’t even citizens,” he says. “I’m not saying don’t feed your families, I’m saying you shouldn’t be able to come to our neighborhoods and do this. We have to fight for the right of people to be protected by consumer laws that’s on the books. Me as an American couldn’t have done that with my store, so why are they permitted to do it? Koreans and Arabs, Indians as well. They have the gas stations and the Dunkin Donuts. They don’t even understand the customs, so you don’t expect them to cooperate. They do know the laws, but the government ain’t even enforcing the laws. They need politicians to finance them, but financing begins with the well-being of the people that elected you, and they can’t even vote. That don’t make sense.”
Last July, 21st Century contracted with the Urban League of Chicago to receive $45,000 in city money. The Urban League, which was going to disburse $543,000 in city funds to raise black participation on the Green Line el reconstruction project on the south and west sides, subcontracted with 21st Century and three other minority groups. As part of the deal, 21st Century would be allowed to negotiate with trade unions about establishing apprenticeship programs. Mayor Daley came under fire from a number of political camps for giving out the contract. A union official was quoted in the Tribune as saying. “Are they nuts at City Hall? Now we have to negotiate with the front men for the gangs on the job site? I think Mr. Daley needs some talking to.” Sixth Ward alderman John Steele managed to accuse Daley of both pandering to and insulting 21st Century. “All this year he criticized the group, said they were the front men for the gangs, said they were evil,” Steele said. “But now his reelection is coming around, and there’s a new direction from City Hall. He’s a hypocrite. If he’s defending the contract, then he owes these young people a full and public apology.”
Daley responded: “It’s too important. You can’t stop the project. It’s a very small amount. I can’t tell the Urban League, ‘You’re not going to hire them.’ You want the mayor to do that? It’s wrong.” But Daley immediately told his attorneys to find loopholes and get the city out of the contract. And a day later he announced that because 21st Century described itself as a political organization, it might not be entitled to receive community development block grant funds covering the $45,000. “This is a political organization, I’ll be very frank,” he said. “You can’t contract with the Democratic Party. You can’t contract with the Republican Party. You cannot contract with the Harold Washington Party.” Yet Daley said the Urban League contract should find jobs for “individuals who have an unfortunate criminal background, who have been clean since, who are looking for training and jobs.”
Daley never did remove the 21st Century contract from the $6.7 million community redevelopment bill that contained it, and on August 2, 1994, the City Council’s Finance Committee approved the bill by a seven to two vote. The seven yes votes came from Daley allies. Daley opponents, like John Steele and Robert Shaw, who were forced to choose between supporting Daley and opposing 21st Century, instead walked out of the council chambers. Only Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle and Fifth Ward alderman Lawrence Bloom voted against the contract. “This is ridiculous,” Bloom said. “We’re telling taxpayers whose children have been shot to death by gangs that City Hall is now about to make the gangs legitimate. We tell parents to say that gangs are wrong, then we reward the gangs by giving them political control over jobs. It is cynical. It is wrong. This is the kind of thing that hurts our city and the people who live here.”
Bloom then moved to amend the decision, to prohibit 21st Century from receiving community development block grant funds on the grounds that it was a registered political party. The next day the council approved his amendment on a 34-6 vote, taking away the $45,000 award. Bloom claimed to have saved Daley a major political embarrassment. “I’m doing their dirty work for them,” he said. A few black aldermen voted against the Bloom amendment, but others once again managed to leave the council chambers and neither oppose nor defend 21st Century. As for Daley, he said, “I disagree with the contract. I told the Urban League that today. It’s all set now. No political organization can participate in CDBG funds. Period. There’s that [Harold] Washington philosophy, you know, to write a blank check and fill it in. There’s no way they’re going to do that here. It’s not a blank check for anyone.”
Tom Harris says 21st Century has continued to work on the Green Line project, getting its members involved in apprenticeship and job-training programs. “We’re working on a volunteer basis,” he says, “because it was never about the money with us in the first place. When we found out that they were going to give us money, that was fine, but we were going to do it whether they did it or not. Our main emphasis is not the $45,000. Opposed to what’s at stake, it don’t even amount up to nothing. We didn’t even know we was going to get paid in the first place, because we’re not into accepting grants of that nature. We fill that through economics and the participation of our membership. We don’t need that.”
