FBI agents Chris LaCarter and John Canning have witnessed gang activity in very different areas.Canning lived in Dominican Harlem amidst the compact, urban sprawl of New York City, while LaCarter dealt with gangs in rural North Carolina.
Regardless of the differences, they wanted Jemison High School students to know just one thing yesterday:
“Whatever you hear about gangs, no matter how glamorous people tell you it is…it all comes back to drugs and money,” LaCarter said.
Why high school students? For one, youth violence has steadily increased since the 1980s. And also, because some of America’s most notorious gangs were started by high school students.
A Los Angeles 11th grader started the Crips because he was getting picked on. A teenager in an adjoining high school started the Bloods, because they were getting picked on by the Crips.
Even though Los Angeles, known as the “gang capital,” is a far cry from Jemison, the agents wanted students, educators and parents to realize that no area is immune to gang activity.
“People fight and die in L.A. for little blocks of space,” LaCarter said. “Don’t think it can’t happen here.”
The agents familiarized the students with the basic structure and behavior of gangs, as well as the common reasons for joining one.
Reasons for joining a gang range from protection to poverty to emotional needs and social support. In fact, many gangs started as a group of individuals trying to overcome racism and other forms of oppression in a community.
Gangs got their foothold in the U.S. prison system, where different gangs that fall under a broader category look out for each other. The three major categories are Folk Nation (Crips), People Nation (Bloods) and Hispanic gangs (Mexican Mafia, Almighty Latin Nation, MS-13).
“Gangs are like families,” LaCarter explained. “If you’re not part of the gang, you’re not welcome. They don’t tell you to leave; they either beat you up or they kill you.”
In the U.S. alone, there are about 31,000 different gangs comprising a million members. Ninety percent of members are male, and 95 percent of hardcore gang members are high school dropouts.
The average age of gang members is between 15 and 24, with recruitment starting as early as age 9. Gangs recruit kids and young teenagers to sell drugs because if they are caught, they cannot be punished as harshly as an older teenager or adult.
Typically, the leaders and hardcore members of a gang are not the ones out on the streets selling dope.
“They’re very insulated and protected,” Canning explained.
The initiation of teenagers into gangs and the existence of a hierarchy both point to the reality that for gang members, going to jail is more of an expectation than a possibility.
“You can sell dope for a little while, but you are eventually going to get caught,” LaCarter said. “When you get caught for the first time, it’s over.”
Because of concern over the possibility of gang presence in Chilton County, the agents gave a list of things that can indicate the presence of a gang: