Is recent school violence a flashback to 1970s street gangs? Or is it something more dangerous?
by Doron Taussig
It's almost time for dismissal at Martin Luther King High School. There's a rumor going around that somebody's going to get shot.
Two groups of students from different neighborhoods, one calling itself "The Empire" and the other calling itself "Somerville," have been fighting for several months. The beef may have started over a girl, or possibly a rap contest—the incident was forgotten weeks ago. The important thing now is that they're enemies.
In the school police office, an officer sits watching the security camera feed on four television screens. Across the room, there is a bulletin board covered with newspaper clippings charting incidents of recent school violence. Sgt. Robert Whitfield keeps a database of all students suspected to be involved in the two factions. He also speaks weekly with his counterparts at Germantown High School and area middle schools about new developments. As for today's rumor, "I got informants," says Kevin Custis, a school police officer.
Dismissal isn't easy for anyone. For the cops and social workers overseeing the process, it's difficult to decide where to fix their gazes. There are three kids standing in the parking lot waiting for someone—do they plan to hurt him? One kid exits the building sprinting and books it down the street—is someone going to chase him? Two kids circle each other, shouting, their fists clenched—this could be trouble! Oh. They're flirting.
For the students, it is a harsh reminder that they're not trusted, and they're not safe—like going through airport security every day on the way home. "I had 30 cops on each corner all last week," says Whitfield.
A tense half-hour passes, and then suddenly, the kids are gone. An army of police is left standing alone.
"They went home fast," says a social worker. "Everybody was so afraid."
Recent violence among youths has Philadelphia on edge. Last week, in the wake of two high-profile after-school shootings, Mayor John Street announced an "Operation Safe Schools" program, which put 10 additional police officers on call to the school district.
But violence in schools is actually down this year. What has citizens nervous are the names being whispered:
The names of the gangs that owned Philadelphia's streets in the 1970s.
For every time someone speaks the word "gang," it seems, someone else will employ a softer word—"clique" or "crew" or "set"—to avoid invoking the mammoth legacy of gangs in this city. People can't seem to agree on whether the city has a gang problem. Opinions range from "There is an emerging gang culture in Philadelphia," (Mark Harrell of Men United for a Better Philadelphia) to "There are really no gangs in Philadelphia" (Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson). Even among young people there is disagreement. But when everyone gets down to discussing the circumstances surrounding recent violence, many of them describe the same situation—it's just that some of them call it a gang problem and others call it something else. Semantics aside, something is happening in this city.
The gangs from the '70s are not coming back. Those gangs were huge and meticulously organized. Today's groups are not. Nor are large national gangs, such as the Bloods or the Crips, taking root in Philadelphia. But the city may be witnessing the birth of a new creature: a hybrid culture that combines the names and neighborhoods of local '70s gangs with the drugs, violence and nihilism of the 21st-century hip-hop world. The result is that "group identity" is becoming one more reason for young people to fight and kill one another. But why now?
A white city van rolls slowly down a street in Germantown, drawing occasional suspicious looks from pedestrians. The driver, Malik Aziz, does not notice them. He is watching the walls.
"See that?" he asks, pointing at what looks like a dollar sign spray-painted on a garage door. Closer inspection reveals the figure to be an H overlying an S. "This is Haines Street territory." He estimates that about 100 people belong to Haines Street. Two blocks away, the van rumbles onto a cobblestone street. "Now we're in Brickyard," Aziz says, and points to a "BYM"—Brickyard Mafia—scrawled on the side of a corner deli. Brickyard boasts only about 60 members.
Haines Street and Brickyard are the two groups whose feud led to the shooting outside of Germantown High School in October. A teen from Haines Street fought a teen from Brickyard, then there was a retaliatory attack, and eventually, 150 students converged on Germantown Avenue to have it out. During the brawl, 15-year-old Sam Evans was shot in the back. He survived, but students say that Haines Street is expected to retaliate. The difference between the groups? "Street signs," says Aziz.
A quarter-century ago, when the original Haines Street and Brickyard gangs roamed the same streets, Aziz was a member of the Oxford Nation gang in North Philadelphia. He served two drug sentences for a total of 10 years in the '80s and '90s before deciding to go straight. Now he does violence prevention and intervention work with at-risk youth, and has become one of the leading proponents of the gang-resurgence theory. Today, Aziz, a heavy man who walks with a cane, is taking a tour of the new territories.
