A Gang Broke Apart, Then Baltimore Homicides Spiked
The Black Guerrilla Family went from revolution to anarchy as police pulled back
As you walk through Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore City’s most violent neighborhood, the years of socio-economic degradation are readily apparent.
In violent areas of Chicago, such as the Austin neighborhood, the main thoroughfares are littered with liquor stores and boarded up buildings, but the residential areas are generally well-kept and the architecture is quite beautiful.
This is not the case in Sandtown-Winchester. It seems that at least half of the homes on every street have boarded-up or broken windows, soot marks from fires and even giant unexplained holes in the brick.
The structure below is across from a children’s playground.
Above–Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore. Patrick Burke photo. At top–Baltimore police. Elvert Barnes photo via Flickr
Sandtown-Winchester is also the neighborhood where Freddy Grey was arrested before dying in police custody in April 2015.
A series of murals devoted to the protests in late April 2015 after Grey’s funeral now line the route where he ran from police.
While standing amongst the murals and rows of dismal buildings as residents of Sandtown-Winchester described their relationship with the police and the government as one of “oppression” and “occupation,” it was hardly surprising that most call the events of that April the “Baltimore Uprising.”
The experience caused me to think of a line from the manifesto of the dominant gang in Sandtown-Winchester — “Conditions of oppression lead to revolution.”
Murals in Sandtown-Winchester, Baltimore. At bottom right, a mural marks the spot where Freddy Grey was arrested. Patrick Burke photos
This line was written by Eric Brown, the former leader of the Black Guerrilla Family, and his fellow prison inmates in a manifesto known as The Black Book. The manifesto, which explicitly borrows from Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory, lays out the steps for “Black Nationalists” to “build for our people a nation, independently structured that has nothing to do with the American government.”
Released in 2008, the book prescribes reforming the BGF from a semi-criminal organization to a fully “Black Nationalist” separatist movement by indoctrinating its members into the mindset of pursuing political and economic independence, rather than self-enrichment.
“Once these stages are taken,” the manifesto states, “you began the transformation of the criminal mind into a revolutionary mind, into a socio-politically conscious rebel (Guerrilla) to the level of a bona fide Guerrilla. An organization can only be produced by an organized mind, and where there’s no organized mind, there can be no organization.”
The next step in the BGF’s revolution, according to the group’s manifesto, is to spread its ideology amongst black people in America through example and education.
But the unprecedented violence that erupted in Sandtown-Winchester following the uprising seems to indicate that the BGF has failed to become a cohesive “Black Nationalist” organization — and has failed to spread its ideology to the masses.
However, this can only be the case if the main theory for why shootings and homicides spiked throughout Baltimore is true — that the Baltimore Police Department greatly reduced proactive police work following the indictment of the officers who transported Grey, which in turn opened up a space for predatory criminal opportunists to act freely.
If this “opportunistic” theory is true, then the BGF could be seen as closer to a predatory criminal gang than as “vanguards of the community” in the midst of organizing a “Black Nationalist” revolution.
Alternatively, the rise in violence could be explained as a form of self-governance by the BGF in Sandtown-Winchester — albeit an unideal one. In short, the absence of policing, as well as the emotion of “revolution” propagated by the Uprising itself, may have led many in the BGF to believe they could police and govern their neighborhood as they saw fit.
A 2015 Justice Department report investigating the national uptick in violence raises the possibility of such an explanation.
The report found evidence that a pattern of decreases in police activity helps explain the rise in violence across the country, but then poses a more nuanced explanation.
“When persons do not trust the police to act on their behalf and to treat them fairly and with respect, they lose confidence in the formal apparatus of social control and become more likely to take matters into their own hands,” the report states. “Interpersonal disputes are settled informally and often violently. Honor codes develop that encourage people to respond with violence to threats and disrespect.”
In other words, when policing decreases suddenly, current governing institutions become illegitimate, and the community begins to develop its own governing structures.
The report adds that such a sudden shift in views of governing institutions is especially likely to occur in disadvantaged black communities where preexisting views about the illegitimacy of police and government are brought to the fore by high-profile killings of black citizens and subsequent drops in policing.
The Justice Department admitted that its report could not directly test this theory because doing so requires detailed analysis of a relatively small area where local residents could provide information.
However, Sandtown-Winchester is a good case study to test both the Justice Department’s “revolutionary / self-governance” theory, as well as the more popularly held “opportunist” theory of criminal self-enrichment. This is because the neighborhood has the highest numbers of shootings and homicides in Baltimore city, and this violence has risen to unprecedented levels since May 2015.
In addition, Sandtown-Winchester has been deeply influenced by the BGF’s ideological and criminal activities.
