What follows is Part 2 of our two-part series on gangs. Part 1, which explored gangs in San Diego through the experiences of Shannon White and David Barron, can be found on CityBeat's website, www.sdcitybeat.com. Go to "recent issues," and click on Aug. 18, 2004.
In a few days, a new crop of high school freshmen will take their first awkward steps into secondary public education-they're at the prime age for gang recruitment. As post Gen-Xers, MTV is nine years their senior; they've not known a world without NWA or the movie Boyz N the Hood. Socially, they're a product of the media infatuation that brought rap music to white adolescents and the nuances of inner-city street life into suburban households-an infatuation that irrevocably distorted basic truths about America's gang phenomenon.
One hard truth is that in the United States, nearly 85 percent of documented gang members are black or Latino. Those two communities have been hit hard by mass disruption of the traditional nuclear family-disruption brought about by socio-historical pressures and resettlement. The factors that lure young people into gangs, however, are by no means specific to the poor or minorities.
In New Jersey, during the final week of August 1973, Alex and Jackie Mardikian-Armenian immigrants-give birth to a healthy firstborn son, Peter. They are refugees of the Turkish genocide that's haunted their ethnic group since WWII. After meeting and falling in love at school in the Midwest, both have completed educations in the American university system. With an MBA from Iowa State University, Alex finds a job with Bristol-Myers pharmaceutical company.
Peter is followed by a baby girl, Monica. Both are the focus of the Mardikians' existence. Bristol-Myers grows in the ensuing years, eventually adding Squibb to the company letterhead. Alex moves steadily up the corporate ladder. By the time Peter leaves for college, his father will be a company executive. It's the American dream.
The Mardikians are lucky to have escaped the East Coast streets that have swallowed the lives of so many immigrants; from New York to Chicago, those streets are the breeding grounds for names like Capone, Gambino and Luciano. As depicted in 2002's Gangs of New York, gangs have been a part of America's cities since the 18th century. Until the 20th century, they were almost exclusively white. Research points to social disorganization and resettlement-the bane of all immigrant populations-as fundamental factors in gang involvement.
During the first half of the 20th century, white-predominately European immigrant-gangs were used by politicians and power wielders to control votes, keep order and take care of dirty work. In return, the gangs were tolerated in the community-and financed.
Around the same time Peter was born, 3,000 miles away, a group of elderly Japanese women reports an attack by cane-carrying African-American thugs in an incorporated neighborhood of Los Angeles. The thugs are members of a local gang called the Cribs. One of the ladies calls the gang-bangers "Crips," short for "cripples." The L.A. Sentinel quotes her, the name takes hold and the Crip family is born.
Several hours down the coast is the city of San Diego. On a quiet residential street in an ethnically diverse neighborhood off Skyline Drive, Rita White cradles newborn Shannon, the last of her six children. A devout Christian, she thanks God for her good fortune-another healthy son.
By the mid-1970s in Los Angeles, the Crip family has more than 10 different neighborhood gangs under its banner. Recruitment is easy: Cripmania has swept Watts and Compton. Around this time, a member of the independent L.A. Brims is shot and killed by a Crip. The homicide gives rise to the Crip/Brim rivalry. A meeting is subsequently called by Compton's Piru Street Boys, and the "Blood Alliance" is created.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the rivalry between the Bloods and Crips grows, as does the number of gangs. In 1978, there are 60 black gangs in Los Angeles-45 Crip and 15 Blood; Hispanic gangs-preceding the black gangs by several generations-are deeply entrenched in the city's social fabric. In 1980, L.A.'s number of gang-related homicides hits 355; the county reports 30,000 active gang members (by comparison, San Diego reported 21 gang-related homicides in 2003 and less than 5,000 documented gang members).
By 1991, Shannon White, Rita's son, has played two successful seasons as middle linebacker for the Morse High School football team; his grades are marginal. Though his oak-tree physique helps him stand out, an injury mars his senior year, and by winter he quits school. By this time, he has one brother in jail and he's lost a friend to homicide. Before long, he will be working a full-time construction job and entertaining informal ties with the area's ubiquitous Piru set. That same year, Peter Mardikian is accepted to the business school at Ohio State University.
Gang violence escalates in L.A. throughout the 1980s. MTV, rap music and movies glamorize gang life and the culture spreads to cities across the nation. Police in San Diego note that gang members with Los Angeles addresses are showing up in arrest reports. On a national level, Ronald Reagan's trickle-down economic policies take hold and inner cities-already smarting from the effects of white-flight and a shift in manufacturing jobs-experience further pangs of blight.
