|The Fall of the Neighborhood Gang|
|By Andrew Eways, Aurora, Colorado Police Department|
Throughout the history of American gangs, the strong ties between the gangs and their communities have always been apparent. Despite the negative image that gangs have given certain communities and the stereotypes they have given to certain races, the gangs themselves have always shown an element of neighborhood or ethnic pride. They saw themselves as the defenders of their communities and rarely engaged in conflict with police as they realized it was both bad for the community and bad for business.
For years, West Coast Police Officers who had regular interaction with members of Sureno and Norteno gangs were accustomed to hearing gang members use the word “varrio”, a derivation of the Spanish word “barrio”, which means neighborhood or community, when talking about their affiliation. Today, the same is true for many parts of the Mid-West and East Coast as the West Coast Mexican-American gangs have migrated into other regions of the United States. When gang members in these areas confront anyone they believe to be a rival, they don’t ask what gang they claim, they simply ask “Where are you from?” Similarly, police officers who have patrolled gang territories in many cities in the United States have often heard gang members refer to their affiliation as their “hood”, an abbreviation of the word “neighborhood”. And throughout the history of gangs in America, the neighborhood no matter how small, was a sacred patch of land that needed protection from outsiders. In the words of an American playwright, “while to the stranger’s eye one street was no different from another, we all knew where our ‘neighborhood’ somehow ended. Beyond that, a person was a stranger.” (Miller)
From the 1970s through the late 1990s, police departments in many American cities were reluctant to identify neighborhood-based groups as “gangs” regardless of their criminal activities to avoid public perception that they were profiling minority youth. Similarly, members of these groups were often quick to differentiate themselves from gangs by invoking the terms “hood” or “crew”, even while selling drugs, carrying guns and spray painting their chosen name on the walls of their turf. In Baltimore, the Old York and Cator Boys defended their neighborhood from the McCabe Avenue Boys in the north while Poplar Grove often crossed swords with the Edmondson Avenue Boys in the west. In Las Vegas, the Gerson Park Kingsmen exchanged gunfire with their rivals no differently than Martineztown Varrio in Albuquerque or Vine and 12th ‘Hood in Cincinnati. But even as these ‘hoods, crews and varrios repelled the threats to their turf, events in other parts of the United States were beginning to blur their traditional boundaries.
Between 1995 and 2001, many cities across the country began to demolish high-rise housing projects as part of large-scale community revitalization plans. These actions displaced thousands who called these buildings home. As Baltimore’s Flag House Projects, Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, and other high-rise projects throughout the country fell to the ground, the gangsters who defended these ‘hoods were forced to relocate to other areas and largely abandon their sense of community pride. The sense of displacement is reflected in the music of Tyree Colion, a gangster rapper who grew up in the high-rises of Baltimore, who asks “Do you ever think of back in the day when you repped for your building and you wasn’t in a gang?” (Colion - 2008)
During the same time period, migration because of work, family and sometimes even law enforcement pressure planted the seeds of nationally known gangs in areas of the United States that previously had little or no exposure to them. In Baltimore, the Edmondson Avenue Boys also became known as the Red Rag Crew and Edmondson Avenue Bloods and, not too many years later, the rival Poplar Grove gang largely transformed into the Eight-Trey Crips. Although the Gerson Park Kingsmen continued to defend their Las Vegas turf, their main rival was now the Rolling 60 Crips, who had esteblished themselves with the arrival of older Rolling 60 members who had left Los Angeles. The Sureno Tortilla Flats gang appeared in Oklahoma City in a violent effort to expand their drug trafficking business while Cincinnati’s Vine and 12th ‘hood faced a growing threat from members of the Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples who had migrated east from their home bases in Chicago. And while these new national identities brought strength to those gangs that conformed, they also pushed many of the hoods and varrios who sought to keep their traditional community ties to the point of extinction. Nationally known titles like Crip, Blood and Sureno spread like a cancer and many smaller, neighborhood-based gangs were warned to “get down or lay down”. Their size, strength, and reputation for violence caused many community-based gangs to conform, take on a hybrid identity, or simply disappear. And while many of these homegrown gangs have been successful in maintaining their original identity, more often than not it has been at a very high and bloody price.
