New York, NY —
Street gangs have always been a part of life in New York City; in some neighborhoods they’re a constant fact of life. WNYC’s Siddhartha Mitter spent time in the Bronx with a teenager to get a street level view.
RICH: Like right here, the four buildings right there is the Blood area. The other side is Crip territory…
REPORTER: Rich Velez is sixteen and lives in the South Bronx, and as we drive around the Mott Haven and Melrose neighborhoods he explains why kids are drawn into gangs.
RICH: Most people they get into it because they scared of other gangs and stuff like that, they scared to be jumped by theyself… and some people get like, like look at my friend, he just got into Blood, and he knows everybody, and nobody mess with him because he’s in the Bloods.
REPORTER: The Bloods are one of the largest street gangs in the Bronx and in the city. Like their rivals the Crips, they are a national phenomenon that started in California, but they are highly decentralized or even scattered into neighborhood sets that don’t always recognize each other. Claiming a gang affiliation offers protection and also the allure of random violence.
RICH: … they like yo, get into this with me, yo. And they be like, nah, nah. And the Bloods be like, yo, son, just hit this guy and get into it, it’s mad easy!
REPORTER: Rich knows from experience. He spent two years as a Blood in the Bronx, in a set that claimed as its territory a stretch of Third Avenue from the Patterson projects at 145th Street down to the Mitchel projects at 138th. He joined the gang when he was 14, which is a typical age for recruitment.
RICH: Basically they tell you to fight in an elevator. So it’s you versus four other guys…
REPORTER: His initiation ceremony was to fight members of the set in a project elevator from the twentieth floor down to the ground.
RICH: It was actually fun doing it.
REPORTER: When he got out, he was a Blood.
RICH: Then the OG was downstairs, and he was like you in, he gave me the papers…
REPORTER: O.G. stands for Original Gangster -- the leader of the set. The O.G. welcomed Rich into the gang with documents and codes to memorize:
RICH: The flag that binds my family is red and stained with the blood of my dead homies. My flag shall never be torn, my flag shall never touch the ground, no blood on my flag shall never touch the ground. That’s the oath.
REPORTER: The O.G. also conferred on Rich his street name, to reel off like a military rank whenever called upon by a superior.
RICH: And who I be was Bloody Smoke, West Side, Rollin’ 20s… Yeah that’s like the shit that you gotta spit when they go like that, when they shake your hand or whatever…
REPORTER: The names and codes aren’t just ritual. They help sort out which sets are considered legitimate by other Bloods or Crips, and which ones are just wannabes. And they give gang members a new identity, a family, to belong to -- in principle for life.
RICH: You’re in it, you’re in it. You can’t get out, you can’t get out. The only way you can get out is if your OG dies… SM: So where we at right now? RICH: We at 149 and Jackson Avenue. And that’s a girl named Jennifer, and I’m about to talk to her. …open your window, open your window!! … Jennifer! Yo! Yo! Yo!
REPORTER: Rich may have been a gang member but in this moment he’s a neighborhood kid, pointing out the places where his worlds overlap.
RICH: And this is my old school. This is a bad school. You would never want to see your kids in here. … Alright, those is Bloods right there. … Two of them is Blood, and the other one is neutral. SM: But they’re not flagging. RICH: No, they’re not flagging. But you see them in Cypress flagging.
REPORTER: Flagging means wearing distinctive gang colors: red for Bloods, blue for Crips, and so on. But Rich says gang members often don’t flag, unless they’re on their turf where they feel in control. They enforce their control by means of violence.
RICH: It’s like you hit this innocent person, basically. … Hit them to rob them.
REPORTER: Rich says that his set would attack people to take their wallets or watches…
RICH: …and sneakers. They’ll take anything that looks nice.
REPORTER: Rich says his set targeted Mexicans – a trend that activists say is on the rise. Mexican immigrants tend to carry cash wages and often won’t go to the police if they’re undocumented. As Rich saw it, Mexicans were trespassing:
RICH: ‘Cause every time we’ll be here, like there’ll always be a Mexican passing by. Say yo, take this Mexican off our block. So the Mexican would get hurt, take his wallet…
REPORTER: As Rich describes it, his own set was somewhere in the middle on the spectrum of criminality. He says he didn’t sell drugs, but he knew some who did. And he says there were guns available. In general, though, Rich says that for most kids in street gangs, gang life is pretty monotonous.
RICH: Every day they do the same thing all over. Sleep, smoke, drink, sleep, smoke, drink, chill, chill…
REPORTER: The idleness is pervasive. But it’s also deceptive. Kids in the gang life do a lot of hanging around, but they’re also alert to the presence of death around them. The city’s murder rate is at a historic low, but it actually went up last year in 22 of 76 police precincts -- including the 40th precinct, which covers much of the South Bronx. One murder victim in 2007, according to Rich, was his O.G.
RICH: He just died recently. He got shot. Fifteen times. By Crips. When he died, they told me that, yo, we gonna go bang out…
REPORTER: Rich had a choice to make: Get out of the gang, or avenge the O.G. and get deeper.
RICH: I was like, uh-uh, you bugging. I was like, I’ll fight…
REPORTER: But Rich wasn’t prepared to shoot anyone.
RICH: …cause I ain’t trying to do no time. And they never went, so the Crips never died.
REPORTER: Rich recently almost did do time after being arrested for assaulting a Mexican. But he managed to get probation. His brother works for an anti-violence organization, and they promised to supervise him. Almost going to prison made Rich think twice. Now with the O.G.’s death, he had a chance to get out. He took his case to the O.G.’s brother, who was taking control of the set.
RICH: He said why, started giving me questions about why do you want to leave the gang. I was like, because I don’t want to be doing this the rest of my life, hitting on people with no reason. And he felt offended, and he told me that. That’s why he told me to fight in the elevator…
REPORTER: It was back to the elevator. Rich had had to fight to get in, now he had to fight to get out. When it was all over, he says, there were no hard feelings.
RICH: Yeah, I’m still cool with them...
REPORTER: Rich still sees the gang members around the neighborhood, but so far, he has stayed out of trouble. He’s looking into G.E.D. programs so he can finish high school.
RICH: So now I’m free, in the ghetto…
REPORTER: These days Jonathan Figueroa, the older brother who helped Rich stay out of jail, is keeping a close eye on him.
JONATHAN: he knows about his chances of going to jail, so he can’t act up, he can’t do anything foolish. I think he’s realized that now, so he’s been much more calm, conscious of what he’s doing. SM: Are you more conscious? RICH: Yeah. I think twice before I do something now… I control myself. I don’t let people control me no more.
REPORTER: Rich Velez isn’t a Blood anymore, but he doesn’t yet have a new direction – a school program, or a job, or anything else he can sink his teeth into and trust himself to succeed. He walked away from the kind of identity and belonging the gang provided. At sixteen, his challenge now is to find a new one.
REPORTER: For WNYC, I’m Siddhartha Mitter