L’A Capone’s song, Shooters, blasted as the walls of the small apartment shook. Thick smoke from marijuana-filled cigars called blunts hung over the heads of 15 to 20 young; Black males crammed into the living room. Their eyes barely open, jumping and hollering in unison:
“It’s some shooters on my squad
It’s some shooters on my squad
If he holding on that work
Then that pussy gettin’ robbed”
They never missed a word, never missed a beat as they recited the lyrics of the Drill rap song like a battlefield war cry. Their dread heads bobbed wildly up and down. Their guns flashed, pointed directly into the camera while they threw hand gestures that signified their gang affiliation. All the while, they hurled insults at their Opps, rivals. Their shirtless black bodies crashed into one another as they fought for the attention of the Facebook Live audience.
Some say this is clout chasing and virtual gang-bangin’, Black males’ attempting to get recognition, and girls. Others say it’s entertainment made popular by today’s Drill Rap Music scene, a music subgenre defined by its grim, violent lyrical content and trap-influenced beats. Chicago’s Black youth started drill music in the 2010s. It is the fad going on every day across America.
The police say it’s a crime and use it to target young, Black males for violating the RICO Act.
RICO stands for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The Nixon Administration passed the act in 1970 to prosecute entire criminal organizations instead of trying each person within an organization individually.
In many criminal organizations, the leaders would never get charged because they would order someone else to commit a crime without committing the crime themselves. Under RICO, however, that loophole is closed, and all members of the corrupt organization can be prosecuted – even if they didn’t commit the crime in question.
To be indicted for RICO, a group is supposed to be involved in a pattern of racketeering activity in connection with an enterprise or making money by drug dealing, money laundering, murder, extortion, gun running, etc.
In the beginning, RICO was used to prosecute highly organized groups like the Mafia. But now, RICO is being used to target small groups of Black males for virtual gang-bangin.’
As a professor whose research focuses on gangs, violence, and Black youth culture, I’ve been providing expert witness testimony in criminal cases involving gangs and violence for over 10 years. An expert witness is a person with an expertise on a particular topic whose opinion may help a jury make sense of the factual evidence in a case. During this time, I’ve seen a drastic increase in RICO indictments of young, Black males.
Recently, I worked for the defense of a young, Black male caught up in a RICO. He was one of twelve Black youth, five of whom are brothers and cousins, indicted for murder, attempted murder, selling weed, and virtual gang bangin.’
The group ranged in ages from 18 to 25.
In this case, the police accused two of the young men, neither of whose cases I worked on, of the murder of another young man and the attempted murder of his friend. The guys were fighting over a young woman. After the shooting, the Feds swooped in, snatched up the two young men who did the shooting, and then proceeded to arrest eight of their “homies” and two young ladies, claiming they were a gang involved in a criminal enterprise. The Feds used the Facebook posts of the two young men who did the shooting to identify their social network and then indicted them ALL under the RICO statutes.
Virtual Gang-Bangin’ In Social Media
The Feds gathered up 2,125 trial exhibits, about half of which were social media feeds/videos of the guys partying as they flashed guns and cash while drinking and smoking weed. There was a lot of shouting out their gang affiliations, some off-brand clique not tied to any recognized gang. There was a lot of taunting of their “Opps,” rivals. They were throwing up gang signs of multiple gangs all at once, indicating that they didn’t even know how to gang-bang. There was a lot of video footage of the guys rapping Drill Music songs.
Social media posts were the only evidence the Feds used in the indictment.
Clout Chasing vs. Criminal Activity
When we see our youth’s behavior, we see them involved in clout chasing, not criminal activity. Our youth seek attention, and young people know that the more outrageous their behavior is in their social media activity, the more views and likes they’ll get. One of the most common things among urban Black youth today is beefing in social media. The community calls it virtual gang-bangin’. On the other hand, law enforcement is ignorant or dismissive of this clout chasing and sees crime only.
One might ask how such behavior could violate the RICO statutes; there is no enterprising going on, which is the statute’s essence. In this case, the Feds claimed the group was a criminal enterprise because one young man sold weed and another one sold a gun. Neither did it on behalf of the group. In others words, the group didn’t profit from the sales, only the individuals. The young man whose defense team I worked on was only involved with flashing cash in the videos.
A person convicted under the RICO statutes can expect to spend anywhere from 20-years to life in prison. In some cases, a person found guilty can receive the death penalty.
The threat of a RICO indictment alone intimidates most defendants into pleading guilty to lesser charges because a RICO-related charge is easy to prove in court since it focuses on patterns of behavior instead of criminal acts.
The Pew Research Center funded a study into federal conviction rates last year. Its researchers discovered that only 2% of federal cases ever make it to trial. They also determined that at least 90% of federal defendants end up pleading guilty.
So was the case for this group. They all plead guilty to anywhere from 20 to 40 years in prison. The case never even went to trial.
Eight of them did nothing more than play “wannabe” gang-bangers online.
Police Usage of Social Media in Investigations
A recent survey found that Facebook is the most fruitful social network for law enforcement investigations. The police are mining Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., to find incriminating postings and taunts. Some police are creating fake social media profiles to infiltrate Black youths’ social media networks. Simultaneously, only 10% of the law enforcement officials surveyed by LexisNexis say they had received formal training on using social media for investigations.
A WARNING to Young, Black Males and Those Who Love Them
STOP posting videos and photos of yourself and friends with guns, drugs, and beefin’ with your Opps on your social media platforms. The Feds are watching. Local law enforcement is watching. If anything goes sideways, YOU WILL catch a RICO.
Remember, the prosecution, defense, and incarceration of young Black males in America generate billions of dollars every year.
Don’t be these peoples’ next meal.
Lance Williams is a professor of Urban Studies at Northeastern Illinois University’s Bronzeville campus.