Today I attended a training on gang awareness. Yes, even in the hippy utopia of Asheville we do have gang activity, even if they do ride around on seafoam Mopeds.
But seriously, I learned some very interesting stuff today. For example, the very culture of gang membership is evolving. Kids aren’t in gangs for life anymore, but tend to swap around based on popularity, peer pressure and household moves. I also learned that East coast gangs and West coast gangs have completely different ways of organizing, identifying and otherwise running their business. For example, on the West coast gang organization tends to be fluid and pragmatic – whoever’s the expert on whatever’s going down leads the show until the show’s over, at which time the hierarchy melts back down and everyone becomes marginal members again. OTOH, on the East coast gangs are hierarchical to the point of military rigidity.
Here are a few more nuggets that just blew me away:
–>Gangs are filing for and being approved as 501(c)3s – nonprofit organizations – and applying for (and getting) grants under the guise of being neighborhood social clubs, afterschool programs, community organizations and so on. Seriously, this just stopped me in my tracks. I’m not sure why it seems so shocking, since anything is fair game to a gang, but it was. Damn, as hard as we work to get grants and often times can’t, to know that we’re competing for those grants with the very gangs we’re trying to stop is just sickening.
–>The biggest rise in gang membership is in young females. Apparently, all the homeboys are in jail, so recruitment has to come from somewhere. And also, since the culture is more accepting of female physical prowess and violence (Kill Bill girls, Tomb Raider or Storm, anyone?), girls are beginning to see “ass-kicking she-bitch” as a legitimate life model to aspire to. But here’s the thing that most of them don’t know or (for reasons that simply escape me) don’t care about: when a female joins a gang, she’s community property that anyone and everyone in the gang can do what they want to when they want to do it, and the women have nothing to say about it. Why this is seen as a positive life alternative to anyone with any self esteem or even a shred of self-preservation is a mystery to me. Given the prevalence of abuse, violence and fatal STDs rampant in gang culture, I have trouble believing that being a woman in a gang is somehow safer than being on your own.
–>Gangs are going virtual. With the growth of the internet, you can now meet, initiate and join a gang online without ever meeting another gang member. Then you “get together” and go create criminal mayhem out on the web. One of the more humorous examples of this was given during the workshop of an online gang being surveilled on a chat room by an undercover officer. The kids were talking about getting together to do a drive by, and since they were all in different states, the officer was somewhat confused until he realized that by drive-by, they meant basically mounting a DOS attack on the Discovery Health chatroom by clogging the chat with pings until it ground to a halt. (For all you non-geeks, that sentence in English reads: they all logged onto an online chat at Discovery Health and overloaded the system with their own contributions to the chat.)
But while it sounds funny at this level, a look at the recent cyber-attack in Estonia is more sobering. After the Estonians moved a Russian statue commemorating the fight against the Nazis in WWII, Russian nationalists (although not, as was initially suspected, the Russian government) clogged the Estonian internet infrastructure with massive packets of info sent out by thousands of “botnets” from around the world, bringing the country’s banking, government and media sites to a screeching halt. It’s only a matter of time before virtual gangs (and more traditional ones) realize that the best way to get money out of a bank isn’t to bust in the front door, but to suck it out the tubes that hook it to the internet or, barring that, shut those tubes down and extort money to cease the attack.
–>Gangs r in ur politiks steeln ur elekshuns. P.Diddy, Russell Simmons and other gangsta legends are encouraging minorities and youth to vote through publicity campaigns and hip-hop videos. Now, while I’m all for the message on the surface, who do you think these OG’s (original gangstahs) are targeting – upright, unaffiliated middle-class kids who toe the straight and narrow, or young, angry minority kids who belong to gangs and who think these guys are the end-all be-all of success?
