Cults of Violence
Is it desperation, broken families or socio-economic
imbalance that has created this sub-culture?
BY BRIAN ERVIN
"You say you a gansta, but you neva pop nothin'; We say you a wanksta, and you need to stop frontin'; You go to the dealership, but you neva cop nothin'; You been hustlin' a long time, and you ain't got nothin,'" read the lyrics to "Wanksta," by rapper Curtis James Jackson III, a.k.a. "50 Cent."
As Sgt. Van Ellis, head of the Tulsa Police Gang Unit, tells it, this sample of musical artistry is a pretty accurate summation of gang culture in all its naked absurdity: the "gangsta"-image is exalted to pop icon status by the likes of Fit'y Cent, the late Tupac and other rap and hip-hop artists, so it's cool for kids to dress the part, talk the part and act the part of "ganstas."
For the mere poseurs, though, who have no shootings, thefts, drug transactions, acts of idiotic brutality or other depravities to show for their bravado, the celebrities they look up to, like Fit'y, tell them via their music to stop playing make-believe by being "wankstas" ("wannabe gangstas"), because only real gangstas are worthy of respect.
"Thanks to Hollywood and the music industry, they've made that stuff fashionable and glorified it and made it mainstream," Ellis lamented during a recent interview with UTW.
And with the glamour of evil packaged and sold as something to aspire to, a life of crime becomes much more appealing to kids living in inner cities, raised by single parents on low incomes, where crime is rampant and other opportunities seem to be few and far between.
Ellis said, in such an environment, the quick path to respect, money and power offered by the glamorized life of crime depicted in "Gangsta Rap" and other media seduces many into playing the part, and then actually living the part by eventually joining a gang and participating in its drug trade and other parasitic enterprises.
"It's all about the green: selling dope, stealing cars . . . ," he said.
Once a person is in that world, then the posturing typified in the music becomes a matter of survival.
For instance, if a rival gang steals one's money or drugs, or opens fire at him and fellow gang-bangers, he obviously can't ask for the protection of local law enforcement.
"The Law of the Jungle is, 'what happens in the street stays on the street,'" Ellis said.
To survive in that world, Lex Talionis is the rule.
"If you don't do something about it, you're a '+*+%%,' you're a 'punk,'" recounted Ellis from his countless run-ins with members of Tulsa's street gangs.
Hence the violence that characterizes gang life, which erupted most recently in Tulsa back in March when two self-styled rival gangstas opened fire at each other from opposite sides of a crowd of up to 200 people at Crawford Park in north Tulsa.
Since their bravado and their gullible fascination into the mystique of gang life was apparently their only preparation for such a contest, neither shooter was competent enough to hit the other "gansta,'" but they did manage to shoot 12 innocent bystanders in their efforts to maintain their "street-cred."
No one died, but the next crowd of bystanders might not be so lucky, Ellis said, since both shooters are still at large.
"It's extremely fortunate that we didn't have six or eight dead people from that shooting," he noted.
The case is still open, so the crime fighter couldn't divulge too many details about the Crawford Park shooting, but said police have "significant leads" and they know for certain that it was gang-related.
The investigation has been slow going, though, due to lack of cooperation from eyewitnesses, he said.
In lemming-like fashion, many witnesses to the shooting have apparently bought into the "Stop Snitchin'" campaign, Ellis said, which belittles and threatens reprisals for those who cooperate with law enforcement.
"They've lost the concept of being a good citizen and reporting crimes like this so we can stop them in the future," he said. "It's more unacceptable for them to talk to the police than it is to live in fear and have stuff like this happening in their neighborhoods."
The "Stop Snitchin'" campaign is one aspect of the gang culture insinuating itself across the nation, and has been propagated through numerous T-shirts displaying the slogan, several rap and hip-hop songs with lyrics promising violence to "snitches," as well as an eponymous DVD in which self-identified drug dealers warn against reporting their misdeeds to authorities.
The "Lemmings against Law Enforcement" movement (we at UTW just coined that, so send your checks here if you make T-Shirts) is part of the United States' overarching gang culture, but Ellis said each metropolitan area has its own distinct brand of gang culture, which is invariably patterned off of one of the three major gang cultures centered in the nation's cultural capitals of Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago.
