I vividly recall my first encounter with organized street gangs and it was fukkin awesome!
I spent the majority of my teenage years in a small town in Central Illinois. Champaign-Urbana did not cater to young Black males. I was part of the group that was bussed to the good school in the White neighborhood in Champaign. A lot of White people didn’t want us there and they made that abundantly clear.
Of course everyone was happy that the “Black guys could help our athletic programs” but outside of that, we served no purpose other than to be in the way. There wasn’t really anything going on at the school for the Black kids who weren’t athletes.
I was no athlete. I could hold my own playing ball at the parks and shit, but when it was time to get down for real, I didn’t stand a chance. I was always a smart muhfukka though, but there was little market for that. Who cared that I excelled at my course work?
The support for Black kids in the school system wasn’t all that hot and the support for us in the town at large was just about as pitiful. We had two outlets… Douglas Center and the Boys Club (soon renamed to the Boys & Girls Club).
Given just these two venues, there was a surprising amount of shit for us to get into outside of school and most of us spent our time waiting for school to end so we could go hang out and do the shit that we really wanted to be doing. You know… fun shit.
These two places is where all of the action happened. Wait, let me correct that. These two places or on the way to/from one of these two places is where all of the action happened.
As you can probably imagine, there were no Black radio stations around. Occasionally they’d play something by one of “our guys” with crossover hits. Somebody like Michael Jackson or Natalie Cole, but in the meantime you’d better learn to enjoy White boy music if you were gonna listen to the radio.
They did give us one reprieve though. Once a week for four hours on Sunday nights from 6pm–10pm was Soul Night.
This is when they played all Black music. All of the Black kids would huddle around the radio with their tape recorders ready to pounce on any song that they wanted to record for later during the week.
Hell this is where we all heard Rapper’s Delight for the first time. I remember everybody coming to school Monday morning and was like “DID YOU HEAR THAT?!!” and “I HEARD THERE IS A 15 MINUTE VERSION!!” and “NO WAY THEY CAN DO THAT FOR 15 MINUTES!!” Even the White kids were enchanted by it.
But I digress…
The point is that we had one night a week to listen to music that catered to our culture and our style and we viewed it as a gift.
There was one more gift they gave us… just about 2 miles to the North was a town called Savoy. In Savoy was a bomb-ass skating rink called Skate Land. They let the Black kids come to Skate Land once a week on Thursday nights and it was fukkin packed like sardines. This too, was called Soul Night. They made more money on Thursday nights than they did all week.
If you were a Black youth living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois during the late 70s and early 80s, you were at Skate Land in Savoy on Thursday nights. Period.
Hell, Skate Land was so dope and the skating scene in general was so hot that people actually traveled from miles around to come to Skate Land. And that’s where the trouble started…
As is so often the case with small to medium sized towns, there are plenty of surrounding towns from which to chose your rivals. During those days, there was an unwritten “approved” list.
If your town was on the list, it was cool for you to come to our town. If not, well then you can figure out the rest. Every town had their approved list and it usually worked both ways. By that I mean that if Champaign was on the approved list for Springfield, then Springfield was also on our approved list.
The list was constantly changing based on what happened at the most recent sporting event or at some out-of-town party. Oh yeah… almost every weekend we would all travel to the town that was having the hottest party.
Being young and dumb back then, everybody took it as a personal insult to be left off of the approved list. So rather than stay away, you would round up a nice sized crew and go to the unapproved town anyway. The message clearly being “yeah we here, we deep, what y’all niggas gonna do about it?”
Again, being young and dumb we couldn’t just stand by and let these outta town muhfukkas violate in our face like that. So we went in and we went in hard. There were huge fights every Thursday night.
It happened the same way every time. We would all wait until after the skating was over and meet up outside. During the night we’d have already picked out who was gonna get everything jumpin’ by throwing the first punch. The offending, visiting crew would be puffed up and ready and waiting for somebody to do something. This was usually accompanied by something like “Yeah we here and y’all ain’t did shit! Y’all niggas is weak!!”
Pow! Right in the mouth.
Then it was a mad scramble after that until the police got there. Punches were flying, people were getting slammed to the ground, kicked, stomped on, etc. This continued until we heard sirens. Then everybody ran to their cars and tried to play it off like they weren’t involved.
The proprietors of Skate Land had finally had enough of this and started having the police already posted up in the parking lot when the skating was over. This worked for quite a while. That is until…
It just so happened that somebody from Danville did something that we really didn’t like and the approved list was reinstated. There was one town name on it; Danville.
Thursday night comes and the crowd from Danville came strolling in just like normal. Everybody played it cool until the skating was over. Of course the mob from the ‘Ville was thinking everything was cool since the police was posted up outside, so they came out completely unprepared.
That was an incorrect thought to think.
It was only two policemen outside and everybody from Champaign felt so disrespected by them fools from Danville being on our turf, that no one cared about the police being there.
