George W. Knox, Ph.D.

© Copyright 2008, Chicago, IL, National Gang Crime Research Center.

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            Books previously published on the Vice Lords provided no clue to the existence of written constitutions and by-laws as evidence of the formal organizational development of the gang. How, then, do we account for the formalization of this kind of organization? There are at least four different rival hypotheses that may account for the formalization of gangs like the Vice Lords. These are examined and appraised below.

            However, equally important is that no previous scholarly researchers have focused on the informal social organization (ISO) which operates within any formal social organization (FSO) such as a formalized gang like the Vice Lords. We will be exploring some of these concepts of the function and significance of the ISO within the gang’s FSO below.

            These preliminary findings come from a much larger study currently underway on the nature of gang organization in America today. Most of the present discussion is limited to the Vice Lords. 


            Some criminologists have argued that gangs are nothing more than small informal social networks, “near groups”, perhaps no more organizationally sophisticated than a “pick up basketball team”: where whoever has the ball is the leader of the group. This author has advanced the more logical and more reasonable view, elsewhere and for some duration, that gangs can be expected to vary in terms of their social organizational complexity and sophistication. That there exist both informal and formal gangs in America today is a more factual based assertion.

            Few criminologists living in the world today have been willing to address the fact that some of the major gangs in America today have formalized written constitutions and by-laws, complete with a rigid organizational hierarchy and an assortment of rules and regulations for members which are enforced vigorously by the gang.

            It is, however, easy to reconcile the problem in this context of are gangs formal or informal: there is variation in the level of social organization in gangs in America and anywhere else. Some are informal in nature. Some are formal in nature. One engages in something other than social science to argue any differently.


            The political socialization hypothesis argues that the formalization of gangs began during that time frame in American society when there was a convergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement. African-American gangs drew heavily on the influence from groups like the Black Panther Party (BPP), and socially imitated the BPP “manifesto” and the BPP paramilitary organizational structure. Thus, emerged gangs like the Black P. Stone Nation (BPSN) through the sequence of Blackstone Rangers, to El Rukns, and back to BPSN. The BPSN has the “Cold Soldier Army” (CSA) constitution and bylaws which depict it as an Islamic-based insurgent group.

            The politicization hypothesis has been applied to the development of highly organized drug gangs in Brazil, where today the gangs function as organized crime organizations. The first to be established was the “Red Command”, which emerged from a quid pro quo relationship with communist rebels in Columbia. The leftist rebels provided cocaine, and the gang that would become known as the “Red Command” provided money and arms in return. The “Red Command” socially imitated the elements of structure, hierarchy, and formal organization from the leftist guerilla groups it dealt with during the period of 1964-1985. Once established, the “Red Command” quickly had rival groups being formed by the law of natural group opposition formation. These new drug gangs included: First Capital Command and the Third Command.

            These Brazilian drug gangs made international news in the Fall of 2002 when the “Red Command” took over a prison and executed the leader and several henchmen of the “Third Command”. Ernaldo Pinto de Medeiros as the leader of the “Third Command” was brutally tortured and burned alive in Rio de Janeiro’s Bangu I Pentitentiary in Sepember, 2002. The purpose of the execution was to solidify all Brazilian gangs under the command of the “Red Command”. This is sometimes referred to as the “consolidation scenario”.


            This is the thesis that via the method of social work and providing resources to the gang which can be exploited, that the gang will gravitate towards a higher level of social organizational sophistication. Sometimes such efforts have induced a corporate-style organizational development for gangs, particularly the Vice Lords who with federal and foundation funding were able to establish several quick-to-fail business enterprises. One early strategy of “gang work” in Chicago was to teach gangs “leadership skills” and to make the gangs “formalize” their clubs, under the ill-conceived belief (e.g., a bad theory) that they could be coopted and converted to pro-social groups and organizations. This was done through the Chicago Park District in the 1950's and 1960's.

