Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gang Awareness Workshop: Commentary and Summary

Part 1: Commentary

On April 12, 2008, I attended a Gang Awareness Workshop in the gymnasium of St. Anthony’s Church, located near E. 15th Street and 16th Avenue in Oakland’s San Antonio district. Several weeks ago, this church was the site of a funeral for a 15-year-old Latino boy who was killed by the police for allegedly refusing to drop a gun. On the day of his funeral, mourners at the church were the intended targets of a drive-by shooting. A 13-year-old was shot. Gang affiliations are attributed to these incidents.

In response to this incident and the increasing presence of Latino gangs in Oakland, this workshop was organized by City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and the OCO (Oakland Community Organization). Noel Gallo, the OUSD School Board representative for District 5, was present for a portion of the meeting. I am not aware that anyone else from Oakland's public school leadership attended. A number of parents were in attendance, mostly affiliated with St. Anthony School, a small K-8 Roman Catholic school located at the same site. Several members of the church also attended the meeting.

The information was presented by members of California Youth Outreach and its founder, Pastor Tony Ortiz. It focused on Mexican gangs in particular, but much of the content would hold true for other gangs: Black, White, Asian, Central American, etc.

California Youth Outreach (CYO) reported that they currently provide services to OUSD students at the high school level, namely at the Fremont Federation (College Prep & Architecture Academy, Mandela High School, Media College Prep and the Robeson School of Visual & Performing Arts) and at the Youth Empowerment School (also known as the Castlemont Community of Small Schools which includes Business & Information Technology, East Oakland School of the Arts and Leadership Preparatory High School). They also work with students at the Street Academy and Community Day which are OUSD alternative high schools serving very high-risk student populations.

The presentation was given in Spanish. Several handouts were given, including one for the PowerPoint presentation which was also in Spanish. English speakers were given Assisted Listening Devices (headphones with receivers) so that they could hear the interpreter. For some time I have been curious about what it would be like to use these devices. At other meetings I've been to, the attendees who have needed to use them have been the non-English speakers. I discovered that they work very well as long as the channels are set correctly and the batteries are fresh.

This was an excellent workshop. The summary which I have written is based on my notes taken at the meeting and on the limited amount of Spanish that I am able to read. It is by no means comprehensive, but it is enough to provide you with some of the important points which were covered. My hope is that that the word will spread about the need to disseminate this information to members of the community, and that presentations such as these will become commonplace.

Pressure must be placed on the Oakland Unified School District and the Oakland Police Department to join forces for the purpose of informing school staff and parents about youth gangs. With the rapid turnover of OUSD staff, and the fact that many teachers are inexperienced and coming from out of the area, presentations should be provided on an ongoing basis. Also, since the parent body is constantly changing, sets of parents should receive ongoing instruction as well. I believe that, for the best preventative measures, the middle schools should be especially targeted with this important information.

Even if everyone in the community becomes informed, gangs won’t be wiped out entirely; they have been around for many years. However, there is an urgency to aggressively deal with this issue now. Gang presence is increasing, gangs are more heavily armed than ever before, and gangs are evolving and getting more organized. Taking increased action with today's youngest adolescents will make it more difficult for gangs to acquire new members. This will help to suppress the development and expansion of these organizations.

This matter is extremely serious. These local youth gangs are directly tied to established violent prison gangs. Look at the heartbreak in Oakland caused by violent acts. Look at our homicide rate and at who is involved with those deaths. Consider the fear that many residents of Oakland are experiencing. Witness the dropout rate in Oakland’s public schools. Click on the YouTube links below to observe the presence and power of the world of Mexican gangs for yourself.*

If you are living in one of the safer neighborhoods of Oakland, this problem may feel irrelevant to you. That does not mean that it does not exist, that it is minor, or that the crime that stems from gang activity won’t seep your way. This issue is far outside of the scope of any school’s PTA, although parent groups should insist that their school’s employees have been formally trained and are actively monitoring these matters.

Responsible Oakland residents need to inform themselves, then apply pressure and keep it on. Be involved and be brave, but be smart and careful, too.

