Guest Column: Gangs 101

By Eric Howanietz
Free-lance Writer

The question of gangs presents itself regularly in any narrative of community organizing in Rockford. But many times, this question remains unanswered in the dialogue of neighborhood associations and community policing efforts.

The Ellis Heights Weed and Seed, in collaboration with the Winnebago County Health Department hosted the “Gangs 101” seminar, Febuary 9-11, at the Winnebago County Justice Center. This seminar was presented by the Missouri Regional Community Policing Institute, part of a nationwide network of policing institutes called COPS (Regional Community Policing Institutes). The funding for “Gangs 101” came via the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is a branch of the Bureau of justice affairs and under the preview of the U.S. Attorney’s office, and ultimately all falls under the U.S. Department of Justice.

The federal grant program known as Weed and Seed comes with the motto of “Weeding out the bad and seeding in good,” and splits its million-dollar budget between law enforcement activities and community redevelopment projects.

Writing on the wall

Dropping in on the Gangs 101 seminar at the justice center was easy enough for any interested citizen; but after an hour of listening to a lecture about gangs in North America, I was confronted by Sgt. Hoey of the Rockford Police Department’s Community Services Department. He emphasized the course was designed for law enforcement and not appropriate for the general public. I was not allowed to attend the rest of the day’s lectures, but I noticed Joe Owen, president of Orchid Neighborhood association, and Harlan Johnson, who is part of Rockford Violence Prevention Collaborative. To my knowledge, at the time neither was a member of law enforcement.

What I saw in my hour of unauthorized attendance was a detailed breakdown of Hispanic and Latino gangs in North America. This mostly focused on “Norteños”, “MS-13,” and “18th Street” gangs. There were detailed slides of the graffiti and tattoos of various gangs and an analysis of the cryptology that is associated with it.

What especially caught my eye was a slide of a mural depicting a gang member in vivid detail. Special attention was given to the tattoos illustrated on the figure in the mural and the gang symbolism behind those drawings. The slide had been cropped from a bigger mural to only show those details, but just at the edge of the cropping, one could see the unmistakable illustrated aura of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The fact that this was only a partial view of an even bigger symbolic work left me with the feeling that many of these viewpoints weren’t looking at the bigger picture.

Even later, a Fox News segment was used as source material of gang activity. It showed masked teen-agers flashing gang signs and pistols. This was sharply contrasted by final clips of a police funeral with blaring bagpipes for the closing shot. If this were intended to raise the blood pressure of law enforcement in attendance, I could not say. But it struck me as incredibly uninformed because of its source.

Speakers and presenters

In a later interview, Moses E. Robinson of the Rochester Police Department and speaker at the seminar, talked of his efforts as a school resource officer. He said, “Kids call themselves something (gangs) because the culture of gangs is so popular.” He outlined how youth culture ties into gang culture, which is tied into prison culture, and eventually segued into the influences of MTV, which accelerates the progress of gangs in popular youth culture. “Addressing gangs in a community is a comprehensive approach dealing with mental health, social issues, and community issues” says Robinson. From his perspective, we don’t know whether we have a problem; but we still have youth culture and a level of disconnected youth threatening people in authority. Robinson emphasized that a clique becomes a gang when it becomes involved in crime and violence.

Sharon Weigler, director of the Ellis heights Weed and Seed, and host of the seminar, said she acts as a mediator between law enforcement and the community. Asked about gangs in Ellis Heights, she said, “What if? is the question. And if so, where do we go from here? Youth are in need as a given.”

Community members

Joe Owen and Harlan Johnson were easy to spot at the seminar, and later both spoke independently about the “Gangs 101” presentation.

Harlan Johnson is a part of the Violence Prevention Collaborative and Rockford’s “Partners for Excellence” at West Middle School. Johnson attended two days of the seminar but was not permitted to attend the third day of the conference, which covered gang suppression tactics in Rockford.

While at the conference, he commented that in relation to Chicago, Rockford’s gang problem didn’t seem as bad. This comment was met with scoffs from local law enforcement, who said that on a per-capita basis, Rockford’s gang problem was more serious than Chicago’s. Working out of their own opinion, this is the impression Rockford’s law enforcement officials have come to.

But the most interesting topic from the seminar that Johnson mentioned was community gang assessments. This is a comprehensive study of gang activities in a community and is the only real gang analysis that a city can make.  These are large studies that cost up to $250,000, take up to four years to complete, and go way beyond the scope of law enforcement. Many times, universities need to get involved in the research, along with community leaders and education officials.

