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.
More

Click here to go to part II of this article.

SOMETIME between 1961 and 1963, according to evidence presented to a Senate subcommittee chaired by John McClellan of Arkansas last July, an unknown number of black young men, who lived in the general area of Sixty-sixth Place and Blackstone Avenue in the Woodlawn area of Chicago's South Side ghetto, organized a street gang. Like most street gangs, it was formed to protect its members from intimidation by other gangs in the South Side area. The most formidable enemy of this new group was a gang called the Devil's Disciples, which claimed part of the neighboring Kenwood area. In the years which followed, the Disciples became the traditional enemies of the Woodlawn youths, who called themselves Blackstone Rangers.

At first the Rangers were interested only in protecting their territory and their membership from attacks and retaliations by the Disciples, but by 1965 there were an estimated 200 of them in the group, and they were breaking with traditional gang patterns. They were organizing in Woodlawn. And this organization caused some public concern, and even fear, because it began during a period of violent rivalry between the Rangers and the Disciples. During these formative stages the Blackstone Rangers seemed to have placed the running feud between the Disciples and themselves secondary to their primary goal: organization. Soon their influence in Woodlawn caused minor, less influential, less powerful gangs to join them. And they came from all over the South Side: the Maniacs, the Four Corners, the Lovers, the V.I.P.'s, the Pythons, the Warlocks, the F.B.I., the Conservatives, the Pharaohs. At present there are anywhere from 3500 to 8000 boys and men who identify with the Blackstone Rangers and who have affixed the Ranger name to the names of their own gangs. Such is the organizational structure and size of the Blackstone Rangers today that they call themselves a Nation. The Ranger Nation is headed by a group of young men called the Main 21. Until 1968 the president of the organization was Eugene "Bull" Hairston, the vice president was Jeff Fort (also called "Angel" and "Black Prince"), and the warlord was George Rose (also called "Watusi" and "Mad Dog"). The Rangers' spiritual leader was Paul "The Preacher" Martin, and the rest of the Main 21 was made up of leaders of the minor gangs who had joined with the Rangers. Each individual gang, it seems, maintained its own organizational structure with its own officers; but collectively all of the gangs made up the Blackstone Nation, which is presently incorporated to do business under the laws of Illinois.

Since the emergence of the Ranger Nation, individual members have been charged with murder, robbery, rape, knifings, extortion of South Side merchants, traffic in narcotics, extortion and intimidation of young children, forced gang membership, and a general history of outright violence, especially against the Disciples who never joined the Rangers. On the other hand, the Ranger Nation has been credited with keeping the South Side of Chicago "cool" during the summer of 1967 and the spring of 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It has been said that they have kept drugs, alcoholics, prostitutes, and whites hunting for prostitutes out of their neighborhoods. They have also been credited with making genuine attempts to form lasting peace treaties between themselves and the Disciples in order to decrease the level of gang fighting on the South Side. They have been alternately praised and condemned by the national press, their community, the United States Senate, the local police, and Chicago youth organizations to such an extent that, if one depends on the news media for information, it is almost impossible to maintain a consistent opinion of the Blackstone Rangers.

Some of the Chicago papers have been quick to report any charges of violent activity against a Ranger. In newspaper accounts, the name of the gang takes precedence over the individual arrested and charged with crimes. Many of the charges are accurate; many of the young men who identify with the Rangers are guilty of various crimes. But much of the information passed on to the press is shown to have no substance upon thorough investigation. Still, the adverse publicity serves to keep the Chicago communities, both black and white, in a state of apprehension over the Blackstone Ranger organization, as opposed to the individuals in it.

There has been, and presently still is, a cry for a massive police crackdown on the Rangers. To accomplish this, the Chicago Police Department, following a general order issued by former Chicago Superintendent of Police O. W. Wilson, formed the Gang Intelligence Unit in March of 1967 to learn more about the Rangers and to decrease forcibly the level of gang violence in all areas of Chicago generally, and in the South Side area in particular. The stated purpose of the Unit was to eliminate "the antisocial and criminal activities of groups of minors and young adults in the various communities within the city."

