Talk It Out

“We knew our book was successful because it pissed everyone off — the elected officials, the church members, and the gangbangers,” joked Lance Williams and Natalie Moore during their talk on October 28th at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago in Hyde Park. They were discussing their new book, The Almighty Black P. Stone Nation, which chronicles the history of the eponymous South Side super-gang, known as “the Stones.” through the eyes of community members. After an overview of the topic and a brief reading, the authors opened up the floor to a heated Q&A session that showed that the narrative of gang culture and history in Chicago is far from settled.

The chapter of Black P. Stone Nation that they read, which described the relationship which developed between Reverend John Frye of the First Presbyterian Church in Woodlawn and the Black P. Stone Rangers during the sixties and seventies, brought out several different impressions of the Rangers’ effect on their community. The Reverend had allowed one faction of the Rangers, called the Cons, to use the church gym and basement for gang activity, in the hopes of providing some structure in the lives of impoverished gang members. But not everyone agreed with Reverend Frye. During the Q&A, John Greely, a retired police detective who lived and worked in Woodlawn during the sixties and seventies, lambasted the authors for their portrayal of the pastor as a “saint.” But the next commentator, also a Woodlawn resident during this time, blamed police brutality for inciting tension and violence within the community. Many of the audience members, speaking with similar levels of conviction and feeling, had grown up on the South Side, and chronicled childhoods marked by the Ranger’s influence. One man recounted having to “box the Stones every day” just to hang outside with his friends, and told the story of losing a close friend to their violence.

Like Reverend Frye himself, who is quoted in the book defending his work by underscoring the social ills that had birthed the Rangers, the authors pointed to a confluence of social and political factors that enabled gang culture and the Blackstone Rangers themselves. They paid careful attention to the intersection between the Rangers and different federal and local policies and social movements, from LBJ’s War on Poverty to the problems caused by Chicago Public Schools’ Renaissance 2010 initiative and the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan for Transformation. Part of their intent in publishing the book was to recognize the complexity of those human behaviors that gave rise to gangs. It was written, Moore said, for anyone who “cares about American cities and public policy.” But as the Q&A demonstrated, their goals may be even loftier. By giving voice to multiple perspectives on this controversial, emotionally charged history, Moore and Williams hope to get their audience to reconsider the different factors that exacerbate violence among Chicago’s most neglected populations.