The Rise and Fall of an American Gang: Religion as Camouflage?

In their early days, the Blackstone Rangers used a Presbyterian church as headquarters, meeting place, and arsenal; in later years, as the El Rukns, this organization ran a hybrid mosque/disco, which, likewise, contained an arsenal and functioned as the fortified base for the gang’s various criminal enterprises. The Black P Stone Nation has always recognized a use for religion.

Whether this use ever went beyond mere camouflage, like a clerical collar worn for the purposes of a scam, remains an open question, and it’s not a question that gets answered in this fascinating but frustrating book, a chronicle of the shifting organization that, helmed by Jeff Fort (later Prince Malik) cornered a sizeable chunk of the Chicago heroin market, provided protection for Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, defrauded the government on funding for Great Society social programs, was identified with praise by Louis Farrakhan as the Nation of Islam’s “Angels of Death,” and eventually plotted to bomb select Chicago buildings and shoot down airplanes over the Chicago skies—though no resume should neglect the routine work of murder, extortion, and theft.

Moorish Science?

The authors of this book argue that the story of the Black P Stone Nation matters not merely because the Stones are an innovative criminal organization, not merely because the terrorism case against Fort stands as a milestone in legal history, but also because the Stones are a cultural icon in black history, notable for their political rhetoric, their association with black nationalism, and their embodiment of that modern paradox—standing as images of black dignity and pride as well as an index of the “social and economic marginalization” of the community from which they emerged.  

The origin of this project, we’re told, was with a 2007 episode of BET’s American Gangster devoted to the infamous career of Jeff Fort. Natalie Moore, a journalist and author of a book about masculinity in hip-hop, watched the show, saw professor and youth activist Lance Williams interviewed in it, and the next day she emailed him, asking for a list of books about contemporary black street gangs in Chicago. “There are none,” he replied. And so began their collaboration.

So we’re given a history of what began as a clique of kids on the street, developed into a disciplined organization that reordered the nature of gang relations in Chicago (inaugurating the alliances of various gangs under the umbrella “People” and “Folk” labels), and was reinvented by its “Chief” as first a Moorish Science and then an Islamic religious organization; all the while running a variety of criminal enterprises, culminating in negotiations with the Libyan government with the hopes of being paid in exchange for unleashing certain amount of targeted violence in Chicago. There’s a series of huge stories here, and this book—while certainly the best resource on the subject—is hurt by the sheer range of material it has to address.

The book is alternately fascinating and frustrating. What we learn of Jeff Fort’s childhood doesn’t mention religious upbringing, though he had siblings named “Maryam, Kadija… Kaaba, Akaba, and Aki.” Similar gaps riddle the narrative. “An Illinois politician invited Fort to attend the 1969 inauguration of President Richard Nixon,” we’re told, but we’re not told who, or why. Likewise, we’re told “the El Rukns had been paid ten thousand dollars through the coffers of a black state representative to put up flyers and do other campaign work for Mayor Jane Byrne in her race for reelection against black candidate Harold Washington,” but, again, we’re not told who, or why. 

Fort emerged from a prison stint in 1976 to announce that “We now understand the symbolic meaning of the Stones as the cornerstone of the holy Kaaba in the city of Mecca,” and thus changed the name of his organization to the El Rukns. Originally the El Rukns were affiliated—at least in name—with the Moorish Science Temple of America, one of the multiple organizations to emerge from the fracture of Moorish Science after the death of the religion’s founder, Noble Drew Ali, who died in Chicago in 1929. Ali presented himself as a prophet of Allah, advancing a vision of religious nationalism in which black Americans were called to recognize their true heritage as “Moors” and therefore “Moslems,” the storied history and doctrines of which Ali laid out in a text of his own assemblage which he called “the Koran,” now generally referred to as the Circle Seven Koran to distinguish it from the Islamic holy book.

It’s unclear what led to Fort’s parting ways with the MSTA (if, indeed, he had ever actually possessed a charter from the organization), but the El Rukns shifted, in the late ’70s, to describing themselves as Islamic in the more traditional sense, even if El Rukn practice was far from “traditional.” The authors don’t have much time to devote to exploring this fascinating topic, and they are perhaps too quick to attribute motives, citing “Fort’s intellectual and spiritual thirst” as the reason behind his initial conversion and describing Moorish Science—which in many of its Chicago manifestations promotes a “sovereign citizen” ideology wherein Moorish nationalism is, counter to Noble Drew Ali’s original teachings, incompatible with American citizenship—as having the “primary objective” of “connect[ing] African Americans with a proud heritage, thereby circumventing the stereotypical picture of Africa, its inhabitants, and their black American descendants as savage and uncivilized.”

This makes the religion, with its embrace of Orientalist imagery and esoteric texts, sound more like the African-centered outreach program for school children author Lance Williams founded, and is, at the very least, a idealized simplification of a complex religious movement.

While the Blackstone creed borrowed directly from Ali’s writing, insisting “all members must obey the laws of the government,” when the El Rukns recited this creed they either had some elaborate exegesis in mind or were plain dissembling. Likewise with El Rukn Islam, of which the authors say, “Whether the tenets of Islam were practiced by the El Rukhns at the individual level can be argued; nevertheless, Islam was without a doubt fundamental to the spirit of the organization.” Perhaps, depending on what “fundamental to the spirit” means. Central to the imagery and rhetoric? Sure. Defining of the practice and worldview? Not so much.

