Graffiti, Gangs, And (Your) Teen(s)

While walking through a neighborhood recently, I noticed some graffiti writing in the middle of the street. I immediately thought to myself, “wow, do people STILL draw graffiti these days”?… Now this particular neighborhood was “nice”, “quiet”, and everyone pretty much kept to themselves. “So”, I thought to myself, “WHY would someone(s) purposely target a street in an area like this?… unless, there is more to the story here.

Upon a little further research, I discovered that this may have been left-behind traces of an unruly group. This made me wonder if this could have been some type of gang-like activity (sometimes I am a little naive to things that are outside of ‘my world’). As I continued to ponder on this, it made me realize that our teens are becoming more and more involved in troublesome behaviors and self-destructive affiliations.

My mother always said that life is FULL of C-H-O-I-C-E-S.

The current events in the news show young men (and women) spending countless years that equal MORE than the REST of their lives behind bars, because of the choices they made previously to join a gang. It saddens me to think that they will NEVER have the chance to re-consider their actions again.

On my way home, I came up with my own list of reasons why we are losing our kids to “the streets”, and violent activity. Maybe this list of reasons will reach at least one parent, Youth Leader, or even a teen who may be able to get through to a loved one, a close friend, or someone special to them and help them decide AGAINST joining a gang or making ANY potentially violent/harmful decision(s).

My list of why…

– a sense of belonging. He or she may not feel connected to his or her own family.

– this group may represent the ONLY thing they recognize as a sense of community.

– he or she may be BORED. Having nothing of interest to them to keep them busy, or to positively impact their time

– he or she may be trying to fit in, feel accepted as a part of a larger crowd.

– he or she may be HURTING, and searching for SOMEone who understands them.

– it MAY be a cry for help or attention that they may feel they are not getting at home.

– he or she may have a NEED for an authority-type figure, or someone to look up to in their life.

– he or she may want to be viewed as “cool”, or stand out to their friends.

– his or her environment may not be very positive or productive, so they may choose what is “common” and available to them. Thus, falling into a stereotypical-type scenario.

– he or she may not feel that they have inner leadership instincts, so they may choose to follow the crowd (we were taught to ALWAYS be a leader… NEVER a follower)

– he or she may not be much of an independent thinker, so they allow others (and other things) to influence their mindset and thought process.

I remembered reading an article in a Teen Voices Magazine on the realities of gang-life, and how a young 16-year old girl shared her story of how and why she joined a gang. Her story was very insiteful, and REAL. She mentioned that she was searching, trying to fill her need for someone to show her affection, and that they loved and cared for her. She wanted to be accepted, protected, and respected. She understood that many kids join gangs; believing that selling drugs, etc. would eventually fulfill their inner desire for “fancy”cars, and nice(r) clothes. She said that many feel that it is the ONLY way; not realizing the REALity of it all.

Gang violence and acceptance is a part of our society today. This issue is RARELY addressed (until someone is shot, injured, or death occurs as a result). My deepest belief is that the RIGHT decisions can be made in a teen’s life, and it all starts with the RIGHT conversation. So, let’s get talkin’.

I Want to Belong – Improve Confidence by Being Part of the Gang

Being part of a crowd or group can give us a sense of belonging, a feeling of identity. It can reinforce our sense of who we are. People often gain confidence from being part of a gang, it can provide reassurance that our beliefs and values, even ourselves are acceptable.

As a young person being in a gang is a way of defining their identity. Young children often enjoy becoming a member of a Brownies, Cubs or Scout pack. There is a shared bond and an automatic sense of friendship and belonging. It teaches about becoming friends and the shared responsibility, respect and loyalty that we have towards each other in these groups.

As they start to grow up, many young people feel unsure of themselves. They lack confidence in their opinions and tastes and becoming part of a gang provides a safe way to express those views. Young people often lack the life experience and maturity to have tried out their attitudes and opinions in the wider world. There is almost too much to know, too much to have an informed opinion about. And so a gang can become a safe extension of the family in which to experience aspects of life in an intensive but protected way.

For young people, problems can arise if the gang becomes all consuming. Some young people adopt every aspect of the gang mentality without having the sophistication to be able to identity which parts suit them and which do not. That can be disconcerting for family and other people they come into contact with, but for a time it is often part of stretching their personality and intellectual muscles as they begin to grow up.

Some gangs are almost sect like in their approach and can require adherence to a strict code of beliefs and behaviour. Often gang members will dress in similar clothes, have their hair styled the same way, share tastes in music and socialising. Interesting, when they have often been so desperate to get out of one uniform, only to put on another. This is often when being part of a gang can appear to be rebellious or shocking. Dress, tattoos, music, body piercings, bad language, maybe drug use, can all be a part of the gang identity and bring an excitement at appearing rather dangerous.

Security can be another factor of belonging to a gang. There is a shared camaraderie that protects and supports each other. It can provide almost a substitute family environment, as often a young person may feel misunderstood or unappreciated in their own home. The gang can take over and provide the nurturing and security needed for a time.

