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A Thug's Life

To 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

By Nancy Guerin

For 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 Crips.

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.

“My 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 his team.”

PG started a fight with his cousin, not knowing that this was just another step toward becoming a gang member.

“When 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.

“You 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.

“Albany’s 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.”

‘I 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.

“It 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.

“They 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.”

An ounce of prevention: Yusef Abdul-Wasi, director of gang prevention at the Boys & Girls Club. Photo by Joe Putrock

Yusef 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.

“These 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 gang members.

“I 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.

“Many 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.”

On the front line: Kenneth Wilcox, President of the National Black Police Association.Photo by Joe Putrock

Kenneth 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.

“Here 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.

“It 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.

“They 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.

“When 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.

“There 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.

“That 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.

“Pretty 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 flags.”

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 areas.

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.

“They 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.”

Taking it to the streets: Public Safety Commissioner John Photo by Joe Putrock

But 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.

“We 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.

“Albany 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.

“When 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.

“Most 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 important.

“I 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 intimidate.”

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 together.

“This 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.

“Many 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 those needs.”

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 wrong.

“When 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.

“It 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.

“Most 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.

“Many 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.

“I 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.

“You 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.”

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