Baltimore police. Elvert Barnes photo via Flickr
Opportunists or revolutionaries?
Looking at data from the BPD on arrests, shootings and homicides in Sandtown-Winchester, there is a strong indication that a significant drop in policing led to the spike in violence.
Before the Uprising, between January 2013 and April 2015, the monthly average for shootings/homicides stood at one, while 68 people were arrested on average per month. Between May 2015 and the present, shootings and homicides rose to a monthly average of four, and the arrest average decreased by 47 percent. This is a substantial spike in violence and drop in arrests considering the neighborhood holds only 9,000 residents.
It is true that the number of arrests in Sandtown-Winchester began to drop in 2014 after the BPD made it its strategy to decrease arrests of individuals for possessing low amounts of drugs — instead going after more significant dealers and illegal firearms.
However, had the monthly average of arrests in Sandtown-Winchester continued on the same trajectory as prior to the Uprising, the monthly average for the next six months should have been 27 percent higher.
There were in fact drops in arrests over the several years prior to the Uprising. However, the 54 percent drop in average arrests from April to May 2015 was 30 percent greater than any month-to-month decrease during a similar season prior to the Uprising.
In fact, when looking at the months with similar weather to May 2015, the closest number of arrests prior to the Uprising was 58 in June 2014. May 2015 saw only 26 arrests. In other words, the low numbers of arrests in May 2015 in Sandtown-Winchester was unprecedented and very likely part of an intentional strategy by local BPD officers.
Interestingly, shootings and homicides would have been 50 percent lower in the six months following the Uprising had they stayed on their prior trajectory. Still, the numbers given so far are merely descriptive, and do not allow any real inferences to be made.
Regression analysis shows strong and significant evidence that drops in arrests in Sandtown-Winchester caused an increase in shootings and homicides, and vice-versa. In fact, when types of arrests are separated — i.e., weapons violations, narcotics and other — using multiple regression analysis, decreases in narcotics arrests have the strongest effect on the increase in shootings/homicides.
These numbers provide fairly convincing evidence for the “opportunism” theory. But they can’t tell the whole story.
Cambone and Ben
The Black Book itself shows that pursuing criminal enterprise is not necessarily antithetical to the BGF’s vision of how to bring about a Black Nationalist revolution. This is most evident in a chapter titled “Cambone or Ben?”
The definitions of these two words are so contentious that the chapter consists of essays from multiple leaders within the BGF on how they view they define “Cambone” and “Ben,” and what role each plays in the revolution.
It’s clear that “Cambone” is the political and educational wing of the BGF movement. Cambone is the means of indoctrinating recruits, and spreading the BGF’s ideology to the masses.
The definition and role of “Ben” seems more contentious, however. One leader of BGF, Rainbow Williams, states that “Ben” was introduced to BGF’s movement by one of its leaders in California in the 1970s and 1980s named James H. “Doc” Holiday, “due to the fact that…the organization needed some finances to push [BGF’s] vision as a political organization. Doc came up with ways to build the economics of [BGF] and used the criminal mentality to do so.”
Referring to “Cambone” and “Ben,” Williams goes on to say “we need both of them to be successful in the revolution.”
Other leaders of BGF, however, explicitly reject the need for criminal activity to form the economic structure of the BGF.
It seems that some BGF leaders believe that the black community can attain economic autonomy by establishing black-owned businesses, and ensuring that black residents solely patronize them.
The implication here is that, like many insurgencies throughout history, the BGF will tax these businesses in order to support the revolution. In fact, Eric Brown spends much of The Black Book denouncing the drug trade, even calling it “chemical warfare” against the black community.
Still, the federal conviction in 2011 of Brown, Rainbow and several other BGF members on drug charges, among other criminal activities, point to a different reality. I asked Kelvin Parker, a community outreach specialist at the Kids Safe Zone and former independent drug dealer and inmate in the Maryland system, to help explain this contradiction.
Parker had two stretches in prison from 2007 to 2009 and again from 2011 to 2013 for assault with a deadly weapon and carrying drugs. He is well respected by many in the BGF, and knew Brown, his predecessor Tevon White and many other BGF leaders personally.
In fact, Parker even shared a cell with one of the “Original 7” men that brought the BGF to Maryland from California in the ’90s — a man by the name of “Benji.”
Parker was recruited several times, including by Benji, but chose to maintain his independence. Through his work, Parker still maintains regular contact with BGF members.
Parker said that Brown was aware of the contradiction between drug dealing and The Black Book, but simply accepted that participating in the drug economy is just “a part of having that seat, that power.”