            More significant as an illustration of artificially inducing a more complex organizational infrastructure to Chicago gangs were the experiments by certain individuals with gangs like the Blackstone Rangers and the Vice Lords. Basically, both gangs were provided with a large sudden influx of money and economic power, making them popular gangs that rapidly expanded their membership base. Once little more than loosely organized neighborhood thugs, with the “mana from heaven” provided to them by individuals operating under the “opportunity provision” theory that if they just had legitimate sources of income they would disappear as a criminal gang, the gangs rapidly expanded their power and influence and would survive for decades.

            Thus, there is evidence that informal gangs can be converted into formal gangs by means of social engineering. It may be tantamount to criminal witchcraft to engage in such social experiments is the lesson of history from Chicago gangs.

            State-sponsored gang activity would be a variation of the artificially-induced hypothesis; i.e., where a government itself promulgates and gives impetus, direction, and resources to a gang for purposes of covert action or for use in low intensity conflict. Political extremist adults who socially engineer a structure for the performance of crime and delinquency by juveniles would be a similar variation of the artificially-induced hypothesis.


            Correctional institutions in the United States from the period of 1960-1980 were still operating under a certain degree of “rehabilitation” philosophy. This meant that inside correctional institutions certain “pro-social” organizations were established for American inmates to participate in, which had their equivalent organizations outside of correctional institutions. Inside prisons in Illinois and elsewhere, these included organizations like the “Toastmasters” and “Jaycees”. The inmate organizations had to have a “Sponsor”, someone who would make sure they did not “riot” and plan an insurrection or escape which often meant some social service staff person in the institutional was in attendance. But otherwise the organizations were run by the inmates them selves.

            In the correctional emulation hypothesis gangs would use such otherwise legitimate organizations as their own method of maintaining regular group functions within the prison setting.

            The inmates had to learn about the constitution and bylaws of the groups they joined. They had to have elections. They learned how to build up a treasury and how to plan various functions and events. The inmates learned the value of formal organization and they learned the power of formal social organizations.

            Under the correctional emulation hypothesis, it is assumed that some gangs in America simply emulated what they learned from their socialization and experiences with the formal organizations they were exposed to inside correctional institutions. By developing their own “constitutions and bylaws” for their gangs, gangs in Illinois prisons during the 1980's would be able to recruit other inmates into gang life and dominate prison culture. So-called “inmate” or “prison culture” as it was previously described by criminologists would quickly change with the advent of organized gangs.



            In American correctional institutions, inmates have religious rights. All they need to do is to have a codified set of beliefs, however strange, and many prisons in many states would simply let the inmates practice such beliefs. This would mean the right to hold their own religious services, which in reality would become the basis for a “gang meeting”. This would mean the opportunity for the gang to hold celebrations and carry out aggressive recruiting drives as well.

            There is substantial evidence, historically, to suggest that inmates have used and abused such religious rights to disrupt correctional institutions. There is substantial evidence to suggest that what we have here is not a serious conversion to a spiritual identity, but rather it is simply a mechanism for antagonistic behavior (e.g., fighting the system, seeking to secure more inmate rights, seeking prison reform, etc).

            In countries outside of the United States, like Brazil, it is difficult to argue the merits of the religious-identity/inmate rights hypothesis as having any explanatory power, given the lack of democratic traditions as are enjoyed in the USA.

            The religious-identity/inmate-rights hypothesis is therefore a variation of the correctional emulation hypothesis. Basically, inmates see other inmate “religions” and copy or emulate them, developing new formats and twists and themes, but basically emulating existing structures as a vehicle for organizational continuity: i.e., continuing their gang identity and gang operations, even if it means using the camouflage of a quasi-religious identity. In the case of Islamic religious identities, it can be further argued that there is a “goodness of fit” issue in the attraction or lure of figures like Malcolm X. One reliable source traces the first Vice Lord Islamic identity to the year 1988 in Illinois.


            This is presented simply as professional opinion because we are, after all, dealing with a historical question less amenable to direct empirical testing. One cannot do a “survey” on this kind of research question. Oral history studies, including interviews with Vice Lord figures described in the work by Knox and Papachristos (2002), are more useful.