Often parents and family are horrified at the way the gang looks. They may seem odd, unorthodox, menacing, but that is often the attraction to a young person. It is part of flexing their muscles, prior to branching out on their own as an independent young adult. Often the young people who behave in this way are intelligent, questioning and highly motivated and turn into bright successful young adults.

Older people tend to call their gangs groups or clubs. These are often rather more formal in their set up and are often selective in their admittance policy. Members will share the same interests or outlook and gain comfort from that shared bond. A group will reflect their values and provide a sense of security and acceptance. It reinforces their sense of who they are and their place in society.

Groups for older people often bring together people who have a common need or interest. They provide an outlet based on sport, a desire to do business together, marital status or personal development requirements and the benefits that come from belonging. These groups may have a membership requirement and a code of behaviour attached so that members can feel comfortable about the standards of behaviour expected from each other. That reassurance of respectability is an important factor in many cases.

American Mobsters – The Hudson Dusters Street Gang

The Hudson Dusters were an unruly street gang that ruled the Greenwich Village area of New York City, starting in the late 1890’s. They were formed by the trio of Kid Yorke, Circular Jack and Goo Goo Knox, who was a former gang member of the Gophers, a group that ruled Hell’s Kitchen a few blocks to the north. Knox tried to take control of the Gophers, failed, then moved south to terrorize a different neighborhood, which was open to whichever gang could take command. The Dusters crushed local gangs like the Potashes and the Boodles, then took control of the Greenwich Village and the business of plundering the docks along the Hudson River, a few blocks to the west.

The crooked streets of Greenwich Village were perfect for getaways after the Dusters committed one of their varied crimes. Their most accomplished thief was Ding Dong, who would roam the streets with a dozen or so youths. He would direct them to jump on passing wagons and toss to him any valuables they could get their hands on. Before the police could respond, Ding Dong was long gone, having disappeared down the maze of streets that comprise the Village.

The Gophers became street legends, but they were not particularly known for their fighting prowess, as were other brutal New York City gangs. They hung out in the taverns and gin mills of the Village, mingling with the famous writers and artists of their time. The journalists also favored the Dusters, and they were portrayed in the newspapers as nothing more than a fun-loving bunch, who drank more than they fought. One of the Duster’s party pals was playwright Eugene O’Neil, who frequented the gang’s hangout – the Hell Hole, on Sixth Avenue and Fourth Street. It was there that O’Neil garnered most of his characters for his most famous play – The Iceman Cometh – the Iceman being Death.

At their inception, the Dusters moved their base of operations frequently, finally settling on a house on Hudson Street, just below Horatio, later the site of the Open Door Mission. More interested in partying than pillaging, the Dusters installed a piano and they danced the nights away, in a cocaine induced stupor, with the prostitutes who prowled the West Side piers a few short blocks away. This annoyed the neighboring homeowners and business owners to no end, but all were afraid to make a complaint to the police, because the Dusters had the reputation of seeking revenge in a hot moment on anyone who would rat. After a night of carousing, the Dusters were known to parade in the streets, boozed out and hopped-up on coke, looking to cause mayhem on anyone, or anything in their path.

One night, the Dusters asked a local saloon keeper to provide them with a few kegs of beer for a party, on the arm, of course, meaning they did not expect to actually pay the man money for his stock. The saloon keeper refused and the Dusters descended up his establishment, wrecking the joint and carrying away every ounce of booze on the premises. The saloon keeper ran to his friend Patrolman Dennis Sullivan. Patrolman Sullivan decided to declare war on the Dusters. He rounded up ten of them, including their leader Red Farrell, and arrested them for vagrancy.

The Dusters decided to retaliate, and with the blessing of a Greenwich Village politician, who used the Dusters for intimidation on Election Day, they ambushed Patrolmen Sullivan as he was about to arrest one of the Dusters on a robbery charge. They attacked him from behind and stole his jacket, gun and shield, while beating him with stones and blackjacks. As many as twenty Dusters took turns kicking and punching the distressed policeman after he was down. When Patrolman Sullivan was finally unconscious, four Dusters rolled him onto his back and ground their heels into his face, causing permanent scars. Patrolman Sullivan was finally taken to the hospital, where he stayed, recuperating for over a month.

The Gophers Street Gang congratulated the Dusters on their cop-beating accomplishment, and Gopher leader, “One Lung” Curran, felt moved enough to write a poem, praising their actions. The poem read:

Says Dinny “Here’s me only chance
To gain meself a name;
I’ll clean up the Hudson Dusters,
and reach the hall of fame.”
He lost his stick and cannon,
and his shield they took away.
It was then he remembered,
Every dog had his day.

The Dusters loved this poem so much, they printed up hundreds of copies and distributed them on the streets of Greenwich Village, even dropping one off at the Charles Street Station House, where Patrolman Sullivan was assigned.

By 1916, The Dusters had dissipated, as most of their gang members were either coke addicts, dead, or locked up in jail. Another Greenwich Village gang, the Marginals, led by Tanner Smith, took over the Duster’s rackets, and they controlled the Village until Tanner was killed by Chicky Lewis, inside the Marginal Club on Eighth Avenue, on July 29, 1919. For all practical purposes, that was the end of street gang presence on the Lower West Side.