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The Controversial Legal Strategy Behind the Indictment of Young Thug


Ronald Elwood Chatman was walking his daughter to her car on an October morning in 2020 when he heard somebody say “Freeze.” “I look up,” he recalled recently, “and I’ve got the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, I’ve got the L.A.P.D.’s Metropolitan Task Force, I’ve got the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Gang Task Force, and I’ve got the F.B.I. And they all got guns on me. Man, they’ve got so many guns on me—handguns, shotguns, AR-15s.” They were standing outside his apartment building in South Central Los Angeles. “I looked at my daughter and said, ‘What the hell have you been doing?’ ”

The officers were not after his daughter. They had come to arrest Chatman, a lifelong resident of Los Angeles, now in his fifties, on a charge of violating Georgia’s RICO Act for his alleged role in a criminal conspiracy conducted by members of a street gang called the Rollin’ 20 Neighborhood Bloods. The charge was brought by the state of Georgia, as part of a law-enforcement effort called Operation Caged Doves.

At a press conference announcing the indictments of forty-six people for battery, kidnapping, drug trafficking, felony murder, and RICO violations, the director of the G.B.I. described Chatman as “the ringleader” and “a third-generation member” of the Rollin’ 20s, someone who was “making organizational decisions regarding the expansion of this group and this gang.” Other than a few stops in the Atlanta airport, to make connecting flights, Chatman had never been to Georgia, he told me. But he was extradited to the state and placed in isolation, for six months, in the Upson County Jail, sixty miles south of Atlanta. He has been in custody ever since.

Georgia is one of a number of states that have attempted to curtail gang activity by using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was created in 1970 as a way of targeting the Mafia and has since been used to go after a variety of groups and individuals, from members of the Key West Police Department to former Major League Baseball officials. Georgia’s use of the law has received more attention in the weeks since May 9th, when the thirty-year-old rapper Jeffery Williams, better known as Young Thug, was charged with a variety of crimes allegedly committed by more than two dozen members of an Atlanta street gang called Young Slime Life, which prosecutors say is affiliated with the Bloods.

The Bloods formed in L.A. in the mid-seventies and have since given rise to numerous smaller factions, generally referred to as sets, among them the Rollin’ 20s. Chatman became affiliated with the Rollin’ 20s in the late nineteen-seventies. His father was a “street dude,” he told me, who “hustled, sold drugs, and pimped to make money and take care of me.” Chatman has shot at people and been shot at multiple times, he said, from the age of fifteen. He’s been to prison five times, most recently for a nearly three-year stint on drug charges that ended in 2008. “Then I really got my life straight,” he said. In the years since, he has worked in gang intervention, often through a program that was introduced by the Los Angeles mayor’s office. “Having been a known G from the streets, I was able to talk to the young people and provide them with some guidance,” he said, explaining his relationship to members of the Rollin’ 20s today. He was proud, he added, of helping to broker “a non-aggression agreement,” in 2009, “between my community and the community we were at war with”—i.e., the Bloods and the Crips—“for over forty years.”

Chatman’s history as a gang member and his continued proximity to gang life are at the core of his current troubles, which, he insists, constitute a misunderstanding. “I haven’t been an active gang member in a long time,” he said. “I’m still active in the community, but I’m active in a productive way—I’m passing out food to people, intervening in the violence.” In Los Angeles, and in various corners of the Internet, Chatman is better known as Madd Ronald; prior to his recent arrest, Chatman hosted a podcast called “Madd Ronald Radio.” (He also ran a carpet-cleaning service and delivered for UberEats.) “People know who I am because I do a lot of public speaking,” he said. “I have a great deal of respect and recognition in the streets. Everybody looks at me as a big homie because of my age and because of my history. So one person might call me up just to show people he can actually talk to me.” But, he added, “I’m not on the phone conspiring about crimes.” His indictment cites a YouTube interview from 2017, with a gang historian named Kev Mac. In it, Chatman sometimes sounds like a current gang member—“My name is Madd Ronald and I’m from west side Rollin’ 20s Neighborhood Bloods,” he says—but not one who is criminally active. At other times, he refers to his affiliation in the past tense.

The indictment also notes phone calls with incarcerated gang members. Chatman does not deny participating in some of these calls, but he says that they were in keeping with his mentoring role as an O.G. He mentioned one call cited in the indictment, in which, he said, he spoke with a man who wanted to start a 501(c)(3). “I was talking about the tax benefits,” he told me. “In the RICO, they documented that as being me telling them how to avoid taxes.” He added, with some exasperation, “I’m not John Gotti.”

