Southern discomfort: youth gangs lurk. But many say region isn't fertile soil for Chicago-style activity
Jackson, Miss. — On the heels of migrants from Northern ghettos to bustling Southern cities came something that snapped urban Southerners to attention over the summer. First the graffiti of Chicago gang confederations began appearing, then shootings - reported in cities around the South in the past year - that were linked to youth gangs.
Even in this small, hospitable capital with strong rural roots, two fatal shootings in the past six months have been linked to gangs.
In Atlanta, where police have seen gang organization proliferate in the past two years, the most recent killing linked to gangs occurred two weeks ago.
Unheard of in the plantation South before 1979, reports of gang activity in the past couple of years have come from Mobile, Ala.; Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn.; Richmond and Norfolk, Va.; Greenville and Charleston, S.C.; and Baton Rouge, La., according to Walter B. Miller, former director of the National Youth Gang Survey.
``The appearance of any kind of youth gangs in the old plantation South is a new phenomenon,'' Dr. Miller notes. ``It has the potential to become a more serious gang problem.''
``In every case where there's any organization to it,'' says Claude McInnis, a Jackson Youth Court counselor and member of the mayor's commission on gangs, ``there were kids from up North.''
Yet whether violent Chicago-style youth gangs have arrived in the South is a matter of considerable debate.
``This is a Southern town,'' says Bill Griffin, director of Youth Opportunities Program for the Jackson Urban League. ``We don't have gang fights here.''
As youth counselors and police describe it, young blacks who were involved with gangs in Northern ghettos, especially Chicago, follow their families to the South, or are sent by their families to friends or relatives in the South to get them out of the ghetto environment.
In cities like Jackson, they find a naive audience for the tough talk of gang lore, but also little of the hardness or alienation that marks Chicago gangs.
Jackson youth mimic the gangs with graffiti, dress, and posturing, but are not inclined to regular, organized criminal activity, even gang fights, says Jimmy Bell, a criminal justice professor at Jackson State University and co-chairman of the mayor's gang commission.
``Violent youth gangs have not come to the South,'' he says. Rather, the gang names and symbols now decorate the normal ad hoc trouble that poor kids who don't fit in at school stir up, and the community has reacted to the image that Chicago's Vice Lords and Folks conjure up.
Dr. Bell believes the South is not fertile soil for serious gangs. ``We're approaching urban values,'' he says, ``but deep down we're still in that rural mentality.''
``People speak to each other here in Jackson,'' he explains. Neighbors tend to know each other's children and keep tabs on them. ``People operate as one big extended family in the South,'' he says.
Respect for authority is still commonplace even with delinquents here, says counselor McInnis.
When youths are headed for trouble, he adds, ``I can go to their house, chew them out, pull their ears,'' unlike Chicago gang members who taunt police and test their limits. ``People like me get whooped in Chicago.''
Not everyone is so sanguine, though. In Atlanta, a much larger city, the gang Down By Law appears to run organized car theft, robbery, and burglary operations, according to Lt. LaSalle Smith, who is head of the gang unit the Atlanta police, formed last July. The gang has also been linked to rape and murder.
Even in Jackson, some warn that the gang problem promises to grow more serious unless it is taken seriously now.
``People don't really face the issue until it hits them on the head,'' says Charles Robinson, director of the Jackson Urban League.
``To me, it's serious,'' says Dan Merritt, deputy superintendant of the Jackson Public Schools. ``Two people are dead since July, two kids.''
Mr. Merritt is encouraged that gang involvement in Jackson appears to have stopped growing since July, when a teen-ager was killed in a drive-by shooting. The murder may have impressed on young Jackson youth the gravity of gang violence.
``They're fairly naive country bumpkins,'' says Don Sullivan, the other co-chairman of the mayor's commission.
As a hard-boiled young migrant from Chicago told Mr. McInnis: ``They don't know gangs from nothing here. A kid gets hit here and he calls the police. They don't know what a gang is for.''