John Walker was a member of the Gangster Disciples for twenty years, from ages twelve to thirty-two. In 1999 he decided to quit and become an advocate against violence. In addition to his full-time job at Nissan, he volunteers at Heartland Alliance, the UofC, the Urban League, and the South Suburban Council. He is in the process of writing an autobiography and is married to a correctional officer.
Can you talk about how you joined the Gangster Disciples?
Growing up in my community, as in most African-American communities in Chicago, gang life is prevalent. My friends, big brothers were all members. For us it was like a rite of passage to join this gang when we became older. It wasn’t about shooting or killing back then, it was more so about unity among friends within a neighborhood. Our primary objective at that time was to run our neighborhood, to keep outside forces from coming in our neighborhood to hurt people, rob people, victimize our neighborhood. So in a way we believed that we were policing our own neighborhood.
But the gang still committed crimes, didn’t it?
Crime for the most part was done outside the community. We didn’t victimize the people in our immediate community, because everybody knew everybody. You couldn’t really do that. So the membership would always leave outside the community and steal cars, rob people, commit thefts–you know, jump the train and go downtown and go to the North Side.
What was your community?
It ran from we’ll say, maybe, seven/eight blocks north and south, seven/eight blocks east and west. I started in West Englewood, between 67thÂ and Ashland to 67thÂ and Damon, to 74thÂ and Damon and 74thÂ and Ashland.
When did the idea of protecting your community change?
It stayed like that for a lot of years. What happened was drugs came into the picture. When I joined the gang in 1979, at the age of twelve years old, we knew little about drugs. Some of the older members of the organization were involved in drugs, but they kept that away from the younger generation. By the mid-eighties, the crack cocaine epidemic hit Chicago real hard. A lot of the people within that community began to smoke crack cocaine. It became a commodity. A lot of the members got in on the cutting edge of it and started selling drugs. The community wasn’t so much important anymore, as protecting it, but to support it because it was drug territory now. Now we’re protecting it because we don’t want outsiders to come in and try to sell drugs here. And this is where the violence and the guns come in.
Can you talk about how you rose up the ranks of the gang?Â
I first went to jail at seventeen years old. My crime of choice at that time was stealing cars. What happened was, going inside of a jail–gangs run jail. Okay? I got to prison in the summer of 1986, and I ultimately ended up going to Stateville Correctional Center, where Larry Hoover was incarcerated himself. This prison at the time was headquarters for the Gangster Disciples. Going back and forth within the justice system gave me the ability to show my loyalty to the gang leadership.
Who was Larry Hoover, exactly?
He was the king of the Gangster Disciples. His first title was king. When the organization took on a more corporate theme, he became the chairman of the organization.
And when did that happen?
The year was 1978. The Gangster Disciples were a byproduct of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation. It was split down over power struggles with three other gentlemen, who were high-ranking members who had titles of king as well. Ultimately the winner was the youngest, and his name was Larry Hoover. There were some people that didn’t like that, that he had been a young man overseeing this entire street gang at nineteen years old. They made attempts on his life, they tried to kill him in prison a couple of times.
What ultimately happened was that the split caused the three men to go separate ways and start their own organizations. Larry Hoover started this gang called the Gangster Disciples inside of Stateville Correctional Center. What Larry Hoover wanted to do was, he wanted to have a more organized organization. Not a street gang, but more of a corporate organization. He revamped everything and redesigned all the laws that govern the membership. Now it went from a gang philosophy and doctrine to a corporate doctrine, with a chairman, which was Larry Hoover, and twelve board members. It was run from inside a prison.
By 1983, I believe, there was a meeting in Chicago on the streets. It was called a nation-wide meeting, where members from the Black Gangster Disciple Nation–we all met as a matter of fact in Washington Park–were given a choice of what gang they were gonna go to. The majority of the membership chose to stay with Larry Hoover’s Gangster Disciples.
Were you present at that meeting?
Yes. I was around fourteen years old. Gangster Disciples ended up swelling to be the biggest of the three organizations. So we became the power force out of the gangs that splintered out of the Black Gangster Disciple Nation.
How did you meet Larry Hoover?
When I met Larry Hoover I was eighteen years old. I think that we formed a relationship based on the fact that I was different from the average gang member. I was the book guy. I could be caught in my cell, studying about various subjects. I read a lot in prison, I really got into my studies. I think this is what Larry Hoover was interested in, was members who were willing to learn and be educated, versus members that wanted to shoot and kill. They were looking for future leaders and I think I met the profile.
