Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Gangs - what are they good for?

Yes, of course, you got it: absolutely nothing.

It's something I see a lot here in the world of juvenile crime, sadly, gang activity.  Sometimes it's peer pressure, sometimes it's family replacement, and sometimes it's even family pressure.

It's a pet peeve for some of the judges, too, because (as they point out), Look where gang affiliation has gotten you!

Something I always want to point out to the kids, in addition, is this: "Look around the courtroom.  How many of your gang-banger buddies do you see here supporting you?"

Go ahead, dear reader, guess how many gang members we usually see supporting their troubled colleagues?

Got that one right, too, didn't you?  Zero.

The long-suffering family will be there, most likely a sad and over-worked mother who can't compete with the fun-sounding friends, the lure of instant cash, and who can't fulfill the need for a male role model.

And the one visceral reminder of the permanent damage these gangs can do to a young kid is often, and quite literally, etched on the bodies of the misguided: tattoos depicting area- or zip-codes, or straight up naming their gang.  Subtlety is not gifted to the young.

Good luck getting a job in ten years with "Representing the 05" or "Rolling Crips" stained on your skin.  Or, honestly the truth, the face.

But chatting with a cop recently I solved a puzzle I'd been pondering for a while.  You see, on my weekly ride-outs in east Austin I have seen (and had it pointed out to me) two dudes walking down the street in happy harmony -- one wearing blue (Crip) and one red (Blood).  When I see this, I am tempted to roll down the window and mock them heartily for their gang fail (mock them from the safety of a patrol car, of course, I ain't stoopid).

This officer, who studies gangs, explained it to me and it's not the result of weak or nominal allegiance to their gangs, it's an economic issue.  As he explained it, in places like LA the gangs are territory-focused, they fight for their little patches of land because that's what matters to them.  But here in Austin, and some other places, territory matters less than money.  The cop said that gangs around here have figured out that cooperating makes for better profits than fighting, and now there's even a saying: Blue and red make green.

Pretty interesting, don't you think?

The irony is, at least in my experience, gang members don't have much green.  Sure, a nice pair of sneakers, some extra baggy jeans and the latest in self-lowering boxers ("While you sell a little crack to your customers, we'll show a lot of yours to the world!").  These are people who gets rides to court from their parents or take the bus to visit their probation officer.  The retirement plan sucks, too.

Ah well, there's only so much I can do but it's good to know APD is following the trends and we have some pretty impressive gang-intervention programs running in schools (and beyond) so with any luck, in a few years at least, we'll be seeing a lot less crack on the streets of Austin. 

Yes, both kinds.


  1. No way to deny being in a gang with a nice gang tat under your eye.

    Although, there's no way to live a normal life then either.

  2. "While you sell a little crack to your customers, we'll show a lot of yours to the world!"

    I laughed way too hard at this :p Here in Aus gangs aren't so much on the forefront, if you meet a gang member, it's unlikely you'll even realise it. Weird.

  3. PD: Quite right, I think that, sadly, some are just too young and immature to realize the impact tats will have on their future. Great shame.

    Julz, they are a little more obvious here, I guess, though with so many they are now running out of colors. Some are resorting to brown, or beige... very uninspiring!

  4. We have the usual Bloods and Crips here, but what's worse is the kids who are in middle school who we call "wannabe gangsters". 13 years old, sagged jeans, red bandannas in their back pockets, guns in their bags. You'd think their parents would intervene, but some of them are in gangs. Sad to see.

  5. Same here Daisy, sometimes it's hard to know who's in a gang and who's just acting like it. Both are bad, of course.

  6. "in my experience, gang members don't have much green"

    Research published by Stephen Levitt in the book Freakonomics found that the average drug dealer makes roughly minimum wage and lives with his mother or grandmother.

    As for Austin (and for that matter, Texas) gangs compared to LA, our domestic market is small time, particularly in Austin but even the big cities, which aren't nearly as dense. Texas is important to criminal gangs because we're a transit hub, and the real gangster money comes from shipping drugs from here to Atlanta, Chicago, NY, LA and all points in between. Our big gangs work as arms of the major Mexican cartels: On the US side as distribution networks and, for several of the gangs, also crossing the border to operate as soldiers. Texas gangs allegedly are responsible for the lion's share of the killing in Juarez (working for both sides) and a good deal of the mayhem in Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa, too.

  7. Thanks Grits, I remember reading that Freakonomics book and being fascinated. I don't doubt what you say about the gangs but what's interesting to me is the juvenile side of gang life. I don't see kids getting caught as part of distribution for adult gangs, or Mexican cartels, more for what we call 'wannabe' stuff - acting tough by starting fights or trying to get money (to buy as opposed to sell or distribute) drugs by boosting cars and committing burglaries.

    I suppose it's a far more impulsive and less organized deal for the kids, but in most ways no less damaging to their futures.

  8. I'm not sure that the zip code tattoo is the same as a prison tear, or even that it indicates a gang wannabe.

    When our neighborhood team first started looking at what we needed to do to make a permanent change to our street drug and prostitution problems, we spent some time talking to South Congress folks about their turnaround. One of the things they noted was "78704 it's a state of mind", building a valued identity out of what used to be a sneer. In that demographic, it might more be a bumpersticker on a volvo than a wrist tat up here on Rundberg. But I think there's the same phenomenon, of saying Yes, this is my home, without necessarily saying the bad parts are need to stay that way.

  9. That's an interesting approach and state of mind, I like it very much. I do think the kids lack a sense of identity, and I do wish more could be done on the front end to solve their problems. Thanks for posting Lisa, much appreciated.


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