Everybody moved as one and beat the shit outta the Danville crew with reckless abandon. It was a mad house. Some of them got hurt pretty badly. The police were simply out numbered and couldn’t do a thing. They did eventually restore order of course, but the damage had been done.
So now everybody knows that if you’re from Champaign-Urbana, you’d better not come to Danville.
Again, being young and dumb, all that meant to us was “there’s no way we can’t go to Danville now. We gotta go represent. Show them that we ain’t no punks.”
Even though I didn’t personally participate in the rumble against the group from Danville that offending Thursday , I still had to represent for my hood. So I load up to go to Danville for a set at their skating rink like everybody else.
What would normally happen, was everybody would meet up at the gas station, hang out till everyone got there, then all leave together. It just so happened that my guy JB was riding with me and he convinced me to start the trip to Danville without waiting.
JB was easily the best skater in all of Central Illinois. He was also the best pop-locker, the best slap-boxer, and for our age group, he was the best basketball player too. He was also something else that I’d soon find out about.
We get to the skating rink and it’s packed!! People were everywhere. The line to get in was so long that it was ridiculous. I did notice that they had what looked like the entire Danville police department outside. I saw quite a few state troopers as well.
Once we’re finally inside, I was skating and having a blast. Internally, I was disappointed to have seen all of those policemen outside. Clearly nothing was gonna be able to go down that night. Little did I know that these fools had a contingency plan.
Eventually, me and JB decided to go to the concession stand and we noticed like 20 dudes advancing slowly toward us as we leave the skating floor. At this point we were one of the few people from Champaign that had made it inside. So basically we were all alone. If it’s true that your knees start shaking when you’re really, really, really scared, then mine were probably shaking.
Another thing became clear to me in that moment, these bastards wasn’t planning on waiting until the skating was over. They were gonna turn the party out and get it in during the skating. I recall thinking what a clever idea that was to thwart the police presence (which was all centered outside). But I mainly recall being scared as fukk.
I didn’t mind scrapping, but two against twenty was just plain stupid. I was definitely young and dumb, but I wasn’t that dumb. My fear increased as I noticed that initial 20 had increased considerably. I don’t know how many, but I stopped counting at around 30 and started looking for an escape route.
They must’ve had help planning this because they had multiple dudes posted up at every fukkin exit. Fukk!! I definitely recall thinking how thorough their plan was to have the exits blocked. But like I said, my fear had increased so much, I wasn’t really in the mood to admire their planning and forethought.
So their “leader” steps to us with some harmful object in his hand. I stood there, on guard, trying to look tough. Apparently, before they went in, they wanted to make extra sure that we were from Champaign. They had these elaborate set of questions that they were forcing us to answer. The results of which, I’m sure would’ve pinpointed where were from from. How did these damned fools get so fukkin organized??!!
JB decided to cut through all of the bullshit and he just flat out told their leader that we were from Champaign. Then he did something else and it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen at that point in my life.
Apparently JB could tell by the way that the dudes were wearing their hats, that they were all part of this large Illinois street gang. He started doing some shit with his hands and fingers.
Their leader fukkin froze in his tracks. He started asking JB a ton of different questions and JB was firing answers at him left and right. This was some kind of gang literature and credo. JB knew every fukkin answer.
Then JB starting asking his own questions. Their leader was stupefied. A few minutes later, they did this cool-ass handshake.
JB and the leader went off to the side and I was left standing there surrounded by all these young, dumb, angry black males. I was still scared as fukk and still trying to look tough, but I was more wondering what the hell was going on and why hadn’t they attacked us yet.
Then the most amazing thing happened. When JB and their leader came back over to the rest of us, JB was the new leader!!!
Apparently his official ranking in this gang was higher than everyone there. In fact, he was literally the highest ranking gang member in all of Danville and all of those thugs became our thugs. Every one of those muhfukkas did some gesture which meant they had pledged allegiance to him. WHAT THE FUKK WAS THAT??!!!
The next thing I know, he tells ‘em all that I’m not down with the gang shit, but that I’m protected. Not to be touched. He went on to say that he understood the beef and that the gang shit is higher than the hood-representation shit so he wouldn’t interfere with what they was planning. The only caveat was that I was off-limits.
And just like that, I was out of danger.
I tried to warn as many people from Champaign that I could about the impending doom, but it was useless. Once enough people from Champaign made it inside the rink, it was lights out. They definitely went hard in the paint and it was mass pandemonium until the po po got everything under control.
Of course I tried to join in the fight, but it didn’t work. They pushed me out of one of the side doors where JB and the former leader were waiting. JB convinced me to get on the road and we came back to town. From what I heard in the aftermath, our side didn’t do too bad for themselves.
High school was boring. No one cared how talented I was with the books and shit. But this… this was fukkin exciting. I was enchanted and I wanted more.
I had enough sense to know that I needed to graduate from high school and so I did. But the act of graduating was about all I was concerned with. The streets was calling my name, so I decided to take my talents to the North End.
Still with me? Check out part two.