 

IN EARLY June of 1967, The Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O), a grass roots community association made up of one hundred or so block clubs, and civic, religious, and business organizations in the Woodlawn area of the South Side, received a $957, 000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity to set up a special kind of youth project in the Woodlawn area. The purpose of the program was to utilize the existing gang structure—the Blackstone Rangers and the Devil's Disciples—as a means of encouraging youth in the gangs as well as non-gang youth to become involved in a pre-employment orientation, motivational project. The project was to include eight hundred out-of-school unemployed youths. And the entire program was to operate through four job-training centers which were to be set up in the home territories of the Rangers and Disciples. Reverend Arthur Brazier, president of The Woodlawn Organization, was responsible for bringing the interest of OEO to the proposed program, which was admitted to be a "high-risk venture."

The money from OEO went directly to The Woodlawn Organization. It did not go through city agencies, although one of the conditions of the grant was that the mayor was to be "invited" to concur in the selection of a project director for the program. There is some opinion that the mayor's office was not pleased with this. In fact, the full operation of the program was delayed over two months because of the inability of the T.W.O. people and Mayor Richard J. Daley to come to an agreement on a director for the program. By the time the program officially began in September, a project director had not been hired, and the Rangers and Disciples had, apparently, lost much of their enthusiasm for the program.

In September of 1967, The Woodlawn Organization opened four training centers in the Woodlawn area: two for the Blackstone Rangers and two for the Devil's Disciples. One of the Ranger Centers was located in the First Presbyterian Church, a church in the Woodlawn area headed by Reverend John Fry, a white Presbyterian clergyman. The Xerox Corporation was hired to formulate the curriculum; the Chicago Urban League was hired to do job development; and Arthur Andersen & Company was hired to give T.W.O. monthly reviews. In addition, a Monitoring Unit with the Chicago police was set up to have two meetings a month with T.W.O. people and representatives from the two gangs, which had attempted to deescalate the level of their violent rivalry since the new program had been announced.

The trainees were paid $45 a week to take five hours of instruction a day for five days a week, in, addition to travel expenses. The instructors in the program, or Center Chiefs, were not professionals but gang leaders who were supposed to be under the supervision of professionals because, as Reverend Brazier stated before the McClellan Committee, "many of these youth do not relate to professionals because the professionals with middle-class attitudes do not relate to them." Eugene Hairston, president of the Rangers, was hired as an assistant project director at a salary of $6500 a year. Jeff Fort, Ranger vice president, became a Center Chief and received $6000 a year. And many of the other members of the Main 21 occupied, at one time or another, salaried positions in the project. Apparently, there was not much public opposition to the hiring of gang leaders by the program. Rather, there seems to have been a reversal in public attitude toward the Rangers because of their performance in the year before the program began.

One of the activities which helped their public image was the production of a musical review called Opportunity Please Knock, which was sponsored by Oscar Brown, Jr., the jazz pianist, and performed by groups of Rangers and students from the Hyde Park High School. The show, which was eventually taken over by the Rangers, ran for six weeks in May and June of 1967. An estimated eight thousand people went to the First Presbyterian Church during the first weeks of its performance, and it received very favorable nationwide publicity. Subsequent performances were given in various suburban communities around Chicago, and parts of the show traveled to Watts to perform. Some members of the troupe appeared on the Smothers Brothers show, and Ebony featured a large color story of the production in its August, 1967, issue.

A second instance of positive Ranger activity, which also gained them favorable publicity, was their willingness to be bussed out of town on August 12, Bud Billiken Day (named for a mythical folk hero created by the Chicago Daily Defender, a black newspaper). All past major conflicts between the Rangers and the Disciples had taken place during the Bud Billiken Day Parade and picnic in the South Side's Washington Park. In 1966 the city of Chicago had financed an out-of-town picnic for the Rangers through the Boys' Club, although there is some evidence that it considered the picnic idea a kind of blackmail exacted by the Rangers. In 1967, however, The Woodlawn Organization requested from OEO permission to use $5000 of its funds to take six hundred Rangers to an out-of-town picnic at Valparaiso University. The Rangers made the decision to leave town, it is said, because of rumors of a brewing riot and the public expectation that they would cause or at least participate in it.

