Wednesday, March 8, 2006
The brutality of gang life makes for popular entertainment on movie screens across America. Riddling a wall or restaurant with bullet holes from automatic gunfire kicks the pulse into overdrive.
Jackson's own brief history with gang life has been less dramatic. In fact, a recent court hearing involving an alleged 2004 gang-related kidnapping was anything but exciting. On Feb. 17, Hinds County Circuit Court jurors, in the courtroom of Judge Bobby Delaughter, needed only four hours to acquit Terrence Womack, 29, Corey Redd, 27, Aundre Mason, 29, Elisha Moten, 26, and Darnell Turner, 28, of the 2004 kidnapping and aggravated assault of Michael Sanders. Local media often refer to the young men as the "Grayhead Gang," as did Frank Melton during his mayoral campaign.
Despite the scrutiny of "gang" rivalries and turf battles, jurors had a hard time committing to a guilty verdict after the victim in the crime pled the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify against the accused men. Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson subsequently charged Sanders with perjury.
Back in December 2005, Melton supplied another witness against "gang" activity, who ended up helping topple a case against alleged "Wood Street Gang" members Vidal Sullivan, Anthony Staffney and Zedrick Maurice Warner when he recanted his story to the district attorney, forcing the case to be dropped. The three men were charged with the February 2003 murder of Carey Bias.
Peterson said the witness, who was the only one, didn't actually see the crime. It did not help that the witness changed his story under scrutiny, claiming to have seen nothing more than Sullivan wearing the victim's necklace.
Melton told WAPT in December 2005 that he had the witness on videotape and that the witness had passed a lie detector test. Melton went on to say that he was "going to get with Faye and work with her to bring this to a conclusion."
The only conclusion, though, that came of the meeting was the release of Sullivan. Days after Sullivan's late February release, Melton went on a manhunt for Sullivan, telling The Clarion-Ledger that he was seeking new charges against Sullivan in the beating death of 16-year-old Reginald Versell in 1997—charges that had already been dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Sullivan turned himself in to Melton last week, only to be released back into his neighborhood within hours, according to friends. Jackson Police Chief Shirlene Anderson told reporters last week that Sullivan was still being held, however. Melton was vacationing in the Bahamas as this article went to print, and did not return calls to his cell phone last week.
Gangs Ain't What They Used to Be
All the recent attention on gang activity may give some credence to the argument that gangs are a big part of Jackson inner-city life, but many residents and experts dispute that perception. "It's different now than what I'd say it was five years ago," said Jackson State freshman and Lanier High School graduate Melishia Grayson, who grew up on Wood Street, the territory allegedly patrolled by the Wood Street gang in the late 1990s.
"These days it's just a lot of people doing illegal things, but basically hustling to have money to live on. You have a lot of guys who went to jail—I'm a freshman in college—and these guys went in when I was in eighth grade. There's not a lot of second chances for people who grew up living that lifestyle. Their family lived that lifestyle, it's a continuous cycle, and that's all they know. But I don't think there's any real threat as far as some big gang that's terrorizing the community."
Grayson said she could recall only one criminal incident involving her family or their home on Wood Street, and even that was unrelated to gangs.
"It's like my grandma, she's been living there for 20-plus years, and the whole time we lived there, there has been one incident, and it was little kids. They stole the air conditioner out of my grandmother's window. … My brother went and said, 'We know y'all stole it.' They fixed the air conditioner and brought it back and apologized," Grayson said, adding that she thought most of the highly organized gang leaders from the 1980s and early 1990s were either in prison, went legal or were dead.
Donnie Money, 33, was a gang member who went to prison in November 1992 and was released in May 2002. He has worked for the City of Jackson's Youth Division since last fall as a job recruiter and supervisor, often using his reputation on the streets to steer young children away from that life, he says.
"The new administration, you know, they do what they can to influence the young ones. A grown man, maybe 30, out on the street and acting crazy, you can't do nothing for him.But the young kids, them 12-year-olds and the 14-year-olds, those are the ones you can help," Money said. "That's what the new administration is trying to do, but they've only had about seven or eight months to work in."
Money—born Donald Ray Quinn—says he developed a strong reputation on the street during the late 1980s and early 1990s, during his years pushing drugs. He grew up in Georgetown, in the besieged Jackson Apartments—formerly known as the Maple Street Apartments. He declines to name past gang associations.
