Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)

Are the Blackstone Rangers a corrupt, exploitive street gang? Or a constructive engine of community black power? This is Part I of a two-part study of the Ranger Nation, the result of six months of research and interviewing.
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THE Woodlawn, Kenwood, and parts of the Hyde Park areas of the South Side of Chicago are said to be Ranger territories. While the Rangers' presence in Hyde Park, especially in the area around the University of Chicago, is not very obvious to the casual observer, the walls of buildings in Woodlawn and Kenwood advertise their existence. It impossible to pass a single block in Woodlawn without seeing the signs. Many of the buildings are torn down, but most of the signs look fresh lad bold and new; "Black P. Stone," "Stone Run It," "Almighty Black P. Stone Nation," "Don't Vote! B.P.S." they read. The wind blows bits of dirt and plaster into the faces of the children who among the bricks and rubbish in the lots where houses once stood.

Blackstone Rangers are shy these days. They do talk to most strangers. Whenever Jeff Fort is arrested, and he has been arrested many times since the McClellan Committee hearings, the story is picked up by almost every major newspaper in the country. Perhaps it is because of determined harassment from the Gang Intelligence Unit that the Rangers have grown tight and uncommunicative. Whatever the cause, they are suspicious of strangers, and their meetings are held in secret. They no longer make much use of the First Presbyterian Church; they may meet there from time to time, but not regularly. Possibly their only facility open to the public is the Black P. Stone Youth Center on the corner of Sixty-seventh and Blackstone, in the heart of the Woodlawn community.' The building was once a Chinese laundry, and at another time it was a poolroom. Now it seems to serve as the central point for most Ranger activities. The building is windowless, and it is painted black. Few non-Rangers go into the building uninvited; only those who have dealings with the Nation seem to feel free to enter. And perhaps this is because of the large black-and-red "All Mighty Black P. Stone" diamond-shaped symbol painted on the Blackstone Street side of the building. During the day adults hurry past the teen-age boys and men who may be standing outside the door. There is a bar a few doors away from the Center, and many of the older people who pass the building go in there to escape the wind, or into the barbecue house next to the bar, or else continue about whatever business they may have further down Sixty-seventh Street. The latch is broken, and the door is never really shut. Anyone can walk in, but for the most part only the children do.

Jeff Fort is the "Black Prince," the president, the "Chief" of the entire Blackstone operation. One cannot think of learning about the Nation without assuming that Jeff Fort is the key, the source of all information. To see Jeff, it is necessary to go to the Black P. Stone Youth Center and wait. It is necessary to wait a long time. Jeff Fort is extremely busy. Besides leading the Rangers, he is fighting a contempt of' Congress conviction for walking out of the McClellan hearings last July (he was found guilty in November); awaiting certain cases pending against him in the Cook County courts; and, until he resigned in early December, working as a community organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO).

But waiting for Jeff Fort to come to the Center gives one the opportunity to observe some of the Rangers as they wander in and out of the smaller, first room of the place, which serves as an office. The room is painted black. There are two desks, a telephone, ancient magazines, a water cooler with no water, and a bulletin board. Tacked on the board are job announcements, pictures of Rangers who participated in Opportunity Please Knock, messages, and cartoons—including one by Jules Feiffer. It is not an impressive office, but the door never stops opening as the children come in. There is little in the office to suggest why they come, but sitting in the one big ragged chair in a dark corner of the office, one is able to observe a steady flow of children, boys and girls, ranging in age from seven to fourteen, walking in and out of the office as if in search of something.

Lamar Bell, the coordinator of the Black P. Stone Youth Center, does not mind my waiting. "The Chief is due here in a few hours," he always says. And he says it again, much later in the evening. It is obvious that he does not trust me. Finally he asks why I want to see the Chief. "I want to do a story on the Nation," I tell him. "I want to see how the Nation relates to the community and the police." Bell turns off completely. "Put that in your story!" he says, pushing a pink mimeographed sheet close to my face. "The trouble with Black Police in our community," it reads, "is not police brutality to blacks, it is that these men and women are afraid of the power structure. So they join it to save themselves from the misery of being Black and powerless. The only way they can prove themselves, to city rulers and world conquerers, with this so called authority is to take it out on their Brother's and Sister's, your Mother and Father and my Mother and Father, and our children. If they weren't police they would be in the same shape as any other oppressed Black man, Woman, or Child. God help them," it went on, "for they know not what they do. To them it's a job for money; to us it's our lives, home and children."

