Gangs Harbor The Most Fearful People Who Need the

Photo: Tattoos — symbols of the struggle of his earlier years — warn you against crossing a former gang member. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Recruiting members to street gangs

Is succumbing to gangs an endorsement for fear and protection? Are people not teaching God’s way instead of the way of the world?

To Be or Not To Be a Gang-Banger: Is that Really the Question?

By Sahra Sulaiman

This story features interviews with a number of youth. Some are named. Others requested they remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the information divulged. This story is the second in a series on the impact of generational disenfranchisement and trauma and repressive policing. The first, “Death and All His Friends,” can be found here.

AS WE CONCLUDE our conversation, he takes a deep breath, adjusts his belt, and asks – this time, I think, as a person and not a police officer – if I really believed kids in Watts didn’t have much choice about whether or not to get involved with gangs.

I have a sudden desire to pull out all my hair.

We had just spent the last forty-five minutes trading observations on the variety of factors that impact the safety, security, and mobility of kids in the area, all while seated next to a playground that – despite being situated in a housing development teeming with young children – is almost always empty, even on the most beautiful of summer afternoons. And even now, after an official community event that had drawn a sizable number outside just an hour earlier. No one lingers.

“That’s a tough question to answer,” I say slowly. He grew up not too far from here and I do not want to diminish the effort that I know he must have made to leave his own hardscrabble background behind. “Technically, they do have a choice…”

But, as I know he was well aware, I say, it isn’t easy.

Ticking off a list of everything we had just discussed – the drive-bys, violence in schools and the public space, various forms of abuse in the home, grooming by gang-bangers, profiling by law enforcement, intense poverty, generational trauma, the legacy of segregation, and a lack of exposure to positive environments – I suggest it’s an awful lot to expect an eight- or ten-year-old to transcend.

Even for those who do want something else for themselves, once they’ve started down a certain path, desisting, or walking away from gang life, can be extremely challenging.

Especially if they are still young.

Most can’t afford to move or find trying to navigate the politics of a new neighborhood to not be worth the risk. Staying where they are can be just as hazardous – they no longer have protection from former rivals who don’t know or don’t care that they’re out or from former homies that feel disrespected and want to settle scores.

Without a strong support system, job, and/or educational program they can lean on, they’re in danger of getting sucked back in. Or worse.

“The odds,” I say to the officer, throwing my hands wide, “are not in their favor.”

“I Was Just a Kid. I Didn’t Know What Was Happening.”

“Middle school is when everything changed,” says Delfino, a shy but friendly and thoughtful young man finishing his high school degree at a continuation school in Watts.

From the very first day, he says, he was acutely aware that there were a lot of gang members at his school (which held grades 5 through 9) because they enjoyed picking on him.

“They would always ask me, ‘Where you from?’”

He pauses.

“I didn’t know the meaning of that,” he laughs, as if he still can’t believe he had once been so innocent.

I can’t believe it, either.

He had grown up around 92nd St., an area where gang activity is prevalent and his solid build should have made him a prime recruit.

The kid who was harassing him apparently also thought Delfino was bluffing because he got annoyed and asked, “You wanna catch my fade?”

“He threw the first punch and I snapped,” says Delfino.

The way he describes it, stepping through the doors at school was like being dropped into the modern-day, high-stakes version of Lord of the Flies.

“After that day,” he says, “I started noticing everything…”

He didn’t have much choice.

His survival depended upon his ability to relearn the rules of human interaction, the primary tenets of which appeared to include trusting no one and always being on guard.

This became clear to him when he realized that, by having accidentally made an enemy out of his bully, he would now have to contend with all of the homies that were part of the bully’s clique. Every time he crossed paths with any one of them, he would need to be prepared to fight, even if he didn’t know them and had no personal beef with them.

Worse still, he says with a shrug, there was nowhere to run.

Teachers and counselors knew kids fought, but they were either powerless to help or uninterested in doing so.

“I thought, ‘In order to survive, I’ve got to join something…’”

So he linked up with another homie that had been trying to recruit him for a crew.

“It wasn’t a gang,” he emphasizes several times – they weren’t known outside the middle school.

