Staff writer Joe Killian interviewed more than 40 Greensboro
residents who identified themselves as gang members and about a dozen people in their neighborhoods. None would give their real names. The News & Record is making an exception to its policy of not using unnamed sources to tell this story.
You see Al Pacino’s face a lot in the hood.
Like a patron saint, he appears nearly everywhere in gang territory — on posters, car hoods and even tattoos.
“Scarface,” a 16-year-old gang member says, eyes lighting up. “That’s the flick. Because that’s how you do it. You ain’t given nothing in this life. You got to get yours.”
For many viewers, the 1983 film — about a drug dealer who rises from poverty only to be gunned down in his mansion — is a morality tale and a warning to those who aspire to the gangster life.
But to kids in Greensboro’s poorest neighborhoods, it’s a Cinderella story. They imitate Pacino, quote lines from the film and play the “Scarface” video game, which rewards players for taunting the people they shoot.
Increasingly, the line between fantasy and reality seems to be disappearing.
Greensboro ranked third in the state for gang activity, behind Durham and Fayetteville, according to a National Youth Gang Center survey released in 2005. The rankings are based on the number of gangs, gang membership and gang homicides.
Greensboro police say the city had at least 10 gang-related homicides last year. Four homicides and several shootings have been tied to gang activity this summer alone. The City Council and police department are struggling with how to handle the problem.
At the heart of the debate: What attracts kids to gangs in the first place?
Bloods, Crips and MS13 members all say they can identify with “Scarface.” The feeling of being an outsider, dismissed and looked down on, is what gang members say drew them to their crews. And the dream of attaining wealth and respect — even by violence and drug dealing — drives them.
Family and respect
“Don’t nobody care about us,” says an 18-year-old Blood from the Ray Warren Homes neighborhood who calls himself TT. “Ain’t nobody looking out for us. When was the last time you saw the mayor down here?”
Although he’s a high school dropout, TT’s not stupid. He can see that black kids in poor neighborhoods are treated differently.
He points to National Night Out earlier this month, when police and city officials went to cookouts in Greensboro.
In some neighborhoods, kids got tours of firetrucks and emergency vehicles, TT says. At Ray Warren, they got the same two cops who always patrol the housing project.
“It’s up to the police to organize Night Out, but we have limited resources,” police Chief Tim Bellamy says. “We use our on-duty personnel, and anyone else we have to pay them time-and-a-half. That goes for the fire department, too. They use their on-duty personnel.”
Whatever the reason, TT says, kids in his neighborhood have come to feel ignored — never as important as white kids or rich kids. As part of a gang, they feel they matter.
TT rolls up his sleeve to show a homemade tattoo: three black dots that make a Dawg Paw, a sign of his gang allegiance.
“This is what we grow up with,” he says. “It’s natural. You look and you see a gang, but we take care of our boys. We take care of our set. We take care of our neighborhood.”
Some neighbors in gang-heavy areas say they feel anything but taken care of. They’re afraid to let their children play outside. Many avoid even saying the word “gang” out loud, and none would give their names for fear of reprisal.
“It’s not good for the neighborhood or the children who grow up in the neighborhood who get mixed up in it,” says a 23-year-old mother of two from the Smith Homes neighborhood. “But that’s just the way it’s always been. Everybody does it. It’s like you just have to get used to it as part of living here.”
A 42-year-old woman in the same neighborhood says: “It’s better if you don’t even talk about it.” She says she tries to keep her grandson away from gangs but worries he’ll get mixed up in it.
“You look around the neighborhood,’’ she says, “and this is not what you want for the children, to be doing these things, to be selling drugs and violent.”
Drugs and violence are part of gang life, TT says, but it’s about more than that. “You got to be part of a crew that has respect. That’s like family, boy.”
James Howell, a senior research associate with the National Youth Gang Center, says gangs can feel like a family — but that’s largely an illusion.
“Gangs give these kids status, a self-identity, and they call that their family,” says Howell, who has a doctorate in criminology. “More than anything, that shows they come from poorly structured, fractured families. That leads them to have a skewed perspective.”
Howell says kids replicate a sense of belonging through gangs and, just as important, get a feeling of protection.
“Yeah, they see those colors, they know it’s you and your boys,” says a 16-year-old Crip from the Groometown Road area. “It ain’t you alone. You ain’t never alone. That’s the truth.”
Police officer J.L. Jackson-Stroud is assigned to Ray Warren Homes, where he says gang affiliation is open. Members proudly display their colors even in front of police.
With broken families common, Jackson-Stroud says, young kids look for mentors and role models — and too often find them in gangs.
“I would say the average age of gang members in this area is 14,” Jackson-Stroud says. “They definitely start young.”
Detective Ernest Cuthbertson, the only Greensboro police officer assigned to gangs full time, says he has seen kids as young as 8 get involved.
“And there’s no cap on how old they can be either,’’ says Cuthbertson, who has dealt with gangs in Greensboro for 15 years. “It can get to be that the whole family is involved, so it becomes a rite of passage — like when your father and grandfather went to Duke or UNC.”
Many gang members, or gangbangers, say gangs have been part of their neighborhoods for so long that it has become normal.
“Everybody you know is in a crew,’’ says the 16-year-old Crip who loves “Scarface.” “Your brother, your best friend, your father was in a crew, too. That’s just what’s happening.”
He says people on the outside think gangs pressure kids to join or tell members they can’t leave. That’s not how he sees it.
“It ain’t like nobody makes you be in a crew,” he says. “You can’t make somebody have nothing in their heart. You can’t make nobody have loyalty. But it ain’t like you see it — it ain’t like it’s scary s---.’’
Outsiders in America
For Latino gangs, there is an extra element: the shared experience of living in a different culture. Many members are immigrants or first- and second-generation Americans.
