Big-City Gang Culture Spreading to New Turf
The puzzling telephone calls began flooding the offices of community groups in Portland, Ore., last spring.
Parents were calling to report that their children had been beaten up by other youngsters for wearing red clothing. Residents were complaining that bands of teen-agers were harassing them and running drug operations out of rented houses.
Then graffiti, bearing the insignia of California street gangs, began to appear on fences and buildings.
The cause of the disturbances soon became clear: For the first time in the memory of police and community officials, Portland had a "gang problem.''
That problem was dramatically illustrated this month in Los Angeles, a city long known as the nation's "gang capital.'' Police in that city, attempting to stem a tide of gang-related murders, conducted a massive dragnet that resulted in the arrest of 634 people, half of whom were estimated to be members of gangs.
But the big-city gang culture of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami is spreading, authorities say, to neighborhoods and cities that--like Portland--have never before experienced it. The impetus is a little-examined mix of forces at work in the youth culture, from the lure of money to urban isolation to the power of peer-group pressure.
In Atlanta, gangs from Miami are recruiting children in the city's poorest neighborhoods to sell drugs.
In Milwaukee, police say bands of teen-agers are naming themselves after Chicago gangs and selling stolen cars, shoplifting, and snatching purses.
And, in Memphis, Seattle, Jackson, Miss., and a host of other seemingly unlikely places, the appearance of youth gangs on the streets has prompted local police departments to form special squads to combat them.
"What's happening all of a sudden,'' says U.S. Representative George Miller, who has studied the issue, "is that gangs are beginning to slop over into Middle America.''
A New Breed
Street gangs are not a new phenomenon in this country. As early as 1791, citizens in Philadelphia were meeting to decide what to do about small bands of young people who were disrupting their city.
Gangs continued to form in America's cities as new waves of immigrants arrived and former slaves migrated to the North in search of work. The young people who came with them banded together to counter some of the discrimination, abuse, and isolation they felt as strangers in a strange land.
That pattern persists today, say those who track gang activities.
Formed around ethnic allegiances, contemporary gangs are most often made up of black, Hispanic, or Asian teen-agers who live in the nation's inner cities.
"Gang members are also more likely to be a couple of grades behind in school,'' says Malcolm Klein, director of the Center for Research on Crime and Social Control at the University of Southern California.
"They are probably somebody with family members who've been in trouble with the law--maybe they were gang members themselves--and they are probably somebody whose home situation is disorganized,'' he says.
A "disorganized'' family, explains Mr. Klein, for one reason or another does not function as it should. A parent may suffer from alcoholism or a drug addiction. A single mother may be holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet, or both parents may simply have failed to supervise their children's activities.
In the gangs, the youths find another "family''--a tightly knit group with a strong code of allegiance, a distinctive style of dress, and a penchant for committing crimes. The resulting bonds are so strongly forged, say experts, that gangs in some cities typically attend the funerals of their members' relatives.
The ages of gang members may range from as young as 11 to as old as 30. The "gangbangers'' in the upper age range are most often found in cities where the unemployment rate is particularly high among minorities.
Beyond such characteristics, experts say contemporary gangs are difficult to describe. In fact, in what may have been the first national meeting on the problem last month, a group of law-enforcement officials and sociologists was unable to agree on a definition of what makes a youth gang.
Some young gangs actively engage in drug trafficking; some do not. Some are violent; others are not. Some horde and use sophisticated weaponry; others rely on baseball bats and knives.
Though no firm statistics are available, those who track gang activities say the spread of gangs to new territories may be part of a larger pattern of increasing gang activity.
That pattern now encompasses cities both large and small, places where gangs have long operated, and places that have never experienced gangs before.
In Los Angeles and other cities where gangs have traditionally existed, police say they have noticed sudden bulges in their gang populations in the last 5 to 10 years.
This month's police dragnet in Los Angeles--home to an estimated 50,000 gang members--was prompted by a Good Friday incident in which a gang member, using a semiautomatic weapon, sprayed a crowd of people with bullets. He killed one man and injured a dozen others.
Similar but smaller Los Angeles police operations over the last month have resulted in the arrests of a total of 1,400 gang members.
Lured by Profits
Even in the short time that California-based gangs have operated in Portland, the number of young people involved has mushroomed, according to police estimates, from about 30 in May of 1987 to between 400 and 500 in February.
"We're talking about gangs of youth as young as 12,'' says Matthew Prophet, superintendent of schools in that city, "recruited by local and out-of-town hardened, adult criminals to engage in narcotics trafficking, extortion, prostitution, burglary, and robbery.''
