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The Justice Department estimates that more than 650 thousand young people are involved in gangs, and those gang members committed more than three thousand homicides in 1995. Politicians and popular culture often paint gang members as irretrievable outlaws who will only leave the gang in handcuffs or a body bag. But experts say most gang members eventually go straight. Minnesota Public Radio’s John Biewen reports.
Reverend Miller goes into several St. Paul high schools every week; he teaches a voluntary, non credit course exclusively to black teens. The course covers various aspects of African American life, past and present. but Miller spends several sessions talking about street gangs. One study estimates 47 percent of the nation’s youth gang members are black; 43 percent are Latino. six percent Asian and four percent white. Miller stresses most black students are not involved in gangs or crime. but he hopes to reach a few who are. and alter the image of gangs among as many kids as possible.
Miller’s discussions on gang culture are especially lively at the Area Learning Center. an alternative high school for kids who’ve been kicked out of other schools because of truancy or discipline problems. Several of the twenty or so students in Miller’s class are admitted gang members. Miller tells them he understands the attractiveness of gangs for young blacks who have troubled families, few recreational choices. and deep doubts that education will guarantee a good job in what they see as a hostile white society.
Michael: “I said, what about the young ones that want some money, their parents ain’t got it but they ain’t old enough to work no job, though. Their momma can’t afford to put a pair of Nike shoes and a pair of something on em, you know what I’m saying?” Miller: “Answer this. What put the thought in that young person’s mind that they needed a pair of Nikes?” Michael: “The first time they seen that commercial.” (Miller slams hand on board and screams) “That’s what I’m talking about!!” Michael: “So what you saying, stop watching TV?” Miller: “No, no, no, listen! Understand who’s playing, and understand who’s being played!”
In other words, though most young gang members eventually graduate to normal lives. the number of kids going through that rite of passage is growing. The Justice Department says gang membership has grown by more than a hundred thousand since 1993. Some experts call for more social spending and job programs for young people; others say it’s up to families and communities to rein in problem kids and teach better values. Michael, the semi retired Gangster Disciple in St. Paul,
says he grew up in a loving family with high expectations. but even as a small child he saw that gangsters had special status in his school and neighborhood.