“It’s different for us,” says a member of MS13 whose back, arm and wrist tattoos advertise his crew. “It’s like this is a new country. Because that’s how they look at you. They look at you like this isn’t your country.”
Another 24-year-old in MS13 says: “I been here 12 years, but I can (expletive) speak English. I can (expletive) speak English better than some white people.”
MS13 also appeals to young men proud of their culture but without an outlet for that pride in a city dominated by black and white. “So you got your set. You got your signs. You got your colors,” one member says. “You belong. That’s like saying, ‘This is where I belong.’ ”
Cuthbertson says many gangs exist solely for criminal activity, but some are created by prejudice.
“There is a serious issue of racial discrimination when it comes to Latino kids,” he says.
Although many MS13 members come from Latin and Central American countries, the gang was founded in America by immigrants who faced racism and violence.
One MS13 member says being Latino means you don’t belong anywhere.
“White people look down on black people, but even black people are, like, looking down on us, calling us names,’’ the 34-year-old says. “They think we’re the new niggers.”
Get rich or die trying
After working in public housing for 22 years, Tina Akers-Brown says she has seen the gang problem get worse.
Akers-Brown, the executive director of Greensboro Public Housing, blames drug dealing, the get-rich-quick mentality it inspires, and gangs from larger cities moving in to recruit.
“These kids are just like any other kids,” she says. “They just have fewer opportunities. When you have fewer opportunities, these are the kinds of decisions you make.”
Drug dealing isn’t a secret. Gangbangers brag about it. By hustling, they’re just latching on to the hood’s only growth industry, they say.
“Ain’t no business down here. Ain’t nobody coming out here to help us out, give us opportunity,” TT says. “We do it ourselves.”
A 19-year-old Crip from the Rosewood neighborhood agrees.
“Nobody’s out here offering nobody a job,” he says. “Hustling is where the money is, and that’s what anybody would be doing if they lived here, too.”
Former drug dealers turned millionaires are the idols of young gangbangers. When the wisdom of hustling is questioned, kids quote the successes.
Rapper Jay-Z, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects, went from low-level drug dealing to running Def Jam records. Rapper 50 Cent was a crack dealer before he had multiplatinum hits. The title of his first album, “Get Rich or Die Trying,” has become a motto for kids in poor neighborhoods.
But the reality is that gang kids don’t get rich selling drugs, Howell says.
“Street gangs hardly ever actually control drug trafficking,” he says. “That’s done by the big boys, drug cartels. They don’t wear colors. They don’t want you to know who they are. Street-gang drug dealing is very low level.”
Musicians who brag about gangbanging and drug dealing are selling kids a dangerous fantasy, Cuthbertson says.
“The kids look up to 50 Cent, Jay-Z and The Game,’’ he says. “They think these guys are real hard-core gangsters, but they’re not. They’re studio-made gangsters being used by corporate industry to make money.”
Beyond fantasies of diamond-encrusted goblets, gangbangers can’t tell you much about their futures.
“I think I could make it in the rap game,” says one 15-year-old Crip from an East Greensboro neighborhood. “You can make that happen.”
He points to the success of rapper and movie star Snoop Dogg, who claims allegiance to the Rollin’ 20 set of Crips.
Asked if he can rap or craft beats, the 15-year-old says: “I’m working on that part.”
For now, he’s hustling.
Eventually, some gang members see where that lifestyle can lead.
“I got out of it because I knew too many people got shot, too many people went to jail,” a 17-year-old former Blood says. “It’s like, I’m not going to wait my turn. It happens to everybody.”
He says no one tried to keep him from leaving, but he lost a lot of friends. Nearly everyone he knows is in a gang. “You feel like an outcast,’’ he says. “You feel like a punk.”
Most gang members say they have no plans to get out.
“This is it,” says a 19-year-old Crip from East Greensboro.
He smiles and opens his arms, gesturing to the empty streets of the housing project his crew calls home.
“This is what’s happening,” he says. “This is for life.”
Contact Joe Killian at 373-7023 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Crips — A street gang founded in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, early ’70s. Authorities estimate the gang has more than 30,000 members nationwide. Rapper Snoop Dogg is affiliated with the Rollin’ 20 set of Crips. Greensboro police say local Crip sets are predominantly black.
- Bloods — A street gang founded in Los Angeles in the early 1970s by gangs clashing with the expanding Crips. Authorities believe sets now exist nationwide and in Europe. Rapper The Game claims affiliation with the Bloods. Police say local Blood sets are predominantly black.
- MS13 – A Latino street gang with ties to El Salvador that is believed to have begun in Los Angeles. The gang’s name is an abbreviation of Mara Salvatrucha, commonly translated as “Salvadoran Army Ant.” Federal authorities estimate the gang has as many as 50,000 U.S. members. Greensboro police say MS13 membership is expanding with increased immigration.
- Crew — Gang members rarely refer to their group as a gang. They often say crew, usually meaning a large gang that has multistate or national affiliation. Crips, Bloods and MS13 are all examples of crews.
- Set or tre — A subset of a particular gang, often dictated by geography or territory.
- Gangbanger — An active member of a gang. Gang members and police often refer to gang membership as gangbanging.
- Hustling — Making money, usually in illegal ways. Commonly used to mean drug dealing.
- Tags — Gang graffiti that advertises a gang’s presence or marks its territory. Gang tags are sometimes defaced or changed by rival gangs.
- Colors — Gangs traditionally signify membership with colored bandannas or clothing. Red is traditional for Bloods and blue for Crips. MS13 favors black, white and blue.
- Signs — Gang members often use hand signs to communicate messages or allegiances. This includes spelling out the gang’s name or certain letters.
Sources: Gang members, Greensboro Police Department, National Youth Gang Center in Tallahassee, Fla.