The Taser's Edge

Some thoughts on GAS…
May 29, 2008, 6:06 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
Yesterday I attended a Gang Awareness Symposium (GAS) presented by the state. There was plenty of interesting information that I hadn’t been aware of. 

For instance:
General Information:
-Durham, North Carolina is known as “Blood City” due to the prevalence of that particular gang in our fair town.
-Another name for a gang is a “clique,” a term which was first used as a self-identifier by gangs to escape detection as a gang.
-The best gang name ever is Conceited Fresh Niggaz (CFN).
-Fuquay-Varina (that’s a city nearby) has a flea market which pulls in a lot of money by openly selling gang paraphernalia.
-93% of gang members join before age 15.
-67% claim that they would never have joined if they had experienced better family support.
One thing that presenters mentioned over and over is that the media influences kids by glamorizing gang culture. Aside from violent video games, we have things such as this:
From left to right, these are caps for those discerning New York Yankees fans who also happen to be Bloods, Latin Kings, or Crips. Perhaps you have already seen pictures of these caps, manufactured by New Era, according to their website, “the largest sports-licensed headwear company in the world.” These particular caps were pulled off the shelves soon after their introduction.
First things first, violence in this area is certainly a problem. For instance, I don’t have a clue whether this is gang-related, but this afternoon at about 2pm I heard ten or twelve shots ring out loudly near my house. Since we hear gunshots fairly often (4-6 or more times a month, although never at 2pm) we have grown lax in our citizenship responsibilities. 911 operators really make you feel like they don’t care very much, especially when they don’t answer until the fifth ring. We’ve talked to enough cops after those calls who have told us that they almost never find anyone at a crime scene…Okay, so maybe we’ve just gotten complacent and we should go back to perfect citizenship, even if it seems to be unappreciated. And I’m getting sidetracked anyway. The point is that gang violence is on the rise, the power of gangs is on the rise, and law enforcement is failing.
Commentary #1:
When plenty of white middle school kids whose favorite movie is High School Musical also are capable of flashing gang signs because plenty of websites will show them how, then maybe gang culture has not invaded popular culture. Perhaps gang culture is losing its meaning. There are other instances of countercultural movements being subverted into pop culture. On the white front, Allen Ginsberg sold his services to convince others of the worth of Gap.  Gap didn’t start believing all that Ginsberg had once stood for. Led Zeppelin sold out any remaining rebelliousness to Cadillac.  Cadillac has never and will never buy into sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.
There was one presenter at the Symposium who has been a principal at a rural high school for over a decade. It was not until three years ago that he began to notice a gang presence at his school. The district moved swiftly, making gang-related activities zero-tolerance offenses. A principal could expel a kid for flashing a gang-sign at a basketball game. As of two weeks before the end of the 2007-2008 school year, this principal can claim that there have been no instances of gang-related activities for the entire school year.
Teachers were trained to recognize the gang symbols doodled on biology notebooks or flashed in the pictures on kids’ confiscated cell phones. Administrators created their own MySpace accounts and snooped around for gang-related Clip Art and animated .gifs on student pages. Two years later there was absolutely no gang activity. His conclusion: kids might still be gang members but there is no gang activity at school. My conclusion: the kids entirely outsmarted this principal and his staff.
Commentary #2:
One of the main things that I came away with from the day of presentations is that there is all the reason in the world for at-risk kids to join gangs. There they can earn money to feed their families, find the family support that they have lacked in their biological families, and feel a sense of importance. What they are doing certainly affects the lives of other people.
My thought is that the reason that law enforcement is making little headway against the rise of street gangs, which are today increasing even in rural America, is because street gangs are not the problem. They are a symptom of a larger problem—racial and economic disparities that still have not been addressed in the US. There is no sense of a larger history when police officers tell you what numbers, colors, words, and phrases are codes for what gangs. Where were these gangs one hundred years ago? Fifty years ago? Forty years ago? As in some other wars in our history, the war against gang violence appears to be being fought without any sense of history.
But there has to be some partial answer in history. This is what I see, although I might be completely wrong. In the 1950s and 1960s there was the Civil Rights Movement. After Malcolm X was killed in 1965 and as disillusionment grew with the slow progress being made, we saw the rise of Black Power (as well as other Power movements, for instance among Native Americans or Chicanos).  Today we see violent street gangs, the majority of whose members belong to minority and economically depressed and oppressed populations. The formula in my head (w/ arrows representing the passage of time and the growth of disillusionment):
Civil Rights Movement (Politics w/ Peace)–>____ Power (Politics w/ Violence)–>Modern Street Gangs (Violence w/o Politics or Hope of Political Change)
Commentary #3a:
One of the theories presented yesterday to explain the growth of gangs in America spoke of people finding that they are not able to compete or succeed in mainstream culture and thus opting in to negative countercultures. This, I am afraid, at least in the oversimplicity in which it was presented, is racist. The social worker who was presenting spoke of mainstream culture as white middle-class culture, and while not naming it as positive, very clearly put in opposition to the “negative” counterculture of gangs.
But why in the world should any of these kids opt in to the Great American Lie that you can get ahead in the world if you work hard and stay honest? Especially when approaching African-American gang members, why should we expect them to listen to this when it has not been true for them in America for 500 years?
I haven’t yet bought into the dream that Barack Obama is bringing hope to the historically politically disenfranchised populations of America. One speech on race just won’t do it, and while I certainly think it makes a tremendous difference that when American four-year-olds picture “President” a year from now, they may be thinking of a black man, I also believe that there is much more to be done.
There is at least one sense in which Reverend Wright was right when he said that he would have to come after Obama if Obama takes the helm of America. When Barack Obama decided early in his life that he wanted to be president someday, he decided that he couldn’t say certain things which might help advance racial reconciliation in America. Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t have gotten elected president in his lifetime because he was black. He couldn’t get elected today because he spoke the truth. Perhaps Obama is choosing one strategy over another, choosing the power of symbol over the power of speech rather than choosing ambition over change. He would certainly be an amazingly powerful symbol in the White House, but we should admit that the White House will stop him from speaking freely. No, the hope of reelection will not stop him from speaking only when he wants to speaks about race, but yes, the hope of reelection will stop him from speaking particularly when he wants to speak about race.
Commentary #3b:

Perhaps this is exactly where the Church, and not purely political change, comes in. In the past few years especially it has become obvious that loud and powerful elements within the Church have totally bought into the Great American Lie that getting an education, so you can get a good job, so you can work long enough to afford to retire is the point of life.  To the extent that the Church has bought in, the Church has failed to proclaim the competing reality of the Kingdom of God. Christ’s proclamation of the alternate reality of the Kingdom of God (i.e., The Gospel) critiques the lies of mainstream American culture, the lies of gang culture, and the lies of every other culture on the earth. The Gospel cannot remain the Gospel if it uncritically accepts any culture on this earth as wholly positive. The Church cannot remain the Church if it does not proclaim the Gospel in all its fullness, including the parts that will require our participation in the difficult work of God in the world: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

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