Parker clarified that Brown accepted that there really was no other way for the BGF to gain funding, especially due to the reality that most of its leadership resides in Maryland’s prisons and jails.
Still, neither the chapter covering Ben nor any other part of The Black Bookexplicitly talks about the role of violence in achieving the BGF’s revolution. This is confounding since participating in the drug trade almost inherently requires violence.
The means by which BGF gained territory in the streets of Baltimore and increased its power in the Maryland prison system and jail indicates that violence is also seen as a necessary part of the revolution. Interestingly, the group’s rise also indicates a partial acceptance of the BGF’s ideology by the community — at least at one time.
The Metropolitan Transition Center, center, and infirmary at left in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo via Google Maps
The BGF began its rise to prominence in a flash of violence.
In 2007, a member of the Bloods organization stabbed a Muslim inmate at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore, according to Parker and his co-worker Akai Alston, who was once in an informal neighborhood gang and spent time in prison from 2011–2016 for being an accessory to a murder. Like Parker, Alston denied offers to join the BGF while in prison, and still maintains contact with BGF members.
The stabbing precipitated a massive prison fight in which the Bloods were overwhelmed by a mix of BGF and Muslim attackers. However, Parker and Alston contend that the stabbing was simply a pretext. Most in the prison were tired of the Bloods robbing, extorting and beating up other inmates, which was alluded to in news reports on the incident.
Following the fight, the BGF tipped the balance of power in the Maryland prison system to the point where Eric Brown issued a “No Bloods Order.” This led to a massive drop in membership in the Bloods gang. Many became Muslims, switched to the BGF or were killed, according to Parker, Alston and Robert Wolfe, a current member of the Bloods.
A year later, the “No Bloods Order” tipped the balance of power in the prison system even further in favor of the BGF by eroding the Bloods’ ability to compete for resources — including lucrative contraband — and recruits in the prison system, according to Wolfe.
This increase in power caused Brown to seek to expand his reach into the streets in 2008. According to Kelvin and Alston, the expansion began in Perkins Homes in east Baltimore, mainly because Brown’s family resided there.
As Kelvin and Alston tell it, the community welcomed the BGF’s revolutionary ideology. The Bloods had previously been in control of Perkins, and were deeply unpopular in the local community due to members preying on the residents.
Alston remembers Bloods robbing and beating innocent people for no reason, and groups of Bloods would drive around killing individuals for wearing the wrong colors. He said “You gotta understand when the Bloods came, the level of terror that they would inject into these neighborhoods; either you was going to be with them or against them, and a lot chose to rebel.”
Wolfe denies that such criminal actions were rampant among the Bloods, and says those who committed indiscriminate violence against innocents did not truly represent the Blood’s ideology as “vanguards of the community.”
However, later in our conversation Wolfe described his main function in the Bloods as “gangbanging,” meaning attacking individuals for wearing rival gang colors — although he has not participated in such activities for over a decade. Further, a federal indictment of several prominent Bloods around this period provide stronger evidence for Alston’s story.
The Bloods’ unpopularity made them a soft target for the BGF’s attractive ideology. And by 2008, the Bloods’ ability to physically resist a takeover was greatly reduced due to a fracturing of the organization after much of its leadership was caught up in the federal RICO case mentioned above.
The BGF, by contrast, at this time were well organized and initially conveyed to the community in Perkins that they would be “vanguards of the community.” The dissemination of The Black Book throughout Baltimore in 2008 helped to spread the BGF’s “Black Nationalist” revolutionary message. Even a few prominent individuals in Baltimore’s black community openly endorsed The Black Book.
In fact, the dissemination of the BGF’s ideology led many in Perkins to help the BGF eradicate remaining Bloods by providing information on their whereabouts through text messaging and phone calls, according to Parker.
As BGF members were released from prison over the next several years, high ranking individuals began to establish their own “regimes” across Baltimore city, including Sandtown-Winchester. The “regimes” met regularly to coordinate their activities. For example, Rainbow Williams set up a meeting of over 100 BGF members in Druid Hill Park in 2009, according to a federal indictment.
Had the violence following the 2015 Uprising occurred at this point in the history of the BGF, it would lend a great deal of weight to the “revolutionary” theory.
This is because, in the period between 2008 and about 2011, the BGF functioned as a fairly cohesive organization, and thus the use of violence could largely be seen as a means towards carrying out its revolution.
Although drug dealing dominated the economic wing of the BGF at this point, recruits were required to go through rigorous ideological training on The Black Book, including on the necessity of “Ben.” Potential recruits in the prisons would even have “graded tests” on the BGF’s ideology.
But by 2015, the BGF was an extraordinarily fractured organization with many non-ideological members simply using their positions as a means of self-enrichment.