            If asked to place a “weight” on what percent of the variation in historical development in the Vice Lord gang the four rival hypotheses had in explaining the development of the FSO in this gang, I would conclude as follows:

            Artificially induced: 60 percent

            Religious-identity/inmate rights: 20 percent

            Correctional emulation: 15 percent

            Political socialization: 5 percent

            Thus, all had some role, but the influx of “easy money” (artificially induced) and being able to carry on gang meetings in the correctional system under the disguise of a “religion” (religious identity/inmate rights) are the two prominent factors having the most logically consistent explanations. Correctional emulation and political socialization have a minimal effect. I offer the caveat that there does exist a fifth hypothesis, “correctional emulation of other gang FSO’s”, which could be a powerful explanatory factor in any gang other than the Vice Lords; as the “contagion effect” or “copycat syndrome” is a factor in gang life in America today.

            Please note, however, that these rival hypotheses might be expected to generate totally different results if we used a different type of gang or security threat group (STG). For example, in the case of the Melanic’s gang in Michigan (which is similar to the Black Guerilla Family), political socialization might account for 60 percent of the development cycle of the gang; religious-identity/inmate rights 25 percent; correctional socialization 15 percent; and artificially-induced zero percent. Different gangs have different developmental patterns. The Vice Lords simply enjoyed the benefits of a large influx of federal and foundation funding to get started and get up and running. That makes them, like the BPSN, a unique kind of gang in terms of its developmental sequence and pattern.

            How to more effectively “test” this kind of historical gang question is the current focus of the author’s research agenda.

            To understand the FSO in gang life, one must also understand the significance of the ISO in gangs.


            The informal social organization (ISO) within the formal social organization (FSO) in the case of the Vice Lord gang, at the leadership level, is often a function of family relationships. This ISO functions within the larger FSO. The ISO is based on family solidarity therefore has pre-existing ties of kinship and family. The ISO has both the solidarity of kinship ties and the solidarity of their relationship to the FSO. The ISO at the leadership level is almost equivalent to a “family royalty”, as they have blood lines and immediate family ties to the top leader of the gang. While ordinary members of the gang may have to be “beat in” and “tested” in someway as a part of their initiation process, someone with direct family lineage to the top gang leader is usually exempt from this kind of initiation involving ritualized group violence. This is seen not just in the Vice Lords, it is a universal phenomenon within gangs, a factor traced to the power and privilege of an antecedent primary relationship to the gang leader.

            In the Unknown Vice Lords, for example, Tyrone Williams (“Baby Tye”) is believed to be the top leader while Willie Lloyd avoids the “spot light”. Three of “Baby Tye’s” brothers are “Chief Elites” in the Unknown Vice Lords: (1) Sheldon Williams (“Mayor”), (2) Kenneth Williams (“Big Smooth”), and (3) Cardell Williams. Thus, within the Unknown Vice Lords, the “Williams family” functions as an ISO within the FSO of the Unknown Vice Lord gang. It is, in other words, an “inner circle” of gang leadership.

            In the Imperial Insane Vice Lord faction, similarly, the current national leader, John Lofton (“China Joe”), was a brother to one of the gang chapter’s legend’s Willie Hemmingway (“Lil Chief Gouster”), now deceased, while another brother of “China Joe”, Leonard Lofton (“Baby Lord”) is regarded as a “Prince” in this faction of the Vice Lords. The term “Prince” itself is a social construction conferring “royalty status” to “Baby Lord”. Thus, within the Imperial Insane Vice Lord gang the Lofton’s exist as an ISO.

            In a large gang faction like the Conservative Vice Lord Nation there may be a number of such ISO’s based on being a brother by family lineage or being a biological son of a current or former leader. For example, in the CVLN there are second generation Vice Lords who are the biological sons of former or current CVLN leaders. Examples, include Tijuan Moore (“Ty-won”) said to be the biological son of Vice Lord founder “Peppilow”; Daniel Cole (“Duke”), the biological son of “Mahdi”; Thurman Frazier (“Qadir Muhammad”), the biological son of “Minister Rico” the current leader of the CVLN.

