members, gangs offer a sense of family, security and belonging
that they otherwise might not have. But some Albany residents
say that gang activity is on the rise and is destroying
their piece of mind
PG, taking a stroll down Lark Street on a sunny afternoon
is no easy task. It seems like he can’t get from one corner
to the next without a car pulling over or a person stopping
him to say hello or ask him a question. “What’s up son,
will I see you tonight?” he yells, placing his hands on
his chest, making a signal to his friend as he greets him.
The hand gesture is commonly known as one of the hand signs
that gang members use to greet one another.
As he turns the next corner, a green Honda Accord with tinted
windows pulls up. “Where were you last night bro?” he asks
the two guys sitting in the car, again making a hand gesture
as he walks off.
In his blue-and-gray shirt with the trendy “DG” logo written
all over it, blue jeans, blue baseball cap, gold chains
and bandana, PG walks through the streets as if he owns
them. With a certain sadness in his eyes and a knowledge
that he has seen more than most 21-year olds, he speaks
proudly of his life as a member of the notorious gang the
Ever since PG was 14 years old, he has been a gang member.
His mother died when he was 13; as the second youngest of
eight children with no father, and no one else to look after
him, he was sent to Florida to stay with relatives. It was
there that he was first pressured into joining the gang.
PG says he did not join right away because he did not want
to get caught up in the gangster lifestyle, but one of his
cousins was very persistent about him becoming a Crip. In
fact, his cousin even tricked him into doing it.
cousin actually set it up that I get jumped by a bunch of
guys from the hood,” says PG. “I was selling drugs on the
corner, and since I had no back, these guys beat me up and
stole my money. When I went to my cousin, he just laughed
and told me that he had me jumped because he wants me on
PG started a fight with his cousin, not knowing that this
was just another step toward becoming a gang member.
the fight was actually over,” says PG, “my cousin says to
me, ‘Congratulations, you just passed an initiation test,
which is to pick a fight with an original gangster and win.’
I guess it was at that point where I just gave in.”
PG says he went through other initiations into the gang;
however, he could not describe the specifics of what they
were because, he explains, that it’s against “the code”—the
rules that gang members are expected to live by.
can’t be a Crip if you don’t have the knowledge,” PG says.
“My cousin gave me this big book that explained the codes,
the hand signs, where the gang is from and how it has gotten
to be as big as it has. This isn’t just about gang banging.
It is also about love, respect and family.”
Something, PG says, he had not felt since his mother died.
PG moved back to Albany two years after being initiated
into the Crips, he says, and he had no problem finding other
Crips to hang out with, because there are a lot in the area.
got Crips, there are also Bloods and local gangs like the
Orange Street Boys,” he says. “We do all kinds of stuff
but mostly make money selling drugs. I do pack [a gun],
but that is only for protection in case something jumps
off. I love the lifestyle, the drug money, the partying,
the girls and the respect. It is hard to break away from
it, although I think about doing that a lot.”
don’t even sit out on my front stoop anymore,” says Cindy,
who has owned her home in the South End for nearly 20 years.
“My son, who is 16, is constantly targeted by gang members
and has been beaten up because he refuses to join. Most
of his friends growing up have joined in because they want
to be just like everyone else. So he is really isolated.
I am just trying to get all of my ducks in a row so I can
get out of Albany.”
Cindy, along with other residents of Albany’s South End,
Arbor Hill and West Hill neighborhoods, believe that street-gang
activity in the city has increased in recent years. They
say they are more likely than ever to see youths wearing
telltale clothing (bandanas, pant legs rolled up on one
side) and colors of notorious gangs such as the Bloods and
the Crips, and communicating with one another through hand
signals. They also cite what they say is a visible increase
in drug dealing in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, sometimes
involving people they don’t even recognize as neighborhood
residents. Many have said that gangs have taken over their
streets, making them feel unsafe.
Cindy, who doesn’t want to use her real name for fear of
repercussions from gang members who live in her neighborhood,
says that she lives in constant fear because of the activity
that takes place right in front of her house.
is not like you can snitch on these guys, because if they
find out, you will pay for it,” she adds. “Even when the
police do come, the problem may go away for a day or two
but it always comes back.”
