Two black street gangs, the Black Gangster Disciples and the Cobra Stones, control the Cabrini-Green housing project's only growth industry -- crime.
To make an illegal dollar in the project, one must pay off the gangs, and there are severe penalties for nonpayment. Independent drug dealers who refuse to pay up to 50 percent of their profits to the gangs are often murdered.
Barbara Richards, a marijuana dealer in a high-rise apartment at Cabrini-Green, refused to give any money to the Black Gangster Disciples. The Disciples tried to kill her last month, and Chicago police say the gang is still trying.
Richards, 21, who grew up in Chicago public housing, now lives like a prison inmate in her $50-a-month one-bedroom apartment. She and her 2-year-old daughter leave the apartment only when they can find an escort. Her husband, who works at a Chicago clothing store, does not come home for days at a time. Richards (since she is in danger, this is a fictitious name) recently gave the following account of her violent encounters with the Disciples:
"My husband makes pretty nice income [about $200 a week], but we wanted to make some extra money so we started selling reefer. For about a year we sold it out of a row house and we had a lot of prominent people coming to get it -- officials from the housing project and a few policemen.
"We moved here [a 19-story high-rise controlled by the Disciples] about seven months ago and we continued to sell reefer. We made a nice living, about $150 to $200 a day, selling it. Then we found out through my cousin who lives in the next building that we were making too much money and the gangbangers [members of the Disciples gang] wanted us to stop. My husband had some of the best reefer around. That's why they wanted us to stop. The gangbangers can sell the worst reefer and nobody complains because they might get shot.
"I wasn't living up here a month when the first incident happened. Somebody pounded on the door and said, 'Do you got any reefer?' I opened the door and he [a young man wearing a ski mask] had a gun. He pointed it dead at me and said, 'Where's the money, bitch?' He sent me into the bathroom with my baby, and he found $250 and about $100 worth of reefer in the bedroom. When he left, he took my turntable with him. I found it outside on the blacktop all broken up.
"After that, you know, I told my husband I didn't want to sell any more because I didn't want to get killed. But we got a gate for the front door [a $180 flexible iron grating purchased for $37 down and $18 a month] and I started selling reefer through the gate. Then two Disciples in the next building told my cousin that we should start paying them money or they would blow our door down.
"I told my husband and he say we gonna buy some guns. We bought a .22-caliber revolver and a .22-caliber automatic through my husband's little brother. He knows a lot about the gangs and is a professional thief. He stole the guns and sold them to us for $15 each. I stored one of the guns in the kitchen cabinet and the other in the hallway closet.
"The second incident happened in March. I had people over for dinner. When they came in, I left the gate open. Someone knocked at the door, I opened it and the same man as before came in. He also had somebody waiting at the door. He made us all lie down on the kitchen floor. Then he took my brother to lock him in the bathroom. I reached into the kitchen cabinet and grabbed a gun. I fired at him when he was walking back to the kitchen.
"It didn't hit him. But he didn't shoot back at me. He just stood in the hallway and said, 'Throw the gun down, bitch.'
"My little sister [17 years old] started yelling, 'Throw him the gun.' Then she knocked the gun out of my hand. He picked it up. That's when he grabbed me and hit me in the face with his fist. I fell. He went to close the apartment door and I figured he was going to come back and kill us all.
"I reached into the [hallway] closet and found the automatic gun and I fired once into the floor. He was standing in the hall and when he saw I had another gun his eyes seemed to widen and he just looked. I shot at him four times somewhere between his neck and his waist. He said to the guy at the door, 'I'm hit.' He fell backwards and his friend pulled him out of my apartment.
"I went to the police station and they let me out after an hour. The police told me I did everything right except that my gun was not registered.
(Police confiscated Richards' automatic pistol, but did not charge her. Although possession of an unregistered gun is grounds for eviction at Cabrini-Green, Richards has not been threatened with eviction. A police investigator said the man Richards shot was a 22-year-old "enforcer" for the Disciples. The investigator also said that Richards had earned a measure of respect from the Disciples by shooting the "enforcer," but that her life remains in danger.)
"The police were making a lot of jokes about I should of killed him so there would be one less they had to kill. And they told me to stop selling reefer.They said to me, Do I want to make money or have somebody blow my head off or have the baby's head blowed off."