The Ranger vice president, Jeff Fort, had been jailed on July 30 on murder charges and was still in jail on Bud Billiken Day. There are conflicting statements about whether or not Fort threatened to start a riot. Policemen have testified that he stated that if he were arrested, "the city would burn," while other sources reported that he cautioned the Rangers, after his arrest, not to riot. In any case, he remained in jail until early September of 1967, and there was no riot. The Rangers attended their picnic, and there were few incidents during the day. Whether or not the Rangers and Disciples actively contributed to the calm remains an open question. But a safe assumption can be made that when the T.W.O. project began in September, the Blackstone Rangers were enjoying a good deal of favorable press coverage and community support.

A final incident in the fall of 1967 helped their image in the city. In the Kenwood district, which adjoins Woodlawn, the police dispersed a black-power rally on September 15. The crowd then moved to a local high school, where bottles were thrown and two shots were fired by a sniper. The situation seemed to have been too tense for the police, when Herbert Stevens, leader of the Four Corners Rangers and a member of the Main 21 (known as "Thunder"), was said to have stood before the crowd and said, "All you who are willing to die, step up now. Otherwise, let's go home." And as he turned to leave he said, "When I come back, I don't want to see anybody on the streets. I want these streets cleared." When he returned in five minutes, the story goes, the crowd had broken up.

 

THE Blackstone Rangers wanted to play a major role in determining how the OEO-Woodlawn project should be run, and there were meetings throughout the summer of 1967 between the gang leaders and representatives of T.W.O. to determine the extent of their voice in the project. These meetings were kept under surveillance by detectives from the Gang Intelligence Unit.

The public favor enjoyed by the Rangers during the summer pf 1967 dropped off severely when the president and vice president were arrested in late September for soliciting three juveniles—Marvin Martin, fifteen, Sanders Martin, fourteen, and Dennis Jackson, also fourteen—to murder a narcotics dealer named Leo McClure. McClure was in fact one of three men who were shot. Though he was not, it emerged, the prime target, he was the only one of the three who died. Dennis Jackson was alleged to have done the actual shooting. Hairston, the Ranger president, was kept in jail without bond, and the newspapers printed so many stories about a Teen-age Murder, Inc., and so many details of the case against Hairston, that the first courtroom case ended in a mistrial.

During the same period the activities of Reverend John Fry and the First Presbyterian Church, which served as one of the T.W.O. training centers, were called into question. The church was said to be an arsenal for the Rangers to store their guns and a place where they sold and smoked marijuana, had sexual activity, and held their secret gang meetings. Then Jeff Fort was arrested in October and charged with murdering a Disciple. Both his arrest and the earlier arrest of Hairston encouraged the press to give extensive adverse publicity to The Woodlawn Organization because of their employment by the project. Soon afterward, three of the Main leaders, also members of the T.W.O. staff, were indicted for rape. The detectives of the G.I.U. made extensive visits to the training centers and found, according to their reports, no actual training taking place, the falsification of time sheets, gambling, and evidence that marijuana was being smoked on the premises. Finally, a Disciple was shot in one of the two Disciple Centers with a shotgun. The shooting was said to have been an accident, but the G.I.U. detectives who investigated the shooting found evidence that "light narcotics" (Robitussin) were being used at the Disciple Center. It was about this time that Senator McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations began to gather evidence in its planned investigation of The Woodlawn Organization's "high-risk" project.

 

THE investigation began on June 28, 1968, in Washington. There was nationwide television coverage as all those who had connections with the project, official or otherwise, testified before Senators Jacob Javits, Carl Curtis, Fred Harris, Edmund Muskie, Karl Mundt, and of course, Chairman John McClellan, who asked most of the questions.

Reverend Arthur Brazier made a desperate attempt to defend his project, explaining how participation of gang members was necessary for its success and charging that harassment from the Gang Intelligence Unit and explosively adverse news publicity had made it almost impossible for the project to develop as anticipated. Members of the Gang Intelligence Unit testified that they had made extensive visits to the training centers during the period of their operation and had found very little, if any, instruction going on. They also testified to the long list of crimes said to have been committed by gang members while under the sponsorship of T.W.O., especially the murder which was said to have been solicited by Eugene Hairston and Jeff Fort.

