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Snapshots of gang life in Durham.

Nobody Offering Nothing 

Snapshots of gang life in Durham

"We gather to make sense out of a senseless situation," said the Rev. Kenneth Hammond, one of the ministers presiding over 15-year-old Catrina Carr's funeral. Three days earlier, Catrina, an eighth-grader at Chewning Middle School in Durham, was shot while socializing on a porch with some friends who happened to be in a gang. Even though she wore the signature red bandana of the Bloods, she was not an official member.

Hammond's sermon that afternoon focused on the biblical story of Jacob. The Israelite, he said, had a right to enact revenge on his murderous brothers but opted to love them instead. The congregation, picking up on the gang reference, clapped and yelled in agreement. As Hammond spoke, he began swaying behind the podium. The adults in the audience became livelier as the children grew restless.

Suddenly one boy in an overstuffed ski jacket rose and charged into the aisle. People watched as he strutted out of the church's back doors. Over the next 15 minutes, nearly a dozen kids followed his lead. As they filed out, Hammond continued to preach about Catrina's death. "This might be God's way of saying we need to get our house in order," he said.

Catrina Carr's death, according to the Durham Police Department, represented the city's second gang-related homicide of the year. The police estimate that there are between 15 and 20 gangs in the Bull City, each burgeoning and criminally active, which puts it on par with other similar-sized cities across the nation. What distinguishes Durham, however, is the large amount of violence these small numbers have generated and the city's reaction.

The 70 or so criminally active gang members in Durham have been responsible for between three and 11 murders this year, depending on a statistical overlap with drug-related killings. Despite the murders, many officials see gangs as a passing trend. As Mark Trustin, who shares the directorship of Durham's PROUD (Personal Responsibility to Overcome with Understanding and Determination) program for troubled teens, says, "I've heard some very important people in the city say that their understanding is that gangs are not a real threat. It's just a fashion thing."

Quillie Coath, a PROUD facilitator, says the idea that gangs are merely a passing style, is dangerous and incorrect. "No," he said, "this is serious business. This is not BET or MTV."

The city's official response to the violence reveals a belief that it plagues only isolated individuals, rather than the whole community. After hearing about a late-night shooting in a city park, for example, Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson told The Herald-Sun, "Given the time of these events, I think the overwhelming majority of citizens are not exposed to the danger."

But on May 28, at 3 p.m., a group of gang members walked into South Square Mall, identified a rival, drew their guns, and began shooting at him. Afterward Tennyson noted in The Herald-Sun, "It gets more attention if it occurs in a place where most of us can imagine visiting."

Public acts of violence, according to District Court Judge Elaine O'Neil, reveal that gangs are making gestures to the entire community. "That population that has been left out is showing you they have powers in other ways. They're showing us they've been left out," she says.

At a recent mayor's meeting on gang violence, Durham County Deputy Sheriff Wes Crabtree told a story about gang members harassing a school official. "These are not people you can walk up and talk to," he said in conclusion.

Crabtree's statement reflects the fear that many people feel toward gang members. It also points up the fact that, while some community members might be beginning to talk about gangs, successful communication remains elusive. District Court Judge Marcia Morey believes we should shift our attention from theorizing to what the kids in gangs are saying. "It doesn't take a group of adults talking about curfews, dress codes and tougher laws," she says. "It takes us to listen."

I can't say anything
It is an overcast April afternoon and Jamel Tyson is sitting on the steps of Union Baptist church trying to make sense of what he has just seen--a 15-year-old girl lying in a white coffin, wearing a baby blue dress, a defiant countenance and a busted lip. "I couldn't believe that was Catrina in that casket," he says. "She always played with my hair."

With his tattooed arms propped on his knees, his mind wanders to his own children. "They're already doing gang signs and the Crip Walk," he says, "because they don't know no better."

Tyson, who works as an on-call barber in North Durham, has seen a lot of kids get involved in gangs and end up like Catrina. But the 20-something parent thinks he has protected his 7- and 8-year-olds from a similar fate. "They won't come up in it," he says, "because now that I see where they're headed and what's on their mind, I changed the whole strategy up. I changed the crowd who they hang around, as far as I can see."

