In this exercise you will need to utilize your role-playing skills and imagination. The more you are able to identify with the characters, the more you will understand why good kids get involved in gangs, and how they get seduced.
The School Yard Story
Imagine you are back in time. Back when you were growing up in your old neighborhood. You are in the sixth grade of your own old grammar school. You are a good kid and a little bit of a born leader. You hang around with two or three close friends, and at recess you play together. You are generally unaware of any outside dangers or poverty, crime, or other social problems.
My school was Thomas Jefferson (TJ for short). At recess my three friends and I would check out the basketball from Mrs. Presley and shoot a couple of hoops at the half court we had on the playground. In your case it might have been four square, tetherball, baseball, or jacks, but I'll bet something like what follows happened to you at some point.
While you generally got along with everyone, there was at least one dangerous predator in the schoolyard. At our school his name was "Giant." He was the boy who had been held back from promotion for two years. He was at least a head and a half taller than our tallest boy. He was big, ugly, and mean. He was the schoolyard bully.
One day the Giant approaches you and your friends as you are playing. He suddenly grabs your ball and pushes you down. He talks about your mother (a street felony in my neighborhood) and walks away bouncing your ball. "Hey, that's our ball!" you holler, but he ignores you. What should you do?
The proper answer is to first seek safety and then to report the rule violator to the proper authorities. Even at this youthful age, this will never happen.
To tell on the violator would be against the rules of the street and the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Snitch." A careful check of the U.S. Constitution and California Penal Code will reveal that this commandment is not codified in our governmental texts. However, by the sixth grade it was ingrained in our hearts and minds not to fink, rat, snitch, or tattletale.
Our governmental documents to the contrary insist that it is every citizen's duty to report violators to the proper authorities. So whose law was the anti-snitching policy? In reality it was the law of the drug dealer, criminal, outlaw, and gang member. Yet it had become part of our code of conduct by the sixth grade and almost no kid would break this law. In our communities this is the first symptom that the people have lost trust in the government and institutions—they will not report crimes to the police.
Turning the Other Cheek
If you happened to be a church-going child like I was, you might have remembered what you had been read from out of the scriptures, "…if someone strikes you on one cheek, give him the other." So what if he took your ball? It really wasn't yours anyway. It belonged to the school district. "Sticks and stones can break your bones but names can never hurt you," even if they were aimed at your mother. Shine it on, forget about it!
This attitude could lead to disaster. Do you think the Giant would leave you alone if you just ignored him? In fact, like a wounded chick in the chicken coop, every other chick would pick on you until you were destroyed. Kids who had never before been bullies would check out the bully book from the library to learn how to take your lunch money. This is not the answer.
Ask yourself, What would an American patriot do? What would John Wayne do? That's right, kick somebody's ass! But the Giant is bigger, meaner, and more experienced in combat than you are. Ask yourself, What do you have that he does not? Right again, three friends.
You and your three friends approach the Giant and you take back your ball, and the fight begins! You have courage and a righteous cause, but the Giant's long reach and experience soon begin to get the best of you. That's when your friends jump in.
Soon the giant is on the ground and you are giving him a boot party. As he runs away you see smiles on the faces of all the would-be victims in the schoolyard. Your three friends become closer than brothers because, like men in mortal combat and police officers after a shooting, you have bonded. You know that these three at least will face the Giant with you, and they will not run.
Contrary to what you might have heard, violence does solve some things. And it kind of feels good. When you go back to the half court, you and your crew are jumping higher and making shots you never made before. Everybody wants to be on your team. Everybody wants to be part of your crew.
Before you were nobody but now you are the talk of the schoolyard. At lunch you find that several cute girls want to sit with you. Why?
The predator Giant preyed on more than just your skinny crew. Often he picked on the girls. But now they know that you can protect them from the Giant. Are you a gang? Not yet, but if you continue in this "solution" without some intervention, you are on your way.
Jumping in Urkel
One day a kid named Urkel asks to join your crew. Urkel is of another race, and worst of all he is a nerd! Girls do not generally like nerds. Girls prefer rebels and bad boys. But you like Urkel, so you ask your crew to accept him. You are surprised by their rejection. "That Vato is a punk, a little girl, and the girls don't even like him!"
You must find a way to make Urkel more acceptable to your crew, so you invent a ritual. You invent the "jump in." This is designed to show Urkel's ability to show courage and take it like a man. Better yet, you take Urkel to fight the Giant. "Go get him, Urkell; we got your back," you say. Then you all jump in and beat the Giant down. This makes Urkel a hero in the schoolyard and one of the crew.
Urkel never wants to be reminded that he once was a nerd rejected by his peers and women. Urkel changes his name to "Cyco" and is more gang-like than all the other members of the crew. He is also more dangerous because he has learned that violence will win him respect and he is smarter than the rest of the crew.
Entrée to Gang Society
One Saturday morning you are walking in the local park on your way to play basketball on the big courts. You walk down the street like you own it, confident in yourself, Urkel, and your crew. There in the park parking lot are six "real gang members" washing their low riders and drinking a few beers.
The leader, "Big Flaco," calls out in your direction, "Hey mocoso, hey Jack!" You try to pretend not to hear him and keep walking, but now he is pointing at you yelling, "Hey Jack, yeah you little vato, I want to talk to you." You say, "My name is (insert your name), not Jack." Yeah, vato, I'm calling you Jack, Jack the Giant Killer!" He says he heard about how you beat the Giant and how the Giant had been picking on his little brother. He shakes your hand and introduces you and your crew to his Homeboys.
He offers you a cigarette, and you can't refuse. You puff and pass around your gateway drug, tobacco. Remember, cigarettes are illegal for you at this age. In a few minutes you taste beer for the first time. It tastes terrible, but you pretend to like it. They are nice to you and you joke and smoke for a few minutes and say good-bye.
For several weeks in a row you wind up running into Big Flaco and the Homeboys and hanging out. Once you even went to a garage party with them at "Bubbles" the Chola's house and danced with the home girls. At school the other kids respect and fear you. You never have to fight the Giant anymore. He now runs away at the sight of your crew.
Point of No Return
But one day you show up at the park speaking the language, "Quvo Big Flaco, whazup!" Flaco gives you a cold stare and silence. You say, "Say homie, its me, Jack, don't you know me? I'm the one who fought the Giant and smoked and joked and danced with Bubbles the home girl." Flaco says, "Do I know you? You smoked my frajos, drank my beer, and danced with my girl. are you my homeboy? Are you from my varrio? Are you in? …or are you out?
If you should reply, "I would like to defer enlistment in your fine organization until I complete my education," what will happen? However, if you say, "Yes I wish to join your gang," what will happen? Either way you are in for a beating. One beating is because they like you, and one is because they don't. So you choose the friendly beating. You are now a gang member. There is no associate gang member, peripheral gang member, or "want to be" gang member status. You are a full-fledged gang member once you are jumped in. The only way to undo this is to pass through the "jump out" ritual, and few could endure that.
It's easy to see how this could happen, isn't it?