Portland police trace the development of the gang problem there to two Los Angeles-based gangs known as the "Crips'' and the "Bloods.'' They say the California gangs began coming to Portland because they saw a chance to make quick and easy money selling crack, a highly addictive derivative of cocaine.
"In the drug-trafficking business, it was more lucrative to ply their trade in Portland than in southern California,'' says James Brown, a juvenile-court probation officer from the Portland area.
"The why's,'' Mr. Brown continues, "included three times the profit, less notoriety and recognition by police authorities, less jail space--and therefore lighter penalties--and fewer competitors.''
Atlanta police say a Miami-based gang sought out their city for similar reasons. Known as the "Miami Boys,'' the gang routinely sends members to Atlanta, where they earn between $600 and $1,000 a week selling drugs and recruiting neighborhood children to act as lookouts and drug "runners.''
Once arrested, the Miami-based front men return to Florida. They are replaced soon after by other gang members whose identities are not yet known to Atlanta police.
"We are in trouble,'' says Major Julius DeRico of the Atlanta police department. "We're losing the battle.''
Poverty and Mobility
But explaining the sudden growth of gangs may be more complicated than the experiences in Atlanta and Portland suggest, according to Mr. Klein of the University of Southern California.
Mr. Klein, who has studied gangs in the Los Angeles area, said the members there are more likely to be lowly foot soldiers than drug barons in the drug-trafficking business.
"It's too easy a cop-out to say it's all drugs,'' he says. "I just came from two cities where there's a gang problem and no drugs. How do you explain that?''
Irving Spergel, professor of social-science administration at the University of Chicago, says another factor in the new gang migration may be the movement taking place throughout the country among poorer people. Laid off from manufacturing jobs or having lost their homes, low-income families are moving more frequently in search of work and shelter.
These uprooted poor, Mr. Spergel says, may include the families of teen-agers who were well established in the gang culture of their home city. Like the immigrants who have created gangs for generations, these transplanted gang members may form their own gangs in new cities as a means of establishing an identity or a sense of self-esteem, according to Mr. Spergel.
Mr. Spergel and others also note that, in many of the nation's cities, segregation and economic hardships for minorities have only worsened in recent years. Without prospects of a job, they note, many such young men are failing to "grow out of'' their gangs and spend an increasing portion of their most productive years on neighborhood street corners.
Gangs counter urban isolation and hopelessness by offering "a sense of belonging,'' says Bennie J. Swanns Jr., a former gang member who now heads Crisis Intervention Network, a community group that works to prevent violence among Philadelphia's youth gangs.
"They don't discriminate over how bright or how slow you are, how well dressed or how poorly dressed,'' he says. "Society does.''
Another attraction of gang life is the prospect of making money. And nothing has done more to spread that urban folklore than the drug trade.
Whether fact or fiction, tales of the thousands of dollars to be made in drug trafficking play on the imagination of urban teen-agers and frustrate the efforts of social workers to rehabilitate young gang members.
"The average kid out there is struggling to try to make it,'' said Lt. Lafall Smith of the Atlanta police department's intelligence and organization youth squad. "He can't compete financially with some of his other peer groups.''
"Somebody comes along offering 'X' dollars a day to help sell drugs and a lot of kids will jump at the opportunity,'' he says.
In Portland, police say a young person who works for the "Crips'' and the "Bloods'' can make up to $100 a night simply by working as a lookout or "doorman'' at a drug house.
Former gang members in Philadelphia talk of street corners in their neighborhoods where independent crack dealers can make as much as $2,500 in a day's work.
"Last summer, I had a Cadillac,'' says Thomas Gilliam, a 19-year-old former gang member who once sold crack in that city.
"Why would you go back and make $40 a day when you're already making $700?'' he says. "At McDonald's, you got to cook, run around, and slide in grease and stuff, when they can come to you. You get a reputation, a clientele.''
That kind of thinking, say those who work with gang members, makes it difficult to convince them to give up their gangs, earn a diploma, and land a job. They say the problem is compounded when teen-agers look at parents earning the minimum wage and can envision no better future for themselves in "legitimate'' jobs.
Hand in hand with the growth of gang and drug activity have come more and deadlier weapons.
Whether they are using them to defend themselves against rival gangs or to protect their drug trade, a small but increasing number of gang members across the country are arming themselves with automatic weapons and high-powered rifles, according to police.
Experts say they most often obtain such sophisticated weaponry through burglary or barter.
"It's not unusual for a gang to trade all the cocaine they have for a crate of weapons,'' said Marianne Diaz-Parton, a former Los Angeles gang member who now helps younger members "go straight.''
Police in some cities say a few gangs are even carrying submachine guns and Israeli-made Uzi's or semiautomatic pistols.
