Audio Feature (11:44)
RealAudio 2.0 file
Biewen welcomed James (Buddy) Howell, a consultant for the National Youth Gang Center, and the Reverend Devin Miller, Executive Director of The Collaborative Movement for Improvement, Inc., a non-profit community group in St. Paul, to an Internet chat Dec. 3, 1996. A transcript of the exchange is available at the Soundprint Media Center Web site.
The Justice Department estimates that more than 650-thousand young people are involved in gangs, and those gang members committed more than three thousand homicides in 1995. In Minnesota, authorities from the Governor to various police chiefs have announced new plans to attack what they call growing gang problems. Politicians and popular culture often paint gang members as irretrievable outlaws who will only leave the gang in handcuffs or a body bag. But experts say most gang members eventually go straight. Minnesota Public Radio's John Biewen reports.
A 16-year-old we'll call Nick describes the prominent gang tattoos on his arms and hands. He says he joined the Bloods gang when he was ten.
"Nick": "I got a five-point star with a 'b' in the middle of it, for Blood, then just a money sign. Then I got my street name up here...."
Nick describes himself as half Chicano and half white; his group of St. Paul Bloods is racially integrated. Nick was first locked up at age twelve, for car theft. He says he uses drugs often, and sells them sometimes. He says he fired a gun one time... during a shoot-out with a rival gang. He doesn't know if he hit anybody.
"Nick": "A couple of my homies died recently. It's hard to take, but it's life too. If you're gonna represent your 'hood it's gonna happen."
Sound: door bang...walking down stairs...
Nick is spending a few months at Boys Totem Town, a correctional facility for juveniles in St. Paul. He's in for burglary this time. Totem Town is a kind of transition point between Ramsey County's juvenile jail and freedom. Counselors say at least half of the teens here have some connection with a street gang.
Sound: classroom hubbub, computer tapping...
Juveniles at Totem Town get intensive schooling and counseling; the program is designed to give them a fresh start... by helping repair their frayed connections with their families and schools. Experts say for most young people who get involved, gangs are more a rite of passage than a life-long choice. Totem Town Superintendent Frank Hosch says 85-percent of juveniles who get in trouble in Minnesota do not go on to commit crimes as adults.
Hosch: "The vast majority of the kids that come into contact with the correction system, it will have an impact on them, they will leave it and they'll never return."
Nick appears ambivalent about whether to join that majority... or remain in the Bloods. Like many gang members, he's from a troubled, low-income family. He says his mother is an alcoholic and drug addict who's been mostly absent since he was small. He says the Bloods gave him what he needed.
"Nick": "They respected me, they gave me money, and when I ran away from home or something they gave me a place to live. They treated me like family."
But Nick admits that gang "family" is held together by fear as much as by love. Nick says he'd like to quit the gang he wants a normal life, to work for his grandfather's roofing business and walk the streets without worrying about bullets from a rival gang. But he's not prepared to tell his fellow gang members he wants out.
"Nick": "They'd laugh at me. If you try getting out, going on your own, they look for you. Or if they happen to catch up to you probably get beat down or even shot for disrespecting your own gang."
Miller: "The deeper you are, the higher you are in rank because there is a ranking system in the gangs the harder it is to make that decision."
The Reverend Devin Miller works with African-American teenagers in St. Paul; he directs a non-profit group called Collaborative Movement for Improvement. Miller contends that, given their sense of alienation from the mainstream, most gang members only get more defiant in the face of condemnation from police and politicians. Instead, Miller tries to provide friendly guidance.. and a way out of gangs... even if that means driving a young man out of town in the middle of the night.
Miller: "We've had to move them out at the crack of dawn to the midnight hour, and take routes and all of this, and I'm sitting there going like, 'I did not dream of this when I was going to school and went into the ministry' but that's what it takes.... for young people to know you're willing to do that."
Sound: classroom hubbub...
Reverend Miller goes into several St. Paul high schools every week; he teaches a voluntary, non-credit course exclusively to black teens. The course covers various aspects of African American life, past and present... but Miller spends several sessions talking about street gangs. One study estimates 47-percent of the nation's youth gang members are black; 43-percent are Latino... six-percent Asian and four-percent white. Miller stresses most black students are not involved in gangs or crime... but he hopes to reach a few who are... and alter the image of gangs among as many kids as possible.
Miller: "What music do y'all listen to?" Kids: "R&B and rap." Miller: "OK, what kind of rap?" Kids: "Hip-hop." "Reality rap. What is the reality in most rap?"....
Miller's discussions on gang culture are especially lively at the Area Learning Center... an alternative high school for kids who've been kicked out of other schools because of truancy or discipline problems. Several of the twenty-or-so students in Miller's class are admitted gang members. Miller tells them he understands the attractiveness of gangs for young blacks who have troubled families, few recreational choices... and deep doubts that education will guarantee a good job in what they see as a hostile white society.
