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Searching for a Gang in Nebraska

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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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January 16, 2010 at 6:51 am

A Lesson Never Learned

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Phillip Zimbardo did some of the most interesting, depressing work ever done by a psychologist. He showed how just how easily one person or group can dehumanize another. His experiment was called the Prison Experiment and was conducted at Stanford in 1971 (see for more information). In this experiment a group of college student volunteers were randomly split into 2 groups. One group became “prisoners” and the other became “guards”. After a short period of time due to the situation the “guards” and “prisoners” found themselves in, drastic changes in behavior began to occur; behavior that demonstrated that situational cues, rather than actual differences in people, caused one group to behave very poorly to another. In fact the situation became so dire that the experiment was concluded ahead of schedule. From Dr. Zimbardo’s website: “At this point it became clear that we had to end the study. We had created an overwhelmingly powerful situation — a situation in which prisoners were withdrawing and behaving in pathological ways, and in which some of the guards were behaving sadistically. Even the “good” guards felt helpless to intervene, and none of the guards quit while the study was in progress….And so, after only six days, our planned two-week prison simulation was called off.”

This experiment sadly demonstrated how poorly people can behave toward other people using situational cues, peer pressure and expectations to drive their behavior, cues that often have nothing to do with the persons themselves. This pattern of dehumanizing behavior has occurred repeatedly throughout human history and is sadly, certainly to be repeated once again in the future.

Africa, the birthplace of humanity, has certainly seen is share of suffering and inhumanity over the ages. It is both very poor and very rich at the same time. Very poor in terms of how groups treat each other, leading to some extremely violent, really terrible behavior, very poor in it’s history of human rights, in it legendary corruption and constant vying for power by some dictator or another; and for some reason poor in the willingness of the world to lend a hand in a way that can make a lasting difference. Africa though is rich in mineral, timber and oil resources and in today’s world it was only a matter of time until China with its growing thirst for resources cast an eye towards Africa. When I first read about this I have to admit to feeling a ray of hope. Maybe the Chinese can succeed where everyone else has failed. Maybe the Chinese can help lift that continent out of the pattern of almost perpetual bad news. The Chinese were able to turn a huge country that was essentially poverty stricken into a growing economic juggernaut. Could some of what they learned work in Africa?

China for a long time had been among the have not’s in the world; taken advantage of and looked down upon by others. In one instance, the opium wars (also called the Anglo-Chinese wars) were fought to ensure the British right (in the second opium war the French fought along side the British) to import opium into China (opium had been outlawed within Britain, but was apparently ok to import into China). The opium trade in China had very serious negative consequences on individual health and the economic health of China, consequences that the British chose to ignore, as their main concern was balancing their trade deficit. Additionally, China was forced to cede control of Hong Kong in perpetuity to Britain. (The New Territories were ceded for 99 years and over the years the New Territories became crucial to Hong Kong’s ability to function; water, food and other resources came from there, and the British were forced to give Hong Kong back as well as the New Territories when the term expired as Hong Kong was not viable without the New Territories).  The Japanese during World War II treated the Chinese very poorly (as well as a host of others), looking down upon them as somehow something less than human. In Nanjing China, the Japanese army it is estimated killed over 300,000 civilians and POWs, and raped at least 20,000 women during a two-month period. The means used to kill these people are almost beyond description. There is virtually no country in the world, some to a lesser extent, and some to a greater extent, which does not have versions of these sordid acts in their own history – including the USA.  The point is not to single out any one country but to paint a general pattern that describes how mankind can be inhuman to mankind.

China is now rapidly becoming one of the world’s haves. And given its history, the trauma that the Chinese have suffered over the years would it be possible that the Chinese would take a fresh approach in their dealings with Africa and other have not’s? Can they break the mold of “situational judgment”, whereby certain characteristics are ascribed to a person because of the environment they are in and not who they really are? Have their own personal experiences prepared them to interact in a more positive fashion with today’s have not’s?  The verdict is still out, but there are some troubling signs emerging.