In North Philadelphia, he passes through D-Block (a new gang name) along D Street, and a man on the street says, "[Gang members are] getting younger and younger." In West Philly, Aziz sees signs of The New Moon ("The Moon" was a West Philly gang in the '70s). "This is a Moon school," he says as he rides by a playground filled with children playing tag. "You go in and ask one of those kids what The Moon is, they'll know. Some of them will say they're in it." Up a slight incline, he enters the territory of the Hilltop Hustlers, another inherited moniker.
Some other gang names that have come up lately are "Happy Hollow," named after a playground in lower Germantown, and "Dogtown," which takes its name from a 1970s gang of the same area. A teacher from Roosevelt Middle School says he has heard about a group called NFL, for "Niggas from Logan," and a couple of people mention the DTOs—Dykes Taking Over, at University City High School.
Paul Goldman, an assistant district attorney specializing in gang and juvenile prosecutions, says that gangs are making a comeback "very, very slowly"—and indeed, the numbers of youths in these groups still pale in comparison to other cities: Aziz estimates about 400 total participants. There have been rumblings that Asian youths here have been calling themselves Bloods and Crips, and that the city is seeing a surge in its Latin King population. These communities do have gangs, but national gangs traditionally have a hard time taking root in Philly. At an April city summit on gangs, a Department of Human Services employee, Jascinth Scott-Findley, said that when Philadelphia youths get sent to detention centers in the South, they often come back claiming to belong to the Bloods or the Crips, and are immediately reminded, "You're in Philadelphia now." The biggest concern in Philadelphia seems to be the small groups of kids taking the names of old local gangs.
At some points, the city van feels like a time machine. "That park there," Aziz says, pointing to a green enclave in Germantown, "is where they used to come and meet for rumbles back in my day." A half block later, he says, "That corner is where that boy got shot a few weeks ago."
A student informant slouches uncomfortably at a desk in the library of Martin Luther King High School. He glances repeatedly toward the door, worried that someone will see him speaking with a stranger.
The hard-looking young man was once a devoted gang member, but now, when a social worker pulls him aside, he talks. "I ain't trying to get locked up again, cuz if I get locked up again, they gon' send me … " He pauses, trying to imagine where he could possibly go. "To the moon."
He doesn't want to talk about himself. He is only willing to share his thoughts on the beef between Empire and Somerville. "It's a war," he says. "They fight every day. … As we speak there's people fightin'."
This is a sad irony, the young man says, because most of the people he knows join groups like these for protection. "It's safety, really. Every day somebody get rolled on. So if you get rolled on, you can call somebody."
He thinks for a moment. "It's for money, too."
Reginald Hall, an intervention specialist with Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network (PAAN), says that many of the kids who join gangs or groups or whatever you want to call them, "come from broken homes, and the gang replaces the family." When nine students from Germantown High School talk about gangs, most of them say that their peers join up because of the image. "They think it's cool," says a girl in a pink Lady Enyce jacket. She rolls her eyes.
These students, sitting in a haphazard half-circle in an empty classroom, are no happier talking about this than the young man from King, but for a different reason: They're tired of it. They're tired of the additional police presence; they're tired, frankly, of explaining everything to the press (one of them was recently on the cover of The Philadelphia Tribune), and they're tired of the groups themselves. These gangs have a way of getting involved in your business.
The gangs begin with neighborhood associations but evolve into groups of friends. "If you hang out with' some guys from Haines Street, but you ain't from there, you could still be with' Haines Street," says a senior in a long white polo shirt. The groups generally lack structure: Though groups will always have natural leaders, everyone is technically equal. The only rule, says the girl in the pink jacket, is "fight for your friends."
You don't break this rule. "If you don't step up and fight," says the senior, "that's trouble from the people you were fightin' and from your friends."
The fights begin the way most after-school fights begin: over "dumb stuff"—"he stepped on my shoe" type disputes between a couple of kids. But instead of a crowd following those two kids into an alley to watch, the crowd comes to fight. The neighborhood gang names exacerbate the problem. If someone from Dogtown is in a fight, other kids from Dogtown have to answer the question: Are you with us or against us? A scrape can become a rumble, after which retaliations lead to more retaliations.
For the most part, these disputes are held to a simmer in school—rivals will bump into each other in the hallways or exchange stares in class. But after school, says Whitfield, the kids will meet outside and just keep moving farther away until it's safe, as it were, to brawl.
The vast majority of students, of course, are not involved, and all of these nine students say they avoid getting drawn in. But if the gangs' tentacles are so long, how do they stay out of it?