What books did you read in prison?
I started reading a lot of history books. I got into a lot of self-help books and books dealing with conspiracy theories, like “Behold a Pale Horse,” “The 48 Laws of Power,” “The Art of War.” Books that could really help me become more of a leader. One of the books that Larry Hoover personally put in my hand and requested that I read was a book called “Boss.” It was the biography of Richard Daley Sr. All the members were encouraged to read this book because it showed how Daley was a gang member when he was a kid, and he ultimately rose to become mayor of Chicago. I believe this is what Larry Hoover’s long-term plan was. The six-pointed star that I have tattooed on my body is the symbol of the Gangster Disciples. In the original star, each point had a representation to it: love, life, loyalty, knowledge, wisdom, understanding. Well they ended up changing that, when the philosophy changed, to education, economics, politics, social development, organization, and unity. We were getting into politics, we began to vote. Some members of the organization actually ended up holding political office in Chicago. Larry Hoover ultimately came to the decision that we needed control, and the only way that we were going to get that control was through social development and politics. We had to become more like businessmen than thugs.
How could someone with a criminal record get into politics?
Some of the members that got political power didn’t have criminal records. There were members that had never been to prison before that were encouraged to get into politics and actually made it in politics. There are members that are actually police officers, there are members that are deputy sheriffs, there are members that are actually physicians, there are members that are actually entertainers. All the members weren’t felons.
Can you give an example of a member who ran for office?
I can give you one name. Wallace Bradley–I’ve known him since I was a kid. He actually ran for alderman in 1994. It was revealed that he was a member of the Gangster Disciples. It was the start of the war against the Gangster Disciples when the government found out that certain members were political figures and affiliated with the gang. I think this is what the process of destroying the gang was all about, was our break out into politics.
The government tried to destroy the gang?
The government did destroy the gang.
They dismantled the hierarchy of the gang.
By putting them in jail?
Yes. Between 1991 and 1995, the Gangster Disciples began marches around City Hall. These marches were about getting rights and [freeing] individuals that were in prison unjustly. When the organization made the decision to make a political stand, it really rubbed Daley–he was the arch-nemesis of the Gangster Disciples–it rubbed him the wrong way. When it became apparent that this street gang is trying to gain political power, this gave the federal government the green light to go in and disrupt it and break it up. They targeted high-ranking members and their activities and thirty-six members were charged with everything from racketeering, drug possession, drug conspiracy, murder. Thirty-six members were convicted, including Larry Hoover.
I thought gangs ran jail? How did putting them in jail do anything?
In the beginning they were in state prison. State prison–they’re limited in what they can do, they’re limited in how much they can control a street gang in prison. When I stepped into prison in 1986, the guards didn’t run the prison. The inmates ran the prison. The guards only did the count to make sure the inmates were there. The warden couldn’t get things done. He had to go to high-ranking gang members to get things done.
But it’s a little different in federal prison. They don’t work with gangs, they don’t build relationships with the gang. They’d rather ship you to different parts of the country and break you guys up. And what happened in the case of the Gangster Disciples was, they put Larry Hoover in a supermax prison, ADX [Administrative Maximum Facility] in Florence, Colorado. He’s with twelve other inmates in a hole in the ground and they really have no outside contact. The Unabomber is there with these guys. They’ve got people who they really don’t want to have outside contact with society and they don’t want society having contact with them.
What was the motivation for getting political power?
Within the gang, the philosophy was that we’re no longer Gangster Disciples. It came from Larry Hoover that GD now meant Growth and Development. The political aspect was for power to do a multitude of things. A lot of it was about changing the community. At some point it really began to unplease Larry Hoover that there was a lot of killing going on. He was really making an attempt to stop the killing and the violence on the streets. I personally know this to be true, because I was actually told to do everything possible to stop the violence on the street.
From rival gangs?
The violence, period. Anything that the Gangster Disciples were involved in. Larry Hoover’s objective–personally, my opinion is that he had saw enough violence and the Gangster Disciples had been connected to too many killings and enough violence, and it was all dumped on his name. I think at some point he really wanted that to be not what the Gangster Disciples were known for. I think the political aspect was all about making laws and policies that acknowledge the African American, just to make laws where blacks would get equality. This was what Larry Hoover wanted to go in politically. The only way that you get true power is through politics, that was his belief. You have to be politically connected to make things happen, to make things change.
