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Cover Story
Mean Streets
Face-to-face with gangs and “the rock” in Madison, Wisconsin

By Chuck Nowlen
Published January, 1992
Copyright 1992, Madison Magazine


I hadn’t been on the street very long when I learned that if I wanted to, I could buy crack cocaine almost anywhere in town – Sommerset, Broadway-Simpson, Darbo Street, Truax, maybe in one of Madison’s middle-class neighborhoods, maybe even the pricier areas.

I had driven down Magnolia Lane, which in the summer might as well be a drive-up window for crack, or “rock,” as it is called.

I had cruised past an apartment building I had lived in while in college and was summoned to the side of the road by a man who appeared to be working on his car.

“You lookin’?” the man asked when I rolled down my window.

“No thanks,” I said, and the man had walked silently away. If I had instead answered, “you holdin’?” and produced 20 dollars, the deal would have been done in less than 30 seconds.

I also had met a rockhead who literally shrieked when it was explained to her that I was a reporter working on a story about gangs and drugs. She later agreed to talk to me, but only on a Sunday afternoon after she had taken her two children to church.

“And she ain’t about doing any drugs around you, man,” the person who introduced me to the woman reported with a little smile. “She thinks you’re five-oh for sure.”

Five-oh, an expression I was to hear many times, mostly in suspicious reference to me, means you’re working for the police.

But now I was ready to do it, feeling that maybe I needed the experience of buying and seeing the rock to do justice to my story. This time, the opportunity was only a small parking lot and a stairway away, barely a block from what was then the focal point of the city’s high-profile “Blue Blanket” anti-drug sweep.

An acquaintance of mine, a former gang member and drug addict, tried to discourage me. According to him, the rock is “a demon,” which along with AIDS might rot this country from within. He was also worried, not in the least about my getting arrested, but about me. Curiosity might get the best of me, and I might try it, he said. And if I OD’d while he was around, the standard street first response – ice underneath the armpits and genital area – might not be enough to get me back.

“Besides,” he said as a heavy, early November storm pelted my windshield with sleet, “you just might decide that you like it. A lot of people think they can handle this and handle that. Crack cocaine is something else.”

At the last minute, the deal fell through, but I was referred to another building in another part of town. On the way there, I began to feel funny about what I was doing, and I chickened out, which suited my acquaintance just fine when I told him.

“Whatever you want to do,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’ve got to trust your instincts, man. Mine have saved my life many times.”


I approached many public and private sources during the course of this story in an effort to find someone – ideally a gang leader – who could help me illustrate what gang life was all about. I had heard many opinions about the gang-crack connection. I had also heard conflicting reports about how entrenched, and how vicious, gang activity in Madison had become.

Eventually, I was introduced to a man I will call “J.D.,” an abbreviation for his gang nickname, John Dillinger, which he earned for his death-wish fearlessness, his expertise with guns and his cold, calculating ability to plan crimes. Most of the other names in this story are pseudonyms as well.

A tall, extremely affable and obviously intelligent man, J.D. has been in Madison on the straight and narrow for about seven years, an eternity in some ways, a very short while in others. He is well over 30; the young people he knows here call him “old man.”

But still, if you sit in a crowded restaurant with him, he will case the place out and tell you in detail how many guys it would take to stick the place up, where they would stand and how they could take out the police if confronted. He knows that the temptation of crime and drugs might be too great in the large Midwestern city where he was raised. He often described the entire lifestyle as an addiction.

J.D. has been in two gangs in his life, neither in Madison. The first one, an early teen group, was mainly about flashy gang sweaters, bravado and fist fights. But the second, a 50-member group he co-led, was a whole different ball game. More clandestine and loosely structured internally than the first, it was infinitely more dangerous, and activities ran the gamut from check fraud to bank robbery – all precisely planned and carried out.

There were drugs, lots of drugs, mainly cocaine and heroin. (J.D. pronounced it, “hair-wahn.”) And J.D.’s partners – Peck, Danny, Jimma Lee, Herc and the rest – would never even think of walking around without a gun. Guns were a necessity, and they came in all shapes and sizes: .357 Magnums, 45s, Weatherby pistols, Army carbines, machine guns, whatever. One of J.D.’s favorites was “a big old cowboy gun with a barrel as long as your arm.”

A drug deal, a post office robbery or a numbers-man stick-up could land the group sixty to a hundred thousand dollars in checks or cash. Afterwards, J.D. might buy a $1,500 ring or a Cadillac; he might buy more drugs; or he might drive across the country with a stolen credit card.