"The girls don't really act like that," says the girl in the pink jacket. But before she finishes, the four boys in the room are shouting objections. There are girl groups, too.
After everyone calms down, the senior shrugs. "If you stay out of it, you not involved." But his friend reminds him of a time when that didn't work: "No. Remember last year when they was beefing and we … ."
This conversation is shushed.
A boy in a khaki suit says that, although Germantown High School transferred out many of the students suspected to be involved, the situation in the neighborhood has reached a point where the question "Where are you from?" is a threat.
"I was at a party in North Philly the other day," he says. "And this guy came up to me and he was like ... ." The boy lowers his voice, imitating the guy at the party. "Where you from?"
No one seems to know the right answer to this question.
"Say you're from California," suggests one girl.
The boy in the khaki suit makes the most popular suggestion.
"If you love yourself," he says, "run."
These are some of the laments of the earlier generation of Philadelphia gangsters about the recent use of their gang names in neighborhood feuds:
"These young people today don't have any respect because they don't know the story." -- Steve Hawkins, a former member of the Hub gang in "the Bottom" section of West Philadelphia in the '70s
"They've revived the names of folks that's retired. " We need to dispel these myths of us being so bad. That wasn't us. Somebody told them that was us."—David Fattah, a former gang member, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah's father, and a community activist credited for negotiating gang cease-fires in the '70s
"This is much worse. Back in the '70s, it was controlled, we had leaders. " These cats don't have none of that." -- Jamaal Bell, a former gang member from West Philadelphia
These men believe their legacy has been co-opted. In the '70s, gangs had structure. "You had peewees, young boys, squidgets, midgets, juniors and seniors," Steve Hawkins says, like a kid reciting state capitals. Leaders were called warlords or runners. Old heads (adult men who had become "noncombatants") sat in the background and offered advice, such as "go get them."
"You had to report to the corner at a certain time. It was mandatory," says Malik Hanford, a Dogtown alumnus with enormous, crushing hands. You did not disobey your superiors—the inner workings of the gangs were almost ritualistic. Even the interactions between gangs were rigidly organized. Hawkins recalls riding a trolley through other gangs' territory to get to school and having people get on to ask him where he was from. Gangs owned every neighborhood in the city—and they had a system that everyone understood.
The men seem to enjoy recalling their gang days, but when they discuss today's youth, their moods turn somber. The adults see the new groups as something alien, a mutant.
There is a serious generation gap here; young people see the groups as natural. "They scared," says the girl in the pink jacket of her elders, "because they don't see what we see."
But the new Philly groups also don't resemble gangs from other cities. They don't have colors, they have kept Philly neighborhood names, and again, they lack structure. It is because these groups don't mimic other models that some people have been reluctant to call them "gangs."
These groups may not be gangs, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be taken seriously. Today's situation is in some ways better and in some ways worse than traditional gangs. It's better, of course, because the number of people involved is much smaller. In the '70s, Philly led the nation in gang-related deaths at around 40 a year. The new groups are causing far fewer deaths—but they are relatively new. It's also better because the gangs' lack of organization makes them less powerful.
Philly's current situation is worse because the violence is less controlled.
"In the '70s, if a cat done something to you," says ex-gang member Jamaal Bell, "you came back to the corner with it, and it would be weighed out. Your leader might say, that ain't worth this, or this ain't worth that. Or he could contact the other party and say, "Let them get a fair one' [a one-on-one fistfight]."
Not today. Today, there are no gang leaders to squash beefs, and the beefs turn into rumbles.
And these days, kids bring guns to rumbles.
Some of the former gangsters believe that today's youth are too quick to turn to guns. "Kids today don't care about boxing skills," says one former gangster.
This is not quite right. It would be more accurate to say that they care too much. Fistfights occur all the time, but "no one can accept losing a fistfight anymore," says Goldman, the assistant district attorney. Now, if you lose a fight, the only way to salvage your pride is to go get a gun. We're talking about teenagers here—kids who have just gone through puberty, are unsure of themselves and can't accept being "disrespected," as Goldman says. At some point, deadly weapons became an option for saving face.
The Germantown students confirm this. "Let's say we sit here, and I beat you up," says the senior in the white polo as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "You still mad. So now you want to come back and get me."
Nihilism is the new tough. And for this development, many people finger hip-hop. "The music is their value system," says PAAN's Hall. In hip-hop, there is no honor in fighting and losing, and there's no honor in squashing a beef. The only honor is in putting your life on the line for your crew. Philadelphia youth are combining this value system with their neighborhood legacy to create what we see in Philly today.