He wanted changes, not only for the gang, not only for the Gangster Disciples, but for every street gang. He had a working relationship with all the other gang leaders. I personally know this, that all the gang leaders that were locked up, they got along very well. And it was just the membership that was on the street that was continuing the violence. As much as the leaders were sending word outside the prison to stop the violence, they couldn’t, because it had gotten too far out of hand. Even the leaders couldn’t stop it.
What was the appeal for you to rise up in the gang?
Respect. Finances, money. In my community, the guys that drove the BMWs and the Mercedes were high-ranking gang members. They were tied into various illegal activities. I was willing to do whatever I had to do within the gang to get the lifestyle that I wanted. So my motivation to rise up in the gang was power and money. I wanted power and money.
How far up in the hierarchy did you get?
I made it to a governor. 1993 I walked out of Stateville Correctional Center. I was given the go-ahead to start up the Gangster Disciples in another city. I was told to go to another state and start up a branch of the gang up in another state. And I did that. I was made a city coordinator in the state. I was given a governor status just because I had the city. That was 1993. Memphis, Tennessee. I was entrusted to lead I’d say about 3,000 people in the years 1993 and ’94. So it was my responsibility to make sure that whatever the gang wanted done in that city and that state, I made sure that it got done.
What did you focus on “getting done”?
Bottom line. Increase membership and finances.
How did the gang appeal to new members?
It’s kind of simple, because I would go all through the South: Alabama, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas–I even went as far as Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, an Indian reservation. There were Gangster Disciples there on the Indian reservation. It’s something about the gang life that seems to be appealing to a certain class of people, not just blacks, white as well. I’ve seen Asian Gangster Disciples, Hispanic Gangster Disciples. So it was about going to different places, networking with other members and other cities, and increasing the membership.
Can you talk about the difference between gangs when you were a leader of the gang and gangs today?
When I was a member and a gang leader, law governed all. The laws of the organization and the policies that make this organization were within this booklet called “The New Concept.” You don’t steal from another member. If you took the life of another Gangster Disciple, your life would be taken. That rule does not apply anymore. There are a lot of Gangster Disciples that are killing each other today, and there’s nothing being said about it.
Those rules actually made us into men. You’d be surprised what the rules were. “No member shall disrespect any member or nonmember of the organization.” As a man or as a woman, because there are a lot of women in the Gangster Disciples as well, if you want people to respect you, you have to give them respect. The membership nowadays does not respect anybody. So that forty-six pages of “The New Concept,” it’s really trash today, because nobody lives by it.
What would you do if somebody broke one of the rules?
It depends on what rule he broke. That was actually the position I had in the organization for a long time: I was a ULC, a Unit Legal Coordinator. I was a gang lawyer. I knew the rules and the laws of the gang from A to Z, front to back, top to bottom. If you were a member of the gang and you done something, you received what was called a write-up. It detailed the date, the time, the incident, the charge that you’re being charged with, a description of what you did, and who was involved. There would be a hearing. At this hearing there would be either the governor or the regent, the membership would be there, and there would be a ULC, which would be your representation. Someone would read your charges off. Whoever wrote you up would be a witness, and they would say, well, we saw you do this, we saw you do that, we saw you break the law.
Now it would be a question of whether you were guilty or not, just like a regular court. If you were guilty, the governor or the board member or Larry Hoover personally would make the decision about what would happen to you. It could be anything from a fine (a fine could be a $100; I’ve actually seen members get fines for $50,000) to a PV. A PV is a Physical Violation. They could hold you by your jaw and sock you and screw your lips up. That’s a minor infraction. [It could go up to] a physical beat-down–which would last sometimes the length of a match. They would strike a match, and that’s when your beating starts. The match usually could burn for a couple of minutes. Depends on what the infraction was. If it was severe enough, you would ultimately be terminated.
By another member of the gang?
Yes. Depending on how serious your offense was, you would receive a Death Violation and you would be terminated.
What kind of infractions would merit that punishment?
It depends on the severity of your act. To give you an example, some members of the gang came up with the bright idea that they wanted to rob other members. If it was learned that this member set up another to be robbed, now depending on what you had him robbed for would determine, if you’re found guilty, what type of violation you got–and who you robbed. If it was high-ranking member that you robbed or had him set up, the likelihood of you being killed was great. Like disrespect. Disrespecting a regular member, verbally calling him out or something like that, you might receive a mouth shot. But if you disrespected someone with the position of authority that I had, you would receive a terrible beating. If you disrespected someone higher than me, the likelihood of you being killed is great, just for words. So it depends on what you do and who you do it to which would determine what would happen to you.
