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.
Those government grants may not have amounted to very much, drops in the roaring river of money that the drug business was generating, but government contributed mightily to the growth of the modern gang by providing the one key piece of infrastructure that the Barksdales and Hoovers of the world could never have acquired for themselves: the high-rise housing project. The projects not only gave the gangs an easily secured place to consolidate their commercial activities, they helped to create the culture of loyalty and discipline that was the hallmark of the Chicago street gang in its golden age. With most members living and working under the same roof, the leaders could quickly quash intra-gang disputes or freelance criminality. Fort, Hoover, and Barksdale were children of the 1940s and 1950s, men who came of age before the cultural rot of the 1960s — practically Victorians by the standards of the modern gangster. They were (and are) brutes and killers, but they managed to maintain some semblance of cohesion and structure. Barksdale went so far as to collect taxes — fees from unaffiliated drug dealers operating on his streets.
When the towers came down, Chicago’s organized crime got a good deal less organized, and a number of decapitation operations run by the Chicago police and federal authorities had the perverse effect of making things worse: Where there once were a small number of gangs operating in a relatively stable fashion under the leadership of veteran criminals, today there are hundreds of gangs and thousands of gang factions. Chicago police estimate that there are at least 250 factions of the Gangster Disciples alone, with as many as 30,000 members among them. Vast swathes of Chicago are nominally under the black-and-blue Disciples flag, but in reality there is at least as much violence between those Disciples factions as between the Disciples and rivals. Some are one- and two-block operations, many with young teens in charge. The Barksdales and Hoovers may not have been Machiavellian in their subtlety, but they were far-seeing visionaries compared with the kids who came streaming out of the projects in their wake.
Mr. Butt is dearly missing his AK-47. He’s a native of Pakistan, where Mikhail Kalashnikov’s best-known invention is as common as the deer rifle is in the United States, but in Chicago he cannot possess even a pea-shooter, which has him slightly nervous in his role as my ghetto tour guide, chauffeuring me through the worst parts of Englewood and Garfield, the biggest battlegrounds in Chicago’s 21st-century gangland warfare.
“In Pakistan, everybody has an AK-47,” he says. “But it’s not like here. They don’t go walking into a school and shooting people.” I ask him if he thinks that applies to the case of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot by Islamists for the crime of wanting to go to school. He allows that this is a fair point. He points out Bridgeport, home of the venerable Daley clan, and informs me wistfully that in the old days blacks simply were not allowed to cross the bridge into Bridgeport, a social norm enforced with baseball bats and worse. Mr. Butt is a big, big Daley fan — “He was very strong, strong with the mob!” — and no fan at all of Chicago’s new breed of gangsters. “On the South Side, it is just like Afghanistan. Every square mile has its own boss, and everybody has to answer to him. From the business district through 31st Street, everything is perfect.” Perfect may not be the word, but I get his point. “Below 31st Street, everything is jungle.”