Taking A Break From Gang Life

Nov 9, 2011

WKNO continues its look at the gang problem in America.  According to the FBI’s 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, gangs are responsible for 48 percent of all violent crime in the U.S.  So how can a community wrest itself from the grip of gang-involved youth?  Gang life is extremely dangerous, and many fear there are no exits, but it’s a myth that one cannot leave gang life behind.

Eric is 31 and the youngest of several children.  I’m not using his last name to protect his identity. 

“I used to be [an] Insane Vice Lord,” Eric says.  Eric was 12 when he got involved with the gang.  He says he did it because he wanted love. 

Eric is the youngest, and his older siblings were busy living their own lives, often leaving him behind.  Then he met, “Some guys from Chicago, a few Chicago guys and Detroit.    I was introduced to them, and I began to learn about the gang. Most of them had high power already.  I just figured I was lucky to be amongst them,” Eric explains.  “Some of them [were] next to the heads in different cities.  They come and swear you in and introduce you to the gangs,” he says.

Eric quickly achieved rank, and then one day while driving through El Paso, Texas, he was pulled over.  “They found several firearms in the car and two kilos of marijuana,” Eric says.

The Insane Vice Lord started to have a change of heart during his last year in the federal penitentiary.  He decided he didn’t want to continue living the life of a gangster.

Eric says, “As far as the transformation, we had a meeting.  So I just wanted to have a meeting to let them know I was taking a break away.  They still invited me to the meetings, this and that.  I was still on-call guy.”  He continues, “You can separate, but you can only move up.  In order to move up, you have to become more righteous.”

Still, Phelan Wyrick, who studies gangs for the Department of Justice, says, gangs like the Vice Lords are highly organized, and are at times very tricky to get out of. “Even once you’ve found a way to leave the gang, the gang doesn’t leave you,” Wyrick explains.  “Because the gang, particularly these highly organized gangs, in their mind, you’re still a member.  Maybe you’re just a retired member, maybe they’ve given you the blessing to take a break, but the gang doesn’t always let go of its members in the sense that they may agree that okay, you’re going to get a job, and you’re going to live with your girlfriend and fly straight for a while.  But if the gang ever feels that they need that person again, they may call on him and sort of try to draw him back in.”

But, Wyrick says, “It can be different for different people.  It depends on also on how deep they are in terms of their own personal involvement in the gang and what they’ve done as a gang member.”

Eric says he finished his time at a halfway house in Memphis in March of 2006.  Now, he has a six-year-old son that imitates everything he does.  So Eric says, he doesn’t want his son involved in gang life or violence.  And he’s not allowed to play with guns.

“If you wanna be a bad boy, I say, 'Go ahead and be a bad boy.'”  Eric continues, “After that, all you have is you, a cell block or you and a coffin.  So what have you really gained?  Sit in a cell block and reminisce about the fancy cars you had, how much money you made, how you beat this charge and took the lesser one?"

And I wonder how many are sitting in jail doing just that.

Production assistance by Elizabeth Hollingsworth.