What happens today? Do people just take personal revenge?
Yeah. Because when I was a member, if you felt another member did something wrong from either within your group or outside your group, then we would have what’s called a session, and we’d talk about this. Nowadays, there is nobody to hold a session. Now it’s immediate revenge. These kids today, immediately either they’re gonna get the gun, they’re gonna kill them, or, you know, there’s no talking back. It’s a different ball game today.
What made things change?
When I became a Gangster Disciple, it was about unity. It was about people who grew up with each other, hung out with each other, smoked a little weed together, partied together, stuff like that. When the drug market came out in the early to mid eighties, people wanted money. That greed ultimately destroyed the organization.
When did you decide that you wanted to leave the gang?
1995, I was caught with a large amount of heroin. I went back in the same prison that I was in three years earlier. I began seeing the young men coming into prison with forty years, and their outlook was crazy. They didn’t want to be told what to do, they didn’t want rules, they didn’t want to abide by the old regime. I stayed in prison from 1995 to 1999, and before I walked out, I made a decision that I was no longer going to be a part of the organization any more. I had been a member since 1979, it was 1999, and I wanted to do something else with my life. I told some of the leadership what I was gonna do with my life. “I’m going to be an advocate against violence.” And I was amazed at how so many other people were on the same page. They were tired too.Â They wanted to do something else, they wanted to do something positive. We had done so much bad stuff for so long, that I think everybody wanted to be redeemed by the late nineties. I was encouraged: “If you can make a difference, go ahead.”
When you talk to kids today what do you tell them to convince them not to join gangs?
Basically I use my life and other people’s lives as an example for them. Oftentimes what happens is, with kids today, they don’t realize the severity of the acts that they commit. In rap music, they hear a lot about violence, shooting, and selling drugs, but they don’t hear about the downside of all that stuff. They don’t understand how bad some of this stuff is until they’re hit with the consequences.
How do kids react when you talk to them?
Usually pretty good. I think I’m highly effective. I don’t have a degree in counseling, but I’m able to reach these kids in a way the way real counselors can’t. Kids see often times Caucasians and even some blacks as being disconnected from their generation. They don’t think that [Caucasians] know what they go through every day. They’re not speaking the same language that they’re speaking. On the other hand, I am. I know what it’s all about. It’s about respect, it’s about some money, it’s about some power. That’s all they want. If you give them that, they’ll put guns down.
How does the underground gun market work? Do the gang leaders control it or is it an open market?
It’s an open market. You know there’s always somebody willing to sell illegal guns. Always. The only thing is, do you have their phone number? There’s always somebody willing to sell you a gun for double the price its worth, because they know you can’t buy one legally in the suburbs of Chicago because you’re a felon. So they’ll tax you. That’s what it’s called, “taxing.” They will sell you a gun that’s maybe 400 bucks in the store for 600. They don’t care what you do with that gun. They just care about the profits. So guns are readily available, if you know who to get them from. That’s how you end up with twelve, thirteen-year-old kids with guns, because everybody has a connection. If you have money, you can get what you want on the streets. Age means nothing as long as you got the money.
How could kids be kept from getting guns?
Quit making them.
What about gun restrictions or laws?
You’ve got to remember that there are about thirty-nine prisons in the state of Illinois. They are filled to capacity of people who are breaking the law for different crimes. Criminal-minded individuals do not concern themselves with the law. Oh, they just implemented the death penalty. Do you think crime drop because they implemented the death penalty? Didn’t drop at all. Murders didn’t drop at all. When we talk about changing laws to affect a people, you have to ask yourself, The people you’re trying to affect, are they recognizing these laws? They’ve got a gun bill that they passed back in 2003 or ’04, and it said that an ex-felon with a gun will receive a minimum of fifteen years in the state of Illinois, in prison. You think that stopped felons from carrying guns? Not at all. That state of mind that they’re in, it’s almost like they’re zombies, because they’re not acknowledging your laws. They have their own laws that they’re living by, they have street laws that they’re living by.
What they really need to do is stop making them all together. It needs to be a government-run enterprise. If the army needs guns, if the police needs them or something like that, the government should be the only ones able to make guns and distribute them.
Hadiya Pendleton was your cousin. How did you feel when you heard the news that she wasÂ killed?