Part 2: Summary of the Gang Awareness Workshop given by California Youth Outreach on April 12, 2008

Dealing with the problem of gangs requires a response from schools, parents, police, churches, and the entire community. The goals are to

1. Distance youth from gangs

2. Get youth who are involved with gangs to leave them so they can lead a better life.

Studies reveal the trend that gangs are becoming more and more structured. They are evolving towards more serious organized crime. Gangs will continue to be involved with drugs. They use the money from their drug business to buy weapons so they can continue to sell more and more drugs.

Kids think, "Why go to school?" They can easily see that they can make more money by not going to school than by staying in school. They believe they can get more out of life by joining a gang.

There have always been gangs who have fought with each other. In the past they used sticks to fight. Today’s gangs have rifles and high-powered weapons that make the violence much worse. Also, kids in gangs used to fight out of everyone else's view, in vacant lots for instance. Now they are much more bold and fight on the street near businesses, and even churches. This increases the chance that innocent people will get hurt.

Many times parents don't want to know that their children are involved with gangs. Sometimes they are too busy to be aware of it, or to deal with it. Parents wrongly think, "My child is not involved with gangs; they are just out with their friends." Workers for California Youth Outreach must constantly fight against the parents and their denial.

Schools are also in denial; they think they don’t have problems when they do. Says Ortiz, “The biggest problem we have getting this information into the schools is their denial.”

Many communities don’t identify local gangs early enough. It is very important to see the reality of what is going on, and to do something about it before it is too late and something serious has happened. People need to know about gangs and gang culture.

A criminal street gang is defined by the California Penal Code as any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities, the commission of one or more of the criminal acts enumerated in section 186.22 (E)(1-25), having a common name or identifying sign or symbol and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.

Gangs can be identified by certain colors that they wear, tattoos or symbols, the people with whom they associate, where they live, etc. There are three main Mexican gangs: the Norteños, the Sureños, and the Border Brothers.

Norteños are mostly from Northern California. Their symbols are the color red, the number 14 (depicted as IVX, X4, the numbers 1 and 4) and the abbreviation “Norte.”

Sureños are more from LA and are more Mexican. Their symbols are the color blue, the number 13 (depicted as XIII, X3, the numbers 1 and 3) and the abbreviation “Sur.

Border Brothers are usually more recent Mexican immigrants. Their symbols are the colors black and white, the image of the Virgin Mary and the abbreviation “BB.”

These gangs are enemies and hate each other. They have been known to drive around and shoot at anyone they see who they think is a member of another gang. They aren’t shooting at the person – they are shooting at the color.

Sometimes, kids who are not in the gangs will have friends who are in gangs. When they are hanging out together, the good kids can get hurt. Parents must know who their kids are hanging out with.

There are different reasons why kids join gangs. Tony Ortiz explained it is because certain things are going on in their family, in their community and at their school. He says that sometimes parents are “making a living but forget to make a life.” Parents don’t always make time to see what (non-material) things their kids need. He reminds parents to remember that the most important things are the relationships, not the material things.

Five reasons why kids join gangs:

1. Protection: Early gangs were organized by kids to give protection to each other at school and after school. The friends will help them out because the parents are not there.

2. Stimulation: It is euphoric to be involved with a gang and the kids get an adrenaline rush. Kids feel that the activities they once did are boring to them now.

3. Identity: Membership in a gang gives kids who aren’t educated, don’t have enough money, or who live in the wrong part of the city a chance to be something special.

4. Recognition: Kids make friends in the gang who will recognize and accept them for who they are. The things that parents want for their children are not always the things the kids want for themselves. Also, parents need to give recognition to their kids when they do things right. Stressed parents don’t always do this.

5. Opportunity: The reason kids will take these risks is because they can get money for doing so. Membership in a gang gives kids the opportunity to get nice things like iPods and expensive clothing. Sometimes parents see their kids with these items, and know they did not buy them. This is a red flag that is warning the parents about something!

Signs of participation in a gang:

-Nicknames: The first thing the kid adopts is a nickname. Usually this is derived from a special characteristic that they have -- physical, personal or psychological, real or imagined. Many Latino parents give their children nicknames, but if parents learn that their children’s friends are calling them by a nickname that is not familiar, it might indicate involvement in a gang. Parents also need to pay attention to the quality of the nicknames that the friends use, and to ask their children about it.