“That’s when I was rockin’ and rollin’,” he said. “For a while there, we actually made quite a name for ourselves as people not to be messed with.”

J.D. has been to prison – the joint – at least twice. The first time, he said, was “wild, a damn adventure” like an amusement park ride. The second was just flat-out tedious, and he is determined to avoid another – not with fixed-term federal sentencing on the horizon, and not when his young son so desperately needs a positive male role model. His former longtime parole officer vouched for both his truthfulness about his past and his commitment to changing his life.

“I talk to my family back home, and they’ll be callin’ me Green Acres motherf**ker,” he told me with a broad smile. “They’ll be sayin’, ‘Where’s your bib overalls, motherf**ker? Where’s your cornstalk pipe?’”

J.D. still has three bullet fragments in his hipbone, souvenirs from a gunfight with the police in a drug house several years ago. At one point when we were together, I asked him point-blank if he had ever killed anyone – or, as he liked to phrase it, “taken anybody up on out of here.”

“Let’s put it this way, I played the game,” J.D. smiled and looked out the kitchen window of my home as he spoke. “And the game says if it’s me and you on the street and I’ve got my foot on your throat, I’ve got to bring it on down. Otherwise, I’ll be the victim – the vic’, you call it – the next time around.”


Stephen Blue, director of the Dane County Neighborhood Intervention Program (NIP), designed for young men and women who are either in gangs or at risk of gang behavior, explained to me that the overwhelming majority of his 2,000 clients are ‘wannabes” and imitators. They are white, black, Latino and Asian. The male-female split is about 50-50.

Most of Madison’s legitimate gang members, Blue said, are initiates of the Chicago-based Gangster Disciples, known internally as “folks,” or the Vice Lords, who call themselves “people.” A few Latin Kings have been spotted as well. Some have migrated to Madison with their families; some visit the city periodically; and some are natives who have been anointed here by others.

Crack trade is undeniably a problem among Madison gangsters, Blue and other city officials said, with the big-city umbrella organizations suspected by some of recruiting local juveniles only to serve as drug-dealing foot soldiers. One NIP “graduate,” who left behind a yearbook of Vice Lord and Gangster Disciple history, rituals and symbols, was sent here to see if a Chicago-style crackhouse could survive.

There are no turf gangs in Madison at present, Blue noted, and a NIP staffer contrasted the Madison scene sharply to Milwaukee, where the initiation process of one gang includes shooting a passing stranger at random on the street. Here, “people,” “folks” and the rest mix easily with nonmembers and even with counterparts in other gangs, which is unthinkable, and almost certainly deadly, in the big city. While scanning NIP’s Vice Lord/Gangster Disciple yearbook, I came upon the following Vice Lord prayer:

“Have no pity, bury me in Vice Lords city.
Put two shotguns on my chest, put one high, put one low.
Let me shoot two Disciples before I go.”

One NIP client, suspected of being “folks,” says too much has been made of the gang stereotype in Madison. Gangs are made out to be a homogeneous group of sociopaths into nothing but rock, conquest of drug territory and random violence, he said, when in fact something entirely different is the case.

“Won’t nobody be ruthless for no reason at all,” the boy said, obviously exasperated. “I get angry when they say some of the things I do are, quote, gang-related. I mean, at my school, when you’ve got a group of white guys hanging around, it’s a group of friends. But when they’re black, it’s a gang.”

Added a friend of his, also suspected “folks:” “Everybody does a little dirt; it’s part of growing up. But nobody (in the gang) tells me what to do. I decide. You can be about fighting or crime, he said. You can be about rock. You can also be about going to school.

I am reminded after the interview that while they are basically good kids who are trying hard in school, these two youngsters have had a total of eight battery charges brought against them. A third member of their NIP discussion group was in detention at the time for selling crack cocaine.

Increasing numbers of extremely hard-core gang members are finding their way to Madison, Blue says, and the problem will only get worse if the city fails to make a “significant investment” in preventing it. For evidence of this, one need only recall the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Damon Smith in the Broadway-Simpson neighborhood this summer. Dane County Sheriff Rick Raemisch also cites a 96 percent jump in juvenile felonies in Madison over the past three years.

I was told that gang leaders would be very difficult to locate for this story and that they also would be hard to identify. They dislike calling attention to themselves, and even with assurances of anonymity, the public airing of a leader’s insights could only be bad for his – or her – business.

“We picked a guy up last year,” said Town of Madison Police Lieutenant Brad Smith, “a very collegiate-looking guy. He bragged about being a leader of such-and-such gang. We didn’t believe him, but we checked him out. Turns out he was everything he said he was and more. The police in another city told us, ‘We’re glad you got him ‘cause we sure don’t want him.’”