Miller: "OK, So now I get you in, I give you a sense of family, I become that male figure in your life. OK? I give you something to do. You don't need no education, you don't need no college degree. You can make twice as much, three times as much, doing this than going to college."
But then Miller seems to catch some of his students off-guard. He says while gang members who shoot at each other and sell drugs to their neighbors may think they're thumbing their nose at the "system"... in fact they're letting the system trick them into self-destruction.
Miller: "We see the mess being put on us, but we don't see ourselves grabbing it! This is the solution. The solution is, for one: are you willing not are you able are you willing to say no to the easy way of making money, and do it the hard way. Don't answer." ... kids murmuring...
A few of the students challenge Miller. An 18-year-old gang member named Michael says gangsta rappers and young drug dealers are just trying to make a living.
Michael: "I said, what about the young ones that want some money, their parents ain't got it but they ain't old enough to work no job, though. Their momma can't afford to put a pair of Nike shoes and a pair of something on em, you know what I'm saying?" Miller: "Answer this. What put the thought in that young person's mind that they needed a pair of Nikes?" Michael: "The first time they seen that commercial." (Miller slams hand on board and screams) "That's what I'm talking about!!" Michael: "So what you saying, stop watching TV?" Miller: "No, no, no, listen! Understand who's playing, and understand who's being played!"
Though Michael resists some of Reverend Miller's moral arguments, he says he is convinced that gangs and crime are a dead end. Michael joined the Gangster Disciples on his 14th birthday. Now, after getting expelled for repeated fights in school, he's trying to finish his high-school degree.
Michael: "Me running around here gang-banging, beating up on people, this ain't gonna help me when I'm thirty, you know what I'm saying? I gonna still be doing this, living with Mom or something? That's not gonna work. You're gonna have to have a job, you gonna have to have something, some kind of something to get you to point B... and C and on down the alphabet, you know what I'm saying?"
Michael has not officially quit the St. Paul Gangster Disciples; he's still close with some young men in the gang. Instead, he says, he's gradually become less active showing up less often on the streets and at gang meetings. He says because he doesn't renounce them or try to act superior, his fellow gang members are letting him go without punishment.
Michael: "But you spread yourself, you spread yourself thin, eventually, you know, things die down, they stop looking for you to be around as often cause they know you ain't around as often. It ain't the same in every gang, it's different for everybody."
CD: Tupac Shakur talking over piano: "Change? Shit. I guess change is good for any of us. Whatever it take for any of y'all niggas to get up out the 'hood, shit I'm with you. I ain't mad atcha. Got nothing but love for ya." Drum, song kicks in...
St. Paul is what gang experts call an "emerging" gang city. Older, more-entrenched gangs in the largest cities are said to be the most dangerous to leave. But even the late Tupac Shakur, a rapper noted for accurate depiction of gang life in New York and Los Angeles, rapped about a friend who gave up the streets for Islam.
CD: Heard you might be comin home, just got bail/ Wanna go to the mosque, don't wanna chase tail/ Seems I lost my little homie, he's a changed man/..."
Police and others who work with gangs say the rules of retirement can vary by city, neighborhood and ethnicity. Long Vang, a youth counselor with Hmong American Partnership in St. Paul, says in Minnesota's southeast Asian gangs, members are allowed to quit if they get married.
Vang: "That's where we find a lot of young people getting married these days. We have 14-15 year olds getting married. And I don't know if that's the reason, but to me it seems obvious and the right thing to do if they wanna get out of the gang."
A Justice Department study that looked at gang activity in Rochester, New York and Denver found the average youth gang member stayed for only a year before quitting. University of Chicago sociologist Irving Spergel has been studying urban street gangs for more than forty years... and runs an ongoing gang intervention program in a Latino neighborhood of Chicago.
Spergel: "I do see positive change in a lot of these kids. On an individual basis I'm optimistic. More optimistic than I am in terms of where the society is generally going."
In other words, though most young gang members eventually graduate to normal lives... the number of kids going through that rite of passage is growing. The Justice Department says gang membership has grown by more than a hundred thousand since 1993. Some experts call for more social spending and job programs for young people; others say it's up to families and communities to rein in problem kids and teach better values. Michael, the semi-retired Gangster Disciple in St. Paul, says he grew up in a loving family with high expectations... but even as a small child he saw that gangsters had special status in his school and neighborhood.
Michael: "I'll tell you the truth, I think people took me more for not a chump, you know... but just a quiet person, somebody that just wouldn't do nothing. And then when they seen me out on the street or hanging and banging they was like 'damn,' you know what I'm saying? And we had power... 'cause when we stepped in the room, if you was talking bad about us, you shut your mouth."
Devin Miller of St. Paul's Collaborative Movement for Improvement says youth gangs will keep finding recruits until street culture and popular culture stop sending the message that being feared is the same as being respected.