I felt empty. It was like–there really aren’t words to describe how I felt losing a fifteen-year-old, very promising young relative of mine. In my community and in my family, the numbers are small for young people that are really doing something positive with their lives. And my little cousin was. She had learned to speak Spanish. She had a lot of plans for her life. She was active in so much, so many different programs in her school, and education was her top priority. For somebody to take her away like that, that’s really, really cheating her parents and my entire family, because she was one of the ones that we were really looking forward to making it. We just knew she was on her way to success. She was.
What do you think of the gang members who shot her?
I don’t see myself at all in these young men. Not at all. When I was their age, when I was a gang member, we never behaved like that. We never shot into crowds of people. This act that these young men committed, I’ve never been involved in any type of behavior like that at all, so I can’t see it, I don’t understand it. I don’t understand what would make them do that. Being gang members, had they been properly taught within the gang, if they probably would have had a leader, somebody to be held accountable for their actions, maybe that wouldn’t have happened.
What is something that could be done to stop people from acting like this, from just shooting randomly into crowds?
There’s a reason why society has gotten to this point. There’s a reason why people go into theaters and shoot people randomly without justification. There’s a reason why these young men took my cousin’s life at fifteen. There’s a reason why there are individuals that come on university campuses and shoot other students. There’s something going on in our society today that’s breeding this type of people. I can’t put my hand on it completely, but for one class of people, I know a great part of it has to do with the information that they’re getting. With young black men, a large part of their behavior can be contributed to the music that they listen to.
If you randomly go out right now and go into a music store, and close your eyes, go into the rap section, and pick any CD off the rack–I can almost guarantee that at the bottom there’s gonna be a Parental Advisory sticker on it and the lyrics are gonna be about drugs, guns, violence, disrespecting women, killing people, and anything that you can talk about when it comes down to that type of behavior. It is rare that you can find a rap album that has artists like Common or Mos Def that don’t talk about killing people and don’t talk about drugs or about disrespecting women. Gangster rappers, these rappers are the ones that are well-respected, and young African-American men want to pattern their behavior behind what they’re talking about. They want to become that character that these people are rapping about. Ultimately what happens is somebody gets killed as a result of it. Drugs are being sold as a result of it. Nobody’s rapping, “go to college, get an education.” Nobody’s rapping, “get you one girlfriend, marry her, and get a family.” Nobody’s rapping about stuff like that. Everybody’s rapping about: get as many women as you can and disrespect every last one of them. Call them all out of name. And we wonder why these kids are behaving the way they are behaving. Music is very influential in our community, very influential, and that music is telling them what to do.
What were your aspirations for the future when you were younger?
I just wanted to be rich. It was always that “big score.” That big score was gonna set me up for life and I was never gonna have to do nothing no more. That never came. That went on for two or three years, where I was chasing that big score. In the process I was spending money recklessly. Most people who get it, that’s what they do. They buy expensive cars, lots of very expensive things. They lose sight of what they came in to do from the very beginning. It becomes all about the celebrity behind the lifestyle. Most people will die or go to jail before they relinquish power in the ghetto. That power that you get when you are the gang leader, that power of having control and input into different people’s lives, having people to rely you on for practically everything, having families call you and say that they need money for food, that’s the allure. That’s the power of what you do this for. The money is what you start out doing it for but once you get deep enough, it’s the celebrity that you don’t want to give away. It’s kind of like “The Godfather.” This is an addictive lifestyle that you just get hooked into. At some point it’s not even about the money no more, it’s just about the name and the power. I think that’s what happens to most people, because certainly that’s what happened to me.
What’s something that people have to understand when talking about crime?
One of the things that is very important to understand when you’re talking about African-American kids and crime: a lot of it has to do with poverty. When I was a kid, my mother was on welfare. I believe my mother used to get a total of 250 dollars a month from the government and food stamps. She had no other income. How do you take care of a family with 250 dollars a month? My mother really struggled hard. When I was a kid, I would go downtown to the North Side of Chicago and I would always see white kids and they would have nice bikes, Schwinns, and their parents would have nice cars, and we would see white kids, and they would be born with the things we never could seem to get. One of two things is gonna happen when you deal with someone who is really in poverty like that. They are either gonna hit the books hard, fight all the obstacles, or they’re going to become a terrible person in society. Most of the people I grew up with went to prison. Why? Because they were chasing the American Dream the only way they knew how to chase it.