Cindy says that when she looks out her front window, she
sees gang members hanging out and selling drugs.
pull up in cars every couple of hours and drop a bunch of
guys off so they can sell drugs,” she says. “They are out
there until their shift is up, and then the next carload
pulls up. I know they are gang members because they wear
their gang colors or flags, and they make hand signs to
each other all day and night. They are disrespectful and
are threatening to those of us who consider this neighborhood
our home and not just a drug spot.”
ounce of prevention: Yusef Abdul-Wasi, director of gang
prevention at the Boys & Girls Club. Photo
by Joe Putrock
Abdul-Wasi, director of gang prevention for the Boys and
Girls Club in Albany, says that the combination of downstate
gang members migrating to the Capital Region for its lucrative
drug trade and a younger generation of teens with a desire
to imitate what they see on TV are just a couple of reasons
for an increase in gang activity in the region over the
past couple of years.
Traditionally, says Abdul-Wasi, himself an ex-gang member,
Albany has always had its local gangs, like the Orange Street
Boys, a gang that was formed several years ago by a group
of boys who lived on Orange Street; in the past couple of
years, however, these homegrown gangs have died off or have
converged to become part of the two most notorious gangs
in the nation: the Bloods or the Crips. Abdul-Wasi says
that back in the early ’90s, much of the fighting between
gangs in the city of Albany was territorial, with Albany
native gangs fighting to keep these larger, nationally known
gangs from coming in and taking over. But with many of the
original homegrown gang members either in prison or dead,
the younger ones are automatically affiliating themselves
with either the Bloods or the Crips. Now, much of the fighting
and violence that goes on between gangs in Albany is over
drug territory—meaning, which gangs maintain control over
the drug trade in which neighborhoods.
PG says that many of the Bloods have taken over the neighborhoods
in the South End, while the Crips dominate Arbor Hill and
West Hill, and the Orange Street Boys still maintain control
of Orange Street.
Rodney (not his real name), who lives on the same street
as Cindy in the South End, disagrees with the notion that
the Bloods and Crips have come in and taken over the neighborhood.
are the same kids as always,” he says. “These are the kids
we watched grow up. They now just have changed their name
to something else and think that this makes them something
important. They are just playing the part, but they don’t
have any respect, and they are playing a dangerous game
with their own lives.”
Rodney says he does not live in constant fear of gang violence
because most of the violence that occurs happens between
don’t think the average Albany citizen has reasons to worry
that they will be attacked by a Blood or a Crip,” he adds.
“They mostly only have beefs with each other. They don’t
seem to be lurking the streets looking for innocent people
to prey on.”
However, Rodney doesn’t spend time outside of his home sitting
on his front stoop as he once did, because he is concerned
that a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting or gang fight
could hit him—or that he could be a witness to something
that could put him in harm’s way.
of these kids have no place to go and nothing to do,” he
says. “Most of them are from broken homes, and they are
clinging onto this because it is giving them a sense of
belonging that they don’t get from anywhere else. It is
out of need that this is happening, not because these kids
are bad or even dangerous.”
the front line: Kenneth Wilcox, President of the National
Black Police Association.Photo
by Joe Putrock
Wilcox, president of the National Black Police Association,
says that what makes gangs unique in Albany is that they
are not organized like they once were, or like they are
in other cities. He explains that gangs here don’t hold
weekly meetings, and there are no distinct gang leaders
who order certain activities to take place, such as drug
rip-offs, intimidation or shootings. There is no hierarchical
structure where members are initiated into the gang and
work their way through the ranks to become leaders. All
of that, he says, has pretty much fallen by the wayside.
in Albany,” says Wilcox, “we have Bloods and Crips who are
best of friends, both hanging out on the same block, both
wearing their colors representing their gangs, without any
friction or repercussion for wearing their colors in someone
else’s neighborhood. In other places, that is a deadly mistake.”
For example, he says that at any moment at the intersection
of Lark and Orange streets, there could be four different
gangs on each corner, all selling drugs and all calling
themselves Bloods. However, they are not working the street
together and don’t associate with one another, as if they
were in completely different gangs.
is not as if all the Bloods in the city of Albany are affiliated
with each other. They are not,” he states. “These days,
any group of kids who hang out together are calling themselves
a gang. In fact, within the Bloods or the Crips, there are
the Grand Street Crips, the Orange Street Bloods or the
Lark Street Bloods. They are gangs by where they sell their
drugs and that is their territory and that is their gang.”
In larger cities where gangs are more organized, he explains,
all members of the Bloods would be closely affiliated—even
if they covered different territories—with the leaders above
them calling the shots. There are certain rules that all
members would be obliged to follow, no matter what affiliate
gang they associated with.
are not even really gangs if you go by the old phrase of
what gangs really are, in how they protect themselves, how
they are a family and how they are set up,” says Wilcox.
“Those values of a gang, if you want to call them values,
are no longer there. They are just protecting their drug
territory, and they are giving themselves a name to call
themselves. We have kids playing gang because they think
it is cool.”