Still, Tyson continues to battle his kids' glorified idea of gang life. He remembers talking to his elder son about the purpose of a gang. "I asked him, 'What do you think a gang is for?' He told me it was his second family. I asked why he needed a second family. He said he didn't know. I told him gangs were for people who don't have family, like really over there in California."

Tyson is worried because his kids are about to experience a tumultuous change that will leave them vulnerable: the move from elementary to middle school. Gangs often seek kids out during this time, promising them acceptance and distinction. Young recruits become "foot soldiers," or entry-level gang members who can commit crimes and evade adult charges. They can also sell drugs on the street without appearing suspicious to patrolling police.

Tyson sees how these kids become entrenched in gang life. Many of his clients are gun-toting children. "These young guys," he says, "have sold drugs for two or three years and have stacked their money and now they got big artillery." The guns, he continues, are a measure for age and status: "If your clip is bigger, you're a bigger guy."

These kids also ask him to buy them bullets. He refuses--both because he doesn't want to help them and because he cannot show special treatment to anybody.

Tyson's neutrality makes gang members trust him. He knows, for example, about shootings before they happen. On one recent afternoon, Tyson was cutting a gang member's hair when he overheard plans for a drive-by shooting. "I knew it was going to happen," he says. "I knew what time because it was organized."

Tyson was scheduled to cut hair at that time, in the targeted neighborhood, so he waited in a nearby apartment complex for the shooting to be over. As he waited, his thoughts wandered to the shooters, the victim and his own silence. "I wish I could warn them but I can't," he says of the victims. "Because I can't tell them anything. Then my name could come back up and they'll say, 'This guy, he let this gang know we were going to get them.' You know, I can't say anything."

Eventually, the sound of gunshots rang out. Tyson checked the digital clock on his pager: The drive-by was 37 minutes late. He walked to where the shooting occurred and saw the body of a teenager bleeding in the street.

Ain't nothing to do but bang my colors
Under harsh fluorescent lights, in a nearly empty room in downtown Durham, Dimitri Walker reclines in a boxy black chair. When asked what he thinks about while conducting a drive-by shooting, the teenager leans back to formulate his answer. His mother, Sherri Walker, still in her work uniform, sits beside him. The two of them had been through a lot in the previous week--midnight trips out of town, planning police escorts to and from school, and arranging overnight stays in youth homes. Dimitri, who is in a Durham gang, has his name on a rival group's hit list. He has been tracked down and shot at numerous times. Now, the two Walkers are enlisting the protection of the courts. A social worker, who is using every legal mean possible, sits beside the two of them. Finally Dimitri leans forward to answer the question:

"I'm going to tell you straight--at that point in time, you saying 'fuck the world,' that's basically what you're saying, because if you hit one of 'em, you ain't gonna care. You ain't gonna care until you get locked up, called up, whatever, that's when you're gonna start caring. When you're out there, you're out there."

The social worker sighs. Anger and fear successively flash in the teenager's eyes.

Dimitri initially got involved in a gang to make money. His friends had rolls of cash and he wanted some too. Gangs promised drugs to sell at a high profit margin and a gun for protection. He took the wager and handed over his allegiance.

Since then Dimitri has watched the drug trade develop into gang war. "When I first got down," he explains, "they weren't even shooting and stuff like that. Everybody was about that money." But things have changed, Dimitri says. "People started throwing up their signs and disrespecting this gang and whatever."

Now the fighting has gotten so intense, Dimitri explains, even unaffiliated people get shot. People put themselves at risk for wearing the wrong color, in the wrong neighborhood. "Basically, let's say you got Crips riding in a car," says Dimitri, "and you got a dude that ain't even in a gang walking down the street with a red shirt on or something red. The Crips might shoot at them. And they might think they in the other gang."

Kids who might just like the gang aesthetic are targeted by gangs for posing as members. Dimitri's OG (Original Gangster or boss) does not tolerate people pretending to be in his gang. Dimitri, in turn, has to carry out his instructions. "If I run into a fake banger," he says, "I'm doing what my OG told me to do--knock 'em out."

