Durham News

A candid conversation about Durham’s gangs

A red bandana hangs in memory of a teenager who was killed in a 2001 drive-by shooting at the intersection of Canal and Elizabeth Streets in this file photo. The red bandana denotes membership in the Bloods gang.
A red bandana hangs in memory of a teenager who was killed in a 2001 drive-by shooting at the intersection of Canal and Elizabeth Streets in this file photo. The red bandana denotes membership in the Bloods gang. Scott Lewis

All gangbangers are violent.

If a gang member shoots someone, it was ordered by gang leaders or is part of a gang war.

Once you’re in a gang, you can’t get out.

Those are some of the common misconceptions about gang culture, say two local experts who work with gang-involved youth in Durham.

“We see young people distance themselves from gangs all the time,” said Michelle Young, who has worked on gangs across the United States for 23 years, including 15 years at the National Gang Center on federal anti-gang initiatives.

To learn more about gangs and their role in violent crime in the Bull City, The Durham News interviewed Young and former gang member Jalen Lyons.

Young works with Project Build, a Durham gang prevention and intervention program that works with young people 14 to 24 years old.

Lyons, 19, is a peer support specialist for Project Build. He joined a Durham gang at 13, but left after serving three years in prison for armed robbery in South Carolina at age 15. Lyons asked that we not reveal the gang for his safety.

Gangs in Durham – there are about 15 – are pretty much the same as gangs in other major cities, Young said.

“We have Sureños. We have Norteños. We have Crips. We have Bloods, Latin Kings. We have Gangster Disciples,” she said.

The typical gang has some kind of initiation, “usually fighting,” Young said. Often they have meetings, the frequency depending on the gang. Members could be asked to drive during a shooting or other crimes, but often individuals act on their own or with a group of friends as a way to make money, she said.

Q: What have you learned about gangs while you have been with Project Build?

Young: I think the one thing that I have learned here is there is a lot of violence, back and forth, between gangs that in other cities would be aligned together. So Bloods beefing with Bloods. Crips beefing with Crips. That was different for me when I came here. Typically in other places where I have to worked, gangs want to have numbers. The larger you are, the more powerful you are and so Bloods tend to cooperate with other Bloods, so they can have the numbers against their rivals, who are typically Crips.

Lyons: Here, I think it is more like a title, kind of like a respect thing. So, if you are a Blood, you want to be in a sect that has the highest reputation or the most respect. And that is kind of why, like nowadays, it might be Bloods going after Bloods. Everybody wants to be known as “I am in the biggest, baddest Blood gang in Durham.”

Q: What are some common misconceptions about gang members in Durham?

Young: One misconception is that all gang members are the same. My experience is that all gang members are not the same. Some kids are much more committed to the lifestyle. Some kids are much more involved in violence. Other kids are just in it for the ride. A lot of times when people finds out a kid is gang involved, they think the kid is automatically dangerous or violent. In my experience, that’s just not the case.

Another common misconception is that kids can’t leave. Once a gang member always a gang member. There is a lot of research that suggests the average youth is only in a gang for about a year. But how long they stay depends on their level of involvement, what kind of a criminal activity they get involved in, what kind of gang they are involved in, how they come about joining.

We see young people distance themselves from gangs all the time. And often with not a lot of consequences because I think the gang doesn’t want people who are not loyal in the middle of their inner circle. Teenagers by their very nature are pretty very inconsistent, and I think that a lot of young people experiment with gangs but the majority don’t stay in for years and years and years.

Lyons: A lot of people think that all gangbangers in Durham are bad people. I have a friend. He is not really heavily involved, but he still considers himself a gang member. He does a lot of stuff for the community. Sometimes he does free car washes. Just, like, to give back to the community. He donated some money to churches. He does a lot of things around Durham. He is not a bad guy at all, even though he is still affiliated with a gang. His whole reason for joining a gang was to better the community. He wanted to get a group of people to get under him to better Durham. I haven’t talked to him recently, so I don’t know how that has been working out for him.

Q: Did you have trouble when you no longer wanted to be with the gang?

Lyons: No. It’s how deep you get yourself into it, and then how you separate yourself. It also depends on how much experience you have, how long you have been in the gang before you try to get out. If I was to get in, and then just walk away, somebody probably wouldn’t respect that. But if I was in for a while, (I could) let them know “I am trying to be a better person. I was with you guys. And this is what it led me to, and I don’t want this for the rest of my life.”

Some people get lucky, and you have those group of people that will be on your side. And are like, “go for it.” Then some people just get with a gang, and they are like, “you are with us until death do us part.”

