"Well now that they're weakening the Rukns, we'll soon see crack starting to overrun Chicago," Rudy asserted, as we watched dozens of officers from various law enforcement agencies break into and generally swarm all over El Rukn headquarters at 3947 S. Drexel. "You see, the only reason Chicago don't have the same crack problem that cities like Detroit and Los Angeles, even Milwaukee and Kansas City have, is because the Rukns wouldn't let it in.
"I'm serious, man."
By then I was only half listening. The frenetic assault on the building was just too intense to ignore. And I didn't even know this dude who'd rudely introduced himself as Rudy. I had just wandered onto the scene by luck, taking the scenic route through the south side when I was startled by a bewildering display of police presence at Drexel Boulevard. Unmarked police cars, paddy wagons, vans, trailers, and regular patrol cars were sprawled everywhere, their lights flickering a symphony of emergency semaphores.
A lot of people got the message. An audience of about 200 spectators had gathered on the scene. Helicopters circled above. At first I thought they were an airborne contingent of the same law enforcement officials who were attacking the building--I certainly wouldn't have been surprised had they been--but it turns out they were TV copters. They must have sent some pretty good stuff back to the newsrooms of channels 5 and 7, I thought at the time--a small army of cops storming a building full of black people linked to Libya's Colonel Khadafy was an image tailor-made for "sweeps" month in Chicago. I envisioned Carol Marin descending to the roof of the secured building on a helicopter cable while an announcer intoned, "The El Rukns' Headquarters: from Fort to rubble...see Carol Marin's special report..."
Rudy jolted me out of my reverie by pointing out that the flesh-and-blood Carol Marin was indeed on the scene. So was Jay Levine, he added. I'd never realized their names rhymed until he said, "Hey man, there's Carol Marin and Jay Levine. And that's Russ Ewing over there. I know 'em all, man. I even know the network reporters. And I don't just mean anchormen. I know bureau people. Jed Duvall, George Strait, Andrea Mitchell, I know 'em man. Go ahead, ask me the name of ABC's Washington correspondent. Go ahead ask me."
Now agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were demonstrating their vaunted hydraulic battering ram--a stunning piece of technology. I took advantage of my press card and crossed the police line, a yellow ribbon actually, to get a better look at the action. This move flabbergasted Rudy, who instantly assumed I was a law enforcement official of some sort. He ran along the outside of the ribbon calling me a provocateur and a traitor to my people.
On the other side of the line, many of the police were almost as suspicious of me; every two steps or so I had to present my card. I couldn't blame them; I hadn't exactly come dressed for a televised siege. The city's second outbreak of Indian summer had inspired me to casual extremes. When I showed my card, they examined it closely, carefully comparing the picture to me before haltingly returning it.
Like the police lights, boom boxes were everywhere. Curiously, they all seemed stuck on one song: "It's Funky Enough," a rap cut by a group called the D.O.C. Portions of this particular song echoed from the south end of the El Rukn complex, where six or seven FBI agents were standing around, to the north perimeter, where scores of ATF agents cheered the battering ram's performance. "It's getting funky, it's getting funky," came the repeated refrain from the speakers of the various boxes. Spike Lee's Radio Raheem would have been proud. The D.O.C.'s rap was the perfect theme song for the occasion.
The building at the center of all this activity was quite an imposing structure. Called "the Big Fort" and Masjid Al-Malik (both names managing to praise El Rukn leader and prime mover Jeff Fort/Prince Malik), it is perhaps best known to Chicagoans as a backdrop for the aforementioned Carol Marin and her periodic special reports on the gang problem, for which she has been so well awarded.
In this community of Oakland--the city's poorest, best known for its official unemployment rate of 31 percent--the Big Fort was the popular site of Friday and Saturday night parties. Residents say it was one of the very few black-owned spaces that allowed the neighborhood kids to gather freely. It was one of the few black-owned spaces, period.
Back on the spectators' side of the line, I asked a girl of about 15 what she thought of the proceedings. "They just tryin' to take away our party place, they just jealous," she said, giggling a bit as if she wasn't completely serious.
"Look man," explained a boy in his mid-teens, "these white muthafuckas are just trying to show us that we better not get too uppity, 'cause they can just come and take away whatever a niggah got." But what about all the drug dealing and other kinds of crime that took place in that building? I asked. Aren't you glad this raid has eliminated that? For some reason, everyone laughed.
"I hate to say this, man," said a voice I recognized as Rudy's, "but this raid won't hardly stop that." He pulled me to the side. "You see, drugs are the only thing black folks will buy from other black folks; it's the most successful black-owned business in the country. We buy everything else from white folks."
As Rudy pontificated, scores of men and a few women in shell jackets with the letters ATF emblazoned in yellow on the back swarmed through the area, looking triumphant. It was an ATF investigation that had sparked the successful raid. "We apprehended 65 gang members," one spokesman exclaimed proudly. "It's gettin' funky, it's gettin' funky," rapped the D.O.C.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Al Podgorski--Chicago Sun Times.