Killing a poser or opposing gang member is grounds for promotion. Because the violence is so widespread and unpredictable, many people join gangs just to impose order on the chaos.

Dimitri and his friends often talk about the violence. He feels like it is an enactment of the white community's desires. "Instead of them killing us," he says, "they want us to kill each other."

Asked how often race enters his mind, the teenager says frequently: "That's in my mind every day. That's why they brought the drugs here. They knew we were going to take over them drugs, same way we doing now. That's why we killing each other--for the money and the drugs."

Dimitri has thought about getting out of his gang, both as a political statement to "the white man" and as an act of self-preservation. Getting out, though, is extremely difficult. Members would meet and discuss whether or not Dimitri knows too much. If they decide he does, they might kill him. If his knowledge does not pose a threat, he must go through a severe beating. Dimitri is aware of these consequences and they dissuade him from leaving. "It's just like some people done try to get out," he says, "and some people got shot at, and some people got shot."

On the other side of the beating, Dimitri would face alienation from his friends and attacks from rival gangs. The prospect of living in the same house, in the same neighborhood, further discourages him from leaving. As he says, "I ain't trying to be beefin' with both gangs."

Gang life for profit
In the foyer of the Charlotte Coliseum before a recent Lil' Bow Wow concert, adults and children wearing every color of bandana mingle without a hint of hostility. One mother at the photo station tells her son to, "throw some gang signs or something," as he is getting his picture taken. Lines of people try to make it to their seats but get caught in the crowd surrounding a merchandise table.

After a while, the crowd begins to make its way into the coliseum. Everyone is there to see rap music's newest star, 13-year-old Lil' Bow Wow. Asked what she likes about the rapper, as she waits for the concert to begin, 6-year-old Oshay Hilton says, "He sings. He plays basketball."

Bow Wow's song "Bounce with Me" held the No. 1 position on the Billboard charts for eight weeks, and his album, Beware of Dog, went double platinum.

On one level, Bow Wow appears to be a decent role model. He doesn't cuss in his lyrics. His interviews and press releases reveal a normal kid: He loves his parents, talks reverently about God, aspires to be a professional basketball player, and is an honor-roll student.

But Bow Wow has a dark side, which is "just the dog" in him, as one song suggests. His songwriter and producer, Jermaine Dupri, portrays the 13-year-old enjoying a world of big money, freaky sex and violence. He is "a natural born killer," who rides in cars with "a big body shotgun riding [conducting drive-by shootings] on dubs [people who pretend to be in a gang]," and "balls [allies himself with rival gang members for money and murder] with the best of them."

Bow Wow's reference to thug life's reckless hedonism is not just a teenage daydream either. It's a carefully crafted, encrypted advertisement for the Crips gang. In interviews, he makes sure to mention that his favorite place to eat is Burger King, a Crip hangout whose initials stand for "Blood Killer." In his "That's my Name" video, he does his gang's signature Crip Walk. And he is always sure to mention his mentor, Snoop Dogg, who throws Crip hand signals in his music videos.

The lack of parental criticism has given corporations a green light to promote Bow Wow. Dr. Pepper, for example, according to Billboard magazine, has already printed and distributed two million Lil' Bow Wow book covers to thousands of public schools across the country.

When the coliseum lights come on and illuminate Lil' Bow Wow, he is wearing a North Carolina Tar Heels jersey, represented by an interlocking N and C, which in gang circles stands for "Neighborhood Crip."

The crowd begins to cheer wildly as Bow Wow struts angrily back and forth across the stage. His voice has a raspiness to it, uncharacteristic of his age. Kids in the audience yell as he swipes his hand across his torso in a dismissive motion.

At the end of the concert, the lights go out again. Bow Wow emerges onto the stage and stands in front of a giant white screen. When the music begins to play, he dances as if weightless, hopping on one foot while holding up one pant leg. He switches and does the same with the other leg, in the other direction. The audience yells, the music stops, and Bow Wow leaves the stage.

Outside the auditorium, people make their way to the parking lots. A mother walks beside her son as he bounces in post-concert euphoria. As they approach a large tunnel that will take them into an adjacent parking lot, the kid turns to his mother and says excitedly, "Did you see him do that Crip Walk?"