How and why did this fracturing occur? The answer to these questions provides strong evidence that the violence after the Uprising is in fact “opportunistic.”
From grievance to greed
While the BGF began to extend its reach across Baltimore, federal agents and prosecutors were brought in by the BPD to build a RICO case against the BGF. As stated above, in 2009 Brown, Rainbow Williams and other leaders were indicted “for conspiracy to distribute drugs and gun violations.”
The effects of this indictment were immediate. Parker and Alston said that after the indictment, separate “regimes” of the BGF stopped meeting. Parker added that the prison leadership was no longer able to coordinate once it became known that law enforcement was listening in on Nation of Islam meetings — which are supposed to be private.
The void in leadership and inability to coordinate precipitated a fracturing of the BGF. Without guidance, and with only self-enrichment in mind, BGF members who held sufficient rank would take in recruits without any real ideological training or previous history.
Parker described the decrease in recruitment quality using an analogy to the business world. “When you expand out you’re not going to have the same quality,” he said. “Or you’re going to have to hire staff that doesn’t have the same vision for your business.”
One former member of the BGF, who spent nearly a decade in the gang, verified this claim. The source, who requested anonymity, described the mode of operation of their particular “regime” as basically a predatory criminal gang, robbing, fighting and selling drugs, with no ideological commitment to the revolution in mind.
When asked why the leader of the BGF could not bring his members back on to the revolutionary path, the source simply replied — “Because he has no power.”
Ish’mael Washington, 50, a longtime resident of Sandtown-Wichester, concurred. “They don’t understand the structure or organization of what gangs are really meant for,” Washington said. “What you do in your community is a reflection of who you are. And if you are continually causing harm in your community then your gang membership should be revoked because you not doing what you supposed to do. Anything you accumulate your supposed to put back into your community, into your area.”
He went on to say, “And you don’t see that. It’s like almost everyone in the city are J, which is BGF. And how can everyone be BGF in this city, and every time you turn around there’s a murder of one of their own.”
This fracturing among the BGF regimes also took place in Maryland’s prisons and jails. Around 2011 Tavon White took control of the BGF’s most lucrative operation, the city jail, after Eric Brown and many in the BGF leadership were indicted.
Alston, who was in jail when White took over, described White as a predator who only cared about self-enrichment. Alston said that his leadership — or lack thereof — caused the BGF to morph from a somewhat ideological organization into a predatory one that robbed and extorted other inmates, and physically abused resisters.
Parker added: “Yeah, it was anarchy.”
Alston said the “anarchy” caused many in the Maryland system to hold personal vendettas against members of the BGF long after they were freed.
“You know a lot of these dudes would come home with that stuff on they mind. Like you know, ‘that’s the nigga that did that to me like when I was in city jail. I’m going to get your ass,’” he added, “Because you can’t get them in the jail. They like 150 deep. They surround you. But when you outside and see these dudes it’s a different story.”
Parker added, “You know the favorite term in city jail [is]: ‘You know, Baltimore is a small place, I’ll see you again.’”
As White took over the jail, the BPD and federal investigators began building another RICO case against the BGF. This RICO case resulted in White turning state’s witness in December 2014, testifying against many of the BGF’s leadership.
According to Parker, many in the BGF began targeting those who worked directly under White, and led to further fracturing of the gang.
So, with a large and increasing number of individuals with vendettas against the BGF being released from prison, and an already fractured BGF now fighting internally over White’s testimony, the Uprising happened.
A few days later, after several officers were charged in the death of Freddy Grey, the police enacted a massive reduction in proactive policing.
The powder keg that was Sandtown-Winchester, having been filled since 2011, was set off.
According to Kelvin, Alston and other residents, those with vendettas carried out shootings and homicides of BGF members. Comrades of slain and wounded BGF then retaliated. And with the arrest rate in Sandtown-Winchester remaining at an all-time low, the tit-for-tat killings continue to spread across Sandtown-Winchester, like cancer cells multiplying at an exponential rate.
This violence seems to be anything but revolutionary. It’s opportunistic and personal.
Unfortunately, without any hierarchy to control the reciprocal killings, and with proactive police work remaining at an all-time low, it’s difficult to see how the violence ends.
I asked Parker if any of this would have happened had the BGF not fractured. He said, the BGF “wouldn’t have been oppressing the people,” referring to both inmates and civilians on the outside.
“So there wouldn’t have been a need for retribution if the higher-ups that are in place now would stick to the original goal of the organization and what it was formed for,” Parker added. “It would be no need for a feeling that we have to rebel or get back at these guys. Because they wouldn’t be doing the shit that they do.”
“They’re like sharks.”