What is a gang? It may seem like a simple question, but, according to Alex Alonso, who has been studying Black street gangs, up close, for more than two decades, “there’s no universal understanding of what it means.” During graduate school, Alonso found that most people “wrongly embedded criminality within the definition” of street gangs, so he spent most of a year coming up with a more nuanced description. He packed it into a single sentence: “A collective group of individuals with a common ethnic and/or geographic identity that collectively and/or individually regularly engage in a variety of activities, legal or illegal, that claim to be the dominant group in their locale, exercising territoriality, either fixed or fluid, and that engage in at least one rivalry and/or competition with another organization.” Alonso believes that a good definition of gangs must account for criminal and non-criminal activity. According to some estimates, only a small minority of the members of Black street gangs are involved in crime. To law enforcement, however, “gangs and criminals are still virtually synonymous,” Alonso said.

In recent years, Alonso has worked alongside Chatman to help stabilize the lives of gang members involved with crime. He finds the indictment of Chatman in the Georgia case absurd. “He doesn’t even know these guys,” he told me, referring to Chatman and to those indicted with him, “except through social media, where they were hitting him up on Instagram because of his podcast.” He offered an example: “If a guy from Georgia calls him and says, ‘Hey, how do the Rollin’ 20s throw up their hand signs,’ he’ll say, ‘Oh, you gotta use your pinky, your index finger, and your thumb.’ Or ‘What are your colors? What side do you wear your belt?’ These are real questions, and Ronald will answer all of them. But the state of Georgia is interpreting that as ‘Ronald Chatman is teaching gang members how to be gang members.’ ”

Chatman told me that he will talk to anyone about gang history and that it’s important to be familiar with “identifiers,” such as hand signals, “because they could be detrimental to your own life and well-being.” (“Ignorance can be life-threatening,” he said.) “If you choose to be a drug dealer, a terrorist, to shoot at people and victimize people, that’s wrong,” he went on. But simply belonging to a gang—or, to use the term he prefers, an urban social group—is not a crime. “In a lot of instances, the gang is a surrogate family,” he said. “A lot of the fathers were taken out of the households during the crack epidemic. Now, all of a sudden, you’ve got a lot of dead fathers, a lot of fathers in prison, a lot of mothers on crack. The kids is being raised in the streets. And a lot of them will gravitate” toward these groups, he said. “These young dudes drifting around, doing whatever to survive—in some instances, they become connected to the culture within the community.”

Alonso is certain that Chatman is innocent of the Georgia RICO charge. The indictment includes more than ten pages purporting to detail the history and culture of the gangs in question, a section that Alonso said was “riddled with inaccuracies” and full of “things you find on the Internet.” Among the prosecution’s claims: that Chatman founded the Rollin’ 20s after reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” in 1976. “I was born in August of 1967,” Chatman told me. “So, at eight years old, I wrapped my mind around ‘The Art of War’ and then applied it to have grown men follow me?” Alonso cited what he calls his ten-per-cent estimate: for every ten people indicted on RICO charges, only one or two, at most, have committed a violent crime. “Everybody else is just an unfortunate associate,” he said.

The indictment of Young Thug and twenty-seven others—including the rapper Sergio Kitchens, better known as Gunna—was brought by the Fulton County district attorney, Fani T. Willis, who also indicted a rival rap artist and alleged gang member named YFN Lucci last year. It comes at a time when Atlanta, like many cities, is seeing a spike in violent crime. At a press conference, Willis said that gangs “are committing conservatively seventy-five to eighty per cent of all the violent crime that we’re seeing within our community. And so they have to be booted out of our community.”

Lance Williams, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University who has written extensively about Black street gangs, described Y.S.L. to me as “one of literally thousands of Blood sets with a three-letter name and informal ties to active gang members that’s only well-known because a few members became prominent rappers.” Record deals can be transformative for such groups, he said. “That money attracts more guys and more visibility. They get fashionable. They travel together. And they keep some ‘hitters’—real, live gangsters—because it fits the narrative and the culture, but also because if you don’t have those guys then you’re susceptible to being robbed and aggressed by other groups, who you may also be rapping and talking about. Those are your protectors.”

The Y.S.L. indictment runs to eighty-eight pages and cites rap songs, social-media posts, clothing, and tattoos as evidence. A Young Thug song called “Eww” is quoted at length. “Eww” mentions Y.S.L. by name and, like a number of rap songs, makes multiple references to “F. & N.s,” i.e., guns manufactured by the Belgian company Fabrique Nationale Herstal. At one point, Young Thug raps, “I’ma fuck for the cash then she getting robbed by Tick.” The indictment states that Tick is the street name of alleged Y.S.L. co-founder, Trontavious Stephens, and that the video in which these lyrics appear is “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.”