Depending on whose numbers you believe, there could be somewhere in the vicinity of a million gang members in America. Now imagine them all being rallied to vote by folks like P. Diddy, on issues these gang leaders support. Imagine Snoop Dog running for congress, and before you laugh remember just how popular he is, not only with actual gang members but with youth across the spectrum (also, may I direct your attention to celebrity Governors Ahnold and Ventura as prime examples of such status impacting legislative elections). These youth have been lining up to register to vote at these “Vote or Die” events, and now they’re voting. After these campaigns reached a head in the 2004 election, the number of voters under 30 was a staggering 21 million. More than half of all citizens between 18 and 29 voted. More than half. Now remember just how powerful these gangs can be at using intimidation and extortion to shut down criminal cases, put out hits on law enforcement and prosecutors, corrupt government and so on and imagine what they could do if they can continue the upward trend of mobilizing angry youth under their own colors and loyalties.
The specter of government being populated by legitimately elected leaders of some of the most violent and vicious street gangs in history is not, however one might wish to believe otherwise, outside of the realm of possibility. And a quick look at some South American countries in the same situation and what happens to them when that becomes reality is enough to make anyone go pale in the face.
Yeah. Suddenly, it’s not so funny anymore.
–>And finally, along with the loose affiliations and virtual gangs comes what the presenters referred to as “cut and paste” gangs, basically urban terrorist cells who are creating creeds, gang identities and memberships from scratch based on random, patched together information they find out on the web. We’re talking angry youth who want to be in a gang so bad that they go out and create their own based on a hodge-podge of gang ideology they come across on the web, with no traditional affiliations, no central control and no predictable behaviors. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.
Of course, I learned a lot more than that, but those concepts alone are enough to give the average uninformed whitebread like myself food for thought. The world is changing. And some bits of it are getting mighty scary, mighty quickly.
Of course, they also talked about prevention, intervention and suppression strategies as well. Which basically boiled down to two concepts I already knew:
1. Parental involvement is the key – and indeed, often the only – predictive factor for youth crime. This ain’t about race, money or other “easy to see” divisions. Aside from young minority women, the fastest rising gang members are bored, white rich kids raising themselves while Mums and Pops do their 80-hour days in corporate America. Here’s the skinny – if you’re not spending time with your kids, you can rest assured that someone else will be. There is nothing more appetizing to a gang recruiter than a disaffected rich kid with a key card to a gated community and no one at home for hours on end.
2. “You’re either gonna write me a check now, or you’re gonna write me one later. But either way, that check’s gonna get written.” This was said several times over the course of the day, and it basically means we as a community either cough up for pre-emptive programs and support services, or we cough up later for penal, health-care and other damage-control services. And chances are, if you opt for the latter, it’s going to cost you a lot more. Studies have found that the cost of preventative programs like WIC, food stamps, educational initiatives, after school, day care, preventative health care and job training cost exponentially less per person than dealing with the problems caused by their absence later on down the road, in terms of incarceration, increased costs of dealing with chronic illnesses, drug abuse issues, homelessness, joblessness and so on.
In fact, in the 1998 issue of National Geographic, as article about women and their children pointed out a study in Utah that found that spending $4000.00 on a single mother saved the state $400,000.00 over the lifetime of her child in social services. In case your math is sketchy, that’s a 100x return on your investment as a taxpayer. If you can find a better ROI option for the state’s money out there, please do share.
This is why I get spit-chokingly mad at folks who bitch and moan about spending their hard-earned tax dollars on “welfare handouts to lazy criminals and their whelps.” Look folks, that money’s gonna come out of your pocket one way or another. It can come out for human decency issues like feeding, clothing, sheltering, nurturing and educating people in need and at risk, or it can come out in vastly larger sums to pick up the pieces when the shit hits the fan, only instead of just money now there’s a human cost as well. There aren’t any other options. You might as well fork out now, when it looks all humanitarian and Christian and shit, than wait until later when you’re forking out hand over fist to raise enough money to hire more cops to keep the gang-bangers from totally overrunning your gated community because you couldn’t be bothered to provide them with the community resources they needed to grow up healthy, happy and trained for some other mode of life.
So, anyway, that was my day. I just know I’m not going to get much sleep tonight. That image of Snoop Dog on Capitol Hill is just downright disturbing.