But while the sophisticated weaponry gains the gangs headlines in their hometown newspapers, the everyday weapons that are much more common among gangs can pose just as great a problem.
In Portland, young gang members have attempted to bring their arms to school, according to James Brown, juvenile-court probation officer with the Multnomah County Juvenile Justice Department.
In testimony before the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families last month, he said school security officers in that city had confiscated increasing numbers of knives, chains, and sawed-off shotguns since the "Crips'' and the "Bloods'' came to town.
'Getting Tough' With Gangs
When such weaponry appeared in schools, Mr. Prophet, the superintendent, decided to announce a new "get-tough'' policy against gangs.
In February, he prohibited students from coming to school wearing gang "colors''--clothing that signals gang membership.
Students caught with weapons were automatically expelled, and school officials began actively searching students, their lockers, and any other place where they suspected drugs or weapons were hidden.
The school district also augmented its staff of aides and began training them to recognize and counter gang activities.
"Because a prime objective of youth gangs is recruitment of new members,'' Mr. Prophet says, "schools have become a natural focus for gang attention and activities.''
If not checked, Mr. Prophet says, such activities "potentially threaten every neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest.''
Some Don't See It
But, according to a number of leading experts, that kind of outspoken anti-gang stand is rare among school officials in many communities plagued by gangs.
More often, they say, administrators say nothing about the presence of gang members in their schools.
"It's embarrassing to admit you have a gang problem,'' says Mr. Spergel of the University of Chicago.
"Police have a vested interest in seeing it,'' adds Mr. Klein of the University of Southern California, "and schools have a vested interest in not seeing it.''
Both experts say many school officials may simply not recognize the signs of gang activity on their campuses.
And even when they do recognize them, the experts add, school officials may take the position that gang members are not an issue unless they disrupt the learning environment in the schools.
In Atlanta, for example, school officials say youth gangs are not a problem for them--despite police department portrayals of the seriousness of the situation.
"We had some social clubs two or three years ago but we met with parents and that was curbed early in their development,'' says Alonzo Crim, Atlanta's superintendent of schools. "I've served in schools on the West Coast, in the Northeast, and in Chicago and I know what gang activity is.''
Lieutenant Smith of the Atlanta police says one reason for Mr. Crim's apparent unconcern may be that the gangs in that city cause more problems outside of school than inside.
"Also, a lot of them are older kids and sometimes kids drop out of school and join gangs,'' he adds. "Generally, these are kids who cannot compete academically with their peers.''
A School Responsibility?
Mr. Klein says he favors the "arms-length'' approach that many school officials use to deal with the gang population within their walls.
"They don't know gang activity when they see it,'' he argues. "I would not urge schools to mount a major program that gives notoriety to gangs.''
But Mr. Klein's point of view is rare among experts. Other researchers and school-safety advocates say schools may be the most logical place to begin preventing gangs from forming in the first place. The earlier they start addressing the problem, these experts say, the more effective they will be.
"Problems on the weekend,'' warns Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in California, "show up at the schoolhouse gate on Monday morning and continue through the week. I think schools ought to be concerned.''
'Get Them Before Gangs Do'
City and school officials in Paramount, Calif., decided to tackle the problem in their community seven years ago after it became apparent that gangs from nearby Los Angeles had spread to their small, suburban community.
City officials developed a curriculum to teach 4th and 5th graders in their schools about some of the negative consequences of joining gangs.
Taught one hour a week by social-services workers, the classes teach children, for example, that the tattoos that mark them as gang members can create a permanent stigma for them later in life. They learn how difficult it is to leave a gang, and they talk about the drug use, crime, and violence that are often associated with life in an urban gang.
"We want to get them before the gangs do,'' says Anthony Ostos, who teaches the classes. "Here, junior high starts in 6th grade and it's important to get them before then.''
In addition, city workers meet with neighborhood parents and teach them how to prevent their children from joining gangs and how to recognize the signs of gang involvement if they do.
"Booster'' anti-gang lessons are taught in the 7th grade.
Mr. Ostos says a recent four-year, follow-up survey of students in the program indicates some positive results. More than than 90 percent of the children surveyed said they were still saying "no'' to neighborhood gangs.
He says city officials settled on the preventative tactics after they found out that extricating teen-agers from gangs could be a herculean task.
That was also the message delivered to federal lawmakers last month in the testimony of Ismael Huerta, who described himself as a former gang member.
"I didn't know there was a lot of shooting and stabbing and drugs when I joined,'' he said, "There was a lot of girls around and I just thought it was going to be like that.''
"Now,'' he said, "I can't get out.''
Vol. 07, Issue 30