Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Thinking About Thugs

Tonight I accompanied Demi to a local presentation on gangs in our area. Some of it was quite informative. My main problem with it was that they let some guy with a badge give the bulk of the presentation. Even worse, he worked in corrections. In his view, every gang member was nothing but a thug. His obvious goal was to scare us. I suspect he was successful in regards to most of the people in the auditorium tonight.

He concluded his presentation by letting an ex-gang member, who is currently from prison, say a few words and answer some questions. We left when the questions started. As we walked out, some middle-aged white male was giving this con hell for being such a thug.

What was not brought up at all was how some people end up in what is often categorized as a gang. I lived for a brief time in the Nicky Cruz Home for Boys in Fresno, CA. Nicky is most well known as the main character in David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade and his own book, Run, Baby, Run. We were about half Anglo and half Latino. Since no one knew exactly what I was, due to some Cherokee blood, I spent a lot of my time keeping these two groups from killing each other. What every one of us did have in common was that we were throw away kids; we had no family except each other. One day I got fed up with the place, and what I considered their phony form of Christianity, and walked away.

About a year later I found myself in the state reformatory for boys. The cottages were split up by counties, so a number of my friends from the street were in my cottage. Once again, what we all had in common was the lack of families. I knew some boys who had first been sent to this facility when they were 12. They spent most of their teen years there. When they got out, they'd do something dumb, and get sent back. The truth was that this reform school had become their home, and the residents had become their family.

The staff considered me rather peculiar, in that I spent most of my free time reading. I've always been a bookworm since I was young. During this particular stay, one of the things I read was The Godfather by Mario Puzo. That got me thinking about families.

When I got out, I started talking to everyone I met about the idea of forming a family. We had no parents, or if we did, they were more twisted than we were. We couldn't trust the cops, or the schools, or the juvenile counselors. Society saw us as expendable trash. If we were to survive, we had to band together; we had to take care of each other.

My girlfriend made some ceramic medallions at school. They were orange triangles with a blue cross. Why the cross? I had no doubt that God was with us. I had read the bible a few times by then, and I knew that God always sided with the underdog. I knew that God was on our side. I think it's important for those working with the poor to realize this; they know that God is with them; they have few other sources for hope. They often doubt that God is with the decadent hoarders they see all around them, however. And they know for a fact that God has abandoned all politicians, and their agents who carry lethal weapons on their hip.

But, I digress. We formed The Family, identified by an orange triangle with a blue cross hanging from our necks. We did whatever we had to do to protect one another, and to survive. From what I heard tonight, I guess we were a gang, and nothing but a bunch of thugs. Maybe we were. Eventually, most of us either ended up dead, in prison, in a hospital, or simply disappeared. Maybe we were expendable. Maybe society should just give up on those like us as incorrigible thugs. Dismissing us as bad boys is one way to avoid having to do the more difficult work of trying to figure out what the root causes were that brought such creatures into existence.

Yes, there are animals out there who belong in cages. No doubt I was once one of those animals. But to have policemen, who have a built in "us" versus "them" mentality, educate the public on how to respond, is never going to solve the problem. Cops are not problem solvers. At best, they are law enforcers. At worst, they are storm troopers.

How about a discussion of some of the root causes? How about acknowledging that every one of these thugs was once a little boy who just wanted to play and be loved. Something went terribly wrong way before that boy was thrown away and hit the streets.

Most causes are over determined. There is no question that there are multiple causes for the existence of gangs. However, I do want to suggest what I consider one of the biggest causes; poverty. I consider this a systemic problem. As George Bernard Shaw once said, "The lack of money is the root of all evil."

When we respond in fear to these desperate attempts to form a family from among peers, we give them power; something that has been lacking in their lives. The more we fear, the more power they have, and the more they are motivated to play on that fear. What started out as bonding together to survive becomes a quest for power, money and fame.

Educating the public by using fear tactics will not change a thing, and could make matters worse. The discussion of this issue needs to be expanded. That doesn't mean, however, that we should not take precautions against predators who prowl some of our streets. To ignore potential danger is to show a disregard for not only our own safety, but the safety of others.

If by chance the loud white guy who was so indignant about the crimes our prison speaker had committed is reading this; here's a news flash. At any given time, about half of all gang members are in prison. That means the other half of their family is out on the street. Watch your back, fool.


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