Several years ago, after a three year stay in Ghana, West Africa, I was invited to speak at a major university in St. Louis, Missouri. It was to discuss African culture as it relates to blacks in America.
While there, I discovered that a lot had changed in the country of my birth. This was the post civil-rights period when blacks were taking advantage of the various legislation and laws that in some instances removed barriers to where they could live, eat, work and attend school.
Some blacks, however, took another route and became what some sociologists called a part of an inner city’s “underclass.” Some in this so-called underclass formed gangs that were truly fearsome.
They terrorized the neighborhoods in which they operated. I discovered how dangerous they could be when, on the final day of my visit, the media reported a grieving mother receiving the finger of her son left at her door. The son had been kidnapped by local gang members in the area.
What is a “gang?”
If you are a research-type of person, the National Crime Council states that “a gang is a group of people who share a common purpose; engage in criminal activity like drug dealing, graffiti and violence; and often have a common name, symbol or color. Young people of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds participate in gangs. Although the majority of gang members are male, female gang involvement continues to increase. Gang members participate in delinquent and criminal activities such as graffiti, property crimes, gun violence and drug trafficking” (website for National Crime Council is : www.ncpc.org).
Since my first introduction to gangs in St. Louis, I now understand why gangs exist and survive even under the most diligent attempts to squash them. Travel to any state in the country and you will find loose knit groups of individuals — gangs — who have formed a kindred spirit with others engaged in illegal enterprises.
These illegal enterprises such as drug trafficking and other associated activities that involve concomitant violence have become a danger to all Americans. It is safe to say that America is actually under siege due in part to gang-related activity.
It all starts with the family. At no time in history has the family been so unstable. Available research indicates that for every marriage that takes place in America there is a corresponding divorce that is taking place at the same time.
The family as we knew it has changed dramatically and these changes appear to be irreversible. Single parenting over the past 20 years has almost become the norm in the United States. Too often the children living with a single parent — especially in an inner city or small rural town — are tormented, realizing that the reality for them, unless they take their destiny into their own hands, will remain unchanged.
They understand at an early age, living under such austere conditions, that they are going nowhere fast. They see people who look like them in the media who are super rich and successful — actors, athletes and rappers for the most part.
Without a positive role model in their lives, too often they find kinships with others who believe that there is a quicker but illegal path to fame and fortune. They want the mansions, the fine cars and people around them who will acknowledge their material successes, even if illegally obtained.
The appeal of obtaining money fast can be overwhelming for children. We live in a society that advocates immediate gratification at any expense.
Gangs are involved in drugs and other criminal activities that give children opportunities to get money quickly. Research on gangs validates that low self-esteem, emotional problems, trauma history, low parental monitoring, friends who engage in risky behavior — e.g., skipping school, selling drugs, having sex — housing instability and poor neighborhood quality all contribute to a higher likelihood of children being involved in a gang.
No one is immune, white or black, from the allure of gangs. As parents, teachers, school administrators, law enforcement and mentors, it’s important we have as much insight as possible to understand why young people today might be interested in joining gangs so we can be better equipped to speak to our children.
Parents should be involved in coordinating and sponsoring activities for their children. More activities and parental involvement will decrease the strength a gang has in the neighborhood.
Parents should form community groups that are willing to supervise children’s activities. It is also important to know where your child is at all times. Make them accountable for their time and actions.
The LaGrange Police Department, under Chief Louis Dekmar, has taken a proactive stance in the community by realizing that LaGrange does, in fact, have a gang problem. Work with the chief to ensure that gang members understand that they will not be able to operate freely in the city without regard for the rights of others.
Remember, gangs will continue harassing and threatening the community until you put a stop to it.
Only the community can force gang members to Get-A-New-Gig. Did you get it?
Glenn Dowell is an author and LaGrange native who currently lives in Jonesboro. He may be reached at [email protected]