PG agrees with Wilcox that many of the younger members don’t
know what it means to be in a gang. He refers to many of
these members as “wannabes” because they are not truly committed
to the cause.
I came up, there were OGs [original gangsters who have been
in the gang for quite some time] showing me the ropes and
teaching me what it meant to be a Crip,” agrees PG. “What
has been going on here just don’t make no sense. We have
all of this knowledge, rules and codes, but nobody is following
them. These fools are just playing the part, and most of
it is based on greed and making money, and not loyalty and
respect for yourself or for the gang.”
However, the lack of structure to these gangs doesn’t stop
the violence and trouble that the members are getting themselves
into. Many are arrested on drug or weapon charges and getting
involved in deadly shootouts or stabbings. Wilcox adds that
this absence of structure makes it difficult for the police
to control the gang activity.
is this sort of ‘anything goes’ mentality now,” says Wilcox.
“This can be bad. . . . There is not less violence because
there is no structure. When there was structure, you knew
when you got in there who you could control, who was in
charge and who ran it. It made it easier because we could
track who made the calls, who were the followers and who
were the workers. Now it’s pretty much a free-for-all. It’s
like they are cowboys with no direction and no purpose.”
But Wilcox says that one thing has remained consistent with
gangs: the way they make their money. Most gangs, he says,
rely on selling drugs as their source of income, and the
majority of gang members are involved in drug activity.
PG confirms this and says that he makes up to $1,000 dollars
a week selling crack cocaine. With this type of activity,
Wilcox adds, comes the guns and violence.
is why we have been having the increased amount of violent
shootings. Whether someone is injured or not,” he says,
“the threat of the violence is still there.”
Cee, a former gang member from New York City who spends
his spare time walking through the South End to do gang
intervention on his own, says that the cops are not as in
touch with what is really going on in the streets as they
let on. And if the public really knew just how bad the gang
situation in Albany is, they would truly be frightened.
For one, he says, many gang members don’t trust the cops,
so the police are only getting selective information. He
said that there are plenty of gang initiations happening
in the area. And although it is true that they are loosely
affiliated now, it won’t be long before they become well
organized, as they are in the other major cities.
soon, this city is going to be overrun with gang activity,
and there is nothing that will be able to stop it,” says
Cee. “Just walk down Grand Street on a hot summer day and
you will see a sea of red for all the Bloods wearing their
Cee points out that each summer, the “War Lords”—the top
gang leaders from the Bloods and the Crips—come up from
New York City to hold meetings with other members of the
gangs. Although Cee will not say what is discussed at these
meetings, he does say that their purpose is to get Albany
in line with how gangs are run and operated in other urban
He also points out that gang members from Albany who are
getting arrested for gang-type activity and are sent off
to prison are spending their time behind bars with gang
members from all over the state. And it is in prison that
they are learning how gangs are supposed to be run. Once
they are released and return to the area, they implement
the lessons they learned while serving their time.
Cee says that the police and most of Albany’s elected officials
downplay the severity of gangs in the area because they
don’t want people to be too frightened to come to Albany.
have pumped all of this money into downtown and they don’t
want to scare people from coming here,” says Cee. “Well,
they should have pumped that money into after-school programs
and youth centers and community centers so these kids would
have some place to go instead of hanging out in the streets.”
it to the streets: Public Safety Commissioner John Photo
by Joe Putrock
John Nielsen, commissioner of public safety for the city
of Albany, says that he doesn’t minimize the severity of
the problem. And he says that what is happening in Albany
is not necessarily a new phenomenon.
have had groups here for years that you could call gangs,”
says Nielsen. “But the difference is that they didn’t have
these national names that carry such a fearsome reputation.”
He says that if these groups had the cohesiveness that comes
with organized gang activity, then the city would need a
more sophisticated approach to the problem.
is pretty small, and it is not so hard for us to figure
out who the players are,” says Nielsen. “It is the kind
of violence that has come out of these groups that has escalated,
and that is what we are concerned with.”
Nielsen says that the bottom line is that he doesn’t care
what these groups call themselves. If they break the law,
they will have to deal with the consequences. But the problem,
he says, is multifaceted and there is no easy solution to
deal with it.
Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings adds that, in order to begin
to address the gang situation here, it’s important to first
get to the root of why kids are affiliating with them. He
says that more people need to step up to the plate and offer
their time and ideas for solving the gang problem. And,
he insists, more options for alternative education need
to be made available.
kids get in trouble in school and they get expelled, they
end up in the streets, in the community,” says Jennings.
“So what are you going to do? They are not trained for anything,
so where do they go? So we need much better alternative-educational
opportunities for our kids, and that way we won’t have them
on the streets, and we’ll have them in a structured environment.”