21st Century V.O.T.E. got to test its electoral muscle for the first time in the March 1994 primaries. The organization supported Jerry Washington as a candidate for state representative in the 23rd District against incumbent Daniel Burke, who is also the deputy city clerk. Burke belongs to one of Chicago’s oldest machine families, and he’s the brother to 14th Ward alderman Edward Burke, who became notorious in the mid-80s as Mayor Harold Washington’s most hostile opponent in the City Council. Before the election, said Dwayne Harris in the Chicago Defender, “we will bring one to 10,000 youths to help, and we will win by any means necessary.” South-side state representative Lovana “Lou” Jones said of the Washington-Burke contest, “People are looking hard at this race. I think it’s a test to see if their numbers are what they say.”
Jerry Washington, who listed his job as political consultant for 21st Century V.O.T.E., had run against Daniel Burke in 1992, finishing third. He said of the group, “Even those who are doing negative things are asking and crying for help. They want to get off the corner.” Daniel Burke said, “I don’t understand how any community can support candidates who promote gang activity.” Meanwhile, in the Second Congressional District race, which covered much of the south side and south suburbs, Alderman Allan Streeter was doing battle with Mel Reynolds over, among other things, 21st Century V.O.T.E. “I believe in Century 21 [sic],” Streeter said at a rally. (So reported the Tribune.) “I believe in what you’re doing.” Streeter also appeared with Jerry Washington and Dwayne Harris when Washington announced his candidacy. Reynolds called 21st Century a “liability” and said, “There are some seasoned politicians who saw this group getting together and viewed them as a force and tried to get ahead of the train and manipulate them. And Streeter was the first to do this.”
The Tribune featured a postelection account of the Washington-Burke race, written by John Kass and George Papajohn, that described 21st Century V.O.T.E. volunteer poll watchers patrolling the district wearing GD colors. Dwayne Harris said that he was thinking of having his volunteers wear shirts and ties next time. Kass and Papajohn also described the operations at Ed Burke’s political headquarters on West 51st Street: “The atmosphere was all business, the kind of well-oiled operation that has taken generations to perfect. The precinct captains stood in a line before a counter. On the other side stood the pink-faced Burke brothers in their perfect suits, checking the numbers like accountants going over the day’s receipts. Off-duty police officers arrived, having watched over the closing of polling places to make sure there was no trouble. Friends came by. The room was filled with the members of a successful, middle-aged organization with only a few under 35.”
Daniel Burke won with 5,840 votes. Washington received 3,210, and 4,104 votes were distributed among five other black challengers. “Hey, this is like spring training for us,” said Dwayne Harris. “We’re going up against Burke’s guys, who know what they’re doing. But we’re young. They’re old. And we’ll learn.” At his headquarters, Ed Burke said, “I think they got their feet wet this time. Their problem is not only harnessing the young people but keeping them interested. If they stay with it, they could be a very strong presence in future ward elections.”
One ward in which 21st Century could be a factor this election season is the Third, where the colorful Wallace “Gator” Bradley is posing a well-publicized challenge to the incumbent alderman, Dorothy Tillman. Bradley is a childhood friend of Larry Hoover’s; they were GDs together and served time in Statesville in the 1970s, but Bradley was paroled after serving four years on an armed robbery rap and in 1989 was pardoned by Governor James Thompson for his work with inner-city youth. He has no official connection to 21st Century V.O.T.E. but is in close contact with the organization, and he visits Hoover often in prison. Recently, Bradley attended the inauguration of another ex-convict turned political candidate–D.C. mayor Marion Barry. “His campaign is pretty much similar to mine, getting only the support straight from the people,” Bradley says. “He got his straight from the blessing of God, and that was transcended to the people. I believe it is a redemptive struggle, and I feel that my campaign is a continuation of that struggle, from Mandela to Marion Barry to the Third Ward aldermanic race.”
After leaving prison Bradley became involved in a variety of businesses. In 1985 he was operating his own public relations firm, LeGator Productions, mostly promoting bowling leagues and bands, and a south-side soul singer and beer distributor named Jerry “Iceman” Butler was getting ready to run for the Cook County Board. “When I met Wallace,” says Butler, who was just reelected, “he was running around, hustling. He was getting up early, trying to make a living. I was impressed with his go-getter attitude.” Bradley worked on Butler’s campaign, and after Butler won he brought Bradley on as an aide. Bradley worked for Butler until 1992; Butler described in a Tribune article how Bradley’s personality led him to outgrow his subordinate position. “I used to tell him not to wear his mink coat down to the office,” Butler said. “I was trying to change him into a nine-to-five kind of guy, move up from the inside. But he wanted to be a celebrity. And, guess what, he got what he wanted.”