There are federal grants available for gang assessment studies, but many times cities shy away from them. The studies can be considered a display of “dirty laundry” for a city, and it is difficult to bring a mayor or a Chamber of Commerce to the table on such a project.

Johnson explained that what he learned in the conference is that most people who are not directly affected by gangs don’t even notice them. There is a tendency in communities to avoid paying attention to them unless family members are involved.

This makes it even harder to get the will to do an assessment. The point at which a city is usually forced to admit an issue is after a high-profile tragedy occurs. From this, the lecturers say, “The price to the community incurred from a tragedy is always greater than the cost of an assessment.”

In Johnson’s opinion, the city of Rockford should have a gang assessment, and the findings of the study should be available to the public. “It’s hard to argue with statistics,” says Johnson. At the seminar, speakers admitted that “Shotgun” approaches don’t work, and prevention efforts need to be focused and based on data.

Rockford P.D.’s Community Services Unit

Along with being president of Orchid Neighborhood Association, Joe Owen is also interning with the Rockford P.D.’s Community Services Unit and was allowed to attend “Gangs 101” for two days of the three-day seminar.

Owen has been actively participating in neighborhood associations since 1994 and feels that the people of his neighborhood are the ones who took a stand and facilitated change in their community. “All they did was talk when I first attended my neighborhood association in 1994,” says Owen. But after the first night when he said, “You need to take action,” he was nominated vice president.

Taking a close look at graffiti in his neighborhood, Owen is careful to make distinctions between hip-hop art and gang symbols. But after the conference, he says, “I’m not a blind guy anymore, I can read that braille…” Owen claims that nearly every neighborhood in Rockford has gangs, and every high school in Rockford is associated with a gang.  But like many in the community when asked what the gangs are in Rockford, he says, “I don’t know.”

In 2004, Owen claims that police were so apathetic to the community that police responding to a fellow neighbor’s call would say, “look where you live, lady, move!” In time, conditions in the neighborhood improved along with police relations, but Owen says, “You’re never going to get rid of gang activity completely.”
Word on the street

Talking to youth in Rockford brings a pretty consistent knee-jerk reaction of, “Bah! There aren’t any gangs in Rockford!”

“You may see some guy acting all tough, but when you say, Ya right, spit your lit, they got nothing.” This is a reference to gang creeds, which most gangs are required to memorize as part of initiation.

Whether or not gangs are Rockford’s issue, it still maintains a pretty healthy drug culture. Coming with this are layered wild rumors of a huge network of grow houses, the convenience of small airports around the city, and strange shipping companies that line the highway. “I don’t want to seem ignorant about gangs in Rockford, but the face of gangs just isn’t that apparent,” says one 20-something.

Criminalization and market share

Gangs for so long have been associated with stable minorities and poverty. Any elementary look at gangs will find their primary driver is the street economy of narcotics. This may be the only means of income available to disadvantaged minorities in gangs. But for as long as anyone can remember, a dime bag of weed has been the same weight for the same price; and it only looks like it will get cheaper. Stresses on market share and scarcity of commodity have evaporated, thus creating exploding markets for drugs beyond simple street territories. They may still be involved, but the drug trade is far beyond the scope of street gangs in our day and age.
The one place where gangs still dominate is in prisons. More than half of all American prisoners are serving time for nonviolent drug charges. And in these prisons languish disproportionate percentages of minorities. Gangs have become institutionalized cultures of incarceration. From these prisons, law enforcement has created its own womb of criminalized sub-culture, which, in turn, justifies more prisons, harsher laws, and longer sentences. All the while, drug culture has become more common, accepted and prevalent. The old taboos have vanished, and every day we come into contact with stable functioning drug users. Faced with a cheap, readily available commodity, is law enforcement the only one “dealing” with gangs any more?

Gangs of Rockford

What gangs are in Rockford…?

What are their numbers…?

What territory do they occupy…?

What is the nature of their operation…?

Deputy Chief Greg Lindmark could not be reached for comment on the Gangs 101 seminar.

Admissions of speakers

• D.A.R.E. does not work

• Curfew laws have questionable results

• Peer-based programs don’t work

• Scared Straight is ineffective

From the Feb. 23-March 1, 2011, issue

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