Perhaps the most damaging testimony against the program, if not against the Rangers themselves, came from George Rose, a former warlord of the Rangers who had defected from the organization, and a Mrs. Annabelle Martin, a black mother of ten who claimed to have had a very close relationship with the gang. The two Martin boys allegedly solicited by Hairston to commit the murder of Leo McClure were her sons.

Rose testified that the Rangers were involved in the sale of narcotics; that trainees in the program were forced to kick back to the organization from $5 to $25 each week; that the Rangers, from the start, had no interest in job training and that the program was used only to increase the gang's membership and its treasury; and that the First Presbyterian Church and its people—Reverend John Fry, Charles Lapaglia, and Anne Schwalbach, all white—were attempting to control and direct the gang through influence over Jeff Fort.

According to Rose's testimony, Reverend Fry had actually written the proposal for the OEO grant and had turned it over to Reverend Brazier; the church was used for the sale of narcotics, the storage of guns, and a convenient place for the Rangers to engage in sexual activity. He also told the Committee that Lapaglia had taken some of the Main 21 leaders on a trip to Michigan to purchase guns and on another trip to Philadelphia to attend a black-power conference where the murders of certain nonmilitant civil rights leaders were plotted. He said that the Rangers had made it known to Reverend Brazier that they considered the OEO money theirs and would not let outsiders—school dropouts who were not Rangers—into the program And, according to his testimony, Brazier consented to this without informing OEO officials. Rose told the Committee that many of the gang leaders who had been hired as instructors or Center Chiefs had fifth- or sixth-grade educations and that Jeff Fort, who served as a Center Chief, could not read or write. Finally, he stated that students from regular schools were forced to drop out in order to join the program and the gang, and that those who refused were beaten, shot in the arms, forced to keep off the streets, or killed. In this way, he said, the Rangers induced "a couple hundred" students to leave public schools and join the program, and that it was a practice of the Rangers to solicit juveniles to commit murder because they received a lighter sentence if they were caught.

Of special interest was his testimony that the Rangers had offered to help the police, and, in fact, did outfit themselves in black uniforms, called themselves the police of the Blackstone Ranger Nation, policed their neighborhoods, and turned over to the police several non-Rangers in order to clear the name of their organization. He stated that the police accepted them at first, but then, "after we turned a couple of guys in and made it known that they weren't our guys, the police still started cracking our young fellows' heads, just because of the uniforms. They called us storm troopers because we had black jump boots, black pants tucked into. the top of the boots. . . . They didn't like this at all. They called it mob action."

Rose also testified that after the Rangers were rejected by the police, Reverend John Fry advised them to begin extorting merchants. "Since we west being accused of it," he said, "there wasn't anything we could lose by doing it." Rose said that the Rangers got from $5000 to $8000 a week from tavern owners and various sums from shoe stores, clothing stores, food stores, and drugstores through threats of future violence against them. Robert L. Pierson of the Chicago State's Attorney’s Office told the Committee that the Rangers "are the beginning of a Black Mafia." He testified that the Rangers were, in fact, extorting merchants but that the merchants would not complain because of fear of retaliation from the gang. During the April days following the murder of Martin Luther King when the Rangers distributed signs to be displayed in the windows of neighborhood merchants, he said, they charged $50 for their protection.

Jeff Fort, who had assumed leadership of the gang after Hairston was convicted in May of 1968, was subpoenaed to testify before the Committee. He was sworn in but never sat down before Senator McClellan. Marshall Patner, Fort's lawyer, submitted a request that the Committee allow Fort to confront and cross-examine the witnesses who had testified against him. The request was refused by Senator McClellan under authority of the Committee Rules. After a heated exchange between Patner and Senator McClellan during which both the lawyer and Fort were reminded of the possibility of contempt charges if Fort refused to accept protection from the Fifth Amendment and proceed with his testimony, Marshall Patner turned to Fort, still standing beside him, and said: "We really must go." Then they walked out.

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.

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In