How the ‘war on gangs’ feeds mass incarceration  

Recent New York City action. Photo: George Joseph on Twitter.

When Grammy nominated rapper Nipsey Hussle was mowed down in March, Kerry Lathan, who just happened to be in Hussle’s south Los Angeles clothing store to pick up a tee shirt, was also shot. Days later, the seriously wounded Lathan was arrested.  Lathan, who was on parole, was accused of  having violated parole for socializing with a known gang member—Nipsey Hussle.

Hussle was lauded as an example of transformation out of the gang world. He was celebrated for his entrepreneurial and philanthropic work. A street was named after him and his extensive charity work in south Los Angeles has been entered into the Congressional Record. Yet to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Hussle was still a member of the Rollin 60’s Crip gang of his youth. Merely to stand next to him brought guilt by association.

Police ‘war on gangs’ is a war on whole communities

The arrest of Lathan is only unusual because the alleged gang member he associated with was a celebrity. Black and Latino youth are arrested every day on changes of “gang association” that are just as shaky.

From the White House to the local jail house, officials claim the coordinated “war on gangs” is meant to protect people and reduce crime.  This is not the case. The “war on gangs” is really a law enforcement initiative of large scale, racist policing that feeds mass incarceration. Tools like gang databases and gang raids are used across the country to prosecute large groups of youth, many with no gang affiliation.

Police label social behaviors and neighborhoods “gang related,” then arrest and over-charge youth for low level criminal activities. These youth face harsher charges and longer sentences due to the additional gang conspiracy charges, and become stuck in the criminal justice system. When they are released, they are still vulnerable to re-arrest and surveillance based on their past “gang” affiliation.

This unjust “war on gangs” negatively impacts individuals, families and communities long after sentences have been served. It is a  form of social control, and an obstacle to community organizing.

Gang database used for racist vilification

At the same time, the corporate media routinely uses gang affiliation to paint people as inherently criminal and guilty of any alleged crimes.

President Trump has referred to gang members as” animals.”  This was an attempt to label South American immigrants as dangerous gang members, and gain support for his racist immigration policies. Studies show that immigrants are less likely to engage in criminal behavior than U.S. born citizens. In 2010, U.S.-born men age 18-39 with less education had an incarceration rate of 10.7 percent–more than triple the 2.8 percent rate among foreign-born Mexican men, and five times greater than the 1.7 percent rate among foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men.

What is a gang?

The word “gang” covers a wide range of groups. For example, in the 1920s, when Black residents in Los Angeles challenged racist and restrictive practices in housing, education, and employment, they were physically attacked by racists.  Black social street clubs were formed aimed at protecting Black youths from persistent white violence directed at the Black community.

Poverty and social marginalization led to the formation of gangs like Nipsey Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Crips in Los Angeles and other cities in the 1970s.  These provided socialization for youth who grew up in the same neighborhood and faced the same social challenges. Many would turn to criminal activity to combat the economic inequality they faced. This often led to violent, harmful acts against members of their own communities. A recent example is the killing last year of 15-year-old Lesandro ‘Junior’ Guzman-Feliz, in a case of mistaken identity during a vendetta between two rival Bronx, NY gangs.

These acts of violence and harm should not be minimized and should be condemned. However, the state’s “war on gangs” neither reduces the harm gangs cause in communities nor addresses the lack of housing, education and jobs that cause gangs to form and operate.

Los Angeles gang database misused, full of errors

Gang databases are lists of people thought to be involved in gangs. Usually, only law enforcement officials have access to the names on the database. Civilians often find out they are on the database after they have been charged with a crime the cops claim is linked to gang activity.

Lack of transparency leads to many errors. In 2016, California’s gang database, Calgang, was found to be misused and full of errors. There were children as young as 1 year old on the list, and no one was ever taken off the list.

Even more disturbing, a recent suit revealed that since the 1990s, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which has access to the database, itself  has been riddled with “violent, gang-like groups” of deputies who enact violence in the communities they allegedly “serve,” among other gang activity.

