A Tough Sell: Breaking Away From Gangs

Jeremy has an easy manner, almost a baby face. It's hard to imagine him with a gun in his hand, aiming at somebody and pulling the trigger. He admits to that, to dealing drugs, too, and more.

At 16 years old, he is incarcerated for carrying a gun. Seated in a small room at the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) facility, he wanders a little as he talks. "People join gangs because they think it's their family," he says. "It wasn't like that when I was in a gang. As soon as you get locked up they forget about you. It's all a big game. You play the game and learn the hard way at the end."

Six months ago, Jeremy welcomed this quick foray into a little self-realization. He had been part of a gang while staying with his grandmother, hoping to get back with his mother in another part of Boston. While inside the facility, he got involved with Teen Empowerment, a group that helps at-risk teens learn how to be leaders.

But like so many street-wise teens who slide back and forth between doing wrong and occasionally thinking right, Jeremy flopped over again on the wrong side. Not too long after he was released, he broke the conditions of his probation by being out at night. He's back in DYS for at least 30 days.

Experts readily agree that pulling teens out of gangs, or preventing them from joining, may be the most difficult task involved in the array of programs aimed at rescuing youths. The main culprit: the influence of the street.

"Peer pressure is the black hole that sucks kids out of their houses," says Bill Stewart, assistant chief probation officer for Massachusetts District Court in Dorchester, a neighborhood in Boston. "In my opinion, it is the main cause of gangs."

Just at the age when many inner-city and suburban teens need family support, or mentors, or memorable teachers - and answers to the age-old question of "what am I for?" - they are lured by the idea of belonging to a cool, tough "family" where bad is good.

So, for the Jeremys of the streets, the cycle continues. Poverty, peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, no parental control, violent movies and rap music - living in a spiritual void, they gather in gangs looking for respect. They war against each other and society in big and small cities all over the country.

Experts disagree on gang numbers. Malcolm Klein, author of "The American Street Gang," says there are half a million gang members across the US. The National Gang Crime Research Center at Chicago State University in Illinois puts the number at 1.5 million. But the most recent Department of Justice report for 1995 estimates the number of gangs in the US at 23,378, with 664,906 members.

No single definition fits all gangs. Some exist for illicit commercial reasons; others are strictly ethnic, with their origins stretching back for decades. Others claim a neighbor- hood or "turf" area, and some spread graffiti as wannabes rather than serious gangs. Other gangs form and dissolve in weeks or months.

Once in, most members get caught up in a life of fear and uncertainty. "It's like they are playing poker," Mr. Stewart says, "always raising each other, and they have to [deliver] if they want to keep the image as being the baddest of the bad."

Ex-gang members say that eventually, many hard-core bangers either end up dead, or simply try to escape alive.

"When I joined a gang at 14, it was for protection, and because I wanted to belong to something, anything," says Armando Gonzalez, a counselor for the Gang Prevention Intervention program in Long Beach, Calif., and a church pastor. "I wanted to feel proud. 'Now I'll get some attention,' I thought."

A spiritual helping hand

After five years of gang-banging, gunfire, fighting, and drugs, he wanted out. "I just got tired of it," he says, "tired of going in and out of jail, and tired of seeing my friends killed. I had become a drug addict, and fighting it was hard." Although he faltered along the way, he eventually turned to God, found compassion for himself and his fellow man, and turned to religion.

For Luis Osoy, a former gang leader in Guatemala and later in Phoenix, Ariz., years of violence and drug dealing yielded to a sense that God was getting closer.

"I was in an alley selling marijuana to a guy," he says, "and I heard a voice telling me to stop. I turned around, thinking somebody was there. But nobody was there. The guy says, 'Hey, c'mon, you going to sell me the stuff or not?' I heard the voice again telling me I was doing bad things to people. I wasn't on drugs or drunk. I started to cry, and knew I had to stop dealing."

A month later, he and his associates were caught in a drug bust. "Everybody went to jail but me," he says. "This was my exit that God provided me. I couldn't have just said to them, I'm not selling anymore because they might have killed me. So when they got busted, that was the end for me. I called a friend and said I was ready to learn about God."

While ex-gang members like Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Osoy broke from gangs by discovering God, dozens of organizations, schools, and communities in the nation are implementing intervention and prevention programs.

One of the most successful is The Omega Boys Club in San Francisco. Started by two public school teachers, the program offers regular mentoring and peer counseling to at-risk teens, and often recruits teens while they are in the city's juvenile-detention facility.

The unifying theme of the club centers on African-American culture and promotes extended family, viewing elders as teachers, and the values of education and achievement. By joining Omega, teens are helped in their development to be responsible to themselves and the "family" of Omega. They take a pledge not to use drugs or violence, and attend regular "family" meetings.

Currently, more than 64 club members are enrolled in college; 31 have graduated. Many previously were failing in school.

Joe Marshall, a founder of the club, says Omega's three-step process works inside the family concept. "First, we deal with the risk factors that contribute to violent behavior," he says. "Then we eliminate the anger, fear, and pain in the young person, and prescribe new rules for living to replace the code of the streets that they once lived by." Omega also airs "Street Soldiers," a popular nightly talk-radio program that the New Yorker magazine called "a kind of electronic parent for violence-prone young people."

The lives of most gang members are lacking the resources available to teens with solid support from their families. Beverly Deep, superintendent of Westlake City Schools in Westlake, Ohio, interviewed several hundred black male gang members between 1988 and 1993.

"Most kids go through periods when there are voids to be filled," she says. "But for almost all of the teens I interviewed, nothing filled the void. So they chose the gang to be accepted, needed. They may have to kill somebody to get it, but they think they will get it in the gang."

Intervention in a crisis

Another promising program in Oakland, Calif., literally intervenes in emergency rooms. Caught in the Crossfire, a program of Teens on Target, counsels teens who are hospitalized for gunshot wounds. "In that crisis moment," says Tamara Milagros of Teens on Target, "our immediate goal is to reduce retaliation. One of our counselors will often meet with the teens who brought the victim and then do follow-up counseling."

Counselors try to diffuse the anger by exploring alternative strategies to violence; helping to develop a plan for staying safe; or setting up an ongoing program to keep victims or others from rejoining gangs.

Since it began two years ago, 120 victims have been counseled. "We're there to intervene at a moment when there is the most potential for those individuals wanting to make a change," Ms. Milagros says.

For Osoy, who is now attending college in Phoenix and counseling youths about spirituality, conveying the cruel realities of gangs is a challenging task. "Everybody believes the gang is a family," he says. "But it isn't. You go to jail, they don't visit you. You go to the hospital, they don't really care. Yeah, but when you die, everybody shows up at your funeral."

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