CHICAGO -- The gang member from Pittsburgh wore his colors as a mask, a navy blue bandanna tied tightly about his face so that only his narrow brown eyes could be seen. A visage of suspicion, a photograph snapped in color, it anchored the front page of this city's black newspaper on the first full day of a gang peace summit here.
Wallace "Gator" Bradley, summit organizer, confidant to jailed gang generals, political candidate, was not happy. "You see today's Defender?" Mr. Bradley asked the summit's press secretary, as the 41-year-old ex-convict swept through the vestibule of Trinity United Church on Chicago's Far South Side. "We don't want that image."
Organizers of this weekend's peace summit have worked diligently to craft an image of Black Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords, Bloods and Crips -- among the most infamous gangs in the country -- as brothers in peace who walk "the hood" no longer in fear of trespass. And as gang members from Los Angeles to Boston gathered here for the fourth in a series of peace summits held throughout the country, their leaders and mentors appeared more concerned with fortifying their public image than with discussing the intricacies of peace.
Though billed as a forum for "healing," the gathering focused on empowering the African-American community and controlling its destiny. There was little evidence that Latino gangs attended the summit.
To critics who argue that gang leaders have not given up their guns or stopped trafficking drugs, some organizers and gang members say it's not the black man who owns the helicopters and boats that ferry drugs across our borders. Of the gang-related violence still plaguing African-American communities, they assert, police mislabel the crime and blame "paid agent provocateurs" for disrupting a tenuous peace.
Theirs is political campaign with a script voiced by leader and follower, from the Chicago businessman with the title of Prince to the 30-year-old gang member known as Lord Riffraff.
But their push for peace has drawn ministers and civic leaders to their sides. The NAACP has lent its name and money -- though no one will say how much -- to the Chicago summit, where organizers dress in stylish suits or African cultural garments. At a Westside Baptist church, a public housing courtyard, a community organization's headquarters, they talk of a movement at one with God and invoke the holy words of Christian, Muslim and Black Hebrew.
From dais and pulpit, they speak of the power of the black man and the establishment's fear of African-Americans' uniting in a common goal. At the summit, voter registration cards were handed out, and many Chicago members of the Gangster Disciples wore political campaign buttons in support of a mentor's bid for alderman.
And though they preach peace, their voices rise up in anger at those who question their motives and suggest that the movement is a sham.
"Our Father who art in heaven . . . I ask of you that all those naysayers," Mr. Bradley said at the summit opening, "all those agent provocateurs, all those who will stand in the way of this peace, I ask that you blind them, snap the limbs from their bodies and wipe them from the face of the Earth."
They castigate city officials who won't embrace their efforts and pledge to exact their just rewards at the ballot box. Here in Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley, law enforcement officials and prosecutors don't give much credence to claims that a year-long truce among African-American gangs has curbed the violence in two housing projects. "Their so-called peace pacts and their efforts to move to legitimacy don't sway us," said Ken Piernick, head of the FBI's Chicago gang task force, which last week seized one-half kilo of crack cocaine in a gang-related raid. "The gangs are peddling narcotics as if there's no tomorrow."
This is a town where gangs date back decades, operate as organized-crime syndicates and refer to their leader as "chairman." Here, gang kingpins control financial empires from their prison cell and have limousines waiting when they are released. Such realities, however, don't seem to dissuade the peace movement's most ardent supporters, like the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Our ultimate goal is to end violence. I am pleased with the progress we've made," Dr. Chavis said Friday. "It is a statistically veriable fact that this effort across the country has saved lives. You have to give these young people time."
Dr. Chavis applauds the efforts so far: "This summit of young brothers and young sisters who have decided to lay down their weapons . . . This is a sacred moment in history."
Learning to get along
But what of the "young brothers and young sisters"? The mostly African-American gang members at whom this movement is targeted? Yesterday, several gang members from Pittsburgh, rival Bloods and Crips, talked about how their nine-hour van ride here was the beginning of a personal peace. "This is the first I've ever been with Bloods," said a teen-age Crip who identified himself only as J.D. "They're my friends now."
Gangster Disciples, who refer to themselves as GDs and sport a signature pitchfork tattoo on their hands, and Vice Lords appeared to be of one mind on the truce in Chicago: It was holding because they were tired of the bloodshed.
Aaron "Ace" Brooks, a 22-year-old GD, measured the truce's success by the number of funerals he has attended. "Since the peace thing been together, I've been to three funerals. We were going to two and three funerals a month [before the truce]," said Mr. Brooks, whose 24-year-old brother was killed in a gang shooting two years ago.
"Now, brothers can walk without having to always look over their shoulder," said James Dillard, a 25-year-old GD.
"If they break the peace," said a Vice Lord who wouldn't give his name, "they will be dealt with accordingly."
Not everyone spoke so freely. And despite the carefully orchestrated news conference, summit organizers could not silence all. During a rally at Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, where a 7-year-old boy got caught in sniper cross-fire last year, members of the Mickey Cobras gang drew a tight circle around two summit organizers and complained.
"Peace been going a year, and we haven't received nothing," said one gang member, referring to a lack of services.
"These are votes you're looking at," said another Cobra, who wore a black bandanna around his face.
Shariff Willis, a Vice Lord from Minneapolis and a leader of the movement, sought to defuse the young man's anger: "This is about brothers coming together to help brothers."
In the face of skeptics, summit organizers drew analogies to the historic peace accord reached between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. They chastised police whose guns, money and manpower had been unable to stem the drug tide. They alluded to a power elite as the ultimate orchestrators of the African-American community's plight.
"They dictate our destiny," said James Poon, a 31-year-old former crack addict who now works for a private, unarmed security force employed by the Cleveland housing authority. "It's time to dictate our own destiny."