CHICAGO -- When gang shootings at the Robert Taylor projects got so bad that buying food meant crossing a war zone, Ethel Washington approached the only force she thought could halt the killing: the gangs themselves.
"I got tired of hearing the mothers screamin' and hollerin' " says the resident of a battered high-rise overlooking some of Chicago's prize drug turf.
As police tactics failed, Mrs. Washington phoned 21st Century Voices of Total Empowerment (VOTE), a gang-run political group. Soon, street-wise envoys from Chicago's biggest gang, the Gangster Disciples, showed up at her door. Within days, she says, the gunfire virtually stopped. "They came - nobody else," recalls Washington, who still cooperates with the gang members.
The late-1993 incident underscores how one of the country's most powerful gangs has extended its reach beyond its corporate drug empire. Following a path well-marked by the Mafia and other organized-crime groups, the Disciples have maneuvered deep into the frayed social fabric and political life of inner-city Chicago.
From housing projects to schools and churches, the 30,000-strong Gangster Disciples (GD) has used its muscle, money, and manpower to impose a brute order on neighborhoods. It has infiltrated police and security forces, monitored school hallways, mobilized protesters, and registered voters, residents and officials say.
A federal investigation and trial have recently produced new evidence of the GD's control over inner-city life. Seven Gangster Disciples leaders were convicted in federal court on March 6 for running a multimillion-dollar drug conspiracy. The convictions included charges that they used narcotics proceeds to fund 21st Century VOTE, which finances candidates, rallies, and voter-registration drives. GD chief Larry "King" Hoover is scheduled to go on trial in October.
Federal prosecutors charge that the Gangster Disciples' foray into social and political activism in the 1990s is a calculated effort to legitimize an organized-crime gang and win parole for Mr. Hoover, who is already serving a 150- to 200-year sentence for murder.
"Hoover wanted to portray himself as a leader children could look up to," says assistant US Attorney Ron Safer.
Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and other local politicians have slammed Hoover's alliance with 21st Century VOTE, which is under investigation by the Illinois Board of Elections for failing, in its campaign disclosure documents, to account for tens of thousands of dollars.
"Organized crime, dope dealers, have always sought legitimacy," Mr. Daley said last month. Crime is the keystone of gang power, Daley says, and it is naive to believe gang leaders will renounce lawbreaking.
Not so, counter defense attorneys and some community activists. While condemning the GD's drug sales, violence, and other "anti-social behavior," they claim that Hoover and other gang members have embraced a positive political agenda. The GD and other gangs, they assert, could shun crime and become a street-toughened force for black empowerment.
"How can we discourage [the gang] from getting involved in political activities when we know the other side is them shooting each other?" says defense attorney Standish Willis, chairman of the Chicago Conference of Black Lawyers. "We have a vested interest in bringing them to the table."
Political ties that bind?
Indeed, prominent black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Operation PUSH and Chicago Urban League president James Compton, have joined in a voter-registration drive with 21st Century VOTE, despite its gang links.
Candidates for Congress, City Council, and local school councils have in recent years accepted support either from 21st Century VOTE or close Hoover associate Wallace "Gator" Bradley, a GD member and political activist. These include US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) of Illinois and Cook County Commissioner Danny Davis, who last week won the Democratic primary in Chicago's Seventh Congressional District.
"Gangs are involved in politics, just like the Fraternal Order of Police," said Mr. Bradley from his pager phone. "I am not telling youth to go to the corner and sell drugs, I am telling them to vote - a ballot is better than a bullet."
But for Ethel Washington and thousands of others living in GD territory on Chicago's predominantly black South Side, dealing with the gang is less a choice than an inevitability.
Against a backdrop of vacant lots and boarded-up storefronts, poverty and joblessness, many residents accept the gang's drug business and fleeting protection much as they do the metal gratings on their windows.
"Gangs are a symptom of our community going through poverty," says Cecil Davis, a community organizer in Englewood, where 43 percent of residents live below the poverty line. In an office warmed only by a space heater, Mr. Davis, wrapped in a coat and wool cap, paints a Darwinian picture of survival in his South Side neighborhood.
"If you have a son who can't find a job, and the dealer down the street offers him $100 to $200 a day to sell drugs, and if that pays for groceries and rent and gas, you can imagine what choice people make," he says.
Although fear and loathing for the Gangster Disciples' culture of violence are widespread in Englewood, so is a reluctant recognition of the gang as perhaps the neighborhood's best-organized group.
"[We must] confront the realities of the gang structure," says Nehemiah Russell, assistant principal of the Englewood Technical Preparatory Academy, a public high school. "Every school in the inner city is controlled by a gang, and all Englewood students have some relationship to the gang structure, so it makes sense for me to deal with them."
Sporting a black fedora and gripping a walkie-talkie, Mr. Russell strategically stations himself on a corner outside the school at 2:45 p.m., just as students begin flowing out of the building.
"How are you, sir? Be honorable, sir!" he advises a gang member whose car slows at the corner. The youth smiles back and waves.
Nearby, four adult gang representatives - two from the GDs and two from the rival Black Disciples (BD) - take up posts around the school to forestall gang crime and violence.
Unusual school discipline
The daily drill is part of a controversial, four-year-old program under which the two gangs have played a key role in discipline at the school, punishing unruly members with warnings, fines, or beatings.
Former GD member-turned-political activist Hal Baskin, who helped design the program, credits his former high school classmate Hoover and BD leader Jerome "Shorty" Freeman for helping to curb violence and maintain a gang truce at the school. "To stop the killing, you have to talk to the killers," explains the Mississippi-born Mr. Baskin.
Within the community, however, not all voices are joining the chorus of acceptance for turning to gangs. Although he credits the school program with a degree of effectiveness, South Side NAACP head Furmin Sessoms asks: "The question is, do we want gangs to be controlling the schools? It puts everyone at risk for potential violent acts of recrimination, or just rebellion, by young members."
Still, many South Side residents, like Washington, have turned to the GDs when police protection fails.
When the Rev. T.L. Barrett complained about someone attacking his home with bricks, gang leaders responded. Within two hours they had two young men kneeling before him apologizing for the vandalism. Gang leaders placed the youths on guard duty outside his home, Mr. Barrett said.
Impressed, Barrett met with other ministers and community leaders to explore how gangs could help fight crime.
Former South Side NAACP director Sidney Finley used to pay a visit to the local gang leader whenever his hubcaps were stolen. "Within an hour" the caps would be back, "either the exact same ones or new ones," recalls Mr. Sessoms.
Chicago police acknowledge they are outmanned in gang-dominated projects. Still, "we would hope that [turning to gangs] is an alternative residents would not have to take," says Wynona Redmond, spokeswoman for the Chicago police. "We would discourage it."
Back in his dim, unheated office at Englewood Community Development, Davis predicts that the federal crackdown on the GDs is unlikely to loosen the grip of gangs on the neighborhood.
"Larry Hoover's conviction wouldn't change how people here live," he says. "Drug sales will go on. It's just a question of who will control it."