Money worked the streets during the violent arrival of crack cocaine, which began in the late 1980s. Crack, cheap and highly addictive, rolled through the community's alleys and sidewalks, spurring a sharp rise in the city's murder rate, which has since fallen steadily for about 14 years, according to recent FBI statistics.
Not Organized 'Gangs'
The streets today are not the streets of his heyday, Money said. The street operators he spies these days selling crack, marijuana and other drugs aren't the organized gangs he knew in his younger years.
"Since I've been out here almost 20 months now, I ain't seen a real gang, yet," Money said.
"You might see some paint on some houses, but them gang signs probably been painted there for 10 years. Those signs probably come from the 1990s. Nowadays, see, it's all about drugs. The kids doing it today just kill everybody, kill anybody. No organization or structure to nothing that they done, but that's only because of the drugs in the streets."
The gangs of the 1990s, says Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes, were much more organized.
"Back then, you had folks from real gangs coming in from places like Chicago and those bigger cities. Back then they were trying to have an identity. You had leaders, you had second-in-commands, you had the people under them. It was run more like the mafia," Stokes said. "They had their territories and they defended them. That's what it was all about—territory."
Money says dealing drugs on the streets isn't safe without the benefit of numbers. Though Money says gangs per se are unnecessary, you still need partners—preferably a group of five or more.
"Hell no, you can't be a loner on dealing. If you're out there and don't know what you're doing, those (other dealers) will kill you, rob you, and they'll find you in a ditch the next morning. You ain't going to get out here and deal drugs without knowing who you're dealing with, without having the right clique of people around you. It's just not going to happen," Money said.
As Money asserts, criminal enterprises thrown together for street dealing aren't necessarily any less murderous just because they are not gangs. In 2004, a slew of back-and-forth revenge acts between criminal enterprises resulted in assaults, arson and the deadly highway shooting of 21-year-old Fadenso "Maniac" Jackson on I-220.
A blast of media attention followed the mafia-style violence, which was often unplanned, sloppy and prone to hit the unwary passerby. One revenge shooting by Fadenso "Maniac" Jackson missed his target—Grayhead associate Johnny "Trigger" Jones—and put a bullet in the arm of 11-year-old Shavonda Henry, police said. Jackson died three days later on I-220. Suspected Inge Street group members Elisha Moton, 26, and Terrance "Fella" Womack, 29, are charged in that slaying and are scheduled to stand trial this month.
Then-Police Chief Robert Moore staunchly refused to acknowledge that the two factions—the Inge Street group and Grayhead group—were gangs, instead labeling them "a group bound together by criminal activity," in a 2004 press conference.
"I'm not going to misrepresent these people as gang members," Moore told reporters. "These are people who just work together to get their drugs on the street. They don't have the structure of gangs you find in the bigger cities."
Victor Mason, 49, a lieutenant with the Hinds County Sheriff's Department who works with the FBI task force and is a long-time friend of Mayor Frank Melton, said giving real gangs too much media attention sometimes helps them.
"When I was with the JPD, the assistant chief at that time did not want the word 'gang' used on the radio," said Mason, who was with the JPD gang task force when Mayor Dale Danks assembled it in 1987.
"(Real) gangs want to be recognized. The only way they get recognized is with the media, and some gang members do things just to get recognition. Back then, the assistant chief called me, and asked is there a way to get around using the word 'gangs.' He said 'lets just call them unorganized youth.'"
Refusing to use the label "gang" can be a kind of denial, though, according to George Knox, director of the National Gang Research Center in Illinois.
"A gang is a group, formal or informal—from Spanky and Alfalfa to something with a written constitution and bylaws. It is a group whose members are recurrently committing crime—not once in a lifetime at Mardi Gras. It doesn't matter what kind of crime that is. It could be selling drugs, or violence or anything that's on the books, but it's a group that repeatedly commits crime," Knox said.
"Heck, if you got a band of drug dealers selling dope everyday, you've got a gang. The Ku Klux Klan qualifies as a gang. It's a social issue."
Ned Garner is a retired JPD detective who worked on the same gang task force as Mason before it was disbanded in the 1990s, after supposedly succeeding in its mission.
Garner said groups that could be considered gangs band together these days more to deal drugs than to assert an identity, and they're making a point to come together much more quietly.
"Used to, if you didn't see graffiti, you didn't have a gang problem, but now they don't want to bring attention to themselves from the police, so they don't put the graffiti up. But you may find it written inside a vacant house, on something that's not really obvious, or something that only they and other gang members would know about," Garner said.