"This is just what I want to write about," I tell him.

Lamar Bell walks to the door between the office and the back room, which has been off limits to me during my past visits to the Center, and says, "You'll have to talk it over with the Chief. He'll be here in a couple of hours."

Every evening for at least three hours Lamar Bell and Carl Banks, one of the Center's teachers, conduct a percussion class for some of the younger boys who come there. Banks has been a Ranger for two years. He is twenty-one, and came to Chicago from New York two years ago. He wants to become a professional drummer and earns money from infrequent band engagements. The rest of his time he spends in the Center, teaching a percussion class for neighborhood children. He is friendly and talkative. "The kids are really interested in expressing themselves," he told me. "A lot of these kids are misunderstood. Drumming gives them a way to express themselves. If I had money for the course, I would get more equipment and books, take the kids to see other drummers perform. Try to work out a little drum and bugle corps."

From the chair where I sat in the office during my first visits to the Center, I could hear the music they made with their drums in the mysterious back room.

One Saturday night Bell informed me that there was an extra bongo drum and invited me to sit in on the session. He allowed me to enter the back room, a kind of auditorium with a small stage, and the three of us played drums, without speaking, for several hours. While we played, some of the older Rangers came in and watched us. They looked at me, and then at Bell, then at me again. It was obvious that I was not a Stone.

"You didn't give off the right vibrations," Art Richardson, the director of the Black P. Stone Youth Center, told me later that night. "That's why I was watching you. But you could be a Stone because you came into the Center and participated, on our level. That's what Stone is all about."

Art Richardson believes in vibrations as a method of determining the sincerity of people. Although he grew up on the South Side of Chicago, he has been a Ranger for only two years. He is not a member of the Main 21, but because he is articulate and extremely intelligent, he has been made a "head" and director of the Black P. Stone Youth Center. He is twenty-eight, married, and has served in the Army. He was given an Undesirable Discharge in 1965 because, he says, "I was just exposed to prejudice and reacted to it in the only way I knew." He has a police record. He also has a way with people. He would rather ride a bus than a cab because, he says, "You can't get vibrations from peoples in a cab." He never says people; the word always comes out peoples, with enough warmth and emphasis to suggest sincerity.

 

THE Englewood Urban Progress Center, located at 839 West Sixty-Fourth Street in an area which is said to be Disciple territory, houses a concentration of community service agencies. The building itself is a Masonic Temple which has been converted into offices. Only the ground floor is used for official purposes; the upper floors are essentially unused, although the second floor has a fairly large auditorium with a stage and good seating capacity, and there are many other, smaller rooms, all quiet and waiting to be put into use. In one of the larger rooms on the second floor, the one with the stage, Darlene Blackburn, an accomplished black dancer of considerable reputation in Chicago, gives creative dance lessons to girls from the community. Waiting for her in the semilighted room are children, boys and girls, who come to participate in the class or to watch her dance. Art Richardson and I wait with them. Art wants to ask her to dance at a Thanksgiving show he is organizing for the Black P. Stone Youth Center. While they wait, the children play at jumping off the stage and onto the floor, a distance of some three or four feet. Sometimes they fall on their faces, but they always laugh, and climb back onto the stage to jump again. It is a game.

"Look at that," Art told me.

A boy was dropping onto the stage from a trapdoor four or five feet above. He landed on his knees, unhurt, and climbed up to jump again.

"That's energy," Art said. "We can't do that any. "

I agreed.

Art walked over to the stage and watched the boy jump again. This time he landed on his feet. "You know," he told me, coming back to where I was sitting, "the young brothers represent a form of energy just like any other energetic force in nature, just like the atom. If it could be channeled, if it could be turned to constructive directions just like the atom . . ." He began to walk about the room. "If I had a bigger place, if I had a place like this, I could bring more of the little brothers in and get that energy."