Bradley ran for alderman in the Third Ward in 1991, but only, he says, “to test my pardon.” He received 375 votes, and finished a distant third of nine candidates. His first true taste of the public spotlight came in the fall of 1993, when as one of the chief organizers of Chicago’s gang truce summit his face was suddenly all over television and in the newspapers. Bradley led workshops and discussion groups during the summit and secured the attendance of such notables as now-ousted NAACP head Benjamin Chavis, the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan, and Reverend Jesse Jackson. But most noted by the media was a prayer Bradley gave at a gang summit news conference. After asking for the success of a “nonviolent movement,” Bradley concluded: “Father, I ask of you that all those naysayers, all those agents provocateurs, all those who will stand in the way of this peace, I ask that you blind them, snap the limbs in their bodies, and wipe them from the face of the earth. Amen.”
In November 1993, Bradley was arrested in Chicago while driving a white Cadillac DeVille. Avis Rent-A-Car initially claimed the car had been stolen, but later recanted, though adding that Bradley did owe Avis $3,000 in rental costs for Cadillacs. In January 1994, Bradley and Jesse Jackson drove a white Cadillac to the White House to brief President Clinton on urban violence, the day before Clinton’s state of the union address. “It was righteous,” Bradley told reporters.
In April 1994, in response to shooting deaths in a park near the Robert Taylor Homes, Bradley and other activists called for a park patrol of 5,000 young people, including former convicts and gang members, as well as a paid national guardsman, to patrol each of the city’s 562 parks. Mayoral spokesman Jim Williams said about the proposal, “We have serious concerns about using people to patrol the parks who have not been trained in law enforcement. The Park District will have 100 additional police officers in the park this year. We believe that is the way to go.” Sun-Times columnist Raymond Coffey scoffed at Bradley’s proposal. Bradley responded in an angry letter. “For the record,” he wrote, “I am a principled, God-fearing, unwavering peace advocate; a product of urban America’s inner cities with a selfless vested interest in the welfare of the future of all African Americans; a rehabilitated ex-offender working to achieve positive change, including, but not limited to, the establishment and maintenance of a better social environment for our children.”
Last December 6, Bradley declared for alderman in a City Hall press conference. He charged incumbent Dorothy Tillman with presiding over the decay of the Third Ward and establishing political alliances with Mayor Daley. “I saw how she screamed on [Eugene] Sawyer,” Bradley said. “I see how she screamed on [CHA chairman] Vince Lane. But I have yet to see her scream on Daley. . . . She’s with [Daley adviser Timothy] Degnan–everyone knows that.” Tillman did not respond but Mayor Daley did. “I don’t know if I will support anyone in that race,” Daley said, “but she’s worked very hard. I’ve had differences with her over the years, yes. But she does work very hard on behalf of the people.”
Tillman has found an odd, if wary, ally in Daley. She built her reputation as a community activist in the early 80s by publicly shouting down a white south-side school principal, forcing her to retire. This event gave her the political backing to challenge Tyrone Kenner for his Third Ward seat in 1983. Kenner, who had been alderman since 1971, owed his political power to the original Mayor Daley, but in 1983 he was being dogged by extortion charges. Still, he defeated Tillman, avoiding a runoff by 134 votes. In May 1983 Kenner was convicted of extortion, mail fraud, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, and Harold Washington nominated Tillman to replace him. Tillman’s nomination became a cause celebre in Washington’s Council Wars. One alderman refused to support her because, he said, she had called him an obscene name. Another refused on the grounds there was no such word as “alderwoman.”
In 1985’s special aldermanic election, Tillman faced eight opponents. One of those, James “Skip” Burrell, was asked by Washington to withdraw from the race. Burrell surreptitiously taped the conversation, and the transcript found its way into the hands of the Tribune. The resulting furor over Burrell’s actions ended up generating much sympathy for Washington, but his assessment of Tillman remained on the public record. He called her “cruel . . . not a likable person . . . abrasive, loud . . . a loser. . . . She doesn’t know city government. . . . She doesn’t know how precincts work in providing services. . . . She doesn’t know what’s going on. . . . She doesn’t know how ordinances are passed.” Washington also said to Burrell, “Look at the situation. She represents a coterie of activist people in the Third Ward . . . and that group has been helpful to me. He added, “She comes out of that black nationalist group.” “She’s a racist,” Burrell said. “Shit,” Washington said, “most of them are.”
