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Bridging the gap on Gangs
SoVaNow.com / March 27, 2013Does Mecklenburg County have a gang problem? The answer, it seems, is yes and no — according to law enforcement officers who monitor gang activity in the area.
The problem is one of perspective, suggested Sheriff Bobby Hawkins before a room full of local residents who turned out Thursday night for a "Bridging the Gap " program hosted by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office.
Hawkins noted that while gangs exist in Mecklenburg County — a claim backed by keynote speaker and former gang member, Everett Thomas, who said, "I want you to know that gangs are real, gangs are here in our midst, and gangs are here in Mecklenburg” — their hold over young people, and their power to inspire criminal activity, is less certain.
Gangs can fill a void in young people’s lives that arise when so many other things go wrong. But there are steps the community can take to keep young people from tipping over into lives of crime.
Hawkins, Thomas and the other speakers emphasized four ways to stop gang activity: be aware of your surroundings and signs of gang presence; serve as positive role models for youth by being involved with them; support schools, churches and law enforcement; and relay information to law enforcement and schools if signs of gang activity appear.
The Bridging the Gap within Our Community program calls attention to the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which gang members announce their presence — clothes, graffiti, and tattoos.
The speakers included two of Mecklenburg County's leading experts on gangs — Jamie King and Timothy Van Aernem, Director of Piedmont Region of the Virginia Gang Investigators Association. Both King and Van Aernem shared Powerpoint presentations that included pictures of gang monikers, tattooed on bodies, painted on streets, school desks and other surfaces, and on clothes.
King noted a gang can be as few as three individuals if they are joined together to engage in criminal activity. The desire to pursue a life of crime is not the main reason most kids join a gang, King said — it is the need to belong, to be part of a family, to feel protected.
Others seek gang membership in the hopes that it will increase their popularity or improve their ability to attract members of the opposite sex.
Gang membership often comes at a high price, speakers suggested. Thomas, whose early life as a member of the Crips eventually led him to prison, said it took that time to see the horrible impact gang life has on young children.
"I would sit in the cafeteria and watch kids, new to the system. They had no idea what to expect, but quickly learned. They either joined a gang or became gay and sometimes both."
He added that kids on the street often experience a similar initiation into gang life. Other initiation rites include allowing members of the gang to beat you up, or they force you to commit a crime, according to Thomas.
A select few are "blessed-in or born-in," meaning they are welcomed into the fold because they have family members who are already members of the gang.
So how do you stop gangs from taking over? King said the answer is to get educated and get involved, learn the signs — from tattoos, to clothing, to graffiti and sign language. Unfortunately, popular culture and the media have made these symbols part of popular culture, King said. "What may appear innocent to you, could be a gang symbol."
He cautioned: "Just because someone wears the clothes doesn't mean they fit the profile. But as a gang expert and someone in law enforcement, I'm going to see that person as a possible gang member, especially if I see other activity."
King encouraged the audience to be similarly steadfast and vigilant. Thomas agreed and encouraged parents to get involved with their kids, listen to their music, pay attention to their clothes (wearing all red or blue like the Bloods or the Crips), look for tattoos (such as a dog paw) as these are all signs of possible gang involvement.
Other signs that your child may be involved with a gang, according to King, include withdrawing from family and friends, unexplained cash, sudden interest in firearms, and declining performance in school.
Thomas shared his own decline into gang life, as a way to emphasize the need for parental involvement. His voyage began while living in New Jersey and after his mother died. Thomas was searching for the family he no longer had. The Crips, an African-American gang founded in Los Angeles in the 1960s which spread as they became involved in drug trafficking, became his family.
He did not leave the "gang mentality" behind when he moved to Halifax County. He was kicked out of both Halifax and Bluestone High Schools before landing in prison. Eventually he worked his way up to a stint in Red Onion, a supermax state prison located in Wise County. It houses the worst of the worst.
His decision to change his life came before his release from Red Onion. Now he is a business owner, involved parent, and lecturer on gang awareness.
Thomas, whose body is covered in tattoos, says he keeps them as reminders of his former life. "I look at them every day and say I ain't going back to that."
"We don't want to end up like some of our neighboring counties, and that is why we are being proactive. Gang awareness is the best way to stop gangs from taking over," Hawkins said before opening the session up for questions.
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