The indictment also claims that in January, 2015, Williams rented a silver Infiniti sedan which, a few days later, was used “in the commission of the murder” of a rival gang member in front of a downtown Atlanta barbershop. Citing a comment that Williams made in a video that appeared on social media, two weeks later—“so a nigga lie to they momma, lie to they kids, lie to they brothers and sisters then get right into the courtroom and tell the God’s honest truth, don’t get it, y’all niggas need to get fucking killed, bro, from me and Y.S.L.”—the indictment seems to suggest that this rival was killed for offering court testimony. (It is not clear what testimony this may have been; the Fulton County D.A.’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Williams is also alleged to have possessed marijuana with intent to distribute, received a stolen firearm, and made terroristic threats to a mall security director, all “in furtherance of the conspiracy.” A lawyer representing Williams has denied that Y.S.L. is a street gang and has said that his client “committed no crime whatsoever.” Alonso told me that he is not familiar enough with the case to have any certainty about it, but that he read the indictment closely, and noticed right away that many of “the overt acts are lyrics, music, and social media.” He added, “This is new—the amount of innocent activity that’s being criminalized.” Lance Williams said that in the past five years, he has seen more and more RICO indictments that involve “music, gangs, guns, and drugs,” as he put it. “Sometimes the threats on social media and the pointing of guns in the videos—the ‘clout-chasing’ or ‘virtual gang-banging’—spill out into the streets with the hitters,” he said. “But it’s not organized crime.” He is currently working on a case in Tucson, Arizona, involving local rappers from rival gangs. “Guys were killed, and law enforcement turned it into this RICO” case, he said. Investigators looked at social media and found “rap videos talking about gang-banging and beef and flashing cash,” he went on. “The optics look like gang stuff. It looks ugly. But the reality is that most of it is just music. If there’s violence, it’s interpersonal—not organized.” It disturbed him to see “this thing created for the Mafia now being used to indict young Black males who are flirting with the culture and the music, but who are not involved with any criminal enterprise.” The result, he said, is that young Black men are “getting wiped out. Once they hit you with this RICO thing, you’re finished. It’s a wrap.”

Like Alonso, Lance Williams, whose father was a founding member of the Vice Lords, in Chicago, regularly testifies for the defense as an expert witness in cases involving supposed gang members. “Back in the day, there was absolutely grounds for RICO” when prosecuting Black street gangs, he said. He was referring to the eighties and early nineties, when, he said, the most prominent gangs had “clear and acknowledged” leaders, boards of directors, and rank-and-file titles and responsibilities. At that time, he said, drugs had to be purchased from the organization, with profits that were shared within the organization. Members were recorded as being “on count”—meaning that they were recognized within a particular set, under the leadership of a designated ranking member—and had to pay dues that were calculated accordingly. They were required to attend meetings and were subject to violations for breaking established rules and regulations. “None of this structure is in place today, and hasn’t been for nearly thirty years,” Williams said. In the nineties, when the crack epidemic was at its peak, federal authorities went after all of the major Black street gangs, “and their leaders,” he explained, “have been pretty much put away.” Today, by contrast, the label of “Blood” is a “hugely disorganized identity,” Alonso said.

Chatman is still trying to piece together his case, but he believes that law enforcement targeted him not only on account of his former gang identity but for things that he’s said more recently. When I asked him for specifics, he said, “If you look at my podcast right before they got me, a week or two before they got me, I was talking about how the government was pushing cocaine and guns into L.A.” in the eighties and nineties, “financing the gang war between the Bloods and the Crips. I swear to you, they popped up outside my door a week and a half or two weeks later.” Chatman saw the Young Thug case on the news; he emphasized that he did not know the specifics. Still, he did see possible parallels with his own case. “They’re trying to criminalize these rappers by utilizing their lyrics against them, which seems to be a violation of their First Amendment rights,” he said.

The case is scheduled to go to trial on July 11th. Chatman’s court-appointed lawyer, Melvin Raines, sounded confident when I spoke to him. “It’s probably one of the weaker RICO cases I’ve ever had to defend,” he told me. “This gentleman has never really been in Georgia, so his nexus to this is gonna be very, very slim.” RICO charges allow the use of what’s called “enhanced sentencing” guidelines, which means that a judge can bump up the possible penalty for a given conviction. Two of Chatman’s co-defendants, who were each charged with two RICO violations, were recently sentenced to forty years.

Lance Williams said that, in his experience, most defendants will take fifteen-to-twenty-year plea deals rather than face the possibility of the death penalty or life without parole. He suspects that, even with a high-paid lawyer, Young Thug may end up with jail time for what amounts, in his view, “to a public-relations thing.” But the P.R. may also work in Young Thug’s favor, he noted, at least in certain ways. Williams first heard about the Y.S.L. indictment from gang-affiliated young men he’s working with who have criminal cases pending against them. “They were saying, ‘This lets you know he a real nigga,’ ” Williams recalled. He worries about that response. “Just yesterday, I’m talking to the guys, and I’m, like, ‘Look, you’ve gotta stop posting videos of you with guns and all of this stuff,’ ” he said. “ ‘You’ve gotta stop rapping about it. Because if something goes wrong and then they indict—everybody is going.’ ” One of the young men who heard his message went home, Williams later learned, and made a video in which he flashed a gun. “He did exactly what I told him not to do,” he said. “They’re emulating Young Thug and he’s emulating them.” ♦



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