Friday, May 22, 2009

The 5-Os

When Lieutenant A. hired me to work for the gang unit, he essentially hired me away from a job training program that worked with teens and young adults from urban areas around the U.S, many with serious gang problems.

When I interviewed, he explained my role: "I expect you to work with 10 kids, knowing that 9 of the 10 will end up locked up or dead, and maybe only 1 will choose to turn his life around. But, you won't know for years which 1 of the 10 that single successful person will be, so I want you to work just as hard with 10 as you do that 1."

I already knew I loved teenagers, so that was entirely do-able. Apart from the success ratio, any job with high risk teens entails a certain degree of failure, so I felt I was prepared for that, and told him.

Then, Lieutenant A asked me what I knew about gangs.

"I feel like I'm good at working with gang members in a structured setting. I know or suspect that several of my kids in my program had gang ties, and gang dialect is always around, on the edges. For instance--

In a classroom exchange, a male student turned to his seatmate and started discussing OG's. I knew that there was something inappropriate about this phrase:

"Phillip, want to tell the rest of the class what you're talking about?"

"Sure, Miss A. We were talking about OGs."

"Feel free to explain to the class what an OG is."

With a smirk on his face, he looked at me and said, "You're an OG, Miss A. It stands for Old Gal."

--but it would be a mistake to say that I know much about gangs."

Lieutenant A. laughed, and said, "I'll make sure you know everything you need to know before you go out on the street. We're hiring you to work with kids, but we are also hiring you to train people in the community, write proposals and manuals, brief elected officials, and help set gang policy in the community. It's a big job, but I think you can do it. Learning about gangs is the easy part."

One of the first things he did (following the process of creating an extremely unattractive employee ID picture that made me look a lot like a ripe tomato thanks to an unfortunate red dress) was to send me for a week to a gang conference in California.

My introduction to my co-workers occurred at the departure gate in the airport as we boarded the plane to California. On that day, I met the crew of 15 officers who composed the metro gang unit and the data analyst.

One of my favorite officers in the crew would be Drew, who missed the flight because he checked in at the ticket counter with his loaded service revolver in his luggage. More on Drew, later.

We disembarked in sunny Anaheim, and I immediately surrounded by over 1,500 law enforcement officers from around (mostly) the western U.S. I should mention that in those days, gang cops were about 97% male, so there was no waiting in line for bathrooms at the conference. That was a plus.

We packed into a large, darkened hotel auditorium every day to listen to gang cops like Joe Guzman (a legend in the field of gangs) tell us about Crips, Bloods, Surenos, Nortenos, Folks, People, prison gangs, and outlaw motorcycle gangs. I remember scribbling furiously on my legal pad, as I learned (ostensibly) everthing I would need to know to differentiate between a Crip and a Surenos member on the street. I looked around in the darkness and saw others doing the same thing on the narrow conference tables, frantically trying to catch every word. We saw hundreds of slides of gang members and their handsigns, graffiti, tattoos, and clothing items. Slide after slide of latino gang members, asian gang members, black gang members, and skinheads. We heard stories about the evolution of the Mexican Mafia in the California prison system and watched graphic videos of gang shootings, stabbings, and robberies.

During the evenings, we kicked back around the pool at an open social hour with free liquor and beer for hours.

I'd never worked with cops, and felt ambivalent in their presence. I liked the Lieutenant, who was very married, and middle-aged, with curly brown hair and a cherubic face. I liked his soft-spokenness and his dry sense of humor.

But, my social services background hadn't prepared me to deal with an onslaught of such overwhelming maleness from thousands of cops. The testosterone was palpable: bulging muscles, deep voices, guns--I'd never seen so many guns in my damn life--and frat boy humor. The addition of alcohol exacerbated it all. Loud voices raised in loud laughter, mocking one another mercilessly, and incessant constant college kid pranks. It was--exhausting.

I would go back to the room at the end of the day feeling like what I really needed was a cold shower and an early bedtime--by myself--in the peace and quiet--with a good book.

By end of the week, it was as if these cops had opened up my head and tipped an entire "all you can eat" gang buffet into it. It was overwhelming, and I was sated to the point of nausea on gang know-how.

I now knew what the number 13 meant and that a spiderweb on the elbow could be a prison tattoo, and it gave me a sense of confidence that was totally out of line with the practical realities.

[fully understand that this post needs more work, and plan to do it.]


Anonymous said...

I love that feeling of escaping to your room with a good book. And maybe a nightcap. I adore these stories--they're riveting.

SciFi Dad said...

Agree with your last statement... the post kind of drops off of a cliff as it stands now.

Mongoliangirl said...

I agree with HIF and SciFi.
So many of my friend in recovery have 13 and spider web tats. The longer they stay clean the more they get into a really great place of them being strong reminders of their past, or they have them removed. Either way, it all seems good.
I am looking forward to more of this. Thanks for letting us "in".

Gwen said...

This is great...leaves me hungry for more. What does 13 mean? What is the significance of the spider web (or is it just the obvious?) You obviously have so many stories to tell and you must be bursting to tell them. I know I would.

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