I was at a Durham Area Transit Authority bus terminal recently when I got the scare of my life. Two guys walked past me and I could tell just by looking at them that something wasn't right. I'd been reading up on gangs in the paper and I noticed all the telltale signs: They both had the same type of jackets and spoke to each other in the same cryptic slang. Heart racing, I snuck a peek at the insignia on one of their sleeves. It confirmed my worst suspicions. The emblem was the mark of a gang that operates heavily on both coasts in this country, and which has made significant inroads into America's inner cities. This gang has become known for its elaborate initiation rites, which can last months. Its members must swear to kill on the word of their higher-ups, regardless of whether they have any personal beef with their intended victims. Once members join, it can take them years to get out if they have a change of heart. And this gang's not shy about recruiting in high schools.
I glanced over in the other direction and spied an official-looking sign that stated in strange official-speak, "Attention: Gang related symbols, signs and gestures are not allowed on DATA/City of Durham property (to include city buses). Violators will be trespassed."
I slid around the corner and feverishly dialed 9-1-1, to tip off 5-0 to the danger at DATA. A patrolman was dispatched to the scene and arrived stern-faced and ready for action. I approached him on the low to get his attention, feeling like a real CrimeStopper.
"Psst," I whispered, with a stiff head nod in the direction of the potential perps. "There's the gang members."
To my chagrin, the cop looked puzzled, then irritated. "That's not a gang," he said, scolding me through clenched teeth. "Those boys are in the U.S. Army."
"Hey, they fit the description," I shrugged. "Better safe than sorry."
OK, I didn't really do that, but it could happen. The fuzzily worded policy posted by Durham Transit, while eyebrow-raising in its potential for misinterpretation and abuse, is really only a symptom of a larger sickness. The public is becoming increasingly paranoid about crime and public safety, with the flames of their fears fanned in large part by the media and elected officials. Whether the motive is votes or viewers, we're continuously bombarded by a steady stream of sensationalized crime "reporting" which, in turn, makes us more fearful.
We're fearful even though actual crime is decreasing. A study published in April by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, the Public Health Institute and Justice Policy Institute, hones in on this problem. "Off Balance: Youth, Race and Crime in the News," looked at more than 70 previous studies of the media and/or crime produced since 1910. The survey, commissioned by the national group, Building Blocks for Youth, found that TV news coverage of crime has increased tremendously even while crime rates have fallen. For example, homicide rates dropped by 33 percent between 1990 and 1998, while network homicide coverage in the same period skyrocketed by 473 percent.
It's not just crime that gets unequal treatment in the media. In the 77 published and peer-reviewed studies that the "Off Balance" authors used as the basis for their analysis, they found people of color (particularly blacks) are consistently over represented in the amount of news coverage they receive as perpetrators of crime, and even more consistently underrepresented as crime victims.
Why is this important? Because, as the new study confirmed, that's where three-quarters of Americans form their perceptions about crime. Their ill-informed responses exert strong pressure on public officials, who then act on the hysteria with a steady succession of get-tough policies that are as skewed and divorced from true conditions as the fears they spring from. When it comes to crime, perception equals reality. And you can't wear bandanas on the DATA bus.
Think my G.I. gangsta comparison was a bit over the top? If such vague criteria as that posted by the Durham Area Transit Authority will suffice to identify someone as a gang banger, there are a lot more folks than members of the armed services who'll find themselves fitting the description.
What about that annoying yuppie, "bang bang," finger-pistol gesture that some folks seem to do every time they run into an acquaintance? Not only is it a potential gang sign (they're repping' for some kinda' suburban Hell's Angels), but the simulated firearm could also signify a threat of bodily harm--one that should carry jail time under our zero-tolerance regime.
Bandanas and headwraps are obviously perceived as a dire threat by the National Football League, which recently banned them. I happen to think they look silly as hell, and should be avoided for the same reason that one wouldn't step onto the playing field with knee-high yellow socks with polka dots. But banned?
Come on, now. If bandanas are that insidious, it won't be long before we witness the mass persecution of Sheltie dogs--a breed that has historically rocked bandanas with impunity. Under the heavy-handed rubric of gang suppression, they could be summarily rounded up and brought downtown:
Sparky: "I swear, officer, I'm not in a gang."
Lt. Friendly: "Yeah, right. Explain the red bandana around your neck."
Sparky: "All of us (ulp) wear these. But it's not a gang symb--"
Lt. Friendly: "I heard people speaking gang-slang to you. They said,'Wassup, dawg?'"