In 1993, Ross Perot asks the rhetorical question, "Do you hear that giant sucking sound?," referring to the hole he says will be left in the American economy as jobs rush across the border to Mexico and its lower pay scales. Education and communication skills become increasingly crucial in the changing economy; non-native English speakers and the under-educated are further disadvantaged. As illuminated by Perot, the new migration is not of people, but of jobs-most of the manufacturing and low-skill posts traditionally held by the country's blue-collar sector are emigrating to Mexico, China and Bangladesh.
Max Regula, head of San Diego's FBI Gang Task Force, figures that for marginalized people in marginalized areas, a gang's draw of wealth and power is like a narcotic. He talks about college and what it means to the middle class. He also talks about minimum-wage, survival-type living-the inability to plan four years down the road. Amid talk of colleges, the topic of fraternities comes up.
"Why do young men-predominately white-join fraternities?" Regula asks.
The answer to the question is the third ingredient in his gang-lure hypothesis-identity. Gang (and fraternity) membership tells vulnerable kids who they are and who they can be. In socioeconomic areas hard hit with the erosion of the nuclear family, gangs offer structure and role models.
In September 1991, Peter Mardikian arrives at Ohio State University in Columbus. With 60,000 students, the school has a greater population than his hometown. He rooms with Brian Dempsey, who fails out after a mere semester and whose share of the floor is perpetually littered with the remnants of nitrous-oxide tubes, cigarette butts and marijuana roaches. Mardikian knows Dempsey from childhood and he's infatuated with the young man's lifestyle-Dempsey's the product of a broken household with little in the way of supervision. It's through him that Mardikian finds the Phi Tau fraternity house.
To say the fraternity house Mardikian encounters is trashed is an understatement. By 1991, the venerable brick building has been systematically pilfered through three decades. There is one lone piece of furniture in the huge living room. There are no curtains in the scores of windows, the walls are streaked and the carpet has sustained fire damage-twice.
On a brisk winter night, a group of the Phi Tau's usual suspects returns from campus bars. Somebody claims the frat has been slighted by another and a call is sounded for retribution. Though no one knows anything about the other fraternity, a drunken group is mustered. Mardikian is along for the show, though he's never struck another person in anger.
After a spate of harsh words with the other fraternity, blows are thrown. The next morning, amid busted lips and blood-crusted noses, there are slaps on the back and smiles. The word is the eight-man party has stood down an entire house.
Life goes on as normal for the Phi Taus. There are shotgun blasts in the halls, various firearms in private rooms. Alcohol is never absent, marijuana is the norm and hallucinogens and cocaine are not uncommon. Drug-sale operations set up and shut down without pattern in the rooms of 20-odd live-in residents.
One late night, a trio of young men tries to find the origin of smoke in the hall of the Phi Tau fraternity house. After several minutes, someone is sent down the fire escape and finds the first floor an inferno. There is no fire alarm in the house, so doors are kicked in to wake the sleeping. Everybody survives, but the house is condemned. The fire marshal calls it arson. A likely culprit is never determined, but innuendo says the rival fraternity set the fire as retribution.
"Delinquent behavior and victimization are inextricably linked for some individuals," concludes a study by the U.S. Department of Justice's office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
The study finds that one in two males who were serious, violent juvenile offenders were violently victimized themselves, compared with one in 10 of their non-delinquent peers. For adolescent males, violence, victimization and retribution seem to be causally linked.
"It has to do with maturity," says Barry Woods, director of the Mountain View Recreation Center, who's seen his share of gang violence.
There's a point in a person's life when they grow up. And often they look back on their delinquent behavior as the height of stupidity. For some people, Woods says, that comes with age-breaking 30 seems to be a turning point. For many, it's having a child.
"Unfortunately, for a lot of these kids, they don't wake up till they're facing a six- or seven-year jail sentence," he says.
The FBI's Regula shakes his head when asked about maturity. There are no easy answers, but he wonders if society's not served by keeping those potential delinquents locked up and off the street until they reach a safe maturity level.
DEA spokesperson Misha Piastro sees it differently. "Prison is college for criminals," Piastro says. He speaks of the Mexican Mafia and other gang structures that young men encounter on the inside-often making lifelong commitments in the process.
