Gangs

Kids in the Crosshairs

I'

I’m sitting on my brother’s back porch north of Seattle. Inside, I hear my 14-month-old nephew testing his consonants— "b, b, b, ball!" The dogs have found a spot in the sun and are collapsed on top of each other. It’s family. I’m grateful for it—because it could have been otherwise.

Not long before the visit to my brother’s house, I attended a presentation, called "A Reality Tour of Youth Violence in Washington, D.C.," sponsored by teenage organizers in my neighborhood. They were also talking about family, violence, and a culture of neglect.

The Youth Action Research Group (YARG) interviewed black and Latino youth all over D.C. to get their perspectives on youth violence and youth-based solutions. At least 22 young people died as a result of gun violence in D.C. in 2004, reported YARG. Four kids were killed in gang-related violence within blocks of the YARG office.

"[S]ome people are in a gang because it is like a family for them," one teenager reported to 16-year-old YARG researcher Denisse. "They don’t have no family, they don’t have no support—so they get that support from the street...and they join a gang. Because you’re in a gang, you shouldn’t just get locked up—they just need help. They need love."

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Sojourners Magazine February 2005
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As For Me and My Gang, We Shall Serve the Lord

The Un-Chained Gang Motorcycle Ministry is a nondenominational outreach program of born-again outlaw bikers in Bloomington, Indiana. Members take a vow of nonviolence for the sake of Jesus. They serve in jail and prison evangelism as well as ministry to the hard-core motorcycle world. For more on this ministry, see Riders for God (University of Illinois Press), by Rich Remsberg.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2001
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The Faces of Crisis

"THIS IS the face of Maria. She's always in trouble and she has a hard time doing the right thing," the 12-year-old girl mumbles as she displays a sketched self-portrait to the class.

"This is me, Ernesto," an adolescent boy pipes up confidently. "He likes soccer and he's really good at it."

Maria and Ernesto are in the classroom of the Santa Cecilia barrio, a Christian base community in San Salvador, El Salvador, for a session of art therapy offered by the Astac Cultural Center. The teacher concludes the lesson by asking the children to take their pictures with them and search for the positive attributes behind the faces.

El Salvador's youth are suffering from a lack of identification with their roots and culture. Not only do they seldom reflect upon a civil war that ended less than a decade ago, they are living in a country that is more violent now than during that 12-year conflict.

I spent the summer of 1997 working with deported members of Los Angeles street gangs in El Salvador through a program called "Homies Unidos." With the support of Save the Children, Homies Unidos is a group of non-active gang members, mostly from the rival groups "Mara Salvatrucha" and "18th Street," who are working to educate themselves and others on violence prevention and job creation. My project focused mainly on the reintegration of deported gang members into Salvadoran society—a society as foreign to them as to me, since they were refugees in the United States during the war.

EL SALVADOR IS RANKED among the most violent nations in Latin America, with more daily assassinations now than during the war. The tiny nation ties with South Africa for the highest number of murders per capita. An average of 150 people per month deported back to El Salvador (including many gang members with criminal records), combined with overpopulation and economic and environmental strains, fuels El Salvador's spiraling cycle of violence.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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La Cultura Cura

All of us have lost somebody. Some have been shot. Some have been to prison. Some have been lost to drugs or alcohol. We're such beautiful people and we're killing ourselves. It's hard to talk about peace when we come with such pain, but I am inspired by you in the hope of nonviolence. This is the vision of my teacher, César Chávez: Si, Se Puede!

CALLED TO LET GO of their grief by Nane Alejandrez, the executive director of the gang-alternative organization Barrios Unidos, the young Latinos at last August's National Peace Summit gathered around a simple memorial to honor the names and symbols of their homeboys and homegirls lost to barrio warfare. Though no more than butcher paper taped to a wall in Santa Cruz's Civic Auditorium, the teen-agers brought it to life with their own hearts and souls, listing the names and symbols of those who had been killed in their neighborhoods.

The memorial became as sacred a reminder of the violence and pain of war for the young people at the Peace Summit as the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. And though the scale differs greatly, to those caught up in the midst of the chaos that rules so many of our inner-city neighborhoods, the experience of warfare is no less real.

As the list overflows from one sheet of paper to two-and then to three-one can begin to sense the depth of the crisis in the Latino community. Nearly all of those listed on the memorial died young, killed as the violence of urban America caught up with them before they even had the chance to learn that the same streets they played in as children become urban free-fire zones when they reach adolescence.

