By: Tony Best
They are the Bloods and the Crips, some of the largest youth gangs in the City.
And the native born Black youths, children of Caribbean immigrant parents and young Hispanic men who belong to gangs are involved in a range of illegal activity that runs the gamut from drug trafficking, gun possession and prostitution to extortion in Brooklyn.
The youth gang nightmare featured prominently in the recent highly publicized police shooting death of 16 year old Kimani Gray in East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Conflicting reports suggested the victim belonged to the Bloods but others who knew him well denied any gang membership. His mother, Carol Gray, a Caribbean immigrant, described him as her “angel.” And when some young people staged protests that turned into disturbances that included looting, several community leaders and police said that gangs took advantage of the situation to rob stores and individuals.
“It’s a serious problem,” said New York State Senator Kevin Parker, who represents an area of East Flatbush in Brooklyn where the gangs are said by the police to thrive. “What we have here is a situation in which young people, especially young males, drop out of school because of an educational curriculum that isn’t holding their interest but is breeding frustration. The lack of meaningful after-school activities is simply compounding the problem. With nothing to do, many of the young people are turning to gangs to occupy their time and provide what they see as excitement and something to do.”
New York Assemblyman Nick Perry, Deputy Majority Leader of the lower legislative chamber in Albany agreed gang activity was becoming a nightmare.
“The school curriculum should include subjects that appeal to young people, music, dance and so on but in far too many cases that’s not what’s happening,” said the lawmaker, himself a Caribbean immigrant. “West Indian teenagers are involved in gangs and their parents often don’t know they are in them until it is much too late. These are young people whose parents often work two, sometimes three jobs to put a roof over their family’s head and food on the table. Unfortunately, far too often they leave the youths to their own devices. They don’t have grandparents and aunts and uncles to help raise them. That means parenting is an issue, a big issue because the youths are being raised without the kind of guidance that would help them make important choices about right and wrong. In the case of West Indian immigrants, they are the youths who were either born in the United States of Caribbean parents or they came here are became acclimatized to the American way of life. In essence they are really American kids, pure and simple.”
When it comes to the appeal of youth gangs to teenagers in Brooklyn and the rest of the City, the reaction depends on who is making the assessments. Some elected officials, including State Senator Parker place much of the blame on the steep state budget cuts which have forced reductions in school programs, the beacon program and sporting activities when classes are over.
“We need to hold the attention of the children offering them classes that appeal to them, including, music, dance, writing, you name them,” said Parker. “We need more school athletic programs, after-school activities, basketball is a case in point. There must be more slots for the young people in existing program, such as the beacon program. Instead what’s happening is that we are preparing our young people to take and pass examinations, to take tests.”
Church leaders lament the absence young people and their parents from religious services and community activities that help “to build character and steer the teenagers to an appreciation of right and wrong,” said an evangelical pastor.
The Rev. Dr. Peter Bramble, Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crown Heights complained about the absence of a moral compass that would guide the teenagers about the choices they are making.
“The kids have no source of a moral grounding. They lack a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. The children used to get it from the church but most of them don’t come to church and they are not receiving it in the home,” the Rev. Bramble added. “These days no institution in America is providing, not the school, the community, the home and the church. As a result the kids have developed their own code of conduct and their own often includes joining a gang. That’s what’s happening in Brooklyn and across the country.”
Police officials list extensive drug trafficking, the use of guns and extortion as part of the stock and trade of the gangs. Then there is pressure placed on teenage girls, some of whom are being trafficked by older classmates in schools or by adult men and they end up becoming prostitutes to earn money.
“Effective parenting is a critical but sadly a missing element in many of these cases. Parenting helps the youths make positive choices and when it’s not present in the daily lives of the young people they exercise poor judgment and then get involved in criminal activity. It’s a serious Brooklyn,” said Perry. “When some of these children come from the Caribbean, be it Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Barbados you name it, they are thrust into a community heavily influenced by television and by values which are strange to them. I would say that most of the young people turn out to be good kids who avoid gang activity and any clashes with law enforcement authorities. But unfortunately, some of them take a different path and they end up learning the hard way and pay for it with criminal records or jail terms. Some of these parents are working very hard to provide for their children but the guidance day-in-and-day out is lacking.”
For his part, Parker puts a lot of the blame on the budget cuts which have forced reductions in important classroom activities. For instance, he said that New York City suffered a $250 million cut in funds for education and didn’t get the $350 million that should have been allocated under the campaign for fiscal equity.
“The State has cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget because there isn’t a policy for the youth and their development,” the state senator complained. “The $600 million that wasn’t allocated is evidence of this.”
Perry thinks that money alone isn’t the answer.
“Yes, money is needed but parental responsibility is part of the equation. The school programs are still there but many are under-utilized. There is a need for more outreach to get to the young people involved in gangs,” he insisted. “What seems to be happening is that the youth gangs are doing a far better job in marketing and reaching the young people than the schools and the community. The fact that most of the kids stay in school and end up doing the right thing shows all is not lost, far from it. The youths want to be cool and gangs give the appearance of things being cool. The vast majority of the young people don’t want to engage in criminal behavior but far too many of them get sucked in. It’s clear that more parents have to get involved.”
New York State Appellate Court Judge Sylvia Hinds Radix said recently she addresses young people in churches, schools and community centers, warning them about making poor choices that land them into trouble, often with the court.
“It’s something that I speak about regularly,” she said.