Chicago's street gangs live and die by one set of uncompromising rules

September 18, 1994|By New York Times News Service

CHICAGO -- Street gangs, a fact of life in this city since before the Tommy gun, don't forgive mistakes easily. Losing even a $10 bag of dope can land a gang "brother" in the hospital.

The gang's enforcer does not want excuses. No matter whether it was the police who took the dope or a holdup man with a .357, nobody messes with the gang's money, rules or reputation. Nobody. Neighborhood legend has it that one Black Disciples leader beat his own brother to the ground for violating the rules.

It is a cold world indeed, and most of the gangs, whether the Black Disciples, Latin Kings or Simon City Royals, a white gang, live and die basically by the same set of do's and don't's, although enforcement takes many forms. For example, someone who wants to quit might be shot in the leg before being allowed to leave. Or be thrown out a sixth-floor window. Or receive a "pumpkin head," a beating so bad the head swells to the size and shape of a jack-o'-lantern.

Bigger mistakes that really hurt business -- like killing the wrong child and bringing too much police heat down on the organization -- can push a gang member, no matter how young and foolish, into his grave.

The police say 11-year-old Robert Sandifer, a member of the Black Disciples, also known as the BDs, was executed for just that reason. He killed the wrong kid.

The police say there are from 2,000 to 10,000 BDs in sets scattered throughout Chicago's South and West Sides. On paper, at least, they are well organized, with flow charts of responsibility, rules, myths, prayers, secret handshakes, weekly meetings, dues and fancy titles for the leaders, many of whom are well into their 40s and celebrating birthdays in prison.

At the bottom is the foot soldier, someone like Robert, who the police say was trying to work his way up by his deeds on the streets.

"The more violent you are," said Sgt. Matt Brandon of the public housing police, "the higher up in the gang you go."

The BDs are among the most notorious gangs in the city, though theirs is the same formula for success embraced by all the gangs: violence, threats, drugs, and a sense of family and everlasting love for their members.

But it is often love on loan, as Robert discovered when he killed a 14-year-old girl last month while apparently shooting at some Gangster Disciples, former allies of the BDs who are now bitter enemies. Three days later, Robert was dead, shot twice in the back of his small head.

Despite such cold-blooded executions, the gangs have little trouble recruiting members. Children join for a variety of reasons: fear, money, lack of jobs, protection, kinship, recreation, excitement or because a big sister or brother belongs.

In these neighborhoods, joining a gang is the urban equivalent of joining the Cub Scouts or a Brownie troop in the suburbs. For a lot of the older gang members, it is a matter of simple economics. They often cannot find legal work and certainly nothing that pays nearly as well as crime.

But gangs are not without their defenders. Hal Baskin, a former gang member who now works closely with the police, the gangs and the schools to curtail violence, said only a small percentage of gang members cause serious trouble. He said that the gangs could be used as a force for good and that in Englewood, his struggling South Side neighborhood, they help keep the peace.

"They have captivated the minds of young people," he said. "Why reinvent the wheel? Let's work with the organizations and make them more positive."

Still, he is talking about legitimizing groups whose primary bond is violence. An 18-year-old BD said recently that fear was what made him join three years ago, and it was what made him stay, even though he longed to quit and "get my life together."

"Around here, if you're not in a gang, they still think you're in a gang," he said. "You can't walk to school. You can't go where you want, when you want, so you might as well be in a gang. Then at least when trouble starts, you ain't by yourself. You got some aid and assistance. You got a chance to live."

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