You cannot really understand Chicago without understanding the careers of Larry Hoover, David Barksdale, and Jeff Fort, the three kings of the modern Chicago criminal gang. Chicago has a long history of crime syndicates, of course, including Al Capone and his epigones. In the 1950s it had ethnic street gangs of the West Side Story variety, quaint in pictures today with their matching embroidered sweaters and boyish names: the Eagles, the Dragons. But in the 1960s, marijuana began to change all that. Marijuana, that kindest and gentlest of buzzes, was a major moneymaking opportunity, both for the international syndicates that smuggled it and for the street criminals at the point of purchase. Inspired partly by Chicago’s long mob history, partly by the nascent black-liberation ethic of the day, and a great deal by the extraordinary money to be made, Chicago’s black gangs came to dominate the marijuana business — an enterprise model that would soon become supercharged by cocaine and heroin. David Barksdale built a tightly integrated top-down management structure for his gang, the Black Disciples, while Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort did the same thing for their organizations, the Gangster Nation and the Black P-Stone Rangers, respectively. Barksdale and Hoover would later join forces as the Gangster Disciples, a group that, though faction-ridden, remains a key player on the Chicago crime scene today, with thousands of members — 53 of whom were arrested for murder in 2009 alone.
Fort had real organizational flair and transformed the P-Stones, a gang dating back to the 1950s, into one of the first true modern gangs, combining racialism, neighborhood loyalties, a hierarchical management structure complete with impressive-sounding titles, and the shallow self-help rhetoric of the 1960s into something new — and holding the whole thing together with great heaping piles of money. His audacity was something to be wondered at: He formed a nonprofit organization and managed to convince city and federal officials that he was engaged in efforts to help disadvantaged urban youth. Government grant money was forthcoming, and soon the Gangster Disciples got in on the action, founding their own project, called “Growth and Development” — note the initials. Bobby Gore and Alfonso Alfred of the rival Vice Lords secured a $275,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Like the Mafiosi of old, Chicago’s new generation of gangsters learned to recycle some of that money into political campaigns and donations to influential ministers.
In fact, though they trafficked in narcotics and murder with equal ease, as often as not it was financial crimes ranging from misappropriation of federal money to mortgage fraud that brought down many of the top Chicago gangsters. Fort went to Leavenworth in the early 1970s for misuse of federal funds and continued to run his operations from federal custody until just a few years ago, when he was shipped off to the ADX Florence supermax lockup in Colorado and his communication with the outside world severely curtailed. Hoover got 200 years for murder and a life sentence for a federal narcotics charge but also continued to run his organization from prison.