Part 1 of 2
By BRANDON A. PERRY
Drug and property crimes related to the recession have taken center stage, and it seems less media coverage has been given to gang activity.
Just a decade ago many thought it was cool to be a gangster. The hardcore street thug was romanticized just as much as the American cowboy, athlete and Buffalo Soldier.
It was easy to find teens and young adults walking the streets of Indianapolis with red or blue handkerchiefs in their pockets, and baseball caps cocked to the left or right to signify their support for a gang.
“Now you don’t see all those folks standing on corners wearing gang colors and marking their territory with graffiti,” said Deputy Mayor Olgen Williams. “It’s just not as hip and prominent as it was back then.”
Even a majority of hip-hop songs are no longer glorifying the violent competition and thug lifestyle associated with gangs, and are instead promoting the millionaire “big baller, shot caller” lifestyle of mansions, fast cars and fast women.
Many observers believe “gangsta’ rap” lost popularity with the violent deaths of rappers Tupac Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace in the 1990s.
Since then the primary focus of crime in Indianapolis has gradually shifted from concerns about people being hurt by gang rivalries, to anxiety over drug-related crimes, domestic violence and armed robberies.
“Our biggest obstacle is not just gangs, but criminal behavior,” added Williams. “Most of the violence we see in the city is not caused by gangs, but drug trafficking. Yes, some people selling drugs are involved with gangs, but not all of them. Most are operating as individuals instead of with a criminal organization.”
Both Williams and Minister Malachi Walker believe that a majority of local gangs are now composed of “wannabees,” or people who want to mimic the attitude of powerful gangsters, but are not active in serious crimes.
“They aren’t really part of a traditional gang, they’re just showing out,” said Walker, president of Young Men Inc., a youth development organization. “Many of the real gangsters that had violent street wars are gone. They are either locked up or dead. The new gang members are protecting themselves and each other, but are usually not looking for trouble because they don’t want to deal with the consequences of certain crimes.”
Still, Walker and Williams were quick to say that no one should be under the illusion that gangs are no longer a serious threat.
According to the Safe Streets Gang Task Force of Indianapolis, police identified at least 20 different local street gangs between 2003 and 2006. Approximately 3,000 individuals were estimated to be affiliated with those gangs, and police have arrested over 700 of them for various offenses.
The Safe Streets Gang Task Force is a joint initiative operated by both local and federal law enforcement agencies, including the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD), the Marion County Sheriffs Department and the FBI.
The goal of the task force is to indentify trends that lead to the creation of gangs, and gather intelligence needed to disable a gang with the arrest of its members.
“Most arrests are for criminal activities such as robbery, burglary and battery ,” said Deputy Police Chief Roger Waggoner.
Task forces have also been set up in other municipalities throughout the state, especially those that have witnessed an increase in gang violence such as Evansville, Fort Wayne, Merrillville and Lafayette.
Organized crime and gangs are actually not new to Indianapolis. Their presence here dates back to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s, when associates of Al Capone and other Chicago mobsters smuggled bootleg liquor through the city.
Today, gangs can be involved with anything from stealing cars and selling stolen items, to illegal gambling operations and distributing drugs.
Nearly 20 years ago, prominent gangs were established such as the Ghetto Boys, Folk Nation, People Nation and New Breed. The city’s most horrific gangland shooting occurred in October 1993, when a 16-year-old-girl was killed and a seven-year-old boy was permanently injured after the Ghetto Boys sprayed machine gun fire into an apartment at the Blackburn Terrace complex where they expected to find a man who had stolen cocaine from them.
Several members of the gang were later arrested and charged with the crime.
In the same time frame, gang leaders set up chapters of Chicago-based outfits such as the Gangster Disciples and the Vice-Lords. Other thugs were inspired by gangs from Los Angeles like the Bloods and Crips.
Current alleged Indianapolis gangs include Code Rode, the Ridin’ Boys and the Wretched Boys. Police have also identified several groups in the city’s growing Latino community who were inspired by Latin gangs from the West Coast and Florida.
“There’s no doubt the gangs are still here,” said Minister Byron Alston, director of Save the Youth, an organization that reaches out to young people at risk for criminal activity. “They are ‘off the chain’ now. Go to the schools and ask the kids and you’ll find them.”
Williams agreed, saying gangs are definitely still in existence, but many of them are just conducting themselves in a quieter manner and are avoiding the bold displays of gang colors and elaborate handshakes that make them easy to recognize among police.
“They are a little smarter and slicker about how they get things done,” said Williams, who worked extensively with youth as director of Christamore House, a community service organization on the city’s Westside.
“They’re out there; all you have to do is check out the Internet, and you’ll see them communicating on MySpace and Facebook,” he continued. “All of us, including the police, the schools and the community really need to stay on top of that.”
Next week: The Recorder speaks to youth about gang activity and presents solutions.
Note: If you have witnessed or suspect any gang activity in your neighborhood call the Safe Streets Gang Task Force at (317) 327-6631.