Gangs That `Secede' From Society

`They're everywhere, big time crews, jit crews, guys who pretend they're rolling, girls who love crews ... it's bad. Teachers know, security knows, janitors know, principals and counselors know, but what can they do? The guys are rolling hard, they have bodyguards, big Benz's, sharp clothes, guns, friends, pretty girls ... they've got it all.'

THIS description of Detroit gangs, or ``crews,'' comes from a high school senior, a black girl who apparently has escaped the cauldron of drugs, killings, and other dangers marring many Detroit neighborhoods today.

The girl spoke to one of Carl Taylor's interviewers during the research for his disturbing book, ``Dangerous Society.'' Taylor, director of the Center for Urban Youth Studies at Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Mich., hits the reader between the eyes with the assertion that gangs in Detroit and other cities are so disenfranchised from society's traditional institutions that they have ``seceded'' from society. They exist in an amoral world with two currencies: drugs and money.

``What we have to understand,'' said Taylor in an interview, ``is that drugs represent the totality of the failures of institutions in the United States. The drug culture here becomes church, family.... With drugs, and drug money, gangs can change what is for them the American nightmare into something else. It is illicit, but they do not see it as illicit.''

Over a five-year period Taylor and his all-black research team interviewed over 200 gang members individually and in groups. They also interviewed neighborhood residents, merchants, and school officials. Eventually, the researchers broke down the wall of ``omerta'' (code of silence) and talked intimately with the gang members. The following are excerpts from an interview with Taylor:

What's daily life like for a gang member?

If you're talking about ``scavengers'' [younger, implusive, violent gangs], it's very chaotic and unpredictable. If it's corporate gangs, or what I call ``covert entrepreneurs'' [well-organized, strong leaders, money-making ventures], unfortunately it would be a pretty wonderful day.

Think of yourself winning the lottery and going on a spending spree every day. These are the guys not involved with the violent end of the business. They shop in malls and eat the best food. More than anything, they have been empowered by money, which is no different from the Mafia. The kids I started interviewing in 1981 - and many of them are in prison or dead - have become conservative. They started out driving gawky Mercedes and wearing lots of gold around their necks. Now they drive little compact cars. Their houses look like shacks from the outside, but inside it's the Taj Mahal.

What are the circumstances in Detroit that have shaped the gangs?

When the Detroit riots happened in l967, it was the underclass - the jobless who had not participated in the mainstream, even in the black community - who rioted. What has happened is that a lot of the children of those people are the children [in gangs] now. They have been [raised on the disillusionment of] not being a part of anything. And it's very hard for most Americans to see this.... Detroit never used to be a strong gang city. It was a city that could always promise a good-paying job in the auto industry without much skill. That situation is gone. Drugs are now the vehicle to success.

If they want the dream to come true, it's not Martin Luther King's dream; he has no meaning to gang members, none at all. This is replusive to middle America and most of the Afro-American community, but we've got a whole segment of the population out there who do not identify with Dr. King. They don't even know what the civil rights movement is.

What role models influence the gang members?

Well, movies and TV reinforce the wrong images day in and day out. And the kids don't see any logic in being good. But the problem is greater than images. For instance, there's a star pro basketball player - I prefer not to name him - who's against drugs. But he's had a baby out of wedlock. Now, there's no one being critical of that, but he's saying, `You don't have to marry. You can take care of the kid this way or that.' Well, maybe the star athlete can do it. On one level he's saying no to drugs, but the gang members say to themselves, `He doesn't have to get married. Why do I?' These athletes are being irresponsible in terms of their leadership.

Are the police effective at all in dealing with gangs?

That's a tough one. I would say to a large extent the police certainly aren't a deterrent here. There has not been a love affair between the police and the Afro-American community, that's just a fact. The gangs want to police themselves. We're talking about pockets of anarchists who don't want any rules. When they kill each other off in turf wars, that's self rule. What happens too is that the police become over-zealous because they feel frustrated in dealing with such a young criminal.

What are the solutions - short term and long range? And what role should family, church and schools be playing?

I hate to have to admit it but some of these young guys are so far gone that they need to be removed and isolated [because they kill so easily]. They don't know right from wrong, and there is a reason I'm emphasizing this: When grown men who are policemen or soldiers are involved in violence and kill someone, they have difficulties and need counseling....

You cannot allow crime to dominate the environment. If you have a negative environment, you have a negative product. The communities need good stores, functioning schools, and positive role models. [In his book, Taylor advocates a Community Team Effort which hinges on reviving neighborhood businesses and jobs, strengthening families by support units in the neighborhoods, and extending tough anti-drug campaigns into schools. He cites successful programs at two inner-city schools in New Haven, Conn.]

What is happening now is that no one in the community wants to deal with the so-called throwaway kid, the kid whose parents are dysfunctional because they were once teenage parents. When the family hasn't instilled socialization in the kid, then the teacher says, `I can't teach with this kid in my class.' And she can't. If the kid goes to the recreation center - if there is a rec center - he is disruptive there.

Now [to turn it around] everybody is going to have to confront and embrace this kid. Everybody is saying, `No, no, no,' to this kid; and who says yes? The drug guy. He comes in and gives the kid an apple. The kid bites the apple, and drug guy says, `You're with me.' And then the kid has money, and he wreaks revenge on all the institutions that said no to him.

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