-Hand signs: Hand signs are used to greet other members of the same gang, to challenge a rival gang member, to intimidate people who aren’t in the gang, etc. The hand signs vary but they usually form letters or numbers. This is often called “throwing gang signs.”

-Graffiti: Graffiti identifies gang territory and declares allegiance. It challenges rivals. If you see a lot of graffiti in your neighborhood, there will be gang activity.

-Tattoos: Many people have tattoos these days, but sometimes tattoos affirm a person’s affiliation to a gang. For instance, someone affiliated with the Norteño gang may have one dot on one hand (stands for 10) and then four more dots on the other hand (to represent 14). They earn the dots by completing tasks for the gang. At school, kids might draw on their hands with a pen and then wash it off when they get home. If they are doing this, they are thinking about gangs. Parents and teachers need to ask, “Why do they want to put those things on their body?” Sometimes members will burn symbols into their skin with a cigarette.

-Verbal codes: These are gang expressions. Some have been adopted by mainstream culture.

-Photographs: Gang members love to take pictures of each other. We need to be looking for certain things in the pictures that kids take of one another. For example, if the people in the photos are throwing gang signs.

-Music: There is music that Norteños make, and there is music that Sureños make. The kids can download this music on their iPods and listen to it all day long. Then the messages in the music get imbedded in the kids' brains and those ideas get reinforced. This influences their emotions. See the links below to listen to some of this music.

-Technology: Web sites exist which feature and promote the gangs. Parents need to look into what is going on in their children’s rooms and on their computers.

-Age: Participation in gangs is now starting in elementary school. Kids as young as seven or eight-years-old are being taught how to throw gang signs.

Signs that a child might be involved in a gang:

  • Dropping grades – for instance a child who was getting A’s and B’s in 6th grade, but now is in the 7th grade and has plummeting grades.
  • Switching to different friends
  • Missing school and cutting class
  • Staying out late
  • Drug and alcohol use
  • In possession of unexplained money and expensive items
  • Gang graffiti symbols in their room, on their clothing, and on their school papers and notebooks
  • Strongly favoring one color to wear
  • Using gang hand signs
  • Attitude problems with parents and/or other authority figures
  • Getting excited about gangs
  • Moving away from family
  • Sudden changes in music or clothing tastes
  • Body modifications like tattoos, wounds, burns and other marks

The overall pattern of behavior is of a child needing to display an attitude which is defiant of authority figures.

Ideas for parents:

Insist that you meet their friends and the parents of their friends. You need to know who your kids are spending time with. Be alert to the possibility that the parents of the friends might be gang members themselves.

Inspect your children’s bedrooms and understand that you have the right to do so. If they resist, say to them, “I pay the rent so I go where I want in this house.”

Set limits to behavior and conduct. Be consistent. In some Latino families, the mom will say, “Go ask your dad,” and the dad will say, “Go ask your mom.” Parents need to be in agreement with each other.

Parents need to go to school and talk to their child’s teachers and counselors. They need to know when the report cards are coming out so they can watch for their child's grades.

It is all a matter of being on top of these things and then knowing what to do.

*These YouTube links demonstrate what kids might be listening to. For the full effect, read the extensive comments that viewers have made. Also, be sure to notice that there are many, many more videos to choose from. The content of the music and the imagery reveal the mentality that the uninvolved community and law enforcement must face.

California Youth Outreach can be contacted at (408) 280-0203 or look online at www.cyoutreach.org. For CYO services in Oakland, call Henry Woods at (510) 377-5121 or email him at hwoods@cyoutreach.org.

A great deal of information about gangs is available online. Check out the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Community Policing Services (C.O.P.S.) web site at http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=1383. Also, see http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/index.asp

An article about how innocent people are hurt: “Teens cautious on streets where people get shot for no reason,” SF Chronicle, 1/20/07, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/01/20/MNGP3NM6D91.DTL

Epiliogue: Immediately after this meeting I attended a beautification work day at my daughter’s high school. To document the event, I gathered a group of students together for a photo. These were nice kids who had come to school on a Saturday to help out. When the kids were in position and I was ready to take the photo, I noticed that many of them were making hand signs. I don’t know if these were real gang signs or not, but I told them, “No hand signs. I won’t take the picture if you guys are throwing hand signs.” They were obedient and put their hand signs away. As responsible adults, we need to be aware of, and to insist on, certain things from our children.

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