California
The two tattoos beneath Carlton Beaver's left eye, in the color and shape of black teardrops, mark the number of people he assassinated while a part of a Los Angeles gang. From there, all over his body, black lines tell a personal history--the Japanese character for assassin on the right side of his neck, the lanky dog prowling on his right forearm referencing his prison nickname, "C dog," and the deep indelible cross on his left forearm which stands for his Crinshaw neighborhood gang.

Now the Durham resident and reborn Christian is working hard to get the city's kids out of gangs. His strategy is simple: Tell them honestly what they can expect from gang life and listen to their problems. He estimates that he is 60 percent successful.

Beaver first got involved in gang life when he was 11 years old. He was eating out of trash cans, abandoned by his drug-addict father and deceased mother, when gang members recruited him. They promised money and protection. Beaver joined and, to show his loyalty, committed his first crime--robbing a convenience store and shooting an employee in the face.

From that moment, Beaver was promoted through his gang's ranks. He eventually took on the group's business responsibilities. He attended board meetings, met with rival gang leaders, dealt with inter-gang spies, and placed cops on his payroll. And, after years of being stabbed, shot, tracked, arrested and jailed, Beaver became his gang's leader. He became a deadly fixture in L.A.'s gun and drug trade.

Eventually, though, Beaver tired of his role in the gang. He wanted some serenity. When he announced his intent to leave, younger members wanted to kill him. They thought he knew too much. The older members overruled and decided his punishment would either be a near-death beating or banishment.

Beaver chose banishment and decided to move as far away from California as possible. Having family in Durham, he moved to the Bull City and looked for a job. He experienced a religious conversion around the same time, and decided he wanted to work with kids. Beaver got a job as an assistant teacher for Durham County Schools, and when Durham's PROUD program for troubled teens heard about his past, he was offered a position as a facilitator.

Now, three days a week, Beaver travels to the PROUD offices to teach classes to teens. The offices are in an old building on East Main, a street where prostitutes yell at passing cars, particleboard blocks windows, and skinny black crosses hang on storefronts.

Inside, in a classroom, wearing a colorful ENYCE brand shirt, sun visor, and tennis shoes, Beaver stands behind a scratched-up podium donated by the Housing Authority of Durham. He talks to his students about his deadbeat dad, gang pressure, lying paralyzed in a hospital bed from taking a bullet in the back, and other experiences he feels might help the kids.

Beaver says he has noticed, since he started working, that the kids in Durham are very different from the ones he knew on the West Coast. "They're more dangerous than the Crips and Bloods in California," he says. "Over there, we had a business. Here, it's not a business."

Durham's kids, Beaver says, fall into two groups. One group, he believes, gets involved in gangs because they are dazzled by the thug life depicted on television. They get involved, realize their mistake, and struggle to get out. Other kids, however, use gang violence as a way to get attention and release anger. This group feels bored, angry and invisible. "They're dangerous because they're trying to prove a point," he says.

Beaver believes that the violence enacted by these kids is a call for attention. "It's easier for me to do something bad to get your attention," he says, explaining the kids' rationale, "than be like 'Hey! Hey!' and you ain't seeing me. You don't see me? I pull this gun out and now you see me."

They feel neglected by parents that work too hard, schools that consider them delinquents, and a community that refuses to see them as valuable citizens, Beaver says. "A lot of these kids out there are seeking for help," he says. "And ain't nobody helping, man. I know, I was one of those kids."

Much of their anger comes from the sense that they are only given attention when they mess up or try to defend themselves in their environment. As Beaver says, from the kids' point of view, "You don't see that part--going to the store, getting my money taken--you don't see that part."

During Beaver's class, the kids have an opportunity to vent. He invites their streams of frustration and responds with nods, affirmations, and questions. He then talks them through their experiences. For Beaver, hearing these kids' stories is both infuriating and redemptive. "I've been there," he says. "It's painful. It hurts. Ain't nobody offering them anything. Ain't nobody offering them nothing." EndBlock

  • Snapshots of gang life in Durham.

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