J.D.’s specialty in his second gang was armed robbery, mostly of heavily guarded drug houses. But he recited a litany of other crimes he and/or his partners were into. Some of it was “senseless shit” and twisted displays of machismo. There were full-blown gang gunfights – so big that a small army of cops would wait until the shooting stopped before moving in – over things like a girlfriend sitting in the wrong seat in a nearly empty bar. One isolated, peripheral member of the gang named Railroad, whom J.D. described as “a true dog, the absolute lowest,” filed the sight off his gun so he could use it as a sexual object during a rape.

J.D. avoided people like Railroad if he could. He didn’t respect them, first of all; and he didn’t feel like he could count on them during one of the group’s highly orchestrated jobs.

“The rest of us, we got our strength from being our own men,” he said. “We didn’t ask each other for help, but we were good friends. It’s like, if you hurt, I feel your pain. If it’s me and you facing 10 guys, you say to them, ‘All right, go ahead and bring it.’”

J.D. doubts that big-city-style turf gangs could survive in Madison under present circumstances, and he sees little evidence of hard-core gang activity here. For one thing, he said, Madison’s depressed areas are “a paradise” compared to his old neighborhood, where a junkyard was the local playground and where you had to fight every single day just to play baseball. For another thing, they’re fairly small.

“Take Chicago, for example,” he said. “You got miles and miles of ghetto to hide out in there. You can be anonymous, whereas here, everybody knows who you are. You can’t have a for-real gang unless you got a for-real ghetto; it’s as simple as that. I don’t see nothin’ like that here.”

During the time that J.D. and I spent together – the better part of four days – he often spoke in broad, philosophical terms about the ghetto. An avid reader and a superb chess player, J.D. compared it to a fish bowl to which food and fresh water are rarely, if ever, added. Sooner or later, he said, the occupants either die or feed off each other, and banding together is the best way to get by.

In major cities, the stakes have risen dramatically, even in the decade or so since J.D.’s active gang days. Gang sophistication and ruthlessness have taken a quantum leap in recent years, with Uzis and even hand grenades replacing .357 Magnums in some cases, J.D. said. In his old neighborhood, the value of human life among the gangs “isn’t worth a roach,” he told me. “They’ll shoot you dead for no reason at all.” J.D. is now very worried that “an entire generation of our babies is dying.” He, and many others I spoke to, called it nothing less than genocide, in every sense of the word.

“Gangs, crime, drugs – they’re all the same thing, and they ain’t nothin’ but a symptom,” said J.D. “We’re talking about a bunch of poor people who have been thrown together and can’t get out. And poor people don’t live in the true sense of living, you understand. They survive.”

I asked J.D. if he knows what happened to the others in his gang. Herc will be in prison for the next 50 years after robbing a Nevada casino. Jimma Lee was shot to death with a .357 Magnum over a fish sandwich. Danny was shot in the temple at point-blank range. Peck died a paraplegic after being shot in the stomach by a girlfriend.

“They’re all dead.” J.D. pauses a second, then continues. “I’ve often wondered why I’m not dead myself. I should have died before I was 26 years old.”


Twelve-year-old Jimmy is understandably nervous and reluctant to talk as we sit at his dining room table. His father rescued him from the big city only a year ago so they could be reunited permanently in Madison. Now his dad sits directly across from him, listening intently to his answers. His stepmother does the same as she cooks dinner in the kitchen a few feet away. A stranger – and well-dressed white man who might just be five-oh – is asking him hard questions about gangs and the rock. Jimmy’s stepbrothers sit in the other room, straining to hear.

I ask Jimmy if he ever saw gangs in his former big-city neighborhood, and he nods vigorously, saying nothing.

Did he ever have to fight? Another nod followed by strained silence. Jimmy squirms as he answers and twists the fingers of his left hand.

“These kids on the other side, they didn’t like me.” Deep sigh. “Usually, I ran when they chased me. One day I ran home, but (his foster parents) locked the door. They wouldn’t let me in.”

His father now tells Jimmy to take his hands away from his mouth.

“They said I had to fight sometime, otherwise I’d always be running.”

I ask him what happened then.

“I just fought ‘em,” he shrugs. “A whole bunch of them. After a while, my (foster parents) and some other people came out and got me. I didn’t win, but they said I also didn’t lose. They said they was proud of me because I did my best.”