"Back in the 1980s, they would flaunt their activities," Garner continued, "but after police officers started getting educated more on how to recognize gang members, they went underground. You used to see them walking around with their hats turned a certain way, or wearing their gang colors, red and black, or blue and black, but they've gotten smarter. They've seen what happens when the media and the police pay too much attention to them, and they're smart enough to stay away. If they're still in the game, they'll get somebody else to sell the drugs for them."
The Chicago Police Department has been dealing with its own gang issues since Al Capone. Sgt. Darrell Spencer is one gang expert who has personal experience with the casual violence and vendettas associated with gangs. Spencer works on one of the many task forces that regularly interact with and report on gang members.
Spencer says there are striking similarities between African-American gangs in Chicago and the loose "gang" organization that has evolved in Jackson. The similarities are limited to blacks, he says.
"The Hispanic gangs are still elaborately organized. With the Hispanic gangs, it's all about identity and identifying with a certain group, but that's not the way black gangs do it. Not anymore," said Spencer. "Today, the black gangs are not about identity. They're about making fast money."
Crack cocaine has proven to be a social mutagen, Spencer said, reducing black gang members' interest in identity and protection in favor of a loosely organized delivery system for an illegal product.
"Black gangs, since crack got here, are just there to make money now. They have leaders, but it's more like a business," Spencer said.
Graffiti continues to mar some houses in Ward 3, but Stokes said the gang signs are not genuine, and are probably the work of very young impostors.
"That sign you see over there," Stokes said, pointing to an indecipherable swath of red paint on the wall of an abandoned home, "that up there was just done by some kids. There ain't no real gang here. Look at the way they painted it. They didn't even know what they were doing. The ones you see saying they're vice lords or whatever are just kids trying to be a part of something. The real problems in my ward are these dope boys. They don't need to be a gang to be trouble."
'I Got Bills to Pay'
One resident of the Wood Street area says he sells drugs on the streets around Bailey Avenue, but he disagrees that the local gangs are deliberately hiding their identity. He doesn't think there's an identity to hide. The young man, who we will call "Levi" because he asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisal, doesn't consider his street drug-dealing to be gang related.
"We're all just friends, you know? The whole gang thing, I know where you're coming from, but I'm not a member of a gang. It's all about the name of the street. The old neighborhood's empty now. Nobody's over there now. The organized crime they were talking about over at Wood Street? That's nothing now. That's just people over there trying to live," Levi said. When asked why he still deals drugs, he answered that it would be difficult for him to stop even if that was what he wanted.
"I got bills to pay," Levi said. "At first you did it because it was the thing to do, but now you're getting older. I've been doing it for so long and my grandmomma's got bills. I got to do this now. I have a very long criminal record, and that don't help me get no legitimate job, neither."
Levi may have other reasons for disavowing a gang label. One attorney said it may be wise to deny a gang connection if you do end up in court.
Terrance K. McCleerey, 68, is a Salinas, Calif., attorney who has been practicing law for almost 40 years. He specializes in criminal defense of gang-related crimes, and says that a jury grows cold the second the prosecutor suggests the defendant may be in a gang.
"I've found very few juries who were able to maintain complete neutrality when somebody mentioned a possible gang connection," McCleerey said, adding that California law already stacks the deck against gang defendants.
"If a gang member jumps out and hits a rival gang member with a tire iron, they charge him with assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury, but they also offer a law enhancement that adds three or four more years to the charge if a gang relation is established," McCleerey said.
"There's a separate charge of participating in criminal street gang terrorism, and that carries up to three extra years. If you carry a gun, it's 10 years more. If you shoot the gun, it's 20, so you can see the (California) Legislature and the public is fed up with gangs, but I can see it getting worse."
Doin' Time Together
McCleerey warned that his own state is broadening restrictions on gang activity, subverting constitutional rights in its effort to punish bangers.
California classifies gang members as terrorists, which quickly deprives accused gang members of their rights. President Bush doggedly defends his own right to monitor thousands of Americans' telephone conversations without warrants, for the sake of catching terrorists, and the states may have caught on to the act.
McCleerey says he fears California is already moving toward legislation that would allow police to stop and search any vehicle containing two or more males, which could provide cover for racial profiling.
"Assuming it could pass constitutional muster, you may very well see an automatic stop and search of vehicles containing two or three young men, a clear violation of civil rights, with no search warrant. I'm not talking 10 or 20 years from now. I think we might see this in California in five years, and we're pretty liberal out here. There has to be some boldness on the part of people to protect people's rights, because the police can be very hard on people if they suspect there's gang activity."
