Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gangland and the Untold History of the Vice Lords

          The CVL's "Teen Town" a 1960s "drop in" center for Lawndale's youth

Watching Gangland is always a trip down Sensationalism Lane. But "The Holy City," its "documentary" on the Vice Lords, is a particularly maddening experience. Captured (but unattributed) in its hour long feature is footage from "Lord Thing" (click to watch) directed by DeWitt Beall in collaboration with the Conservative Vice Lords and funded by the Xerox Company.  Lord Thing won the Silver Prize in 1970 at the Venice Film Festival and was screened at Cannes, but was ignored and buried in the US.  It tells a story that is diametrically opposed to Gangland's images of guns and scary stories.  Both videos, however,  raise important questions of how to report on gang history.

The two videos document the social activism of the CVL at the end of the 1960s and both let us hear the words of Bobby Gore, the CVL spokesman, explaining how the CVL transformed from a gang to a pro-community organization.  Lord Thing ends with the arrest of Gore and repression of the black liberation movement.  Holy City sees the Vice Lords of the 60s as more scam than real and uses police testimony to question the motivation of Gore and his colleagues.

What happened in the 1960s? The black liberation movement caused a crisis in the identity of gang members in Chicago. While the Vice Lords were expanding and becoming the first of Chicago's multi-neighborhood "super-gangs" they also were deeply effected by the civil rights and black liberation movement of the times. As in the movie on the LA's Crips and Bloods,  the Vice Lords and other black Chicago street gangs were not exempt from the rising political and racial consciousness of African Americans.

The Vice Lords "went conservative" and built businesses, received foundation funding, and even organized an open house for police!  While in 1968 homicide began to skyrocket in black Chicago neighborhoods, in Lawndale it dropped by nearly a third. But the Vice Lords were seen as a threat by the Democratic machine.  It was not the assassination of Dr. King that ended the CVL's programs, as Gangland asserts,  but the 1969 "war on gangs" of Mayor Ricard J. Daley.   Gang leaders were arrested across Chicago including Bobby Gore on a questionable murder charge.  Two weeks after Gore's arrest,  Daley's States Attorney Edward Hanrahan led the police raid that took the life of Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers. CVL programs were de-funded and the heroic efforts of the men and women of the CVL ended in "shattered dreams." (For my own more complicating view in a video documentary, click here).

But to hear Gangland tell the "Holy City" story, the Vice Lords of the 1960s were really about stealing money to buy guns and continue on a crime spree. Their social programs were a hoax.   While the Holy City allows Bobby Gore and Bennie Lee to speak, their arguments are quickly rebutted by "authoritative" police spokesmen.  The Vice Lords, we are told,  are now and always were  a "vicious gang" made up of "career criminals."  The Holy City's message is that despite an "appearance" of doing good, the Vice Lords are really one thing:  bad.

Lord Thing is a corrective to this tale of evil.  But the notion that the Vice Lords were proto-revolutionary organizations (one Lord Thing scene shows demonstrators chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh") is also misleading. The Vice Lords were and are a street gang, one immersed in the life of survival on the streets and masculine contests of violence. While the CVL created a wonderful "Art and Soul" art studio alongside numerous commercial and cultural ventures,  gang violence and criminal activities never ceased. While homicide dropped in 1968, it was still much higher than in most Chicago neighborhoods and rose again in 1969 to among the highest rates in the city.

Chicago's Hull House has begun an important "CVL Traveling History Museum" to memorialize the heroic efforts of Gore and other CVL leaders to transform their gang. They remind us as well that the Vice Lords were made up of men and women who accomplished some amazing things. Their intention is to teach Chicago, and particular African American youth, that the life of the streets does not have to mean drugs and violence. There is another way and the CVL of the 1960s is a prime example.  Youth can take a path of social activism, not gang-banging.

The lesson to be taught about gang members however, is not that they are either good or evil, but like all of us, have both in their nature. The reality of the streets in Chicago is that survival means illegal ventures alongside licit employment. Gangs mean hyper-masculine "them vs us" violence, but they are also mass organizations of the streets that can potentially mobilize the "underclass" for social change.  Gangs can be seen as an arena for the struggle over identity, and projects like Hull House can challenge youth to decide whether their rebellion will lead them to become a gangster or a social activist?

We are captivated by simple narratives of heroes and villains,  where good and evil are depicted in unambiguous fashion.  Videos like Gangland's Holy City can be understood as "frames," a lens by which we prioritize some information and exclude or minimize others.  When a powerful frame like the Holy City is created, it can only be contested by first presenting "discrepant information" to challenge what is left out or distorted.  "Discrepant" means providing information that does not fit with a frame, in this case the frame of gangs as completely bad.  I see Lord Thing and the exhibit by Hull House as "discrepant information" to Gangland's, law enforcement's, and the mass media frame of gangs as evil..

But once this frame is questioned, we need to put a more complete counter-frame in place in order to win the public away from support for repression.  This has been my work over the past three decades. I am trying to use all the means at my disposal  — including this blog — to argue gangs are not simple examples of good or evil,  but made up of human beings who like all of us are trying to figure out how to survive and thrive, even if they often go about this destructively.  They are organizations of what are called the "socially excluded" and we need to realize that today gang members number in the tens of millions worldwide. We cannot simply jail or kill our way out of our gang problem. Gangs aren't going away no matter what we do.

This means we need to understand the multiple conflicting identities of gang members and struggle to promote what is positive and pro-social and work to isolate the very real tendencies toward violence and organized crime.  We need to oppose the simplistic answer of mass incarceration.  The discrepant information of Lord Thing and Hull House's exhibit help us challenge the dominant frame that supports one-sided policies of "war" on gangs.   But they take only the first steps toward a counter-frame of inclusive democracy.  Today's social movements, like Occupy Wall Street,  need to make more efforts to include what the French called sans culottes, the ill-clad warriors of the street, or they will surely fall short of their goals.

My role these past years has been trying to figure out how best to use "discrepant information" to construct a convincing counter-frame on gangs. It is a work in progress.

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