Texas gang list leaves youth ‘isolated from community and friends’

The Texas Gang Intelligence Index lists 100,000 supposed gang members, whose names are only available to law enforcement. While the majority of gang members listed are of Mexican descent, the database can be used to entrap anyone.

In 2007 Steven Powers, who identifies as white, was 15 years old when he was arrested on organized crime charges. Powers grew up in a poor, predominantly Mexican American neighborhood, where gangs were an organic grouping of the neighborhood youth. He was unaware that the Texas Gang Unit had been surveilling him and his childhood friends, and that he had been put on the gang database.

Powers was granted parole when released. He told this reporter that a stipulation of his parole was not associating with gang members or felons, effectively isolating Powers from his community and childhood friends.

Even after parole was terminated, Powers was cautioned to stay away from his friends and neighbors. If seen around an alleged gang member, he risked re-arrest. If re-arrested or accused of any crime, Powers’ past gang prosecution would strengthen any case against him.

About the database, Powers said, “I feel it is used in a wanton and opportunistic way because they don’t need a lot of evidence. You don’t have to be affiliated with gangs. If they can establish that we were talking together they can allege premeditation. They use the gang database as a wide net to trap people in the criminal justice system for social control and leverage.”

Powers’ story is not uncommon for youth around the country.

NYC list  used to ‘devastate communities of color’

The New York Police Department gang database list is also only available to the police and prosecutors. The NYPD regularly declines Freedom of Information Act requests from citizen’s seeking to find out if they are on the list. It has come out, however, that 99% of people on it are Black or Latino.

The criteria for being in the database is broad and ambiguous. NYPD Chief Dermot Shea testified before a city council meeting in June, 2018, that individuals can be added to the database if they “admit” to being members of a gang or if they are identified as such by “two independent and reliable sources.”

You can also be added to the database if you are seen at a known gang location, associate with gang members, have social media posts, scars or tattoos associated with gangs, or are seen using “gang signs and colors.” The NYPD considers gang colors to be: black, gold, yellow, red, purple, green, blue, white, brown, khaki, gray, orange, and lime green.

With such general criteria, it is easy for whole neighborhoods to be put in the database with no real evidence of gang activity.

The gang database is being used to replace other NYPD practices, some ruled unconstitutional. But the  new gang prosecution has increased the severity of the charges brought against Black and Brown youth, charges that carry significantly longer prison sentences.

Josmar Trujillo, an organizer with The Coalition to End Broken Windows, said that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio “has made gang policing one of his cornerstones of criminal justice reform… He has shifted from low-level street harassment to high-level, complex, federally assisted arrests and prosecutions that actually have much more impact and devastate communities of color.”

The Bronx 120 

It was called “the largest gang takedown in New York history.” On April 27, 2016, 700 police officers, Department of Homeland Security and FBI agents raided the Eastchester Gardens public housing development in the Bronx. One hundred twenty people were arrested, almost all Black and Latino youth. The raid was based on information gained from NYPD surveillance of those on the gang database.

The NYPD described the raid as a large scale victory against high level, criminal gang activity, claiming that those arrested were in rival gangs involved in at least eight murders.  The media put the story on blast, taking every NYPD word as truth. Coverage in the Daily News, New York Post, New York Times and local TV news was a “toxic combination of credulous and racist,” condemning the youth as murders and drug dealers,  according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

But it was not the truth.  Two-thirds of the defendants were not convicted of any violent crime at all, and more than half of those indicted were never actually alleged by prosecutors to be gang members.

Most of those arrested were accused of engaging in low-level criminal activity, enhanced by the gang conspiracy charges. Charges that would have been classified as misdemeanors became felonies when linked with gang activity.

The gang charges were those of “conspiracy” under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, a federal law passed in 1970 to combat the Mafia, not neighborhood groups. These charges are broad and hard to fight, because proving individuals “conspired” with others accused of crimes is easier for prosecutors than proving they committed that crime.

Some defendants were already incarcerated when the raid took place but were recharged when their previous crimes were linked to the gang conspiracy.