Where the Book Falls Short

My frustration with this book, however, isn’t that it doesn’t push deeply enough into issue of religion—that would be an unfair expectation; that book has yet to be written. Rather, my frustration is with the often deeply confusing phrasing and organization of what stuff is in here. Consider a sample paragraph:

The contradictions of righteousness and impiety became the foundation of the El Rukns. They prayed in their mosque. They sold drugs. They practiced entrepreneurship. They kept a stockpile of weapons. They celebrated their women at an annual feast with cake and adulation. They got arrested for murder. They started a security firm. They held community meetings. Chief Malik ran the organization as if he were the head of a monarchy. He actually sat on a throne at the El Rukhns’ headquarters. 

What do we learn from this? Where is the “righteousness,” the “impiety,” and where are the “contradictions”? We’re presented with a list of activities that are, in fact, far from contradictory (sure, selling drugs can be entrepreneurial, and certainly murderers can “celebrate their women,” work security, or pray) but that are, ultimately, vague. There’s nothing in this paragraph that we don’t already know by this point in the text; instead of providing data or analysis, the authors give us filler. And this is symptomatic of a much larger problem.

Sections begin with teaser sentences that don’t relate to what follows, as when we’re told “The jury did not relate to Jeff Fort” and then, instead of hearing about this supposed lack of relation, we’re told that some jurors were threatened during the course of their service. There is phrasing that intentionally obfuscates issues of agency while simultaneously keeping mum about the actual facts, as in this dangling teaser: “One routine traffic stop turned into a high-speed chase as police officers pursued a speeding black limousine.”  

There are also startling non-sequiturs, as in the chapter that ends with a discussion of police attention to Jeff Fort as a criminal mastermind and ends with a quote from his mother:

“Whenever I get sick, he comes to town to take care of me. I don’t believe all these things I read about him in the paper. All I can do is hope for the best and pray for him every night,’ she said.”

I get the intent of juxtaposing the institutional and the personal, but this doesn’t succeed at that, abrupt as it is—never mind the issue of prayer, which again raises the question of his mother’s religious beliefs.

And then there are sentences that, strangely, construe false relationships and segue into unrelated discussions as with this whopper: “Meanwhile, the anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiments that Farrakhan unleashed in the United States were being echoed in parts of the Islamic global community,” which is followed by a brief discussion of Osama bin Laden, as if he were the only example of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Islamic ummah and as if, more disturbingly, he were “echoing” anything at all from Farrakhan. 

The authors, however, want to argue that domestic rhetoric and foreign acts of violence aren’t far from conflated—especially in the eyes of the law. One purpose of this book is to make clear how “The El Rukn story may serve as a cautionary tale for other street organizations,” that, in the words of the authors, the “predilection for Islam—and greed, although the two are unrelated—put the organization at risk of falling for FBI traps. Now it’s all done in the name of homeland security.” That last, sardonic aside, characterizes much of the book’s discussion of what is here termed the “post-9/11 bizarro world” 

They devote a chapter—“The Legacy of Terrorism on Street Gangs”—to the case of Naseal Batiste and his “ragtag followers” who were arrested for plotting to blow up the Sears Tower. Arguing that “The 1987 conviction of Fort and the other El Rukns had paved the way for prosecutors to connect street gangs—and their affinity for Islam—with terrorism,” the authors then introduce Batiste, who they note “wasn’t actually involved in a street gang,” as someone who was just “boasting” rather than plotting.  The thrust here seems to be that, like the “candy corn-colored system that rates the levels of terrorism threats against the Unites States” which the authors deride, the case against Batiste and his accomplices is a case of overzealous policing (“all done in the name of homeland security”) rather than a legitimate response to a real danger. 

This, it seems to me, is a “bizarro move,” at least without some considerable journalistic work to back up the claims, which is not to be found here. Worse, anger at FBI manipulation of and paranoia about black power organizations bleeds into a general stance of rooting for the Stones as rebels within an oppressive and authoritarian society. Consider the use of the “cautionary tale” the authors are offering—who is this intended for, exactly, this wisdom to avoid “falling for FBI traps”? It’s also worthy of note that the “FBI trap” Jeff Fort and company fell for was purchasing an M-72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon from the wrong people—undercover feds. My hope would be that anyone who wants to buy an illegal rocket launcher falls for the “trap” of buying a disabled unit, complete with tracking device, from the feds.

But The Almighty Black P Stone Nation is a book for gangbangers and gang idolizers, too. A helping of hagiography is mixed in with the history, just as polemic against law enforcement is peppered throughout. The authors, no doubt, have justifications for wanting to reach this audience, beyond the desire to move copies. Williams’ “Know Thyself” program, for schoolchildren, puts the author in the gang scene, offering alternative models of pride, identity, and behavior to kids who otherwise might only have folks like Jeff Fort for heroes.

There is something, too, that the authors find admirable about moments in Stone’s history, certainly: the red-bereted men demonstrating silent solidarity by parading through Fred Hampton’s funeral, the charismatic young leader who spoke of ancient Egypt and the grand history of black civilization in which men were princes—these aspects, ultimately, are of more interest to the authors than all the drug distribution and conspiracy to commit acts of terror. Because the authors (as shown in the eleventh chapter, an ethnography of a contemporary Stones splinter set called the 8-Tray Stones) have been on the streets, met the kids who are drawn to the current, effectively leaderless, “hodgepodge of sets dispersed through Chicago” and, more importantly, they’ve seen the mesh of conditions that leads to kids dropping out and ganging up and making a living through available means.

This final chapter stands as a kind of coda to the work, a portrait of one group of Stones today, but it also differs from the rest of the text in its intimacy, its first-person engagement. As this book will surely help lead to other studies of the Stones and El Rukns by other writers and scholars, hopefully Williams and Moore will continue to pursue the story of the kids of Chicago today, their struggles and their myths, and craft that into a book with more clarity and focus and moral force than they manage here.