In 1987 Tillman, now also the ward committeeman, easily defeated several challengers, including Jerry Washington. After Harold Washington’s death she supported Timothy Evans for mayor, and when he lost she went all-out after Eugene Sawyer, calling him “an Uncle Tom, a shufflin’ Uncle Tom trying to lead us back into the Democratic Party. An Uncle Tom is one who would sell out their community to the interests of their master. An Uncle Tom is one who never puts the struggle for liberation of people first and do the bidding for the master.” Tillman’s language, and her propensity for wide-brimmed, face-obscuring hats, led Mike Royko to call her “the scariest aldercreature afoot.” In 1991 Tillman once again faced eight challengers, including Gator Bradley and Tyrone Kenner, who had been released from prison. “We do all right in the Third Ward,” Tillman said at the time. “Ty Kenner was a convict. Do you really think I’m worried about him?”
Gator Bradley’s criminal record was expected to be an issue in this year’s campaign, as was that of Kenner (who is running again), because of a 1993 state law that prohibits anyone convicted of any type of felony from running for Chicago office. In order for Bradley to test his executive clemency, however, someone would have to mount a challenge to his candidacy on the basis of his conviction. Instead of offering that, an Englewood resident named Eugene Randolph briefly challenged Bradley’s right to use “Gator” on the ballot. Bradley, surprised to be challenged over his nickname instead of his criminal history, said, “Gator is very important because everyone in the community knows me as Gator,” he said. “I’ve had that name ever since I was 14 years old. It started with the cartoon character Wally Gator.” Bradley is the only candidate challenged over his name in an election season that includes aldermanic candidates known as “Butterball,” “Cowboy,” “Buck,” and “Z.”
Bradley is running a campaign, he says, for the young people of the city. “This election is their election,” he says. “This is for the youth. I’m 43 years old, I’m not looking for any more than two terms or even one term. All I’m doing is showing them that the people can do it. I’m one of them, who went to the penitentiary, who made a fool of myself during my youth, who didn’t respect education. By the grace of God I got executive clemency. I haven’t been back. I’ve been on both ends of it, as a user, as one who’s had to sell dope to take care of the community, as a burglar and hold-up man, but I’ve changed my life around. I got in through the system and became issue- orientated.”
As for his relationships with 21st Century V.O.T.E. and with Larry Hoover, Bradley says he will enlist the organization’s support and he will go on visiting Hoover regularly in prison. “If people are using Hoover’s name in antisocial behavior,” he says. “I go out there, find them, and bring them to that penitentiary. Hoover will tell them to shape up.” He says that while he was in prison it was Hoover who interested him in politics. “Me and brother Hoover go back nearly 30 years,” he says. “He saw my potential before I saw it. I could have been back out in the streets. Hoover said to me, ‘Don’t be a damn fool.’ He said, “I got a hundred-some years for conspiracy, and God blessed you that all you did was four. The man been locked up 20 years. People are doing things in his name. He needed someone out there to tell people what he was about.”
Meanwhile, Larry Hoover remains on the outskirts of the news. In October he was transferred from Vienna, 300 miles from Chicago, to the medium-security Dixon facility, 100 miles away. Hoover says it’s to be closer to his family and his aging mother, but others say it’s to be closer to his “political base.” Mayor Daley called on Governor Edgar to reverse the decision to transfer Hoover. “This shows what is wrong with the state prison system,” said Daley. “They let people out early. They let them choose their prisons. And they let them run their street gangs from behind bars. Why else would Hoover ask to leave a less secure prison. He wants to be closer to his drug business and his gang, and that’s not good for the people of Chicago.” An Edgar aide responded, “It is irrelevant as to where Hoover is located. Every phone call he makes, we know what numbers they are, and that is shared with the Chicago Police Department.”