Sparky: "That's cuz I am a dog."
Lt. Friendly: "Mmmm hmm. Next you'll be telling me you didn't steal that Frisbee that I caught you running with."
And who decides which gangs are "dangerous?" What if a group of gangly, Harry Potter-style glasses-wearin' kids roll up in the mall with black jackets and hoodies emblazoned with "Tha Numismatists" in blood-red letters, shouting, "Coin collecting. WHUT??!!! Recognize, fool." Are we gonna assume they're a threat?
Of course, there ain't a damn thing funny about the implications of policies like these for those who have historically borne the brunt of official "get tough" exercises. Black and Latino youth are already arrested and incarcerated at rates many times higher than their white counterparts. What the "Off Balance" study adds to the picture is proof of the media's complicity in generating or reinforcing skewed public perceptions about crime. Perceptions that beget policy. That get reported and influence perception in a seemingly never-ending cycle that compounds the accumulation of bias throughout the criminal justice system like interest on a "second-chance" car loan.
Even as the practice of racial profiling is getting increasing media coverage and sparking rising community opposition, the criminalization of gang affiliation provides yet another way to justify the practice of discriminatory law enforcement. When I was younger, numerous of my "you fit the description" episodes involved folks drawing negative conclusions when more than two of "us" would congregate. I heard the term "gang" mentioned as cops recounted phoned-in reports by suspicious neighbors. Gangs were so played out, we thought, "Can't we just stand around and talk without it being like that?"
When it comes to gangs, we should remember that the cure is often worse than the illness. Los Angeles became nationally known for its Bloods and Crips street gangs in the 1980s and '90s, as age-old tensions turned violent with the influx of cheap drugs and cheap guns. But the draconian measures employed by the L.A. Police Department ended up ensnaring countless youth who were not even directly involved in gang activity. During street sweeps and stop-and-frisk arrests, kids who were picked up were identified in arrest records as being gang-affiliated on the basis of criteria as nebulous as those comprising DATA's prohibition signs.
Such excesses, coupled with those of politicians playing off the fears of a frightened public, ultimately led to the unconscionable abuses committed by cowboy cops in the the LAPD's controversial Rampart Division. In that ugly situation, police officers have admitted to such crimes as planting evidence and even murder--all carried out in the name of controlling gangs. To combat this grave threat, the Rampart cops evidently became a "gang" themselves, empowered by a nation which has declared a War On Our Children.
Make no mistake. Our perennial focus on gangs is part of a broader attack on youth culture. Removing race from the picture, the "Off Balance" study found that crime committed by youth is also subject to disproportionate media coverage, despite the fact that youth crime is decreasing. (This was the case even before the school-shooting phenomenon added fuel to that fire.) Is it mere senility or genuine malice that has the Baby Boom and Beyond architects of current public policy aiding and abetting the criminalization of our youth?
Teenage antics that they probably recall with a grandfatherly (gender reference intended) chuckle, like fistfights and 'teasing' will probably result in an arrest record or expulsion for today's kids. Of course, the ritual after-school brawl just ain't the same when little Johnny down the block got a Glock. But that's another column--or is it?
At the same time an article ran in the local press about DATA's new gang policy, our state legislature was busy making it easier for people to pack heat by passing a bill that preemptively prohibits municipalities from suing gun manufacturers for negligence. That same week, the papers also brought word of a new Supreme Court ruling that basically states there's nothing unconstitutional about Officer Friendly hauling any of our butts downtown for a minor traffic infraction, even if we sign the ticket and say please and thank you. Decisions like that open the door to laws that could potentially land you in the joint, for say, wearing the "wrong" kind of clothing.
Even as crime continues to decrease (and lets be clear here: I don't like crime, I think it's bad and we should stop it), the risk that our youth will get caught up in the system continues to rise. "Stakes Is High," to quote the rap group De La Soul--which, by the way, doesn't rhyme about gangs or guns.
Our response to the drop in crime rates should be a sigh of relief and a step back to study which prevention and rehabilitation strategies actually work with kids that are tempted to join gangs. Let's try providing our youth with alternatives, instead of labeling them guilty by association. Freaking out over what color jacket they wear just reinforces whatever feeling of power they hope to attain from joining from a gang. ("Look, we got these adults SHOOK!") With the personal accountability crowd back in power in Washington, we should at least be able to provide the kids with some good role models.
Then again, maybe not. After all, the president, our original gangster-in-chief, almost got our green gang into a war with the red gang because he wouldn't say "sorry."