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.

JUST don't do it, put some soul into it! I got more soul than International Shoe Company!" the man says. His name is just "Buzz." He is a highly skillful pool player: he has beaten the great Minnesota Fats. But he is also a Blackstone Ranger, and for three hours every Monday afternoon, from 3 P.M. until 6 P.M., he is a disc jockey for a music program called Stone Thang, sponsored by the University of Chicago's student-run WHPK-FM radio station and the Black P. Stone Nation. Buzz takes his work seriously: he keeps time with his fingers, he sings along with the records, he makes spontaneous, soulful comments, he sweats and smokes, and he enjoys himself. The Rangers take the program seriously too: at least three of them assist him, tight-lipped and silent, in the little studio on the second floor of the university's student activities building. "If you got any soul at all," he announces to his FM audience, "give old brother Buzz a call." And the telephone keeps ringing for three hours, and Buzz keeps talking.

The station's program director, Tom Jacobson, is a senior at the university. He observed that since Stone Thang began in October, there has been an increase in the station's audience, and, he believes, some improvements in communications between the Ranger community and the University of Chicago-Hyde Park white community. The station, however, is a low-power operation, and only reaches FM sets in the Woodlawn, Hyde Park, and South Side areas. The students hope to expand the station's operations to AM sets in order to reach more people, but, Jacobson said, present expansion is doubtful because of lack of funds.

"We've been trying to do this type of show for months," Jacobson commented. "Finally we got Chuck Lapaglia from the First Presbyterian Church and Jeff Fort to help us set it up. The object of the show is to make the Black P. Stone Nation a part of the community."

Buzz and the Rangers who assist him are volunteers. Their only visible compensation lies in the plentiful opportunities Buzz has to say, "This is a Stone Thang presented by the All Mighty Black P. Stone Nation!" The other Rangers in the studio look solemn whenever he says this.

"The kids dig Stone," Carl Banks told me. "But the older people aren't sincere enough to come down and give help. We'd like to get to older people through their kids. In a sense, we're babysitting here because a lot of parents aren't interested in their kids and a lot of them don't trust the Stones. That's why we passed out a list of our intentions—to let them know that it's a peaceful thing. Some people in the area are skeptical because of the past, but they ought to come in and see us now."

The Rangers want money. They want to expand the range of activities presently offered in their Center and set up other Centers in the South Side area. They believe that they have the people, or at least the younger people, with them. Now they want money to put their programs into operation. Lamar "Bob" Bell, a former member of the Main 21, estimates that the Nation needs about $259, 000 a year to put its present plans into operation. 'While his estimate may be far from conservative, it is obvious that for whatever cultural programs the Rangers may have in mind, the Sixty-seventh Street Center will not provide adequate accommodations. At present they have three rooms: the outer room, which serves as an office; the back room, with a small stage; and a sort of kitchen area, with a small bathroom. All of these rooms are in poor repair. For equipment they have a percussion set, two bongo drums, a Ping-Pong table, and about twenty-four metal chairs.

The Rangers are attempting certain ventures in business. The newly formed Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, funded by a $100, 000 grant from the Community Renewal Society of Chicago and headed by Reverend Curtis Burrell, has loaned the Rangers $3000 to open a restaurant on South Woodlawn Avenue. But there is a feeling' an old one, going back to the days of the OEO grant and the sponsorship of the Rangers by The Woodlawn Organization and Reverend Arthur Brazier, that a supposedly legitimate organization is subsidizing gang activities and allowing an already uncontrollable force to grow even larger and more powerful.

 

1N 1968 there were two incidents which increased public interest and, perhaps, concern for the Blackstone Rangers. The first was their attempt to control the violence on the South Side of Chicago in the uncertain days in April after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King by passing out to neighborhood merchants hand-painted signs which read: "Do Not Touch . . . Black P. Stone . . . Jeff." They are said to have also set up a riot-control center in the First Presbyterian Church, where they received calls from troubled areas and directed Ranger leaders to the scenes of potential riotous activity. Finally, the Rangers and the Disciples called a truce on the Sunday following the assassination, during which some 1500 Rangers and 400 Disciples marched through the Woodlawn area and met in a park near the University of Chicago to negotiate the end of violence, or at least the immediate hostility, between the traditionally enemy groups. The march was covered by the local press, and the Rangers were given credit for preventing a riot on the South Side.

And in August, while the police and hippies rioted in the hotel area and in Lincoln Park, the South Side remained calm. Whether or not the Rangers were responsible for the calm remains an open question. There is some evidence that the F.B.I. had investigated certain threats, some of them alleged to have been made by Reverend John Fry, that the Rangers were planning to riot in the Loop, disrupt the Convention, and assassinate Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey.

Captain Edward Buckney, head of the Chicago Police Department's Gang Intelligence Unit and the ninth black police captain in the history of the Chicago Police Department, does not believe that the Rangers were responsible for keeping thc1r neighborhoods cool during the April riots. Fry will tell you that they were responsible for keeping things cool last April," he says, "but in our opinion that's a lot of hogwash. We just don't believe that's so. We believe that idea was a brand of hysteria created by the group to get credit for something they didn't do."

As an example of the hysteria, Buckney related that in August of 1968, just after Jeff Fort was jailed for probation violation and before the Deocratic Convention, Reverend Brazier and other community people requested a meeting with the superintendent of police. "Their basic pitch was 'We can't guarantee what will happen with Jeff in jail.' They were pressuring the police to release him on the implication of the possibility of future violence. To me it's a means of bartering or dickering with the community for their own betterment," Buckney said. "There were no disturbances on the South Side, and the reason was basically because the black community did not want to become involved. If the Rangers claim credit for it, that's some more hogwash."