Hoover is up for parole again next month, and he has secured as his attorney Rufus Cook, who also represents Winndye Jenkins and 21st Century V.O.T.E. Cook, who is 58, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School at the age of 22. After a stint in the Air Force, where he started an on-base NAACP chapter, he came to work for a white law firm in Chicago. After making a lot of money converting apartments into condos, he went into private practice. In his career, Cook has sued Muhammad Ali on behalf of a boxing promoter and in 1970 unsuccessfully sued Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam over some property on the south side. In 1982, already involved in complicated dealings with Muhammad’s family, Cook became the attorney for his estate. A 1991 article in Chicago magazine said of him, “Cook wears so many hats it is often difficult to tell whose interests he is representing.”
Cook says his involvement with 21st Century V.O.T.E. fits into his life-long interest in black economic and political self-reliance. “I feel that blacks have too often not asserted themselves politically in the ways that they should. As a result, they’re often left with the crumbs from the table. I’ve felt that way ever since I’ve been old enough to formulate notions. I have looked with great dismay on the antics, for example, of the old-line black aldermen, who were simply Stepin Fetchits for the political system in Chicago, who could be counted on regularly by the Democratic Party to vote against matters that were in the interest of black people. So to see an organization that did not adopt that posture, and that shows some signs of autonomy, was of great interest to me.” He also says he understands why the powers that be are wary of 21st Century V.O.T.E. “I think a lot of traditional Democrats, black and white, are fearful of the kinds of numbers that can be turned out, and of the potential of such organizations, especially when they can involve young blacks, those who are outside the political process. But I think every time there are entrenched organizations and there are challenges to them, there is fear. But that kind of challenge is what is at the base of our democracy.”
Cook says the old strategy of using high-profile black citizens to advocate Hoover’s parole may have harmed their reputations. This time he will be taking a more low-key approach. “The people who stood up for Larry last time have been subjected to a barrage of criticism,” Cook says. “But the real issue here is not to have politicians stand up for him, civic leaders and so forth, but to put on the record what this man has done, what he is about, what is being done in his name.”
Cook argues that Hoover, who was sent to prison before mandatory sentencing laws took effect, has served a greater than average sentence for his crime; and he notes that Hoover’s codefendant, Andrew Howard, who received an identical sentence, was quietly released two years ago. Cook adds that he thinks Hoover may have been incorrectly sentenced in 1973. “Larry is not a heinous criminal in the sense of somebody who did something that is totally unthinkable,” Cook says. “There are far more heinous crimes committed by people who have gone in since he was convicted, served their time, gotten out, and gone on with their lives. What’s different about this man?”
As for Hoover, he says he is being held unreasonably now, and his parole should come and will. “They don’t allow me to change,” he says. “They don’t allow me to mature. That’s the natural state of things. Everybody changes and matures. The Berlin Wall could come down, the fall of communism, it could be the end of apartheid, Rabin could sign a peace accord with Arafat, all of these improbabilities were possible. But it isn’t possible for me to change. And that’s based on my political views. They don’t believe that I can be a force throughout the black community, that I wake up these young guys and show them a different way.”
Hoover scoffs at comparisons to Jeff Fort and the Blackstone Rangers of the 60s. “Jeff Fort and them in the 60s were 19-, 20-year-old kids that got hold of a bunch of money and fixed it. The difference between Jeff Fort and what I’m doing is, I’m a mature man who’s spent 20 years in prison. I understand what needs to be done. He was young. I really believe Jeff Fort got the blame for that. There were a lot of other organizations involved with that grant. Jeff Fort might have been the fall guy, but if he wasn’t they were still kids. And we are mature adults trying to put something together that is going to save some people. That’s the difference.
“People say don’t do it, because we tried in the 60s and we failed. If that same philosophy was used with the space program we wouldn’t be on the moon. The thing is, to right the wrongs in this community we’ve got to use unorthodox methods. Because the orthodox methods have proved to be a failure. And if they’ve proved to be a failure then why keep on using them? Why not try? And to say that we can’t try again because of what happened to Jeff Fort is to write off a whole generation.”
Hoover’s tone of voice is quiet and confident, almost smug. He’s heard these questions and doubts hundreds of times before. He stares squarely ahead and says: “I believe in pushing the democratic process as a means to better the conditions of these people, rather than mainstream politicians. They can relate to me. I’m still one of them. I haven’t deserted them. I haven’t put a tarnish on my name. They can relate to ideas coming from a person like me.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.