By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, Dec. 9. 2014
Back in 2011, two years before Tavon White and 43 others were indicted in Maryland for running a Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) gang conspiracy in Baltimore’s jails, someone going by the moniker “fire water air” posted a comment on the forum of assatashakur.org, the website of American cop-killer fugitive Assata Shakur. What “fire water air” wrote cut to the core of a central dilemma for the BGF: How can it pursue what it calls “cambone,” a concept that promotes community dignity in a racist society, while actively carrying out what it calls “ben,” the tactics, often criminal, for financially supporting the pursuit of that dignity?
The BGF’s dual roles of cambone and ben were explained in the “Black Book,” a revolutionary self-help guide collectively written by BGF inmates in Baltimore and published by Eric Marcell Brown, the Maryland BGF leader who was convicted in 2011 in a prior racketeering prosecution. In Brown’s case, cambone was a strong factor, as he sought legitimacy while an inmate nearing his release date by appearing to work for good, offering the BGF’s black-separatist ideology as an antidote to the pathology of criminal lifestyles. The fact of the matter, though, as Brown’s case proved, is that ben reigned supreme, and “fire water air” seemed to understand and worry about this in 2011.
“Well the bgf here in baltimore run every aspect of the streets and hold major weight in the prison system,” the post stated, adding that “cambone holds no weight here” and “its run under the b.e.n.” It called the BGF “all love,” but said “the machine is down,” possibly referring to Brown’s take-down, and rued the fact that there are “no more old heads to lead” the “young comrades,” so “it looks like a gang now” and “im very sad about that shit.” The government, meanwhile, “know everything now after they took away our fathers,” it continued, and “i guess everybody want to be a g instead of pushing the revolution,” so “comrades like me are lost now.”
“BROTHERS KILLING AND ROBING BROTHERS EVERYWHERE,” the post concluded, switching to capitalization for emphasis, adding that “THE CODE OF CONDUCT HOLDS NO MORE POWER” and “ITS ALL ABOUT WHO GOT MORE STREET CREDIT AND RANK IN PRISON AND THAT ONE PERSON WILL BE LOOKED AT AS THE BIG GUY FOR THAT REGION OF BALTIMORE.”
It would be interesting to know what “fire water air” thinks about the White case, now being tried before a jury in Baltimore’s federal courthouse, with White himself as the state’s star witness. What White has described from the stand—that, even though he wasn’t a “bushman,” or high-ranking BGF member, he was able to take command of the jail because the BGF hierarchy on the streets believed in his ability to run the jail’s lucrative contraband economy, using correctional officers to smuggle prohibited goods such as pot, painkillers, tobacco, and phones to sell inside at exorbitant, sometimes fraudulent mark-ups in order to make boatloads of money for himself and the BGF, even as he had to deal with rival Joseph “Monster” Young, a bushman who wanted to unseat White—is pure ben.
If White has testified about anything having to do with cambone, it was a reference from the stand to a man named Cleo “Gutter” Blue, who he described as the BGF’s “minister of education” inside the jail. Blue, White explained, would “teach and educate the members” by giving them “quizzes dealing with the literature,” such BGF documents as the “33 constitutions,” the “22 laws,” the “eight morals,” the “11 characteristics,” and the “10 components” of “J,” which is short for “jamaa,” the Swahili word for “family.” According to the Black Book, “jamaa” is “an organization geared towards revitalizing our people and our hoods.” The BGF uses Swahili words, White explained, because “it’s supposed to be the original language of the black man.”
On the ben side of the equation, meanwhile, White testified that a man named “Michael Grey” is the BGF’s “head of street ops.” A BGF member of the same name was described in court documents in Brown’s case, surrounding events in 2010 that are decidedly ben. Grey was suspected of murdering Asia Carter, who was believed to have helped rob the drug operation Grey then ran with David “Oakie” Rich, who, while an inmate awaiting trial on federal armed drug-trafficking charges, also earned a mention in other BGF-related court documents. But Grey, in conversations caught on Drug Enforcement Administration wiretaps, sought to dissuade the notion that he was responsible for the demise of Carter, who was found on 25th Street in Charles Village, slumped over the wheel of his crashed car with several gunshot wounds.
As “fire water air” suggested, the BGF’s cambone-versus-ben dilemma appears to have been solved in Baltimore, and ben won. Thanks to that victory, the BGF continues to find itself among law enforcers’ highest priorities here.