For PG, it may be too late for alternative-education choices.
And the sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that he feels
from his fellow gang members is not something that he could
have gotten in the classroom.
of my brothers would die for each other, die for each other.
. . . That is heavy,” says PG. “Even if I moved away to
another area to get away from it all, it wouldn’t be long
before I gave it away that I was a Crip because this is
not just in my head, it is in my heart. No matter where
I would go, I would identify the Crips, and I would see
them hanging out, making money and partying, and I would
miss that. I know that when I am with other Crips I belong
and I have a place.”
It is the connection, he says, that keeps him attracted
to the lifestyle and makes him feel like he belongs to something
don’t think our lifestyle is always dangerous,” he says.
“It is not like every night there is a shootout, but when
it gets bad, it gets really bad. But a lot of time when
people start shooting, it is not to kill, it is just to
Most of the time, he says, he and his friends spend their
time hanging out on street corners or cruising in the car,
cutting up on each other and just plain going through life
is about respect, love and loyalty,” explains PG. “If you
are loyal to it, then it is loyal to you. That is a lot
more than you can say about other things in life.”
The connection to other gang members that PG describes is
why Alice Green, executive director of the Center for Law
and Justice in Albany, says that she doesn’t buy the notion
that gangs are always the big, bad, drug-related organizations
people make them out to be. She points out that people join
gangs out of a need to feel safe, a need to belong and a
need to improve the situation around them.
people get those needs filled through school or a secure
family environment,” says Green. “But the kids who join
gangs have those same needs but don’t have access to fulfill
She also adds that just because a group of black kids are
hanging out together and have decided to give themselves
a name doesn’t mean that they are necessarily doing anything
people see a group of black kids together, they automatically
assume that they are up to no good,” says Green. “But when
a group of white kids are hanging out on a street corner,
that same impression doesn’t hold true. Unfortunately the
police look at them this way as well.”
Abdul-Wasi agrees with Green, in that kids join gangs to
fill a void in their lives.
is like gangs are traveling in the right direction in the
wrong vehicle,” says Abdul-Wasi. “These kids see these gangs
as family. It’s a God-given, innate call to belong somewhere,
and for some of these young men it is the first time in
their lives that they belong or have been needed or wanted.”
He explains that many kids suddenly become family providers,
often thrust into the role of father—something that many
of them did not have growing up.
likely for many, their fathers are not around, their mothers
work three to four jobs just to make ends meet,” says Abdul-Wasi.
“Suddenly, they get involved in a gang and they start to
make some money. They are able to fill those kitchen cabinets,
they are able to buy those new sneakers they always wanted.
The girls, these days, are more attracted to thugs [gang
members] than the guy who is making good grades and working
at McDonald’s. It’s like suddenly everything in life has
fallen into place for them. It is just that it is the wrong
place for the wrong reasons. This is a very complex issue.”
Abdul-Wasi runs a program at the Boys & Girls Club called
Passport to Manhood, an early-intervention program to help
steer kids away from gangs. He tries to get kids out of
the community by taking them to college campuses, ranger
schools, camping trips and any other type of experience
that will help them think outside of the box. He hopes that
through these trips, kids can see there is a more to life
than what they experience in their own neighborhoods.
of our kids don’t believe that there is a future out there
past the weekend,” he says. “They don’t have any hope or
think there is a need for futuristic thinking because they
believe that they are locked out of society before they
have even given it a chance. So they attach themselves to
gangs and the excitement that comes with that and the false
sense of importance.”
For PG, the idea of breaking free from the gang is something
that seems to torment him daily. He speaks of someday having
a normal life, with a house, a family and a regular job.
He dreams of becoming a poet. In fact, last year, after
PG was arrested for selling drugs and for a weapon charge
for which he served six months in the Albany County Jail,
he tried to pull away from the gang.
However, missing the “gangster lifestyle” is what reeled
him back in.
started working and hanging low,” he says. “I was more or
less missing in action. But it was hard to make money. I
did not finish high school, so my job options were places
like McDonald’s. The combination of not having anything
to do on the weekends, no money, missing my friends and
no girlfriends just didn’t seem worth it after a while.“
As a result, PG got back involved with the gang.
know I don’t do the crazy stuff I used to do with the gang
when I first moved back to Albany,” he adds, which included
such activities as drive-by shootings, robbing people, and
doing whatever to hustle up some money. “But this is in
my heart, these brothers are my family, and I just can’t
seem to walk away from it. I have been doing it for so long
it’s hard to imagine what else there is to do.”