They did have numbers, however. Which meant that a rival would now think twice about messing with him.

It was such a relief, he says, to not have to worry about fighting all the time.

That is, until the leaders of his crew threatened to “check” him for not “putting in work” and, at one point, to see that he was “dealt with” if he didn’t do the work he was assigned.

Protection, he suddenly realized, was going to cost him.

“To me, it didn’t make sense,” he laughs. “I was just a kid. I didn’t know what was happening.”

But he was learning.

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Gangs?

When we think about gang membership, we tend to conceptualize it as a clear-cut thing, almost like joining the military: one day you’re a civilian, the next day you’ve signed up for a tour of duty, been given a dress code, a haircut, and a weapon, and been sent for training in the arts of war somewhat apart from your civilian home base.

Rather than joining up because you value honor, valor, and country, however, you have made the conscious choice to swear allegiance to the twisted code of ethics of a criminal organization that seeks to destroy the social fabric of our urban centers.

If that were the way things actually worked, the gang problem would be much easier to deal with.

Instead, gangs (and their many incarnations) are complex social networks whose roots are deeply intertwined with those of the communities and socio-economic environments they call home.

Not unlike the military, they offer youth a surrogate family, something to belong to, someone to watch their back, and something to fight for.

But they also offer so much more – the promise of a social circle, the possibility of controlling what would otherwise control them, an outlet for frustration or revenge, and a name, status, and “juice” (respect). Respect, in particular, is a highly coveted commodity for kids that feel beat down or oppressed by circumstance. If they can prove themselves worthy of being feared, people will be less likely to mess with them just for the hell of it.

Moreover, by the time a kid is ready to get officially jumped, courted, or sexed in, it isn’t because they went looking for a recruiter.

Usually, they come looking for you.

Sometimes they come in the form of family members, as in the case of one young man who was (unwillingly) jumped in at age 12 by his relatives, the shot-callers for a Latino gang.

Other times, neglect pushes kids over the edge, as in the case of another young man, orphaned at age 10, who was taken in by an irresponsible uncle. When the uncle would head off to Tijuana and leave him behind, alone and without food, he wasn’t in a position to say no to gang members who fed him in exchange for hiding their drugs under his tongue. Hungry, lonely, and eager to please, his destiny was sealed before he hit puberty.

More commonly, the combination of push factors and people who actively encourage them to join up can be such constant and persistent companions that joining up is nothing more than a formality. An inevitable next step.

In these cases, the kids will often tell you it was their “choice.”

They might even say, as Whisper – who, at age 9 was courted in by 13 guys – did, “I don’t know. Something told me, like, get in it, or something… ‘Cause at that time you don’t care. You’re stupid and you do whatever. You follow someone else.”

But there’s always more to the story.

It usually begins with a flatly delivered, “I been through a lot” – the closest to admitting pain that most will come – that indicates that you should take a seat and brace yourself for what you are about to hear.

For Nico, it was having seen his mother abandoned by his father when he was 5 and later beat up by her boyfriend, having relatives involved in gang life, getting jumped in sixth grade and having to fend for himself in his first real fight, wanting respect in a neighborhood with intense gang activity, and having a lot of unresolved anger. Having folks around him that steered him in the wrong direction, including homies that handed him a gun so he could go attempt his first armed robbery at age 11, didn’t help much, either.

For William, it was fighting and running with crews since middle school, an absentee/alcoholic father, a brother who was also involved in that life, and the fact that his high school’s social structure revolved around gangs, with kids being beat up in the stairwells between classes and each of the lunch tables being controlled by a different gang. It was also having seen so many bodies torn open by bullets or knives just lying in the street — he realized he had become numb to it by the time he hit his early teens.

“I would look at the victim and I would see him suffering and I wouldn’t feel nothing. I would see him crying and I wouldn’t feel no emotion,” he says, sounding confused by his own reaction. “I don’t know what the — was wrong
with me.”

Candles and Father’s Day well-wishes from family members stand at the site where Big Yummie was killed in the Gonzaque (formerly the Haciendas) housing development. The candles are red to mark his affiliation with a set of the Bloods. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Whisper’s case is more of the same. But, she insists, things could have been worse for her.

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