Appearing in the International Herald Tribune (February 17th, 2007) is this excerpt from the opinion page.  “China’s president, Hu Jintao, recently completed a 12-day, 8-nation African tour in which he dispensed billions of dollars’ worth of debt relief, discounted loans and new investments….Beijing’s huge purchases of oil and other resources have made it the continent’s third-largest trading partner…China’s oil appetite has drawn it into an ugly partnership with Sudan, which is waging a genocidal war in Darfur that has already killed at least 200,000 people. Chinese mining investors in Zambia, as focused on the bottom line as any capitalists, have drawn complaints from workers and environmentally minded neighbors. China’s lending banks do not subscribe to the international guidelines, known as the Equator Principles, that are used to monitor and manage the social and environmental impact of major outside investments. And a flood of cheap Chinese manufactured goods has pushed some of the poorest and most marginal workers deeper into poverty and unemployment…China isn’t the first outside industrial power to behave badly in Africa. But it should not be proud of following the West’s sorry historical example.”

And appearing on the on the cover of The Wall Street Journal (February 2nd, 2007) is the story of Chambishi, Zambia. “Set amid rolling hills in Zambia’s copper belt, Chambishi was supposed to be a showcase of Sino-African friendship. China’s state metals conglomerate…bought the mothballed copper mine here in 1998, bringing plenty of jobs and investments. Initial gratitude, however, quickly turned into seething discontent, as the new Chinese owners banned union activity and cut corners on safety. In 2005, dozens of locals were killed in a blast at the Chinese explosives facility serving the mine – the worst industrial accident in Zambia’s history. Then, the following year, protesting Zambian employees were sprayed with gunfire. ‘The Chinese, they don’t even consider us to be human beings…They think they have the right to rule us’”, says a former miner who says he was shot by a Chinese supervisor.

Sometimes extreme events accentuate behavior patterns and can serve as a magnifier of experiences we have in our day to day lives. Lessons learned from extreme events can bring clarity to how more common situations can be successfully worked through. For instance people face traumas as organizations merge, acquire, downsize, and reorganize. Some organizations do a much better job than others in dealing with these traumas and the employee’s associated stress. These organizational traumas are no different than larger traumas that people would experience when facing the death of a spouse, child or parent, or living through a terrorist attack, the degree of the trauma is the difference. Larger traumas can magnify human reactions and allow us to see more clearly our needs and shortcomings.

Some organizations over the years have created “classes” of people that are somehow looked down upon, not part of the team. In organizations with poor labor/management relations, militant unions can arise. What is management’s typical response to the rise of unions? Is it to look inward and say what have we done that has created conditions where our employees (often called our most valuable asset) felt the need to form or join a union? And how can we correct this situation? Some management’s will respond appropriately, others will seek to dehumanize the employees and the unions, just as the “guards” in Phil Zimbardo’s experiment did to the “prisoners”.

A case in point comes from a story appearing in the Wall Street Journal (February 9th, 2007), about the US Air Marshall Service. After 911 the Service greatly expanded but grueling schedules, lack of advancement, onerous rules affecting one’s ability to get the job done, lack of identity protection have resulted in “many” (in the words of other Marshalls) quitting the Service.  What was the response from the head of the Service? He called the complainers “disgruntled amateurs, insurgents, and organizational terrorists” – and the response of the Marshalls? They joined a union. Luckily there is now a new head of the US Air Marshall Service.

Interestingly within it own borders China is passing laws that give greater protection to workers and increasing authority to unions. The enforcement of those laws is still questionable. The Chinese Embassy in the USA cites a report to the Chinese government that documented a few of the worker abuses that occur:

  • According to the results of a survey, payment of 36.6 billion yuan (4.4 billion US dollars) in wages for urban workers was delayed by employers across China in 2000, and the figure may exceed 40 billion yuan to date.
  • For migrant workers, mostly poor farmers, the situation is even worse. Experts put the delayed payment of wages for them at 100 billion yuan annually, and it is not unusual for them to get no pay for overtime.
  • Workshop safety remains a problem for many workers, mostly those working for private or some overseas-funded plants. In Leqing city of Zhejiang Province, east China, trade union officials said about 5,000 migrant workers lost some of their fingers last year while working at poor quality punches without safety devices. Those injured were kicked out of the plants by their bosses with little financial  compensation, which is against the law, the officials said.