            The ISO based on family ties within the gang’s FSO can exist at both the leadership and general membership level. At the leadership level, however, this kind of ISO has special significance. It is an “inner circle” of the leadership structure of the gang and as such its members are some of the most powerful members of the gang organization. In terms of social status, it carries the symbolic significance of being a kind of “royalty” as well.


            Whether you work in a university environment, a business office, or a criminal gang, you do not like the special treatment accorded to “relatives” of the president, boss, or gang leader: nepotism, as a cultural universal, carries with it a universal repugnance at least at the rank and file level of an organization. As experienced by gang members, alienation here means a sense of estrangement due to the “special favors” bestowed upon relatives of the gang leader, having the effect of a “glass ceiling” on achieving higher status within the gang. And any good gang member wants to “go up the ladder” of the FSO in terms of achieving higher status, perhaps being capable of being the ultimate “top gang leader”.

            This is a worthy area of additional intensive research, as there are major cases of defection from the Vice Lord gang factions that are not easy to explain over the years. One of the founders of the Vice Lord Nation was “Baldy” or Maurice Jackson, but perhaps the reason he would eventually “flip” from the Vice Lords, a people gang, to the Black Gangster Disciples (GD’s, a “folks” gang), might have been the kind of nepotism arrangements in the Vice Lords as evident in the family-based ISO’s within the Vice Lord FSO. We just do not know for sure, it remains a plausible rival hypothesis for explaining the defection of this fundamental figure in the founding of the original Vice Lord Nation.


            Another way to look at the ISO within a gang FSO is that it may actually be a factor that allows for the continuity of the gang over time. Perhaps those gang factions without an ISO were the same ones to “evaporate” and disappear from existence. This is the issue of natural gang organization dissolution. Of Thrasher’s (1927) N = 1,313 gangs, only one exists today by the same name, and it is an organized crime group. Thus, 99.9 percent of the gangs studied by Thrasher “died off”, they evaporated, they disappeared from existence; due either to good suppression or a natural process of dissolution. But a gang like the Vice Lords has over fourty (40) years of continuity as a gang entity.

            It can be argued that an ISO at the leadership level within an FSO is functional for gang continuity over time. This might explain why there are factions of the Vice Lords that has just disappeared and evaporated, forced to merge with other factions, they exist no longer as factions of the Vice Lord Nation: Congress Vice Lords, Kedzie, Albany and Terrible (KAT) Vice Lords, Cermack Vice Lords, Renegade Vice Lords, 7 Crown Syndicate Vice Lords, Independence Vice Lords, Lake Street Vice Lords, Madison Vice Lords, Chocolate Vice Lords, Ambrose Vice Lords, Black Orpheus Vice Lords, Invisible Vice Lords, etc. These factions of the Vice Lords did exist in 1965, but do not exist by that identity today in 2002.

            Is it not at least plausible that by having a family-based ISO with the gang FSO, that this allowed for “tighter controls” on the membership, as more effective “eyes and ears” of membership surveillance would exist, it would be possible to “put down” mutiny’s, and ward off attempts to seize power within the gang. A common source of FSO gang dissolution is such a “power struggle”, where it may lead to a “splintering effect”, creating two or more new gangs from the one original FSO. Disenchanted leaders create new identities for new gang FSO’s if they are lucky. But in a gang with a strong ISO based on family ties, such individuals might be easily identified as “subversive” and appropriately “handled”. By controlling attempts to take over the FSO and by controlling dissent within the FSO, the family-based ISO at the leadership level is a factor that could logically be argued as a factor allowing for social organizational continuity over time. Gang tenure, therefore, may be a function, to some extent, of the existence of a strong or effective family-based ISO within the gang’s FSO.

