The young man handed me a piece of notebook paper, fragile at the creases where it had been folded and unfold many times. Kept in a pocket, taken out often to be reviewed and studied, it was a handwritten bibliography of works he was required to read as a new member of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF). A few years ago as a teacher in a prison GED program he came to me while he was incarcerated looking for the books, as the works of political theory, history, racial consciousness and struggle on the list would not be available in the Baltimore prison’s inadequate library.
Over time I was able to have conversations with this young man and some other members of BGF and observe a bit of the complexity of this quasi-political organization, criminal enterprise, and educational program whose focus was on understanding and countering what they saw as the race-based dehumanization of life in prison.
Outside of prison BGF has also made its presence felt in Baltimore. Last fall the city’s new police chief explicitly identified BGF as “expanding its reign” in the city and that the organization was behind a recent uptick in crime.
The continued presence of BGF in Maryland’s prisons–despite significant efforts to eliminate them–and the migration of the organization beyond the prison walls suggests something more is needed than merely explaining them away as just another Baltimore criminal “gang.” Some context is needed.
In the winter 2012 University of California’s Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, Azadeh Zohrabi, provides some of that context. Zohrabi examines how BGF confounds California’s “gang validation” process in that state’s prisons. In “Resistance and Repression: The Black Guerrilla Family in Context,” Zohrabi explores the organization’s founding by George Jackson in the 1960s, its sustained presence and current practices in prison and shows that BGF doesn’t neatly fit correctional authorities “gang” definition, that it represents something else:
Prison administrators believed that BGF ‘posed a new type of correctional problem’ because members were ‘younger, more politicized, and tended to be organized along racial and ethnic lines.’ … the organization grew out of increasing inmate interest and concern about prison conditions in California and across the country and with the patterns of brutal repression and abuse on the inside. …
Many of the inmates who are validated as members of BGF today are targeted solely because of their interest in the writings of George Jackson or because of their political ideology.
Similarly, BGF’s migration from prison organization to having presence on the streets of Baltimore is perhaps less about an “expanded reign” of a gang than the changing nature, purposes and use of incarceration—a change where the hyper-segregated, impoverished communities in cities like Baltimore become interchangeable with jails, prisons and lock-ups of the official criminal justice system. Perhaps BGF didn’t move out of prison as much as prison just moved to the street. University of California, Berkeley sociologist Loïc Wacquant calls this change the “Deadly Symbiosis:”
In the post-Civil Rights era, the remnants of the dark ghetto and an expanding carceral system have become linked in a single system that entraps large numbers of younger black men, who simply move back and forth between the two institutions. This carceral mesh has emerged from two sets of convergent changes: sweeping economic and political forces have reshaped the mid-century “Black Belt” to make the ghetto more like a prison; and the “inmate society” has broken down in ways that make the prison more like a ghetto. The resulting symbiosis between ghetto and prison enforces the socioeconomic marginality and symbolic taint of an urban black sub-proletariat. Moreover, by producing a racialized public culture that vilifies criminals, it plays a pivotal role in remaking “race” and redefining the citizenry.
Lastly for context, there is historical precedent for Baltimore BGF’s weaving together of “gang” identity with community building, racial pride and political identity. The University of Illinois’s John Hagedorn shows exactly that complexity in his work on the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL). Founded in an Illinois juvenile detention facility, CVL became America’s first “gang” to incorporate in their effort to change the Chicago neighborhood of Lawndale. Here is the History Channel’s contextualization of CVL:
What this context suggests is that while the Baltimore police may achieve a tactical victory over a “gang” like BGF, the very mechanisms of the tactical victory (more policing, more incarceration, combined with the changing nature of prison, segregation and poverty) will have the capacity to spawn other such organizations. The conditions in Baltimore that call an organization like BGF into being remain firmly in place.