Some families are disproportionately struck by the violence, such as that of Rudy Buchanan of Phoenix, who lost both of his sons in one year. Near the top of the list are the names of several of Nane's relatives, all lost to what he calls the "madness of the barrio."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1996
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A New Day

With the proliferation of gangs and crews in recent years, from the streets of our inner cities to our suburban and rural areas, the amount of reliable information about them has also grown. Gone are the days when gangs were thought about in the quaintly romantic images of West Side Story's Jets and Sharks. And though the story of Nicky Cruz's conversion in David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade
can still strike a powerful chord in the evangelical heart, most people now realize that the gang issue is much more complex and that conversion is only the start of the healing required in many young people involved in gang banging.

The young people involved in gang activity today face a myriad of problems that were unknown to their parents or often even their older siblings. For those whose identities are tied up in crews, cliques, or posses, death strikes more often and more suddenly than it should in anybody's life. And the peace they need will not come from a single source, but requires the active engagement of all of our society's institutions. Families, schools, churches, law enforcement, and the business community must work together with gang-related youth to create ways out of what these young people call "the madness."

Crews: Gang Members Talk to Maria Hinojosa
is a collection of poignant and often painful interviews begun by National Public Radio correspondent Maria Hinojosa while covering the story of a tourist who was stabbed and killed in New York City by a member of the crew FTS (Flushing's Top Society) for money to go dancing. Her attempts to understand why some urban youth turn to violence for reasons that appear to be so trite developed into a deep and lasting relationship with the young people of the crews.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1995
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A Street Blessing

Well, it finally happened. After more than two decades of living and working in many of America's meanest streets, I was mugged. As a veteran urban pastor, organizer, and even a gang truce adviser, I'm embarrassed to say that they took me by surprise. It

was only 6 o'clock in the evening-during rush hour. I suppose I watch my back better after midnight. But these guys were so fast and bold, I'm not sure it would have made any difference.

Needing a few things at the store before an early morning flight, I headed out to my pick-up truck parked at 13th and Fairmont Streets NW, right around the corner from where I live in D.C.'s 14th Street corridor.

Looking over my shoulder in response to the sound of running feet, I saw four young men bearing down on me. The first one hit my slightly turned head with something sharp enough to open a cut above my left eye. The force of the blow and a push from two others sent me to the pavement. One of them yelled, "Keep him down! Get his wallet!" It finally registered. These guys were trying to roll me over.

I popped up quickly, which seemed to surprise them. Seeing no weapons flashed, I squared to face my attackers. This was the first chance we had to really see each other face to face. They were just kids-three about 15 or 16, and one little one who couldn't have been more than 13.

The boys backed up a little when they saw I was bigger than they had expected. I'm a strong believer in nonviolence, but have learned that being a weightlifter often helps in these potential confrontations. The one who had hit me moved into a boxing stance while the others circled. The little guy began attempting some ineffectual karate kicks, which I assumed he had seen on television.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1995
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We're In the Forgiving Business

Santa Cruz, California, isn't the type of community that one would expect to be struggling with gang-related violence. A small city on the Pacific coast, Santa Cruz draws tourists from all over Northern California to its beaches and boardwalk amusement park. The city also attracts students from around the state to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz. Once a slow-paced fishing town, Santa Cruz is now a center for radical politics and the arts and abounds with organic food stores, theaters, funky coffeehouses and restaurants, and alternative bookstores.

But like many small cities in California, Santa Cruz is a place of drastic contrasts and wild contradictions. Unseen by most of the visitors-yet literally adjacent to the popular beach boardwalk-there exists a section of this small town that faces the big problems of the inner city: low-income housing projects with teen-age heroin addicts, youth who are at risk from gang-related violence, and families who struggle to put enough food on the table for their children. For many of the predominantly white residents and students in Santa Cruz, the life-la vida loca-of the barrios is a distant reality that they read about in the newspapers or see on television more often than face to face.

Gangs in Santa Cruz County, which are made up almost exclusively of Latino youth, exist in a complex network of ever-changing alliances, subsets, and crews, each loosely connected with California's two major Latino gang alliances, Norteño and Sureño (Northern and Southern). The Norteño alliance, which identifies itself with the color red, is associated with the Nuestra Familia gang that started in 1965 in Soledad penitentiary. The Sureño alliance, which is connected to the Mexican Mafia, a gang that began in a California prison in 1958, claims the color blue. Sureños generally consider themselves to be Mexican nationals and usually speak Spanish.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1995
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