Dr. Stephen Lincoln, a sociology professor at UCSD, says the generation of young men put away during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early '90s is now getting out of prison-and for them, there's nowhere to go. There are fewer jobs now than when they went away, less opportunity to succeed in a system that penalizes them for their lack of education and skills.
The 1993 Hughes Brothers film, Menace II Society features a street-running character named O-Dog who's described as America's nightmare: "He's young, black and he doesn't give a fuck."
By 1994 Shannon White is a construction laborer and part-time coke dealer who carries a gun. He's unaware that during the preceding summer he was targeted as one of the most enterprising criminals in San Diego by the FBI, and that winter a federal indictment-claiming intent to distribute $70 worth of rock cocaine-threatens Shannon White.
According to policy, the FBI doesn't discuss the rationale that made White, then a 21-year-old live-at-home high school dropout, the object of so much attention. The operation targeting him was specifically designed to deal with gang activity, and on different levels the FBI in San Diego was dealing with a billion-dollar Tijuana cartel syndicate and chasing leads in the first World Trade Center bombing.
An undeniable fact, however, is that 3,000 miles away, in Ohio, the young men Mardikian associated with committed conspiracy, drug distribution and racketeering crimes, and took part in firearms violations, arson, egregious assault and an array of other felonies on a daily basis-and they reveled in their impunity. What's more, groups of young men like them continue to revel on nearly every college campus in the nation.
They are 21 to 25 years old, they are white, and they don't give a fuck; they are America's future. In all likelihood, there will be a white-collar job and a house waiting at the end of their four-year college term.
The National Youth Gang Center defines a youth gang or street gang as a self-formed association of peers with three or more members, usually ages 12 to 24, with a gang name and some sense of identity-indicated by such symbols as style of clothing, graffiti and hand signs. They have some degree of permanence and organization and an elevated level of involvement in delinquent or criminal activity.
Most fraternities fit that definition precisely: secret handshakes, house colors, coordinated clothing, tattoos, drunken fights, guns, drug dealing and, especially, conspiracy to commit crime.
A smile-evoking irony in the story rests with Peter Mardikian. One of the nicest guys to come out of New Jersey, he came from one of the straightest, most diligent and focused families in his community-and yet he was irrevocably committed to a gang of post-adolescent, criminal-minded delinquents.
In his years on the streets, Shannon White made it through at least one violent armed mugging-accompanied by a sound beating-and a gang war that claimed the lives of four of his friends. Then he survived five years in the same California prison system that took his brother's life. Now, at 31, with the help of his parents, he's quietly raising a son of his own. Mardikian, on the other hand, working his way up the financial-sector ladder to the Wall Street position he coveted, died in the North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001.
In some sense, the answers are obvious. Money is needed in economically depressed inner cities. Jobs, leading to pride in one's self and pride in one's community, are needed more than anything. Woods, the Mountain View Rec Center director, insists that the opportunity for self-pride is an inalienable right. Perhaps just as important-given the changing face of the American economy-is education. Woods talks of inner-city training programs, and UCSD's Lincoln points to the need for greater integration at the university level.
The real question is where will funding for increased job training and education subsidies come from?
Woods says it's ironic that the descendents of the white European power structure that wreaked havoc on his African-American ancestry seem baffled by the violence in contemporary American cities, and that a society so adept at dropping bombs abroad bristles at handguns in schools. He questions the contemporary solution to centuries of forced social disorganization and resettlement-a policy of mass incarceration-and wonders at the hypocrisy of a people that think centuries of iniquity can be wiped clean with a mere 40 years of legal equal footing.
As economic conditions further deteriorate in the inner cities and jobs continue to emigrate, society will face the re-emergence of drug dealers put away during the crack boom; men with limited skills who will be stepping into a depressed job market where even the highly skilled are unemployed.
Sociologists say that while there is not a cure for the gang phenomenon, treatment of underlying social ills is imperative. Current punitive policy, however, is inescapably tied up with the country's booming incarceration sector.
The only guaranteed conclusion to the story is that gangs of all colors will continue to be a part of the American fabric.
Seminal sociologist W.B. Miller took a hard look at America's inner cities in 1974 and concluded that the solution to the gang menace is as close as world peace.
"It happens that great nations engage in national wars for almost identical reasons [that gangs do]... personal honor, prestige, and defense against perceived threats to one's homeland," he writes in American Youth Gangs. "When a solution to this problem [of warring nations has been found], we will at the same time have solved the problem of violent crimes in city gangs."