Many of the defendants were from poor and working-class families and  could not afford private attorneys to fight the charges. One hundred and thirteen of the individuals plead guilty, accepting a plea deal and avoiding a trial where they would face lengthy mandatory prison sentences. Two people chose to go to trail and were convicted. They received significantly longer sentences than those who plead guilty.

What was made to seem like the interception of a grand gang conspiracy of high-level criminals was really the targeting of Black and Brown youth who were using socialization to manage the poverty and marginalization of their Bronx neighborhood.

In gang database because of a song

The NYPD  also targeted Brooklyn youth.

In August of 2015 Ronald Williams was arrested and charged with four counts of attempted murder, four counts of conspiracy and weapons possession. Williams was convicted and sentenced to 100 years in prison, even though the prosecution had no physical or DNA evidence against him, and even though Williams wasn’t in the neighborhood where and when the crime took place.

Labeling Williams a “violent gang leader” was enough for the justice system to railroad him. The NYPD, District Attorney and 76th Precinct lauded themselves as community saviors who had put away another monster, Ronald Williams. What they really did was cause irreparable damage to a community and family.

Williams was never actually in a gang. The gang he supposedly belonged to  didn’t even exist, according to his sister, Shaniqua Pippin.

Williams was on the gang database for being friends with a local rapper who had made a song called “Oww Oww Gang,” about his neighborhood friends and pursuing girls. His other alleged gang activity included playing football or basketball with his neighborhood friends, and saying hi to  and taking pictures with friends and neighbors, said Pippin.

This constituted gang activity to the police of the 76th Precinct, and cops began to began to harass Williams. In one instance a cop hit Williams in the face with his gun because he was hanging out in the lobby of the building where he lived.

Pippen stated, “So basically, because he and his group of friends were close, one of them was a rapper, there was a song titled “Oww Oww Gang,” and they all live in Gowanus projects, that automatically made them prime suspects on the gang database despite them being nonviolent teenagers.”

Social relations criminalized, communities traumatized

Through gang databases and raids, law enforcement is criminalizing social and familial associations between Black and Latino youth and traumatizing entire communities, while leaving  communities no safer than before.

For example, after the Bronx 120 gang raid, community members who were not arrested were traumatized by the aftermath and felt unsafe in their own homes.

In the case of Ronald Williams, his Gowanus community was negatively impacted by his arrest and incarceration. Pippen said, “While he was home Ronald often played peacemaker. He is well respected for his integrity and therefore if he asked someone to not do something stupid, chances are they wouldn’t. Now, there’s no voice of reason loud enough to talk his peers down from their anger, sadness, or whatever emotion that was driving the need for combativeness.”

The impact of gang raids and the gang database does not stop after sentences have been handed down or served. Those charged with felonies will have trouble finding employment, housing, and receiving financial aid to attend college. Those released on parole and returned to the community will lack social supports because felons are prohibited from socializing with other felons or suspected gang members.

Daryl Whitley, who was convicted as a gang member in 2016 as part of a 37 person gang indictment said, “They don’t want you to have friends. They don’t want you to have friends of friends.”

Community members become more cautious of who they interact with. Powers said, “I was afraid to speak to anybody because you don’t know who is in the gang according to police. I was afraid to call my best friend’s mom or play basketball up the street. I had to walk on eggshells for the first couple of years.”

Why gang databases and raids are not a solution

Based on the outcomes of gang databases and raids, it is clear that they are no solution to the gang violence they claim to target. Gang violence can be ended by addressing poverty and marginalization, by providing properly funded educational institutions, medical services and safe housing.

But the state is not doing this because its real target is not gang violence. What they fear and seek to destroy is  community cohesion and  community organizing. Groups of marginalized people, uniting against the white supremacist, patriarchal, homophobic, capitalist system, can be powerful tools of resistance.

The Black Panther Party, for example, was once considered a gang by the FBI. The Panthers implemented social services, like breakfast programs and a free school, that met the needs of their community, while organizing self-defense. They were surveiled and targeted by law enforcement, and eventually dismantled, because they organized the poor and working class.

Strong and united community and working class organizing is exactly what is needed now. The first task will be to drive from communities and cities  the biggest and most violent and disruptive gang of them all–the police.

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