Searching for a Gang in Nebraska
I was in Las Vegas for a business meeting that finished on a Friday afternoon and needed to be in Lincoln, Nebraska for a Monday morning meeting. Instead of heading all the way back to NY for an abbreviated weekend, I decided to spend the weekend in Lincoln. I was up early Sunday morning, and after reading a story in the New York Times about a reporter who went looking for gang members in Salisbury, North Carolina, and ended up getting arrested himself, I decided to head out and look for gang members in Nebraska.
I made myself a peanut butter sandwich to take with me for lunch, not being sure about the food that would be available to me in jail. I stopped at the front desk and told the clerk that I was researching information about gang activity in Nebraska and could she tell me where to find the nearest gang members I could talk to. She tilted her head at me and her jaw dropped a bit, clearly she was not going to spill the beans. These gangs must have had her so terrified that she wouldn’t talk to me about where to find them. I took off on my own in search of Nebraska’s gangs.
I wanted to learn more about the attributes of gang membership. Why do people join these organizations, what makes membership attractive, what do members get out of the organization and what do they put into it and importantly how can we get people out of gangs and into productive endeavors?
From my hotel, I turned right onto 70th Street and headed to the north side of town. Along the way I passed a VA medical center which looked like it had quite a crowd, perhaps a gang gathering place. Upon investigation the cars belonged to members of the medical staff, no gangs here. I then passed a large YMCA, which has a reputation as a gathering place, perhaps I could find gang members there, but as it was early Sunday morning its parking lots were empty. I continued on my way and then spotted two very large windmills, a logical meeting place on a rise as gang members would be able to spot trouble coming from a long way off. By the time I got there though the gangs had likely seen me coming and had melted away. I turned around, winding my way through town and headed south on Route 2, the Nebraska Highway, towards a town called Nebraska City, population 7,228, as it has been rumored to be troubled by gangs. About half way there I came across a burnt out pickup truck on the side of the road. Based on my experiences in the Bronx this definitely looked gang related, things were looking up.
Youth gangs and criminal gangs are an ongoing and terrible problem, not just in the USA but world-wide. We need to look carefully at the motivators of gang membership and do what we can to disrupt the cycle, the reasons that people, especially the young join gangs. A good number of gifted young adults have their potential lost to a life of entrapment in gang membership – a lifelong dead-end. Interestingly, one of the attractors of gang membership is that the gang provides attributes and an environment that the person otherwise can not get. Some of the attributes are strikingly similar to what other kinds of organizations strive for. In other words people are once again similar and are looking for certain attributes in their lives and if they can’t get it from one source they will get it elsewhere, from where it is available. The National Gang Crime Research Center, in a massive study on gang behavior including data from North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, California, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa found these characteristics (an abbreviated and slightly edited list) of gangs and gang member in those areas:
- Members were more likely to have close friends within the gang.
- Over half utilize special codes (somewhat like acronyms).
- Two thirds have written rules and procedures regarding behavior.
- Four-fifths report leadership has long term tenure.
- Half have taken action to create financial gain for their gang.
- Half report regular weekly meetings in their gang.
- A common reason they joined was to make money.
- Another reason was to seek protection and security.
- About half were recruited, and half applied to join the gang.
- Many said they would quit given the right circumstances.
- Most of the gangs have female members.
- About half of the gangs have female members in a leadership capacity, but in a more supportive or middle-management role.
- About two-thirds felt that the gang has kept its promises to them.
- A third report they have never met the top leader.
- A new twist on unrealistic expectations: Two-fifths felt they would someday be the top leader.
- About half agreed that they feel protected and loved by their gang.
- Most report wearing special articles of clothing or clothing of certain colors.
The list produces a somewhat eerie feeling, as it could be a list of any organization’s attributes and why people tend to join or leave them.
I got to Nebraska City and found a cabin on the side of the road dating back to the mid 1800’s. An historical placard indicated that it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, a place were slaves fleeing for their freedom found welcoming refuge. The sign next to it indicated that John Browne, the abolitionist, had been there about a half a dozen times. It lifted my spirits as clearly this was a spot where people were used to secret signals and hidden gatherings. I was on my way to finding gang members.
I continued onward into Nebraska City and followed the signs to Lied Lodge and Convention Center and Arbor Farm, an organization devoted to planting trees. Upon parking and entering their building, I was struck by how beautiful it was. The building was graceful and well designed with soaring ceilings, massive stone fireplaces surrounded by massive tree-trunk sized supporting beams holding up wood beamed ceilings. Large leather overstuffed couches and chairs filled a reception area and a piano player was stroking the keys of a grand piano in the corner. I sank into one of the chairs to listen for a while to the soothing music. This was nice. I looked up and saw a sign draped high over the reception desk saying “sign up, become a member”. A gang of tree lovers, I could definitely get into this! I immediately went over to the desk and began to ask questions about the requirements to join this group. I then went for a walk through the trails munching on my peanut butter sandwich, as I had yet to see a police officer during my searching.
On my way back to Lincoln, I pulled into Eagle, Nebraska population 1,105. I passed a dirt track raceway where people gather to see races, I suspect gang members among them. In town I saw a older guy standing on the corner next to the post office, cane in hand. I flashed him the secret hand signal indicating that I wanted to talk to him about his gang. He gave me a blank stare. Boy the gangs here are tough, not willing to recognize the secret signal for having a conversation.
In general, people want to belong, they want to feel they are part of something and it is very compelling when that something makes them feel valued, makes them feel that are doing something special, it can make them feel proud. One reason that gangs have been so hard to break up is because many times gang members feel like they have no alternatives, they are driven into the gang by a sense of helplessness with their life as it existed. The gang, however awful, provides an alternative. The same parallels could be drawn for many terrorist organizations as well.
In Philadelphia the Chief of Police is calling for 10,000 men to help police patrol the city to reduce the crime wave that is drowning that city, presumably a portion gang related. However, while it is a start, it is generally recognized that putting people on the street will not solve the issue completely. “Amid the weed-strewn lots and boarded-up buildings of North Philadelphia, one of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, the six men who gathered to talk, drink and play cards say the young people who pull guns and deal drugs need jobs, recreation centers, after-school programs and, most of all, parents who care for them.” (New York Times, September 29, 2007).
On Monday morning, I headed to my business meeting. It was just a gang of us getting together to do some sales planning – of course I can’t tell you what we discussed, it was a confidential, secret meeting.
“Bloom where you are planted”
Anonymous sign at the edge of a corn field on Route 34
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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