Ex-Gangster Disciples ‘governor’ now distributing food boxes, not crack cocaine
James Yates once helped run one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs. Now free after 20 years in prison, he says he’s trying to ‘fix some of the stuff that we played a part in messing up.’
James Yates was sentenced two decades ago to life in prison after a jury found that he was a “governor” of the Gangster Disciples in charge of distributing drugs for the street gang in Chicago’s south suburbs.
Today, he’s distributing a different kind of commodity in those same suburbs: food.
Yates, 51, was freed in April under the federal First Step Act, which allows imprisoned drug criminals like him to seek a reduction in their sentences because of changes imposed after they were sent to prison in the penalties for distributing crack cocaine.
He and seven other high-ranking members of the Gangster Disciples have been released from prison under the 2018 law, signed by President Donald Trump with bipartisan support, intended to promote rehabilitation and cut the costs of incarceration.
Yates says he spent a lot of time in prison thinking about how to give back to a community he knows he damaged through drug dealing and violence.
“I had this strong desire to come back here and try to correct or fix some of the stuff that we played a part in messing up,” Yates says as he directed a crew unloading boxes of food from trucks earlier this month as part of the Revitalization of Robbins Initiative he has started.
The Robbins Park District let Yates stage his food giveaway in a parking lot down the street from the suburb’s police station. As one member of Yates’ crew flipped burgers on a grill and another worked a DJ booth, parents pulled up in cars, kids in tow. Moms carted away boxes of food, clothing and blankets. Their children got toys.
Yates says he was dumbfounded when he returned to Robbins after getting out of prison. Nothing seemed to have changed in his hometown since he was arrested in the 1990s. The median income of Robbins, a town of 5,400 a few miles south of Chicago, is only $13,000, according to the last census.
“It’s like 1960 or 1950,” Yates says. “A different world.”
He says he got help for his food giveaway from bigger organizations such as Black Men United.
Rev. John Harrell, pastor of Proviso Missionary Baptist Church in Maywood, says his Black Men United group has organized many large food drives in the Chicago area and in other parts of the country this year. Yates volunteered at some of them.
“He asks, ‘Can we do this in Robbins?’ ” Harrell says. “And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
Harrell, who spent time in prison for financial crimes about 20 years ago, says his goal is to feed people and help rehabilitate ex-offenders like himself.
“If you can restore, reshape, revitalize Black men, they can strengthen Black families, and Black families can strengthen Black blocks,” he says. “Black blocks can strengthen Black communities, cities and states.”
Khalalah Jackson, whose husband was freed from prison under the First Step Act in November, was among those at the Robbins food giveaway.
Her husband Johnny Jackson was a “board member” of the Gangster Disciples, which, according to federal prosecutors, sold more than $100 million a year in drugs and, at its peak, had more than 6,000 members.
Jackson, 48, recently wrote a letter to U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber, thanking him for his freedom and saying he and his wife had started several ventures, including a clothing line and The Visionaries Initiative, an anti-violence group.
Volunteers from the Jacksons’ organization were at Yates’ event, helping unload trucks and handing off boxes of food.
“Basically, they got de facto life sentences for drugs,” Khalalah Jackson says of her husband and his co-defendants. “He wasn’t supposed to come home at all. These guys have evolved to help the community they harmed.”
Ronald Safer, a defense lawyer who was a federal prosecutor on the Gangster Disciples case, has said he’d still prosecute Yates and other ranking members of the gang but would seek “significantly less” prison time for most. For Yates, 20 years in prison was enough, according to Safer.
But he still opposes the release of Gangster Disciples founder Larry Hoover, who’s also trying to get out of prison under the First Step Act. Hoover is serving a life sentence in a super-max prison in Colorado.
Yates says he knows that many prosecutors, law enforcement officers and others will never believe he’s now a do-gooder.
“You always have naysayers,” he says. “Watch what we do. We ain’t looking back. None of those guys is reverting to the streets and getting involved in crime.”
Yates says he thinks more Americans than ever support moves to rehabilitate ex-offenders, which led to the passage of the First Step Act.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, were vocal advocates for the law, and Kanye West lobbied for it during a White House visit.
Yates and Harrell see it as ironic that Trump, who has refused to denounce white supremacists, signed the law that allowed Yates, a Black man, to leave prison.
Harrell walked up to one of the food boxes that were being given away in Robbins. He pointed out that they came from Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He reached in to a box and pulled out a copy of a letter from Trump on White House letterhead. The letters were in every box.
“The health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities,” the president’s letter said. “As part of our response to the coronavirus, I prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America.”
The letter explained that the food was coming from USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program.
“I’m not saying that, you know, I’m going to vote for the guy,” Harrell says of Trump. “Why does it take Donald Trump to do something like this? Because, I gotta admit — it’s good.”