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"Can gang members bring peace to the streets?"

By Donna Muhammad | Last updated: Mar 10, 2017 - 1:36:39 PM

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Benny Lee (center) with Almighty Vice Lord Nation, Student Min. Anthony Muhammad, Al Lewis, activist Keedran Franklin and FOI of Muhammad Mosque No. 93.

MEMPHIS—In April a group of activists are hoping to build on urban peace and reconciliation efforts discussed last year. With President Trump vowing to curb violence in Chicago and threatening federal intervention, some have been working the streets for years and still engaged in the work of urban peace and education. And they have an untold story to tell.

“Can gang members bring peace to the streets?” This was the narrative put forward by Kofi Benneth “Benny” Lee, former Conservative Vice Lord Leader and co-founder of the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated in Memphis last year.

His presentation was entitled “Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords.”

Invited to Memphis at the behest of Al Lewis of Inward Journey’s Inc., participants were invited to take a journey into the past to an almost buried history of how the Conservative Vice Lords became a major social and economic force for change in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side before being systematically dismantled through the political machinations of Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Daley machine and COINTELPRO.

The afternoon presentation opened up with words from Student Minister Anthony Muhammad, the Mid-South Representative of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has also worked closely with so-called gangs and street organizations in Memphis. He spoke to the audience, which included current and former gang members, on the importance of uniting as a community. “If we say that Black lives matter, they can’t just matter when somebody out of our community harms us, Black lives also have to matter when we harm ourselves and sometimes I feel that we tend to run away from that or put that on the back burner as though it’s not as important when someone else kills us or harms us,” he said.

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Bennie Lee with son, Alonzo. (R) Woman expresses pain and concern over the condition of young black males.

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(CW from Left) Al Lewis, program coordinator and Almighty Vice Lord Nation listen intently. | Almighty Vice Lord Nation of Memphis members. | Audience members take in presentation. | Muslim sister reads CVL presentation placard.

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(L to R) Bennie Lee and son Alonzo, Student Min Anthony Muhammad and Al Lewis (program coordinator).

“We think, sometimes, that unity is uniformity or that unity is all of us thinking exactly the same all of the time and it’s not. We don’t lose our individuality, our uniqueness when we unite.”

“My goal, my objective today is that you leave here with a new awareness, a new spirit, a new energy, a new desire to take what you have learned here and take that to your respective wherever you are going—community, household, whatever—and share it with those because it’s about how we come together as one proverb says that ‘the ruin of a nation begins in the home of its people,’ so does the rise of a nation begin in the home of its people,” said Mr. Lee at the start of the program.

He recounted the path that led him towards gang life at the young age of 9 and how he ultimately found himself in a position of leadership and formed the Insane Vice Lords after his initial involvement with the Vice Lords at the age of 13. His involvement in this type of life eventually led him to the county jail at the age of 19, where he did not return home until the age of 27.

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Member of audience looks through pictorial history of CVL.
During the last three years of his prison term, Mr. Lee, along with heads of other incarcerated members from rival street organizations, such as the El Rukuns and Black Souls, were placed on death row at Statesville Prison as the result of a riot they were blamed for inciting. During this time they received a visit from Minister Farrakhan and at the same time Mr. Lee became acquainted with the Autobiography of Malcom X.  He shared how the Minister’s words of wisdom helped lead to their acquittal. “He said, ‘Brothers, the conspiracy happened 300-years-ago when Black men were taught not to trust each other through a formula called Willie Lynch. And here it is, y’all facing the death penalty and y’all looking at each other as opposition.’ So we had to become brothers for real. We had to put all that gang stuff aside and become brothers for real and once we organized, we put that influence in general population and all the prisoners so they came together. Then we sent it to the streets and brothers in the streets came together, so now we had a movement going on.” 

An oath was taken that they would serve their time constructively so that upon their release they would become more productive members of the community.

It was through these and other experiences, as well as relationships with Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party and other organizations, that moved the Vice Lords to unite with the Stones and Disciples and form “LSD” and it was at this point they took up civil rights and economic issues. They joined forces and shut down construction sites that did not hire Blacks. They opened up youth centers on the Southside of Chicago; formed  “Opportunity Knocks” to help cultivate the talent of Black youth; on the West Side “Operation Bootstrap” was formed which networked with big businesses such as Zenith and Motorola to set up apprenticeships. They developed the Tenants’ Rights Action Group (T.R.A.G.) to stop illegal evictions, established programs on Breast Cancer Awareness and taught women how to make their own cosmetics. Eventually they formed a non-profit organization under the name of Conservative Vice Lord Inc., the first street gang in history to ever incorporate, said Mr. Lee. They received some government funding, he said.

They then opened up a Teen Town, a Tastee Freeze and an office for community development. “The press loved it,” he said, “but the political establishment did not.”

Just as Minister Farrakhan is exhorting Black people to do today, the CVL’s began to make their community a decent place to live, he said.

As their efforts grew more successful, according to Mr. Lee, so did the efforts of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) to infiltrate and disrupt Black movements. The climate was set up to create distrust. Fred Hampton was killed by police. Mayor Daley declared a war on street gangs, despite the positive strides being made among many. Government funding was pulled, numerous arrests and convictions were made among members and they were held responsible for most fights and killings. Eventually, with no financial support, all the programs that were put together for the good of the community began to erode.

Young members began to move away from some of the founding principles slowly helping to bring peace to the streets and improving their communities, he said.

Mr. Lee then deferred a portion of the program to his son Alonzo, a current member of the Gangster Disciples (GDs). Alonzo initially attended Muhammad University of Islam as a young man, but when he began to attend a high school that was predominately Mexican, he and his peers found that they had to fight. They were looked upon as all being gang members. Eventually, the son too, turned to that way of life. He explained that even when you desire to leave that life, it is often difficult to just walk away “because you may have done something four or five years ago and someone will have gotten them self together by then and have their crew that will move on their word and you could get killed from something years ago. You have to always look over your shoulder,” said Alonzo.

As the program came to a close, Mr. Lee shared how he is helping young members who will listen by meeting with Vice Lords around the country, teaching them how to change their reputation and relationships where they live, and showing them a great social history through his traveling exhibit.

“I came out to share love and support for the brother and I wanted to learn more about the Vice Lord Nation. There are a lot of evil forces out in the world that just don’t want to see good happen,” said Vincent, a 34-year-old. “It’s like they are trying to keep us enclosed in a box, they don’t want us to grow. We have to figure a way to get up out of it, I guess,” added Vincent of the Almighty Vice Lord Nation in Memphis.

To find out more information on the notable history of CVL, Bennie Lee, and others, visit www.gangresearch.net.

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