Bennie Lee was a leader of the Conservative Vice Lord Nation in the 1970s and 1980s. When a riot broke out in Pontiac Prison in 1979 where Bennie was incarcerated, he and other gang chiefs were indicted for 15 counts of murder. He spent three years on death row before being acquitted and is now one of Chicgo’s most prominent counselors.
An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords – By: Bennie Lee
Following are excerpts from Bennie Lee’s talk, Februrary 28, 2002, to the Chicago Gang History Project. Mr. Lee revised the excerpts January 10, 2003 especially for gangresearch.net
For the complete text of the talk
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Believe it or not, I was involved in gang activity at (9) nine years old, on a street block in Cleveland Ohio.
I came to Chicago in 1963. Believe it or not, I was involved in gang activity at nine years old, on a street block in Cleveland Ohio. We would have rock fights with the guys on the other block. We would do things like steal something to eat out of stores. The area we lived in could be considered a poverty stricken community. Most of the families were on welfare. So most of us got off the way most gang members start, taking to the streets for survival. The head of the households were that of women. Most of my fiends either didn’t have fathers they knew, or had alcoholic stepfathers. I was fortunate to have my father. But at that time he lived in Chicago for a few months to secure a job and eventually moved us to Chicago.
Upon moving to Chicago I met a group of brothers that didn’t have fathers, or alcoholic stepfathers. These guys spent a lot of time in the streets. I didn’t have to do a lot of things these guys did because my father worked as a welder and provided for us. In my relationships with the guys I ran with, I began to till tap and steal out stores. We lived in the K-Town area. We would help women with their groceries and steal their wallets. We would mix up in the crowded stores and steal money out the cash register. So at the age of 10 I was picking pockets and hustling on Madison Street. These were things against my family value system. So I made a culture shift, from a family culture value system, to a street culture value system. This caused conflict with my family, and me because I didn’t have to live like that.
Pontiac Prison Riot – July 1978
Racism had a lot to do with how we became involved with major street gang activities.
My family moved out of K-Town in 1967. We moved on Cicero and Jackson. This was a predominate white neighborhood. My family was one of the first black families to move in that area. You have to keep in mind this was in the sixties. Racism and Jim Crow laws were still in effect. During the summer, we would have walk through the majority white neighborhood to get to the swimming pool. The whites would attack us. These would be adult whites as well as young white boys our age. The adults would urge them onto attack us. There were two swimming pools on the west side for us. One was in the near K-Town area at Garfield Park (3600 west), and Columbus Park, which was 5500 west. We decided to go to Columbus, which was closer. The whites felt we were invading their neighborhood. So it was these conditions that caused racial tension. The word got around the neighborhood that my brothers and me had the courage to fight the whites, so other brothers would join us to go swimming. So in that since we became recognized as a gang. We were forced to ban together for protection.
During the year of 1968 most of the whites had moved out of our immediate area. However, small groups had formed among us blacks. On Cicero the Cicero Vice Lords had stake their claim in the hood. They were older than us. We were 13 through 15 years old. They were 17 and older. During that summer some of us would have little run in with them. We would try retaliating by shouting words of insults and run. One day they chased us and I got caught. They told me that I would have to box Freddy Pie in order to leave. Freddy Pie had a reputation as being a two-time golden glove champ. He was older than us, yet he was our height. Out of fear I boxed Freddy Pie. I noticed that he couldn’t dominate me. I hung in their for a few minutes. I saw an open in the crowd so I ran.
Let’s “Gang-Up” on Oppression the struggle for power in oppressed communities ( Atiba Shanna) -Haki Kweli Shakur ATC Collective NAPLA NAIM MOI 1-28-53 ADM
It was a few days later my group and me were hanging on the corner of Gladys and Lavern. Before we realized the Vice Lords had us surrounded. They asked us “who is the leader” all eyes went my way. This was one of the most fearful days of my life. Some of these guys I ran with were intimidating to me. I didn’t believe they looked at me with such respect. So the Vice Lords told us they were having a meting that Friday, at Mandel Church and we needed to be there. Upon going to that meeting, I became one of the youngest recognized leaders of the Vice Lords at that time at thirteen. We didn’t carry the name Cicero Vice Lord. We became Apache Vice Lords.
Frantz Fanon, a Black Psychiatrist wrote in his book “ The Wretched of the Earth” how when a people are being oppressed by an oppressor, the oppressed try all means to fight back. Yet, they find their way is ineffective. They then start to use the same methods as the oppressor to fight back. What happens then, the oppressor moves out the area and the oppressed use the same methods on each other, to control that was once controlled by the oppressor, now the fight is between each other to control what little resources.
