Root of Gang Violence: Respect - 10.27.02

Peter Ward, Lowell Sun Staff

It can start with something as simple as a nasty stare or disrepectful comment, then escalate into violence. While gang battles in other cities may start from turf wars or drug dealing, Lowell's start with something as simple as a question of respect, former gang members and those pushing for peace say. "We've talked about this, and everyone's on the same page. It's over colors," says Gregg Croteau, executive director of the *United* *Teen* *Equality* *Center*. "That's really the essence of what's been happening. It's not that deep. We don't see it over drugs or territory."

Former gang members say Lowell's gangs thrive by providing a sense of belonging and camaraderie.

UTEC has convened a Peace Team of former gang members whose twofold purpose will be to mediate differences among gangs and to show gang members there are less destructive ways to find social and emotional fulfillment.

UTEC has mediated in a dozen disputes, most of which occurred before they ended in violence. While a violent remedy is serious, the cause of the dispute seems less so.

Lowell's three major gangs in represented by the colors, red, gray and blue. Each gang has subset gangs.

Here's what a half-dozen now-retired gang members, who agreed to be interviewed if their names weren't used, talked yesterday about gangs operating in Lowell:

Lowell's gangs as entities don't sell drugs.

While some Southeast Asian gangs in California fight over drugs and territory, Lowell isn't textbook.

Several members smiled or shook their heads when told about the City Council's request of police to make more use of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and Naturalization and Immigration Service.

"It's not about drugs. Gangs don't fight over drugs," says a 20-year-old past gang member.

Gang members have shown they can settle differences with words rather than fisticuffs or weapons.

UTEC has helped mediate a dozen disputes over the past three months, Croteau says.

"We've been able to intervene, get between, and bring people to the center and stop it. It's not always a given that the only way is fighting," he says.

Gangs provide family structure that young boys lack but subconsciously desire or need.

"Love, support, acceptance," a former member says, explaining why he joined.

"I wanted to be with the kids I hung around with. It wasn't like I chose red colors or like, 'Red or gray is better.' And it's not to break rules or break the law. It's basically to be with the kids you hung around with on the block."

"Like, I never had an older brother," says another former member. "A bunch of friends grew up in the same neighborhood and want to build a family, a brotherhood. I was nothing (before I joined). I started hanging out. I wanted to be involved, build a relationship and trust with one another."

Another says, "My family came to America from Cambodia and had to adapt to American life and it was hard for them. As soon as they came, they went for jobs right away (leaving home for long periods of the day or night)."

He says the children of immigrants grew up speaking English, however, which created a communication gap of sorts, as well as cultural gap, and left children as the family's de facto authority. In addition, older gang members might speak on Khmer.

"It's where I learned to speak fluent Cambodian from them," he says.

A 16-year-old who joined a gang three years ago but is now out, says young boys feel "insecure, they just want to be heard."

"They may have low self-esteem, where they feel they have nothing to lose," says another teen.

Gangs often require a brutal initiation in which several members beat up a recruit who wants to join.

How well the recruit handles himself if he puts up a good fight or can get back on his feet, for instance lets gang leaders assess his toughness.

"If you've got heart, you're all right, and I was scrawny," a former member says as others laughed understandingly.

Active members sometimes voluntarily leave a gang.

That doesn't happen often unless a gang member is older, in his mid-20s, for example, or gets married. There are usually no ramifications for leaving unless the member starts showing up with members of a rival gang. That can cause trouble.

The number of leaders within a gang varies.

It's often unclear to ordinary members who made a particular decision or why. Communication is often poor between gangs and among same gang members.

"Lots of rumors," says a past member.

Good-paying jobs, especially in the summer, would ease the situation.

"Seems like every day, someone gang or no gang comes up to me, 'Yo, can you hook me up with a job?' As a city, this is an opportunity," says Croteau of UTEC. "Next summer, it's time to invest in jobs."

Peter Ward's e-mail address is pward@lowellsun.com