Q: What are the positives of being in a gang?

Young: Kids get positives out of the gang that in many places they aren’t getting anywhere else. I think part of doing gang intervention work is to figure out what is the positive that this young person hoped to get out of this, and how do we replace this with something better. So whenever you think about people who are gang involved, we are talking about people who have been through some serious problems. They have been victimized. They have been part of family struggles. There is a lot of upheaval. Dad’s not around. Mom’s incarcerated. I am living with Grandma. That can be really stressful for young people. And they start looking for a place where they can belong, be safe, and feel like there is support as a human being. And that is what they look to the gang for.

Lyons: The guys I was running with were not influencing me to do go rob somebody, go do this, go do that. Actually the people I got in trouble with were in South Carolina, and there wasn’t any gang involvement.

My friends (in the gang) were like, “You’re a smart kid you are a really good athlete, stay in school and play football. That way when you make it, it will be easier for all of us to help the community out.”

Q: Are gang members getting younger?

Young: Definitely. We see 12- to 13-year-olds. We don’t really serve under age 12, but I have heard from elementary schools that they have gang members. Typically, if you are looking at 10- or 11-year-olds they have older siblings, they have older cousins, or they have friends in the neighborhood that are gang involved and that is what is pulling them towards it.

Q: What is working to get kids out of gangs?

Young: A long time ago, a lady that I worked with in Salt Lake City told me that kids would walk away from gangs if they had somebody to walk with and some place to walk to. That is kind of the philosophy of what we do at Project Build. We want to come along the side of people who are struggling, and we want to build a relationship with them so that they have adults in their life that they can trust.

The reality is young people we are working with are dealing with really terrible things happening: Somebody got shot on my street and I saw it. My mom has cancer. My dad just went to prison. These are horrible things for a young person to go through. A lot of those behavior problems are coming from something that is going in that kid’s life outside of school. We try to figure out what is causing this behavior. There are things we can’t fix, but the things we can fix we try to fix. We have worked with a number of young people who couldn’t read. Their behavior in school is not going to be great because they are not going to understand 75 percent of what is going on in high school when you can’t read.

Q: If you are in a gang, are you required to commit a crime?

Lyons: No.

Young: I think a lot of young people do it because they want money. Our kids are in varying circumstances. Some of our kids are from middle class families. In those circumstances, it’s harder for me to understand why they may be doing that. But a lot of times it is just to belong or to fit in with something. It is very hard for youth to find jobs in Durham. And when you are 14 or 15, there are only two or three places where you can legally work. And so we have a lot of young people who really get in trouble in that 14, 15, 16 age group because they have hard time finding a job, but they want money so they can buy school clothes or help their mom out. I think being in a gang is kind of what you do in some neighborhoods. But then robbing people or selling drugs is what you do to make money in some neighborhoods.

Q: Often when violent crime spikes, people start asking about gangs’ involvement. What is your response?

Lyons: Nowadays people are getting killed over somebody’s boyfriend or girlfriend. It is more so a personal thing, and it just may happen to be the person that shot this person is a gangbanger. But the reason why he is shooting isn’t gang related.

Young: There is an argument to be made that research says that kids from gangs commit three times as many crimes as other juvenile offenders. I do think there is something about the culture of the gang that it kind of normalizes some criminal behavior to kids. They see other people doing stuff, and think that is OK, or they think this is the life that we chose.

Bridges: 919-564-9330

Project Build statistics

Between July 1, 2015 and March 31, 2015, Project Build served 145 clients.

During that time:

▪ 35 got jobs.

▪ 32 enrolled in school, participated in an alternative to suspension, or were connected to educational support services such as tutoring.

▪ Four were connected to medical care

▪ Six were assisted with completing court-ordered community service hours

▪ One client was connected to housing two times.

▪ 22 youth participated in 19 days of Summer Camp.

▪ 10 youth completed five days of pre-employment training during Spring Break

About Project Build

Founded in 2009, Project Build is funded by the city, county and state to work with young people between the ages of 12 and 24 something to help them do something better than being involved in gangs.

“We don’t expect them to be clean,” said Michelle Young, director. “They can be court involved or not. They can be just coming out of jail. Our goal is try to work with them personally to help them develop some of the social skills they need to function in Main Street society, and also to help them to be successful educationally, employment wise.”

Project Build’s program model is based on the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Comprehensive Gang Model, an evidence-based gang intervention model developed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Elements of this model include street outreach workers, a multidisciplinary intervention team, and coordinated case management of clients’ needs and services.

For more information about the program, go to http://projectbuild.4hdurham.org/.