Since the year 2000, law enforcement officers who patrol traditional gang territories have witnessed the demise of the twisted, dark community pride once held by the local gang members. And with the change in names, the gang members also began to show a change in attitude. As urban renewal brought about the implosion of many public housing projects in the country, the gangsters who claimed these hoods largely became soldiers without a country. Many no longer used the term “hood” to represent a place they would defend from rivals, but only to represent the place they came from. In the past decade, gang officers and intelligence personnel have noted many examples of this new attitude in letters between incarcerated gang members. In the late 1990s, an east coast gang member in a Maryland prison identified his affiliation by writing his nickname followed by “..from Nine-Trey Gangsters” (Document). In 2004, however, a member of the same gang declared his affiliation by writing “My set is Nine-Trey Gangsters and my hood is Queens” (Document), drawing a distinction between ‘hood and gang. A year later in a western Maryland county, the father of a Sureno 13 gang member drew an even sharper distinction. When asked if his son belonged to a varrio, the man told police “I was from a varrio. My son is in a gang.” He had a sense of pride while explaining his lifelong ties to the San Antonio community of Alazan-Apache Courts - a place where he had been raised and had later become a member of the varrio by the same name. Only seconds later that pride had vanished as he dismissively confirmed that his son was a member of the Sureno Trece gang. (Interview).
All across the United States, veteran gang members and veteran cops alike confirm that today’s gang members are different than the gang members of the past. They tend to be younger and less schooled in the customs and traditions of their gangs. Older gangsters are quick to complain about the lack of loyalty, lack of respect and overall recklessness of the younger generation. Police officers have noticed a different mind-set in today’s gangsters. The gangsters they interact with today no longer look at themselves as defenders of turf, but often as a group of criminals from different parts of town who try weakly to hold on to a collective identity as they commit their crimes (Morales). They no longer protect the neighborhood, they prey on it. They don’t see their neighbors, they see only customers, victims and targets. And without the sense of pride that comes from belonging to a hood or varrio with generations of history and tradition, the new-breed gangsters of today seek to build their own, independent reputations through random violence, widespread crime, and a willingness to attack or kill police officers.
As the names and reputations of the Five-Duece Hoovers, Fruit Town Brims, 18th Streeters, Gangster Disciples and many other gangs like them are straying farther and farther from their places of origin, the gangsters of today are straying farther and farther away from the values, rules and odd sense of community pride that once defined them.
Miller, A. (2000) Echoes Down the Corridor: Collected essays. 1944-2000. Published by Penguin Group (USA) – September 2001.
The Wire: And All The Pieces Matter. Five Years of Music from The Wire (2008) Track: Tyree Colion - Projects
Morales, G. (2000) Varrio Warfare: Violence in the Latino Community, Mungia Printers, San Antonio, TX
Document Written by Nine-Trey Gangster Blood (1997) – Maryland Division of Corrections
Document Written by Nine-Trey Gangster Blood (2004) – Maryland Division of Corrections
Personal Interview (2005)
Corrections.com author, Sergeant Andrew Eways of the Maryland State Police, has been a sworn law enforcement officer since 1994. He has worked as a patrol officer, criminal investigator and a supervisor of both investigative and patrol personnel.
He has worked in various specialized investigative fields including Criminal Intelligence, Homeland Security and Organized Crime. He has also served as a field and investigative supervisor of his department’s Gang Enforcement Unit.
He has been recognized by the courts as an expert witness in the field of criminal gangs and provides instruction to law enforcement and correctional personnel in gang history, recognition and investigative techniques. He is a member of several professional associations including the International Gang Investigators Association, of which he is the current executive secretary. He can be reached at email@example.com or by telephone at (410) 977-9589.
Other articles by Eways:
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