"In April," he said, "there were about 5000 United States troops, policemen, and many other agencies in the Kenwood-Woodlawn area. Historically, in Chicago there have never been riots on the South Side; they have always been on the West Side. The closest one was in April, and most of the damage there was done in Ranger-Disciple territory. Also, you have to consider the fact that over in the Ranger end there is little else to destroy because they have already destroyed most of it."

Buckney was promoted to captain last November, just after the election. He senses that his police position has made him unpopular in certain areas of the black community. But he believes that his role as a policeman is clearly defined. "Our approach is the hard-line police approach," he says. "We're not concerned with sociological approaches. As long as they don't violate the law, we don't concern ourselves with them." And as a policeman Buckney is in fact determined to break up the gang. He believes that this can be accomplished if most of the older members, possibly those who exert a bad influence over the younger members, are taken out of the area. He believes that 95 percent of the young people in the gang are there because they have no choice in the matter. "No one likes to be continually shot at because he's not a member of the gang," he said. "If we could divorce those who religiously believe in it from the community, the others would have a chance to get out. If the courts deal severely with a considerable number of them, if the courts deal severely in the cases pending against Jeff Fort and some of the other Main leaders, I think the Rangers could be broken up."

Like many other public officials in Chicago, Captain Buckney blames overzealous clergymen for the rapid growth of major gangs over the past two years. During the McClellan investigation, and later, in the Chicago papers and on television, he criticized Reverend John Fry and Reverend Brazier for supporting the activities of the Rangers and the Disciples. He was especially critical of Burrell's subsequent hiring of Jeff Fort as a community organizer. "From what we have seen already," he stated, "we can tell what kind of organizing he was doing. He used intimidation and fear to get young people to join the gang." He blames Reverend Fry's First Presbyterian Church for luring these youths away from the Boys' clubs and into the church. Under Fry's guidance, according to Captain Buckney, the gang enjoyed a tremendous growth. He estimates the present membership of the Rangers to be between 1500 and 3000 youths, but indicates that Reverend Fry's estimation is closer to 4000. "But I doubt if you could find any more than 3oo hard-core Rangers," he remarked.

The captain believes that the most notable achievement of the Rangers was the formation of an entertainment troupe, a major part of which was the "Blackstone Singers." "But you have to look at that with a jaundiced eye too," he cautioned me. "Most of them were high school kids, not hard-core Rangers." He feels that too much attention is being given the gang members to the exclusion of all the other poor children in the Woodlawn community. "If people keep pushing the bad things under the rug, at the rate they're going now they soon will become untouchable because they've already done almost everything attributable to organized crime.

"I believe in giving credit where credit is due," he says of the Rangers, "but they don't do anything constructive. All they're interested in is money in their pockets. If you have any dealings with them, the question always is what can you do for them. You won't get much out of them for nothing."

Buckney, has been criticized for what some Chicagoans call his persecution of the Rangers. He is aware of this, and seems to be able to live with the constant criticism from community-minded whites as well as from some of his fellow blacks. "I'm often accused of persecuting the black community," he admitted. "But when I look at these homicide"—he picked up a pile of papers from his desk and dropped them before continuing—"when I look at these and see a minimum of 95 percent to 97 percent of them coming out of the black community—well, I believe you have to concentrate your men where the problem is." In 1968, the captain disclosed, there have been more than ten killings in Woodlawn.

"If they were so sincere about doing something constructive for the community and if they have knowledge of crime, why don't they turn it over to the police?" the captain asked. "There've been other gangs who have turned members over to the police for doing some wrong. But the Rangers have rarely if ever cooperated with the police and probably never will. If one of them is locked up, they'll try anything possible to spring him—bribing witnesses, even intimidation. They have a complete disdain for the law. They won't even show up for court appearances."

This sort of suspicion is reciprocated: the chief witnesses against the T.W.O. project and the Rangers before the McClellan Committee, George Rose and Annabelle Martin, are rumored to have been bribed by the police to testify as they did. Rose had been arrested for a narcotics violation, but charges were never brought; and the two sons of Annabelle Martin had been previously arrested for the murder of Leo McClure and were the principal witnesses in the case against Eugene Hairston. The charges against both the boys were dropped. Both Mrs. Martin and George Rose moved out of Chicago. Captain Buckney denies the bribery allegations: "Bribery is, point-blank, not true. In the case of George Rose, we got word that the Rangers wanted him killed. We got to him first. All we wanted was inside information on the Rangers. Mrs. Martin certainly wasn't bribed. She was merely asked by the senators if she wanted to go to Washington, and she agreed. We just arranged for her transportation out of the city."

Since its formation in March of 1967, the Gang Intelligence Unit has grown in power and importance in the Chicago Police Department. In 1968 there were only thirty-eight policemen, mostly black, assigned to the Unit; but since the first part of November, plans have been made to increase its strength to two hundred men. "We're striving for 100 percent integration of the Unit," Captain Buckney told me. It is highly probable that members of the Unit have infiltrated the gang; Captain Buckney seems well informed on Ranger activities. But it is also just as probable that the Rangers know a good deal about the activities of the Unit.

Some non-G.I.U. policemen, like Field Commander William B. Griffin, have attempted to work with the Ranger organization rather than against it. "Griffin's problems are different from mine, Buckney says. "He may have to do what is best for the community, while I, if I were in his place, might do something different. But the general consensus in the police department is the hard-line police approach."

In next month's issue, Mr. McPherson follows the Blackstone Rangers through a time of transition, talks with their leaders and Chicagoans who deal with them, and offers some conclusions.

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