Jimmy goes on to tell me that when the gangs initiated new members, they’d surround the individual, and a succession of members would be picked to fight the candidate. Fist fights, mostly, but sometimes they’d use baseball bats or sticks.

I ask him if he ever saw crack cocaine in his old neighborhood. He rolls his eyes and sighs, “everywhere.” I ask him who sold it, and after a fearful glance at his father, he almost whispers, “I did … sometimes.”

Jimmy, after some prodding from his dad, explains that his foster mother would occasionally ask him if he would “do something for her.” She would get some cocaine from her purse, cook it in a glass tube over the stove, and soon it would form into a little rubbery ball. After it hardened, Jimmy would be directed to “go someplace where there was a lot of drug addicts and charge them for it.” He sold it in “nickel and dime” quantities, but he is unsure how much he was paid. He finally guesses $100 a week.

At this point, Jimmy’s stepmother, who had been extremely quiet during the 90 minutes I’d been there, interjects sternly: “Now you see what (Jimmy’s dad) was saying about these kids not knowing what they were doing?” I nod and ask her if she’d like me to stop the questioning.

“No, go on ahead,” she says, striding to the couch in the living room. “Just keep in mind that this was his ‘mother’ who was doing all this. He’s still affected. He’s still scarred.”

Jimmy would give some of the money to his foster parents and keep some for himself. When I ask him what he would spend his money on , he thinks for a long moment before responding.

“Toys. Remote control cars.”

As a dinner of spaghetti, meat sauce, Tabasco and bread is served, we talk about life in Madison. Jimmy says he likes it here because he doesn’t have to fight as much. He still sees 17- and 18-year-old gang members; he can tell by their Starter jackets, by the way they “go around hittin’ people and all that” and by the way they say to each other, “What’s up, people,” or “What’s up, folks?”

But there are a lot of “fakers,” too, Jimmy says. In a room full of 100 gang types, maybe 20 are the real thing. He sees all kinds of people selling rock here, but nobody asks him to, and he wouldn’t do it if they did.

“You know that’s because I done put the fear of God into you, right?” Jimmy’s father looks him square in the eye, and the boy smiles sheepishly and nods.

After dinner, I put my notebook away, and we all sit and chat for a while. Jimmy shows me his report card – a B-plus, a few Cs and Ds, and handwritten praise for progress. At one point, he brings me his Christmas list, and at the top of the page is “Remote Control Car.”

The next day, I learn that the food I had eaten was very likely the family’s last. Neither Jimmy’s father nor his stepmother is working. Neither is on public assistance.


J.D. and I talk about Jimmy later, and while he by no means excuses Jimmy’s foster mother (quite the opposite, in fact), he again frames the situation in terms of survival. In the ghetto, the rules of parenting are altogether different: He, too, had been forced by his father to fight, and he wouldn’t have lived beyond his teens if he hadn’t.

As for the rock, J.D. offers no excuses here either, but at the same time, he says, what do you say to someone who wakes up every day of her life in squalor? What do you say when there is no day-to-day way for her even to buy food?

“It’s about ‘how can I escape the real world I’m so unhappy in, that I don’t seem to be nothin’ in?” J.D. says. “So I stay high. That way, I don’t have to admit the truth about the way I’m livin’ and the way I’m making my kids live.”

At some point, though, the rock will kill you one way or another, J.D. is quick to add. The addiction, like the high, is about being “driven – 90 miles an hour down the highway in a Mack truck.” J.D. pumps his fists up and down as he talks. “You come down, and you’re willing to do anything to get some more. I know a woman right around the corner who would do anything for it. You could put a little rock on the floor and ask her to crawl across the floor and lick you all the way up from your toes. She’ll do it for the rock.”


“K.G.,” an 11th grader is Madison who at first refuses to be interviewed unless he gets paid, says he likes living in Madison because it’s quieter than his native Chicago and “the police don’t sweat you as bad.” Gang members here will tell you to turn your hat straight if you’re wearing it cocked in their signature fashion; they’ll tell you to take your coat off if it’s the same color as theirs; and they will beat you up if you refuse. Still, he says, Madison gang members aren’t anywhere as mean as their Chicago counterparts. I ask if he ever saw people shot to death by people or folks in Chicago, and he responds, “Lots of times.”

“You gotta watch for the drive-bys,” K.G. says. “They never get the one they’re after. They always get somebody else – like that boy over at Simpson.

If you become a gang member here, “you ain’t really considered real,” K.G. goes on to explain. “There ain’t really no gangs up here at all, really. Everybody’s just chillin’ with everybody else.”

K.G. takes issue with the notion – popular with the local police – that big-city gang members find Madison an attractive, easy-pickins market, ripe for exploitation.

“It’s boring, mostly,” he says. “You gotta really work at it to make it live.”

I have a habit of marking significant quotes with five-pointed stars while I’m conducting an interview, and now K.G.’s younger brother nudges him playfully and points to my notepad. The five-pointed star is a trademark of “the people.” A six-pointed star is a trademark of “the folks.” We all look at each other. I shrug and laugh, and the younger boy joins me. K.G., though, looks like he has been caught doing something wrong.


For Jackie, a 35-year-old mother of four, the move from Chicago’s South Side to Madison was nothing less than an escape. She had been robbed at knifepoint more than once; rock was everywhere; and one of her sons was getting to the age, “13 or 14 at the most,” when he was likely to be approached to join some of his best friends in the gang.

In Chicago, recruitment was serious business: If you refused, the gangs would threaten you or members of your family; they’d “jump on you,” or they’d “rob you of any little thing you had.” Her son had been to a couple of gang meetings. He knew all the handshakes, the “pitchfork hand signals and all that.” But he told her that he hadn’t joined, and she believed him.

I was told by someone outside Jackie’s family that a few days earlier, a boy had come to her door looking to cop from a 20-year-old, a Vice Lord, who was staying for the weekend. When the 20-year-old saw the boy, who owed him money, he ran upstairs, got a gun and chased him out into the parking lot, firing indiscriminately.

Jackie’s father, Bob, who knows the 20-year-old well but had no idea he was a dealer, says the young man “has death on him.” A friend of the family has a habit of inadvertently calling Bob by the young man’s name, and it drives Bob a little crazy when it happens. He thinks it might be a death curse. I was told the Vice Lord, who makes as much as $6,000 a weekend selling rock in Madison, might be there when I visited for the interview, but he never showed up.

Now Jackie thinks maybe she’ll have to move yet again. Things aren’t as bad as they were in Chicago, but they’re getting worse, and it seems like “everybody and anybody is about rock.”

“It just hit me in the face one day that all of Chicago – the drugs, the gangs, everything – is right here in Madison,” she says. “Then I knew that I hadn’t left it behind.”

Jackie insists that gangs couldn’t be the top link in the crack cocaine chain. It has to be people with lots of money, maybe politicians or high financiers. I ask her if she works, and she says no, “public assistance.”

As Jackie and I finish the interview and I get up to leave, I can’t help but notice a small fish tank on a coffee table over near the window. About a quarter of the water has evaporated, and the remainder is cloudy and stale. A large goldfish rests motionless but alive near the bottom.


The many police and social service officials I spoke to for this story all agreed that law enforcement alone will not solve the still-immature problems of gangs and rock in Madison. The city’s “Blue Blanket,” for example, includes building inspectors, police/community neighborhood watches, social service programs and more. Several citizen-organized initiatives – youth activities, parent education sessions and foot patrols – have sprung up. The Neighborhood Intervention Program has also been successful in creating a “positive gang” for a good portion of Madison’s at-risk youth.

Still, as J.D. and I have lunch with Mutu Ngai, a former convict and current real estate broker who is secretary of a local anti-gang group, I’m left with the impression that while Madison talks a good game, it is woefully short on the money and street-smart expertise needed to back it up. Ngai’s group, for example, estimates that it will need at least $100,000 to make a dent in the problem. So far, overtures to local government and corporations have netted only $12,000.

Ngai, who agrees that Madison remains a paradise, compared to the inner city, says part of the problem might be that the middle- and upper-class populations here have not yet been bitten by gang activity and crack. The catch-22, he adds, is that by the time that happens, “it’s probably too late.”

“People here know there’s a problem,” Ngai says. “But they have no idea what’s coming down the road if a lot more isn’t done.”

After lunch, J.D. and Ngai play chess, and J.D. wins both games handily. Later, I drive J.D. to an interview for a maintenance job, and there he finds out that he is one of more than 100 applicants. He refuses to apply for welfare, and he gets by these days on sporadic jobs with a temporary services agency. A couple of times during our time together, he asks me if he can borrow a couple of dollars for cigarettes or a little food.

As I am ready to leave – my interviews are finished for the article – J.D. and I talk about maybe getting together later in the week for a beer or something. We shake hands, and I walk toward my car, but as I unlock my driver’s-side door, he calls after me.

“Don’t forget about me, now,” he says with a little smile.

“I won’t,” I answer.

But I have to admit that I feel a little bit relieved when I plop down on my couch later in another part of town.




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