Tulsa's particular flavor of organized thuggery apes the L.A. gang culture, with countless self-named imitators of the Calif.-based "107 Hoover Crips" gang running around, among numerous others.
Ellis said Tulsa's present gang culture has its roots in the mid-1980s when California's crack-cocaine market grew to saturation and metastasized into Oklahoma.
Once the drug trade took root in Tulsa, so did the criminal infrastructure surrounding it, he explained.
"What I believe happened in Tulsa was that the spread of gang culture here was the by-product of the spread of the drug culture," he said.
However, the Crips, Bloods and other hoodlums who transplanted to Tulsa didn't maintain hierarchical or operational relations to their former "homies," so today's gangs have no actual ties to the L.A. gangs they emulate.
"The majority of gang members are home-grown, native-to-Tulsa people," he said Ellis. "Most of these guys haven't even been out of Tulsa before in their lives."
Their identification with West Coast gangs comes partly from Tulsa's initial colonization by California drug peddlers, and partly from the entertainment industry peddling the lifestyle through movies and rap and hip-hop music, Ellis said.
There are now hundreds of gangs and thousands of gang members in Tulsa.
Since the early 1990s when TPD started collecting data on gangs, Ellis said his unit has counted approximately 4,800 people who have made up Tulsa's gang population.
The exact number is "kind of fluid," Ellis said, but he estimates that there are 130-160 gangs in existence at any given time, and about 1,700-1,800 people claiming membership in them at any given time.
Their criminal enterprises are centered on the sale of crack and marijuana, while some of the outlaw biker gangs (which don't make up the majority of Tulsa's gang population) deal in crystal methamphetamines.
Along with the drug trade, Ellis said, there are also numerous supporting industries, like arms dealing and car theft (which are more often used for drive-by shootings and then abandoned than they are for stripping or selling).
And with those operations come the bloodshed and social pestilence that characterize gang life.
Perception vs. Reality-based Policing
"Gang crime" is somewhat of a nebulous term, Ellis said, since it's hard to define what constitutes a clear-cut "gang-related crime" as opposed to a crime that is "demonstrative of the lifestyle," but he estimates that almost 30 percent of all crime that goes on in the City of Tulsa is perpetrated by gang members.
Ellis said "tons of shooting cases are still open," so he couldn't provide a precise figure for how many of this year's murders were the result of gang violence, but he estimated that up to 15 percent of all murders and violent crime in Tulsa are directly gang-related.
When asked where they usually operate and congregate, the lawman said, "They're spread throughout the city; there's a higher concentration in the northern area, but we document and chase and investigate them throughout the Tulsa area."
Tulsa's level of gang activity, he said, is typical for a Midwestern city of its size, such as Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Kansas City, Albuquerque or Ft. Worth.
The largest gang in Tulsa is the self-styled "107 Hoover Crips," with numerous cells of about 12-20 people applying some variation of the original L.A. gang's name to themselves.
"Some call themselves the '107 Hoover Crips' after the Crips from the neighborhood at 107th and Hoover St. in L.A., but some are smart enough to know the name comes from a neighborhood, so they might drop the '107' and call themselves the '57th Street Hoover Crips,'" said Ellis.
And then there are the "54 Hoover Crips," the "6-Tres Hoover Crips," and then the "747 Bounty Hunters" and myriad variations on the "Bloods," the "Red Mob Gangsters," the "Gangster Disciples" and the "Pirus," among others.
While their gang-monikers are borrowed from the West Coast prototypes, Tulsa's gangs have at least managed to be original in their development of rivalries.
While the Crips and the Bloods are the traditional archrivals within the L.A. gang scene, and Tulsa has its own infestation of Crips and Bloods copycats, Ellis said the biggest rivalry in Tulsa is between the numerous self-styled cells of "Hoover Crips" and the "Neighborhood Crips."
"There's been a long history of violence between these two groups," he said. "They don't know why they hate each other, but there have been several murders between them, fueling a 'Hatfield and McCoy's'-type feud over the years."
While the arbitrary faux-L.A. gang labels apparently have life-and-death significance for their bearers, Ellis said law enforcement agencies and the media should avoid lending them the same weight.
A balance has to be maintained between image and reality, he said, by recognizing Tulsa's gang problem for what it is on one hand and, on the other, not empowering the gangs themselves by lending credibility to their self-applied labels and customs.
