One July day, Jimmie Lee, the head of the Conservative Vice Lords gang, gets out of his car at Horner and is welcomed by a large group of enthusiastic teenagers. When Lee sees a drunken man yelling at his thirteen-year-old daughter, calling her a “bitch,” Lee punches the man in the jaw, berating him for being so disrespectful to his own daughter. The man falls to the ground and remains in shock, while Lee leaves the scene to join a meeting with some of his workers.
Although Lee leads a violent life as a gang leader, he also seems to want to protect vulnerable people and promote respect within families. This stark contrast suggests that people are not inherently good or bad. Rather, people are not easy to categorize in a moral way, and even seemingly evil characters have their own conception of justice and respectability.
Jimmie Lee and his gang control Henry Horner and have more authority than any other group, including the police. Lafeyette and Pharoah have learned to stay inside when Lee arrives at Horner, as the gang is known to have a variety of assault weapons and to use torture techniques against their enemies. Because Horner residents know that “snitching” (giving the police any information about gang activity) can easily get them killed, they refuse to call 911 and even to talk to each other about the shootings that take place.
As Lee’s gang has replaced traditional authority, people’s isolation becomes both the cause and consequence of gang dominance. Without getting help from the police, people are bound to live in unrestrained violence, but getting help from the police can also lead to violence. Therefore, people are forced to accept social and physical isolation in the hope to survive.
Surprisingly, while Lee is dangerous because he rules over a variety of crimes, he is also seen as a positive influence in the neighborhood. Horner residents see him as a respectful, reasonable person who, despite his involvement in drug trafficking, does not personally use drugs or drink excessively. He is also respected for his decision to keep overly young adolescents from joining the gangs and for his twenty-year marriage, a rare feat of fidelity in the neighborhood. Even a local police officer, Charlie Toussas, considers him a “gentleman.”
Once again, the contrast between Lee’s gang-related actions and personality suggests that it is not always easy to establish standards of justice and morality. However, a focus on Lee’s personality also ignores the fact that his leadership of a violent gang is responsible for shaping a social environment in which families are torn apart and many young people are addicted to drugs—the very dangers he eschews on a personal level.
People’s attitudes toward gangs have varied over time. In the 1960s, gangs were relatively tolerated because people thought they might use their resources to improve neighborhoods. After funding job-training programs and serving as a calming force during the riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, Jeff Fort, leader of the El Rukns (another African-American street gang), was even invited to President Nixon’s inauguration. However, the gangs’ positive actions did not prove sustainable. After a local hospital gave the Vice Lords a former Catholic boys’ school in the hope that they would build a neighborhood center, the gang soon looted the school, using the money to buy a vehicle and uniforms for the gang. Jeff Fort was also sent to prison on charges of planning a terrorist attack with Libyan leader Moammar Ghadhafi.
The government’s initial decision to let illegal groups such as gangs perform good deeds in their neighborhood suggests that the government lacked either the funds, resources, or, perhaps, political will to do so itself. However, the limitations of the gangs’ positive actions serves as a reminder that—unlike the government—their main goal is not to please local residents or to effect social change, but merely to protect their business interests and maintain their territorial dominance. In this way (as well as in Jeff Fort’s more obvious anti-state actions), gangs’ objectives often clash with the government’s efforts to improve people’s living conditions.
By the 1970s, the expansion of drug trafficking turned the local street gangs into big businesses focused on making a profit. This increased their economic power dramatically and also gave them political power, as politicians recruited gangs to promote their campaigns. As gangs began drug wars, though, they also turned significantly more violent, which deeply impacted ordinary people’s lives. At the age of ten, Lafeyette saw someone die before his eyes. In a fight to take control of Henry Horner, Jimmie Lee’s Vice Lords killed a young member of a rival gang, the Disciples, whom Lafeyette watched bleed to death in the stairwell of his apartment building.
Politicians’ willingness to use illegal, criminal groups as campaign promoters is a clear marker of hypocrisy, suggesting that politicians are sometimes more interested in defending their narrow interests than the people they’re supposed to be serving. Meanwhile, Lafeyette’s early encounter with death—which forces him to confront mortality in such a vivid, horrific way—may have a long-term psychological impact.
By 1986, the Vice Lords occupied two buildings across from the Riverses’ apartment, taking over apartments that they used as safe houses for storing drugs, guns, and money. The Vice Lords used symbols, such as baseball caps turned to the left, to differentiate themselves from other gangs. After the Vice Lords succeeded in defending their territory against the Disciples, though, they began to attack another gang, the Gangster Stones. The viciousness and frequency of shootings upset all Horner residents, as everyone soon knew people who had been killed by gangs.
In implanting themselves at Horner, the Vice Lords show no interest in respecting ordinary residents’ lives. Rather, they choose to dominate the entire neighborhood—rival gangs and ordinary citizens alike—to cultivate a climate of fear and ensure their physical and emotional control over their territory. As a result, people’s experiences with death and loss become those of innocent witnesses to a brutal war over which they have no control.