Turning Youth Gangs Around: Throwaway Kids

Article excerpt

Pedro(*) is a thoughtful, articulate and charismatic young man; he listens, absorbs and responds. His movements are quick, well-developed during his years surviving in the streets of Chicago. Pedro is a 20-year-old gang leader. For most of his life, he has lived off and on between his welfare mother and an uncle. He has been kicked out of schools and has served time in youth detention facilities. He is also a great human being.

For four months in 1993, the courts designated me as his guardian under a house arrest sentence. He was respectful and polite. He meticulously answered all my messages. He was loved by my 6-year-old son. His best friend happens to be my 19-year-old son Ramiro.

During his stay, I gave Pedro books, including political books to help him become more cognizant of the world. One of these was Palante, a photo-text about the Young Lords Party of the 1970s. Pedro, whose family is from Puerto Rico, began to open up to an important slice of history that, until then, he'd never known about. Pedro read Palante from cover to cover--as he did other books, for the first time ever.

When Pedro was released from house arrest, he moved out of the neighborhood with his girlfriend and her small boy. He found a job. He remained leader of the gang, but was now talking about struggle, about social change, about going somewhere.

Last November, Pedro was shot three times with a .44. He was hit in his back, leg and hand. Ramiro and I visited him at the Cook County Hospital. He lived, but he was not the same after that. One day during Pedro's hospital stay, the same gang that had shot him ambushed and killed Angel, a friend of Ramiro and Pedro. Angel, an honor student at one of the best schools in the city, was on his way to school; a news account the next day failed to mention this, reporting only that he was a suspected gang member, as if this fact justified his death.

I tried to persuade Pedro to get his boys to chill. I knew that Ramiro and the others were all sitting ducks. Pedro went through some internal turmoil, but he decided to forbid retaliation. This was hard for him, but he did it.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. Earlier this year, Pedro allegedly shot and killed one of the guys believed to be behind Angel's murder and his own shooting. Pedro is now a fugitive.

I tell you this to convey the complexity of working with youths like Pedro, youths most people would rather write off, but who are also intelligent, creative and even quite decent. The tragedy is that it is mostly young people like these who are being killed and who are doing the killing. I've seen them in youth prisons, hospitals and courts throughout the land: young people who in other circumstances might have been college graduates, officeholders or social activists. Unfortunately, many find themselves in situations they feel unable to pull out of until it's too late.

I've long recognized that most youths like Pedro aren't in gangs to be criminals, killers or prison inmates. For many, a gang embraces who they are, gives them the initatory community they seek and the incipient authority they need to eventually control their own lives. These are things other institutions, including schools and families, often fail to provide. Yet without the proper guidance, support and means to contribute positively to society, gang involvement can be disastrous.

This August, a media storm was created when 11-year-old Robert Sandifer of Chicago, known as "Yummy" because he liked to eat cookies, allegedly shot into a crowd and killed a 14-year-old girl. A suspected member of a Southside gang, Yummy disappeared; days later he was found shot in the head. Two teenage members of Yummy's gang are being held in his death. Hours before his murder, a neighbor saw Yummy, who told her, "Say a prayer for me."

This is a tragedy, but without a clear understanding of the social, economic and psychological dynamics that would drive an 11-year-old to kill, we can only throw up our hands. …