Such is the fear of Marcus Tanner, a retired factory worker who lives off Woodrow Wilson Boulevard in Jackson.
"I don't want to say a policeman can't do what he needs to do to protect the public, but I bet a policeman can be more violent to somebody if he thinks that person is a 'gang' member. They can say, 'Well, we got to be extra hard, because there's a war going on.'"
One former JPD officer, who asked that his name be withheld, said exaggerating gang activity can be a good way for law enforcement to acquire more funding to fight "gangs."
"If you say you got a gang problem, then it gives you two things. One, it creates fear. Fear equates to money. If you're afraid of something, you'll pay anything in the world to get rid of it. If I (said) you have a termite problem, even though you've never seen a termite in your house, you'd think about the thousands of dollars of damage it could do to your home, and you'll pay me anything I want to get rid of them. It's the same way with gangs. If I say there's a gang problem, you're going to give me a lot of money," the officer said.
"Two, if I say there's a gang problem, you're going to give me a lot of latitude in terms of dealing with people on the streets. What you would normally call abuse will now be associated with dealing adequately with a gang problem."
Marvin "Mobster" Vance, 32, says he's one of the founding members of the underground rap movement in Jackson. He and his wife, Jeanette, 31, live on Wood Street, and report that the street is incredibly quiet these days. Marvin, or "Marlboro," as he is sometimes called, says the police are aiming for the wrong dealers.
"You can't take one player, one guy you call a major player, off the street and think it's going to stop. He's going to get replaced by two or more," Vance said.
He offered the police advice. "We need to go after the source. Don't bother with going after the street-level guys. You'll just be getting some people with two or three grams of crack. You have to get after the guys with the keys, the big suppliers. Take that surveillance you're putting on some guy who doesn't have nothing and put it on the one that's bringing junk into the neighborhoods."
Vance said the new administration needs to increase patrols in his neighborhood if it really wants to reduce crime.
Jeanette Vance said that even if the new administration focused on beefing up law enforcement it would take more than police intervention to keep dealers off the street. She said the solution should aim at giving neighborhood youth, ranging in ages from 8 to 18, a place to go when they get out of school.
"There's a community center up the street," Jeanette Vance said, "but it's only open for special occasions. They hardly ever do anything with it. Operation Shoestring isn't far away, but they say their slots are always filled. Some of these children's parents don't come home until very late, and sometimes they don't come home all night."
"What do you offer kids to keep them from dealing? Nothing. There's nothing else out here but dealing."
She said the solution should aim at giving neighborhood youth, ranging in ages from 8 to 18, a place to go when they get out of school. I can't agree more. So many of these children come from single-parent homes or are being raised by a grandparent. The guardian may have to work two jobs to keep the lights on, and the only thing they can tell them is to stay in the house until they get home. They need help. My church has a youth ministry that holds an even once a month called "N-Credible Friday". They come in and play video games, do arts and crafts, then go to the sanctuary for skits, dance contests, etc. They get refreshments afterwards. They also do drawings for prizes. If something like this could be available all the time, we would be in much better shape. A recreation center or something like that. I know they tried years ago with Tiffany's in the Lake Hico area, but it closed due to lack of financial support, I think.
An excellent article, as usually Adam. I remember growing up in Vicksburg in the 1980s, when gangs loosely affiliated with the Vice Lords and Folks gangs started showing up all over the north and east parts of town (i.e. 'black' neighborhoods) and had people in a panic that gangs were going to take over and starting killing the way they did in Chicago and in Jackson. Fortunately, that never really transpired and the gang problem disappeared the same way it has in Jackson, to be replaced with drug dealing and small-time robbery. I don't know what the solution to the "gang" perception problem in Hinds County, let alone how to get drugs off the street in an effective way to help clean up the community, other than target these young kids with education, jobs, and a stronger sense of identity beyond gangs.
- Jeff Lucas
I don't know what the solution to the "gang" perception problem in Hinds County, let alone how to get drugs off the street in an effective way to help clean up the community, other than target these young kids with education, jobs, and a stronger sense of identity beyond gangs. I agree. Easy money is the main attraction these days, especially in a society where posessions are more important than integrity. All these kids see and hear every day is, "If you don't have this product, you are nothing." Then they spend all their time hustling, trying to fill that empty void. Next thing they know, trends have changed, and they're back to square one. What they need is a healthy dose of self-love, self-discipline and self respect.
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