This description of the US Air Marshall Service, the state of labor relations within China and China’s behavior in Africa are simply more severe, magnified descriptions of what happens within our own organizations on a routine basis. Organizations are made up of humans, humans that are subject to all of our nobility, all of our frailty, and our shortcomings. Can we learn from Phil Zimbardo and make our organizations truly better places to inhabit or will this lesson of dehumanizing those that are different from us, those that often times simply due to economic conditions find themselves with fewer options? Can we evolve into something more than we are today? On good days when you read about some of the truly inspiring efforts of people trying to help others I am filled with hope, and other times when I read a story of a supervisor shooting an employee to keep the others in line, or of a factory throwing out an employee who lost their fingers while working as though they were no more than damaged goods…I just don’t know.

“I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops”.  – Stephen Jay Gould

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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November 24, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Every Wednesday?

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A union leader is addressing the crowd at a union meeting. From the podium he begins talking, “We have agreed on a new deal with management. We will no longer work five days a week.” The crowd roars it approval. “We will finish work at 3pm, not 4pm.” The crowd roars again. “We will start work at 9am, not 7am.” Once again the crowd roars. “We shall have a 150% pay raise”. The noise level was deafening. “We will work only on Wednesdays.” There was then a silence that immediately engulfed the room. You could hear a pin drop. Then from the back of the crowd a voice asks, “Every Wednesday?”

In spike of jokes like this that make the rounds, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear. The vast majority of workers want to do a good job at work. They want to work hard, they want to create products or services of which they can be proud, they want to work for a company that from their perspective has its act together and they want to be treated fairly and with respect, but then doesn’t everyone? This truism holds regardless of where in the world you happen to be, and whatever generation, gender or ethic group you are interacting with. Organizations tend to make rules to deal with the 5% of the population that do not fit this description not the 95% who do. As you think about your role think about what you can do to enable the 95% and not to control the 5%.

© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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October 21, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Wohlman’s Union Problem

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By 1896 Abraham Wohlman, who was getting on in years, was a relatively wealthy man. Originally from Bialystok he was living in Belz, Bessarabia an ancient town going back 1000 years, which at the turn of the 20th century had about 6000 people living within its boundaries. He owned a bookbinding shop and did enough volume that he was able to employ ten workers year-round. In addition to his bookbinding shop he also owned a book store from which he sold text-books and school supplies. He was very lucky to hold a contract with the local school system providing them with school supplies covering the elementary schools to the upper grades of the gymnasia, equivalent to a U.S. high school today. In the late 1800’s Belz, not one of the main population centers in Bessarabia, had no university. (The population of Belz in 2004 was estimated at about 2000 people.)

Though he was living with the hardships and restrictions associated with Czarist Russia, Abraham Wohlman lived a fine life. Married with 3 children (two boys and a girl), he was a very warm and compassionate fellow, who was well respected by and a supporter of his community. He had a nice house located on a side street in town, with a yard large enough that he was able to keep 3-4 cows, some chickens, geese, ducks and to grow vegetables. He provided jobs to others in the community and treated his workers as extensions of his own family, providing them with wholesome meals at his family’s table which they all shared together. When he wanted his two grandchildren to take language lessons, Abraham Wohlman hired a tutor named Benjamin Saltzman, my great-grandfather, to provide private lessons at his house.

A new worker at Wohlman’s, one who had served an apprenticeship as a bookbinder (which was started as young as 11 years of age), but still early career as a craftsman, would make about 8 rubles a month or 96 rubles a year. For some context a small 3 room cottage with dirt floors cost about 400 rubles.  Each worker at Wohlman’s had the right to join any political party that they so chose and a great diversity of political thought among the ten workers occurred, each assuming that their choice was the best and trying to convince the others to see things their way. It was a dynamic, thoughtful environment. But for a worker life was hard and economically in general people were not well off as they struggled to put food on their tables and to survive. Benjamin Saltzman had moved his family to Belz from Brateslav after working as a tutor for a number of years, bought a house on the Klezmershe Gesl or street of the musicians (each trade had it own street name) and opened a small grocery store. The store had dirt floors and it was not unusual for thieves to dig under the walls of the store to steal food, for they were hungry – times were tough for many.