For instance, when gang members posture and pose as people to be feared and respected, applying names to themselves like "107 Hoover Crips" for the purpose of invoking the reputation and notoriety of the original L.A. gang, if police and news reporters also apply those labels, they risk validating the culture and the image the gangs are trying to establish for themselves.
Ellis compared it to giving recognition to a rogue nation or government that doesn't rate the status of a legitimate political entity, deserving instead to be dealt with by the international community as a collection of criminals unjustly claiming power for themselves at the point of a gun.
"It's potentially a mistake to deal with gangs as an organization," he said. "You don't want to empower criminal street gangs by unintentionally legitimizing them--they need to be dealt with as individuals."
Otherwise, Ellis explained, law enforcement and news providers risk joining the likes of "Gangsta' Rap" purveyors in glamorizing gang life by affording street criminals the fear and reputation they're after, which they use as currency on the street.
He pointed to past examples in other big cities in which city officials took the unfortunate step of negotiating truces with gang leaders in attempts to curb their violence, which only made them more powerful in the eyes of their followers and gave them the prestige that made gang life so deceptively appealing to the underprivileged and vulnerable.
However, it's also possible to go too far in avoiding acknowledgment of the fact of gang activity.
Long-time Tulsa residents might remember in the late 1980s when then-Police Chief Drew Diamond went to what many considered to be the opposite extreme of not recognizing the existence of gangs at all, lest he appear to validate their self-applied status.
When local news channels reported on shooting deaths in terms of "gang violence," and then Diamond resolutely denied that gangs were operating in Tulsa, it had much the same effect as in the movie "Batman" when the police declared "There is no giant bat in Gotham City," while a disabled hoodlum was carried on a stretcher in the background, muttering about having been thrashed by "the Bat": it only fueled the mystique of the phenomenon, catapulting it into "urban legend" status.
Tulsa's gang problem got official recognition with the formation of the joint TPD-Tulsa County Sheriff's Office gang unit in the early 1990s, which cooperates with federal agencies to investigate drug trafficking, violent crime and other misdeeds typically associated with gang activity.
Ellis said the unit currently has 13 sworn officers--"As big as we've ever been," he said.
He said they typically handle 100-125 cases a year, tracking down the career criminals who are often the gangs' ringleaders and recruiters.
Their biggest victory yet, Ellis said, was a three-year case that culminated in 2002 and 2003 with the federal indictment of career criminal Michael Summers and 12 other members of Tulsa's Hoover Crips-brand of misanthropes, with convictions under to the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act for charges of murder, drug trafficking, witness intimidation and others.
While Ellis and his colleagues have an impressive share of successes under their belts, he said, "The numbers are really counting our failures--what we don't know is what we've prevented."
He hopes that by going after career, repeat offense criminals, they've prevented untold numbers of murders, shootings and other acts of violence in the future.
However, Ellis said law enforcement is only one front on which the war on gangs is being fought, and others are fighting as hard as he is to prevent at-risk youth from joining gangs in the first place.
Monroe Nichols of Mayor Kathy Taylor's office told UTW that the city collaborates with various private organizations to operate a number of gang-prevention programs throughout the city.
"The Mayor has done a lot of research and reading on the importance of after-school programs," he said, noting Taylor's recent appointment to the Oklahoma Youth and Gang Violence Coordinating Council after convening the "Building a Safer Tulsa" gang summit last year.
Some of the gang prevention programs Nichols mentioned include mentoring programs in which students receive additional tutoring to bolster what they receive during the school day.
"If you're excelling in school, you're not going to be as vulnerable to getting recruited into a gang," he said.
He explained that many young people join gangs because they don't see other opportunities, so focusing on academic achievement and on extracurricular activities is an effective gang-prevention tool.
Also, the Boy Scouts have a program in which members invite peers and classmates who are siblings of known gang-members in an effort to provide alternatives to following the same path.
There are also programs designed to "separate fiction from fact," Nichols said, in which the life of violence glorified in "Gangsta' Rap" and other media is shown for what it really is.
For instance, he recounted a February meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council in which a gang prevention officer showed a gathering of about 400 young people photographs of people after having been felled by gang-related violence, as well as reading the names of the maimed, mutilated and/or murdered gunshot victims.
"It was chilling to see how many people knew someone up there who had been shot," said Nichols.