Some people call this a gang resurgence, and some don't.
It's hard to distinguish between a group of friends who stick up for each other, a gang and a drug outfit. Goldman defines a gang as a group that "organizes around violence against outsiders and calls themselves something." Philadelphia has those. David Olmo of the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia calls it "a brotherhood [that] considers themselves friends for life, and no one can become a part of them unless they're voted in. " They have colors and territory." Philadelphia doesn't have those.
But almost everyone seems to agree that Philadelphia has a new problem. Kids seem to have found a new reason to kill other kids: group rivalry. "I would say," says Goldman, "that now is a critical time to evaluate this."
"It's been about the past year," says the student informant of how long these new gangs have been around.
The students at Germantown agree—the groups seem to have re-emerged in the past year or two and been strengthening ever since. But the students say they have no idea why this might be happening now.
Philly gangs cooled down in the '80s because of drugs, prison and community involvement. Drugs may have been the strongest factor. In the '80s, crack flooded the streets. It was highly addictive and highly profitable. A lot of gang members became either dealers or addicts, and as a result, their loyalties to their gangs slipped away. "When crack-cocaine came on the scene," says ex-Dogtown member Hanford, "I seen enemies together, making money. Crack-cocaine was so much money, so fast, that it just overwhelmed the other stuff."
Community intervention played a role, some say, because adults stepped in with successful cease-fire campaigns like "No Gang War in '74."
Gang names may be re-emerging now for the same reasons. Malik Aziz believes that the drug trade, which is still by far the largest criminal problem in the city, may now be finding use for gangs. Safe Streets, he says, pushed drug dealers off of corners and into buildings, so now those dealers need a way to protect their turf from more brash dealers who might move in. They use a gang premise—"You need to protect this neighborhood from outsiders"—to motivate younger people to chase away competitors. Think of a dictator stirring up nationalism to preserve his own power.
Inspector Joseph Sullivan, the city's top drug cop, says, "I think that does make some sense. That would be consistent with the manner in which drug dealers operate. They'll exploit you by appealing to neighborhood pride." But he also points out that drug dealers already exploited younger people for their own purposes, using them as lookouts and go-betweens. And most students say the beefs between these groups don't have much to do with drugs.
Prisons may be playing a role, too, because many gang members were incarcerated. On a recent season of The Sopranos, the Soprano gang had to deal with "the class of 2004"—the mob members being released from prison at the same time. Aziz suggests that this same phenomenon may be happening in Philadelphia now. Gang culture never went away in prison, and some of those "old heads" could be coming out, returning to the neighborhood, and putting ideas into young heads.
It may also be that today's kids are just the children of people who were gang members 20 years ago and they've heard the names from their fathers. But young people don't say they heard the gang names of old from "my father" or "some old head." They say that the names have just always been there, a part of communal memory.
Finally, people point to the breakdown of the community's ability to "own" the streets. "In our day, if a grandma came out to the corner with a baseball bat and said, "You not gonna fight here,' we left," says one former gang member. "These kids today would probably snatch the bat."
"There was a time it seemed that young people didn't commit the same predatory crimes against adults. There's almost a disrespect of being older," says Goldman.
On the other hand, communities have been struggling to take neighborhoods from drug dealers for years, so this isn't a new development, either.
The truth is, any number of things could have set off the cliquing that we're seeing today. But it's clear that what's keeping it going is the snowball effect of peer pressure. Somewhere along the line, Philly kids started belonging to cliques and fighting for them. Now, kids who want to avoid violence need to buck a trend—a notoriously difficult thing for adolescents to do.
A period has just ended at Martin Luther King, and the halls are growing noisy. The student informant is in the middle of explaining how he avoids conflicts and, thereby, prison.
The Germantown students didn't have a clear answer about how to do that. You would think that this former gang member would have an especially hard time. But he just looks at the floor, shrugs and mutters,
"That's why I always be by myself."
Just by looking into this young man's eyes, you can tell that he is a person who grew up quickly. His brave face seems to be permanently put on. But making this statement reveals a moment of uncharacteristic softness: Here is a teenager who doesn't have friends. He is profoundly sad. And from society's perspective, he is a success story. He overcame peer pressure, which is now imposed at the barrel of a gun.
The young man rises to leave. He hasn't named any names, including his own, but just the perception that he might have been snitching has him on edge. On the way out of the library, he circles a table, biding his time, and walks out the door alone, allowing himself to be absorbed quickly into the hallway crowd.