A writer describes a first person account of the street itself in the spring– “The frost subsided and the ice began to melt. And the lovely warm spring sun likewise appeared in all its splendor and radiance. And even the Klezmershe Gesl became alive too, with all its mud and slush. It was impossible to cross the street even in the tallest boots. The mud swelled up so that it literally overflowed its boundaries onto the sidewalk, and it would not take long for it to pour into the houses themselves. I think that no other town in Russia had such deep mud as was found in the Klezmershe Gesl in Belz. The mud had respect only for that person who had boots that reached up to his knees.”

Fear increasing entered the lives of the people of Belz. During April 6 – 7, 1903 the Kishinev Pogrom occurred (Kishinev is the capital of the Bessarabia Province where Belz is located). Forty-seven people were killed, 92 critically wounded, 500 injured and 700 homes looted or destroyed during rioting.  Czarist authorities did nothing to prevent the attacks until the 3rd day. In October of 1905 a second attack occurred with 19 killed and 56 injured. (As a result of the first attack self-defense organizations arose which limited the number of deaths during the second). Those who were fearful for their safety reported that they “couldn’t go to the police, for we didn’t trust them”.

In 1905 as conditions in Russia continued to worsen, union organizers came to Belz and convinced Wohlman’s workers to join a union that they were setting up throughout the province. The union was pitched as a method by which the conditions of their lives, safety, security and standards could be improved. “Our shop also became involved in “the movement”. And six months later a strike was declared. To tell the truth, not every worker was pleased with the strike, because all those who worked for Wohlman respected him and even loved him. He treated the workers like his own children, and not like strangers”.

The new union that the workers had joined came to the conclusion that it was not right for workers to eat their meals in the home of the Wohlman, to be “treated as his own children”. Further they felt that wages should be raised enough so that each worker could decide on their own where they would eat their meals. By treating the workers as “family”, by having them partake of meals at Wohlman’s own table, and not paying them sufficiently for them to be independent of that somewhat feudal system and able to make decisions for themselves, the union felt that the treatment the workers received held an element of disrespect. Wohlman who had welcomed each employee as family saw it differently and refused to accept such conditions under any circumstances. He was able to provide for his workers at a reduced cost than what he would have to pay them for the same ability, for he fed them partly out of the bounty of his homestead. Providing sufficient wages to each worker to take their meals independently would cost him a greater amount.

One worker in Wohlman’s employ stated, “I can safely vouch that the workers did not enjoy as good a home in their own houses as they did at Wohlman’s. It was for this reason that he did not want to pay his workers for their food, since his house was filled with everything of the best, which cost him very little. And so the strike continued ever more stubbornly, so that it became impossible to reach an agreement.”

He continued, “I realized that the strike will not end very soon while the workers were marching around Wohlman’s house. Each striker had to find his own place where to stay and a place where to eat. I knew full well the difficult position of my family who, in their extremity, looked forward to my earnings from which even earlier I could not lay aside enough for their needs. And the union could give us no help at all. It simply had no money to pay out, for it had been organized only a short while before. I saw that if I stayed here longer I would soon be left without any money at all. This was my greatest problem at the time. I was sure of one thing; when and if the strike were settled I would again get work at the Wohlman’s, since he considered me his best worker and he liked me very much”.

While the details of what caused Wohlman’s union problem differ from the more common ones today the underlying issues are absolutely the same. It would be unusual though not unheard of for workers today to take their meals with the owner’s family as a way for the owner to save money on wages, however the underlying issues that it highlights, respectful treatment, sense of equity – fairness surrounding pay, benefits, control over one’s own destiny are very common causes of labor unrest. The uncertainty of the times with extreme violence breaking out, uncertainty about safety and security as well as poor treatment of the citizenry by those in authority, laid the foundations necessary for fertile union organizing. The strike at Wohlman’s, with workers walking the picket lines, lasted approximately one year. It was then settled with the workers receiving enough of a wage increase that they could choose to eat their meals wherever they wanted. While the strikers did come back to work at Wohlman’s bookbinding shop, what I don’t know from the material available to me is whether they were ever welcomed back at Wohlman’s dinner table.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 18, 2009 at 11:45 am

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