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Gangs – what’s the attraction?

Cory Fisher

Get involved in a gang and you could end up maimed, locked up or even killed – that’s the message young people are getting these days from teachers, counselors and law enforcement officers.

Even Stanley “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of one of the nation’s largest street gangs, the Crips, now says joining a gang is a mistake.

“Don’t join a gang,” he wrote in a children’s book from his cell on death row. “You won’t find what you’re looking for. All you will find is trouble, pain and sadness. I know. I did.”

So with all the tragic consequences and gang prevention programs cropping up nationwide, why are young people still opting to join?

Talks with South Lake Tahoe teens – some who say they are in gangs, have recently left a gang, or know gang members – revealed a variety of reasons that aren’t easy to remedy.

Common responses indicate that many are looking for the family they don’t have at home – a sense of belonging. Peer pressure, neighborhood loyalty, disenchantment with mainstream authority figures and the need for male role models were also common themes. For some, a perceived lack of respect in the community fostered the need for power through intimidation.

But by far the most frequent answer among South Tahoe’s youth was, “We had nowhere to go and nothing else to do.”

South Lake Tahoe Police officer Pete Van Arnum, a school resource officer, says many of the students who are identified as current or former gang members probably wouldn’t have joined had there been alternatives available.

“I had two kids get jumped out of a gang (beat up by gang members in order to get out) just so they could go skiing with us one Sunday,” said Van Arnum. “They showed up with cuts and bruises.”

Even Kari Renfro, outreach counselor at Tahoe Youth and Family Services, said teens in her at-risk group sessions don’t want meetings to end. One of the groups interviewed for this article stayed for more than three hours on a Friday afternoon.

“Every kid wants love, family and community,” said Renfro. “And many kids who know better cave in to peer pressure and join gangs because they don’t want to be ridiculed or they’re just bored. Some just hang around gang members but know not to join. They’ll even wear the colors, but they don’t partake in the activity.”

Renfro said a high percentage of the South Tahoe population is unable to take advantage of expensive activities – like skiing – leaving very few recreational alternatives for children from low-income families.

“And many parents are working two jobs to make better lives for their children,” said Renfro. “They can’t control the whereabouts of their kids. There are a lot are single moms. It’s sad – many parents are in tears when they hear their child has been labeled a gang member. They’re concerned, but they feel powerless.”

Hector (not his real name) proved to be a prime example.

“We used to hang out and party right in the house while my mom was asleep after work,” said Hector, who is now on probation. “My mother felt she didn’t raise me right because I didn’t care. But now that I’m out of a gang I’ve gained respect back from her.”

Parents aren’t the only ones feeling powerless, said Renfro. Young people often feel a lack of access to power on a societal level. A sense of personal power can be derived from joining a gang, she said, in addition to providing male “role models” to boys with working or absentee fathers.

“Younger brothers and cousins of gang members tend to model gang behavior,” said Van Arnum. “We keep an eye out when we know a kid has an older sibling who is in the joint. Middle school is a good age to identify behavior and change it. By high school it’s often too late.”

Lake Tahoe Unified School District’s Assistant Superintendent Rich Alexander says many citizens aren’t aware of the potential for gang problems in Tahoe.

“People need to realize that problems do exist here. Kids seem to be most attracted to gangs at the middle school, and some are aligned along racial lines,” he said. “For all their bad points, gangs can be attractive because they offer tremendous support.”

Miguel joined a gang last year at age 13, but only lasted two months.

“I felt pressured to join because all my neighborhood friends were – I didn’t want to lose them,” he said. “But once you join you instantly have all these enemies, and it’s not true that your gang will always back you up. I hardly went out because we would attract all these fights.”

Van Arnum said it’s important not to stereotype groups of young people – it’s not the gangs that are bad, it’s the criminal behavior that can stem out of some of them.

“Large groups of kids wearing baggy clothes can be intimidating to some adults,” said Van Arnum. “But you have to remember that it’s the style – you can buy all that stuff at Macy’s.”

The media is a major culprit in luring teens into gangs, said Investigator Keith Logan of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. “Television, popular music and movies have played a key role in glamorizing the gang lifestyle,” said Logan, who teaches gang resistance education in Douglas County’s middle schools. “I ask students, ‘How would you feel if someone you know was shot by your own gang?’ Slowly they begin to realize that it’s not MTV – it’s real.”

And nobody knows it’s more real than Crip founder “Tookie” Williams, who continues to get the word out from behind bars.

“I slowly realized I was living a lie,” he wrote. “The respect I cared so much about was based on intimidation, not self-respect. I had been involved in madness.”


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