'What would you do with it?" I asked.

He looked up at the old Mason paintings on the walls and ceilings, half-hidden in the darkness. "I’d like to have job-training programs, arts and crafts workshops, adult workshops sort of like the P.T.A to assemble adults just to get them to talk and maybe close the generation gap. Help them influence the kids in the necessary direction." He paused. "As a matter of fact, I would do exactly what the other organizations are trying to do. But only I’d do it. Most of the other organizations can’t reach the kids. We can. We can give them something to relate to as theirs."

"What?" I asked him.

Art lowered his voice so that the children could not hear him. "Stone," he said softly. Most of Englewood, and whatever energy there is in it, still belongs to the Disciples.

 

NO ONE really knows how many Rangers there now are in the South Side area. The Gang Intelligence Unit estimates that they claim a membership of from 1500 to 3000, while the Rangers themselves claim a membership of from 5000 to 8000. Perhaps the difficulty in estimating their number lies in the fact that the gang, if it can presently be called that, is not well organized. Aside from the Main 21, there seems to be very little perceptible formal organization or control by leaders over individual gang members. If anything, the Rangers seem to represent a certain spirit in their community, a spirit which is adopted by young people. But whether this adoption is voluntary or forced upon young people is one of the major controversial questions that concern the Woodlawn, Kenwood, Oakland, and Hyde Park communities.

During the McClellan hearings there was a good deal of testimony that small children were being forced to join the Rangers and pay protection money. There is some evidence, some opinion, that the Rangers are still recruiting. But few black people in the areas in which most of the intimidation is supposed to be going on seem willing to talk about it, especially to a black like myself who is not known to them. At the hearings, charges were also made that the Rangers were using The Woodlawn Organization's federal funds to line their own pockets. Few private black citizens have much to say about this either.

In the proposal for the Black P. Stone Youth Center the Rangers state that "above all things or ideas of personal materialistic gain, we intend to cultivate our people spiritually, mentally, physically, and economically. To construct and develop our ideal of a new method of existence and behavior." The proposed program is a plea for community support. At present, few adults come to the Center. "Our P.," the statement of intentions goes on, "stands for people, progress, and prosperity." There is no mention of power in the statement.

"We're only interested in trying to develop our community services," Art Richardson told me, "so that it becomes obvious to the peoples that we only have the community's interest at heart and the development of ourselves. We're interested in all peoples as long as they are interested in our philosophy."

The Rangers have scheduled weekly Saturday night meetings at the Center for adults. Some adults do come out, but they are few in number; and those who come wait around nervously for other adults to show and attempt to make conversation with the older Rangers. For the Rangers have a community relations problem. They lack the vocal support of the majority of adults in the areas in which they have an obvious influence over young people. Perhaps it is because many of the adults are unwilling to recognize the Rangers as a legitimate force in a community crowded with "letter-name" organizations, all claiming a certain rapport with the grass roots.

Al Garrison, for example, is a twenty-five-year-old machinist. He is black, and he lives in the Woodlawn area. He grew up in Chicago, is divorced, and has two children. He is not so much concerned about the Rangers as he is about the present state of affairs in this country. He is afraid that his children will not live to reach his age. He believes that the country will not survive much longer, and he wonders why he continues to work every day. He believes that the Chicago police are corrupt beyond control. And he believes that the Mafia controls many members of the police force and the Blackstone Rangers.

"A friend of mine who used to be pretty big in the Rangers told me that white men run the gang," Garrison confides. "He said that they give the guys a new kind of dope that makes them want to kill people. They just go crazy when they take it," he says. "The whites are just using those boys."

Garrison is not bitter or militant. In fact, he cannot understand militancy at this late stage in what he believes to be the decline of America from causes still unclear to him.

The Rangers do not appear to be militant either, at least not in the contemporary sense of the word. They have refused to make a coalition with the Black Panthers. They do not seem to have any political philosophy. If anything, they believe only in themselves and in their motto: "Stone Run It!" But they are waiting too. Whether it is for more federal funds or for their presence and power to be recognized by the black community through their influence over ghetto youth, they are waiting. And their energy is at work.

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