The Fear Is Real Enough. The Gangs Are Another Story.

February 15, 1998

The Fear Is Real Enough. The Gangs Are Another Story.

NEW YORK — As if New Yorkers do not have enough to fear. Now it’s fear itself.

The city has lived through the Son of Sam murders, Colin Ferguson’s killing spree on the Long Island railroad and the deaths of innocent bystanders in the drug wars of the 1980s.

With a spate of slashings on subways, streets and schoolyards and random shootings, many New Yorkers are afraid that gang warfare, especially the brutal kind waged by the black gangs of Los Angeles, is the newest crime wave.

At a Harlem pool hall last fall, spray-painted graffiti hailed the Crips. The police say most of the gang members were arrested.

Credit: William Lopez for The New York Times

New York joins other cities with similar fears: Milwaukee, Cleveland and Seattle, among other cities, experienced gang hysteria in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

New York’s latest incident involved the recent killing of a 50-year-old Latvian immigrant in Brooklyn by a member of a teen-age gang calling itself the Bloods, after the notorious Los Angeles group. The victim was robbed of $2 and shot, police said.

Last year, reacting to widespread rumors that the New York City Bloods would be out randomly slashing people in a rite of initiation, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren stayed home on Halloween.

But police officials, sociologists and gang experts say there is no real gang presence in the city, nothing serious enough to keep a child out of school or an adult from riding the subway. They say that the recent crimes are those of gang wannabees, who are active in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

J.D. LaRock, a spokesman for the Board of Education, said that given all the news coverage of the perceived gang problem, “some administrators felt that it might be growing within their schools.” But, he added, “Based on the evidence we have compiled, that does not seem to be the case.”

Perception Problems

So why the disproportionate reaction? Why are New Yorkers so quick to embrace the notion of gangs despite statistics showing that crime has dropped sharply in the ’90s?

Part of the problem is sheer atmospherics. Teen-agers themselves contribute to the perception of gangs. They call their cliques “posses” and “crews” and wear clothes that reflect a prison sensibility.

Another part of the problem is that New Yorkers have a fear of random crime.

“The probability of being attacked randomly is very small,” New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir said recently. “Last year, 81 percent of the murders in the city were committed by people who knew each other.”

The Police Department has anti-gang intelligence officers and suppression units operating in all five boroughs, the commissioner said, adding that there were fewer than 3,000 gang members in the city. The Latin Kings, a well-known gang, have been all but immobilized, he said, and virtually all the members of the Harlem-based Crips gang were arrested several months ago.

Several years ago, when urban gang unrest was at its height, the National Institute of Justice studied the spread of groups outside Los Angeles and Chicago and discovered that subsets extended only about 60 miles from each city and died out quickly. The chances of specific gangs leapfrogging to cities on the opposite coast is unlikely.

Unorganized Crime

We in New York understand that the algorithm of this city produces some very bizarre and dangerous people who have made it into the pantheon of famous criminals,” said Dr. N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist at John J. College of Criminal Justice. “But none of them have ever worked in concert. We haven’t had to really be concerned about the notion of kids organizing into larger gangs whose initiation rites may include random acts of violence.”

New Yorkers’ fear, too, may be the result of disproportionate media attention on crime at a time when it is at an all-time low, said Malcolm Klein, a sociology professor who is the director of the Social Science Research Institute of Southern California and author of “The American Street Gang” (Oxford University Press, 1995).

If there has been any gang activity in the city, it originated in prisons a few years ago. The New York City Bloods — not related to the Los Angeles group — organized themselves as a result of the racial tensions in prison, said Jeffrey Fagan, who directs Columbia University’s Center for Violence Research and Prevention. Outside of prison, they continued to call themselves Bloods. Their numbers, though, are negligible, the police say.

Thanks to gangster rap, the culture of the incarcerated from a black perspective has spread throughout poor neighborhoods, shown in the wearing of stocking caps and oversized pants or the carrying of weapons like box cutters and razors.

But at the same time that Brooklyn’s own Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. became national icons for violence, the city’s crime rate — and the nation’s — dropped. The crack epidemic, and its concomitant shootings and deaths, also ebbed. The teen-agers who grew up amid these very real dangers continue to arm themselves.

“There’s a vacuum in New York City with the shrinking of the drug trade,” Fagan said. “These frightened youths were raised during the homicide epidemic when kids were shooting one another.”

High Anxiety

Berrill, whose private practice treats the victims of violence and criminals, said the reaction to the gang threat was a conditioned response. “New Yorkers are no longer looking for the mugger or the ambulatory killer,” he said. “Now, they’re looking out for every kid who may have something to prove through some deviant aggressive act. That’s what makes people the most anxious of all, when their normal routine is interrupted by new threats.”

The reaction last Halloween recalled 1989, when a gang known as the Decepticons terrorized teen-agers in the city. Though the existence of the gang, which was named for menacing robots in a television cartoon show, was never verified, the resulting hysteria was real enough.

“The arrival of the Bloods and the Crips in New York City is overplayed the same way the Decepticons were overplayed, the same way the danger of comic books was overplayed and the same way that the threat of gangster rap was overplayed,” said the Rev. Michael Eric Dyson, a Columbia University professor of African-American studies and the author of “Race Rules” (Addison-Wesley, 1996), which addresses the pathology of gangs.

“As long as young people feel there is no way to make money legally, there will always be gangs. In the same sense, paranoia about what these youths are up to will always be out of proportion to reality.”

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