            Some could use this argument to explain why the Black P. Stone Nation (e.g., El Rukn’s) continued as a major gang enterprise well after their leader Jeff Fort was tried and convicted of conspiracy to commit terrorism and given a federal life sentence. Jeff’s sons were left behind inside the ISO of the BPSN, ready to take on more formal duties once their father was neutralized by federal prosecution. Thus, today the BPSN remains a powerful force in the Chicago gang scene even though it’s top leader is on 23-hour a day high security “lock down” with limited communications privileges.


            The vulnerability of criminal gang FSO’s which have a family-based ISO is that, in theory, if they were targetted for prosecution, this would indeed leave a “leadership vacuum” within the FSO. It would allow insurgent forces, including less powerful ISO’s within the gang’s FSO, to finally “step forward” for a take-over. The ensuing internal battle for loyalty and leadership might be an artificially-induced “natural death” for the gang as an FSO. There is no evidence, historically at least, that any gang anywhere in American history has been the target of state or federal prosecution along the lines of such an ISO-FSO analysis. Thus, it remains a theoretical issue as to the potential for inducing a natural history effect of gang dissolution over time.

            There exists enormous vulnerability in any criminal gang FSO which has a family-based ISO. When the family-based ISO is locked up en masse and under federal indictment, or in federal prison, what happens to the FSO from a strategic gang prosecution point of view? Some previous American federal gang prosecutions have been heralded as “cutting off the snake’s head” of the gang FSO (e.g., the Gangster Disciple prosecution in Chicago, in which Larry Hoover and 38 other henchmen were indicted and convicted of federal charges, most resulting in federal life prison sentences). But clearly that GD prosecution did not cripple the GD gang, at best it induced a splintering effect and a decentralizing effect in GD leadership.

            The prosecution of the GD’s was not based on going after the leadership ISO’s, but rather the very top FSO leaders. It left behind the ISO’s intact with the GD FSO. This explains, in part, why the GD’s continue to exist as a large and formidable gang in Chicago today, more decentralized to be sure, but just as problematic for public safety and just as active in illegal drug distribution.

            To truly be able to organizationally disrupt a gang as sophisticated as the GD’s, the BPSN, or the Vice Lords, federal prosecution would have to target not just the top leader, but also the ISO at the leadership level. If brothers and sisters, wives or aunts or uncles, who had been active in the gang’s FSO remain untouched by federal prosecution, they need only visit or communicate with the imprisoned gang leader to spread the new “gospel” to their gang. In other words, the marching orders will still flow from the top gang leader to the rank and file through the ISO of the gang.



            Some gangs in America today are informal in their level of organizational sophistication. And some gangs in America today, particularly the more violent and dangerous ones, are formal organizations: complete with elaborate written constitutions and by-laws, required weekly meetings, required payment of dues, having a “treasury”, written rules and regulations for members, special language systems (e.g., gang argot and codes), disciplinary systems, the elaboration of status roles and a rigid hierarchy of authority. It is this latter or more formalized gang that is the subject of the present analysis.

            Special attention has been given to the Vice Lord gang in describing what historical forces might account for its evolution into a formal social organization (FSO). Of equal significance is the role of the informal social organization (ISO) within the FSO of the gang. At the leadership level, the ISO more often than not is familial-based, and functions as a “elite” core of movers and shakers in the gang structure.

            We have postulated that the ISO at the leadership level may be a source of alienation for the rank and file gang members in the FSO; but that it definitely is functional for the continuity of the gang over time, and the significance of the ISO at the leadership level has never been addressed in previous “get tough” policies to prosecute gangs. This may explain, we have added, why some gangs have continued over time in spite of aggressive federal prosecution.

            There is really only one authoritative or social scientific book out about the Vice Lords that is research-based, it is this: The Vice Lords: A Gang Profile Analysis, by George W. Knox and Andrew V. Papachristos, 2002, New Chicago School Press, ISBN 0-9710539-9-5, paperback, 266 pages.



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