Ganging up on gangs
They number in the thousands and represent various ages, ethnic groups and neighborhoods. They are also involved with criminal activities ranging from robberies to drugs to violent attacks. But what draws young people to gangs, and what can be done to eradicate gang activity? In Tulsa, local law enforcement, community organizations and even a former gang member are working to curb the trends.
A Tulsa gang member shows off his tattoos. According to recent counts, Tulsa has approximately 2,700 active gang members and associates representing a number of different gangs.
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Some memories never fade, especially those that mark turning points in a person’s life.
Rashun Williams, 36, recalls just such a memory from more than two decades ago when he was a schoolboy growing up in one of Tulsa’s poorest neighborhoods on the north side of town.
“I was sittin’ in class and I got picked on by the teacher to read,” he says. “The only problem was, I didn’t know how to read. I was humiliated.”
The embarrassing incident confirmed a belief about himself that he would never succeed in school. Combine that with the facts that he was growing up without a father figure (he was in prison) and with a working mom struggling to raise four children and you have what today is called an “at risk” child.
His mother “had to work all the time and we were left alone,” Williams says. “That’s when I began doing stuff, getting in fights and I got kicked out (of school). I just kept getting in more trouble.”
That was the mid- to late 1980s, and young Williams was the perfect recruit for a criminal phenomenon that was just taking root in Tulsa at the time — street gangs — an import from the inner-city districts of Los Angeles.
“I was 14 and that (gangs) was the thing that was happenin’ at the time,” he says. “I only had to make a decision of what color I wanted to be.”
That “color” (which indicates a particular gang set) turned out to be the blue and orange of the 107 Hoover Crips, Tulsa’s own version of the notorious L.A.-based street gang known for its violent turf wars with the rival Bloods gang. On the streets of north Tulsa, scores of young “gang bangers” like Williams (who became known on the streets as “Rawbeanie”) would be born out of this matrix of poverty, lack of opportunity, family dissolution and the allure of a gang culture that seemingly provided all that a young man craved: power, money, belonging and respect.
The penitentiary or the graveyard
Marvin Blades, a retired Tulsa Police officer and anti-gang crusader, remembers when street gangs first began making inroads in Tulsa.
“It was 1988 when we recorded our first gang-related homicide,” says Blades, a 32-year Tulsa Police Department (TPD) veteran who now serves as president of 100 Black Men, an organization that seeks to steer young black males away from street gangs while also helping former gang members re-integrate into society after serving time in jail.
Blades served on the TPD’s gang task force in its early days, chasing down gang members, including Williams. Gang culture proved magnetic for many disaffected youths and, once established, has proven extremely difficult to uproot, Williams says.
“Over the years, I have seen (the gang problem) grow, with more young people getting involved,” he says. “In the beginning, it was mainly Crips and Bloods, but they have since subdivided and instead of fighting each other with fists, they’re fighting with guns.
“Things have evolved, and not in a positive way. There are far too many young people involved in this madness, and a lot of them will end up going to the penitentiary or to the graveyard.”
Sgt. Sean Larkin has been battling this “madness” for years — three as head of TPD’s gang task force (GTF). The GTF has 14 officers, along with one Tulsa County deputy dedicated to fighting gangs.
“Does Tulsa have a gang problem?” asks Larkin, a 14-year TPD veteran. “Yes. But I think the perception of it might be worse than it actually is.”
Gangs of all kinds, including the more prominent street gangs, are involved in a wide array of criminal activities, from robbery, burglary and larceny to check fraud, drug peddling and, of course, violent attacks and shootings.
He contends that gang crime, especially headline-grabbing violent crimes, remains largely gang-on-gang and thus less of a threat to the general public.
“(Gangs) don’t go around and randomly shoot people,” he says. “To fall victim to violent crime at the hands of a gang member is slim to none for the average citizen unless you’re part of that gang lifestyle.”