You find that Frantz Fanon study stand true with the experience of the African American street gangs. We as a people moved into white controlled communities. They initially fought to keep us out of their schools, swimming pools, dance halls etc. When the whites moved out of the community, we found our selves fighting over turf. We fought over swimming pool space. The blacks that lived near Columbus Park felt we were invading their neighborhood, and they fought us to keep us out of their swimming pool. We lived near the Keymens club. We felt like the brothers on the other side of Madison were invading our club, and this caused us to ban together to keep them out. They in turn banned together to fight us. As a result, fractions of the Vice Lords were formed. We eventually became the Insane Vice Lords. The guys cross Madison became the Four Corner Hustlers. The group near Columbus Park became Central Insane Vice Lords. Yet we all were allies to each other to ban together against the Gangsters that formed on the low end.
On the Riot in Pontiac
On July 22, 1978 a riot broke out in Pontiac prison. Three guards were killed; two were stabbed over thirty times each and survived. As a result the penitentiary went on lock down. The water was cut off for a week. We were not fed for a few days. The joint was under investigation. Every one there was interrogated and felt to be considered a suspect. October 14, 1978 the guards came to my cell and advised me that I was being transferred to another institution. I was shackled and led to a cook county sheriffs bus. When I got on the bus, I noticed every Gang Leader that was in Pontiac was on the bus. Because I had a high-ranking position with the Vice Lords, I was put among the other leaders of the dominant street gangs. It was at that time I realized we were the ones they would indict for the riot.
We eventually were housed on death row at the Statesville. The indictments came down August 19, 1979. We were each charged with fifteen counts of murder, two attempt murder and mob action. We were sent to court in Pontiac Illinois. The lawyers fought that we couldn’t get a fair trial in Pontiac. The jury would consist of the family and friends of the deceased guards. We gat a change of venue, and was transferred to the cook county jail. We became known as the Pontiac 17. As we moved closer to trial they split us up. They decided to trial the Vice Lords, Black Souls, one Elruken and a brother whom was a former Black Panther mistaken to be an Elruken. I was most frightened by the fact I had an eighth grade reading average. I could not understand the dialogue between the states attorney and the defense attorney.
Honorable Louis Farrakhan And The Autobiography Of Malcolm X
(Farrakhan) said “the conspiracy is not at this time in the court room, the conspiracy happened over 400 years ago during slavery.
There were ten thousand pages of discovery material (the evidence against us) I began to study the dictionary. This helped me to get a better understanding of the evidence and the dialogue that took place in the courtroom. The Minister Louis Farrakhan had visited us while we were in Statesville. His message to us helped us in our defense. He said “ the conspiracy is not at this time in the court room, the conspiracy happened over 400 years ago during slavery. He said that because black men have been taught not to trust one another and look at the system as power over us, we tend to become divided. As leaders of different gangs you look at each other as opposition. It is with this division that you have lost the trial already”. So we had to put aside looking at each other as opposition and become brothers of the struggle. This new attitude gave birth to a new movement for us. We started to become part of the movement of black peoples fight against racism and oppression. We realized that we were being scapegoat for a system that has failed. Governor Thompson Made a statement the night of the riot “ this riot is a year late, we expected a potential riot due to the over crowded conditions. The prison was designed to house 600 inmates, yet there were over a thousand inmates in Pontiac prison the day of the riot.
So as God would have it, we were all acquitted on all charges. Because Governor Thompson and The Director of the Illinois Department of correction Charles Row stated on the day of the riot,” the riot is a direct result of the over crowded conditions. The lawyers proved that the state changed their position to “a gang take over” to save face for the mistake of the department of correction, housing inmates under inhuman conditions.
My sentence was up November 1980. However, I was sent back to Joliet prison to serve another year. The state said I had lost a year good time and a year c-grade. I had become knowledgeable of the law, so I challenged them. The Pontiac experience became an education of the law. I eventually was released June 5, 1981. Upon my release I soon got in touched with the fact that I was not prepared for discharge. I was nineteen at the time of my initial incarceration, and was twenty-seven at the time of my discharge. Prior to my incarceration I had never worked. I had never obtained a social security card, drivers license and had only a half-year of high school. It was because of these issues I went back to the streets and went back to Statesville. It was while I was in Statesville that I read Malcolm X autobiography.
I was sent to segregation for three months. Upon entering the cell I noticed a book on the bed. It was the autobiography of Malcolm X. At that time I had heard of Malcolm, but I didn’t know anything about him or what he stood for. I took the book and threw it in the corner of the cell. After being in the cell for a month or more, I picked the book up out of boredom. I turned to the page where Malcolm had become frustrated trying to read a book. He then put the book down and read the dictionary. Malcolm X educated himself in prison. He took the opportunity to study history and politics after developing his reading skills. That book had such an impact on me. I eventually got out of segregation and approached prison life a little more radical. I told the brothers I was a part of that we need to consider the teachings we have, and start living up to them. I went on to explain to them that we older guys were in our thirties and we need to make prison an educational experience for our younger brothers. They shouldn’t have to go through what we have been through. I had been in and out of jail since the age of fifteen. I served two years in St. Charles youth commission, in and out of the county jail for two years, went to the joint at 19, and came home at 27, and now back in prison again. I pointed out that we need to make sure the lil brothers go to school rather than work in the kitchen.
The Meaning Of Vice Lord Symbols
And that the five-point star represents the true nature of man. For every man is seeking love, peace, freedom, justice and equality in his life.
As Vice Lords we took an oath. We vowed that we would serve our time constructively, so that upon our release we will become a constructive member of our community. Our prayer states that if we retrogress from thy divine principals and laws, the wrath will surely fall upon us. I had gotten older and started to realize that I was in a position as part of the leadership to make some changes for the better. I ran into a lot of opposition and eventually dropped my flag.
The 1960s And The Assassination of Fred Hampton
Fred Hampton was assassinated because he became a political threat to the Illinois politicians. He helped to organize the LSD movement, pulling the minds of the Street Gang leaders to think in terms of the Civil rights movement.
African American street gangs were involved in a lot of black on black crime and violence towards one another. Based on what I talked about early with Frantz Fanons theory, African American street gangs attacked each other as oppositions. In 1967 there was a gang peace summit held in Washington DC. Street gangs here attended the summit. Upon returning back to Chicago a movement took place. Fred Hampton was the head of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. He met with the various heads of the African American street gangs here in Chicago. He believed a people should have power in the community in which they dwelled. He introduced this concept to the various heads and they formed LSD. LSD was a citywide coalition the consisted of Vice Lords, Stones and Disciples. They joined forces and shut down construction sites that didn’t hire blacks. They became part of the civil rights movement. They had adopted a new ideology.
On the south side the Disciples and the Stones had youth centers. The stones formed “opportunity Knock” people like Oscar Brown Jr. got involved cultivating the talent of black youth. On the west side the Vice Lords formed “Operation Boot Strap” they networked with big businesses on the west side to set up apprentice programs. Companies like Western Electric, Motorola, and Zenith hired them to become apprentice. Some Millionaires gave cash donations to support the businesses they started. They received some Government funds and became Incorporated as not for profit organizations. The Vice Lords became ‘Conservative Vice Lord Incorporation. They opened up Teen town, a restaurant, the Lion pad and a main office that focused on community development.
You have to understand the FBI Counter Intelligence Program. It was designed to infiltrate and discredit black movements. They did it with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Muslims. They would initially send letters to Jeff Fort saying Fred Hampton was planning his assassination. They did other harassments to discourage membership with both groups. They set up an atmosphere so no one could trust the other. However, LSD remained strong and supported political candidates that made office. These were opposing candidates to Mayor Dailey. Fred Hampton was assassinated because he became a political threat to Illinois politicians. He helped organize the LSD movement, pulling their minds towards the civil rights movement. Mayor Dailey declared a war on street gangs and finally states attorney Harahan lead the police to Fred Hampton apartment and assassinated him while he was sleep.
Prison and Street Gangs
“ Those southern farmers have a new crop-called the African American Inmate.
Daley’s attack on street gangs lead to discontinued appropriation of funds for the programs they started. They had become dependent on the funds for a means of survival. With all they had fought for, now taken away, they were forced to support other grass roots organizations that were their allies. Keep in mind these were the late sixties and turning to the early seventies. Racism was still all time high. The brothers would demonstrate with other groups. When fights broke out, the brothers would be charged. Most of the brothers had prior arrests before the movement. So you saw a large number of arrests and eventually convictions. This was the first time in the history of Illinois Department of Corrections history that they were faced with a large population of African American Street Gangs.
Investigations and surveys were done to determine how many Stones ,Vice Lords and Disciples were in the county jail. By the beginning of the seventies the Illinois prisons start experiencing a large number of African American Street Gangs. Where the white gangs once ruled the system, now the African Americans came in more organized and intimidating.