In New York City, 30 percent of all shootings are tied to youth gang rivalries. There are over 300 street crews in the city, loosely affiliated gangs that battle mainly over turf. The rivalries often play out in rap videos made by the gangs and posted on YouTube. Those videos - and threats of violence in their lyrics - are being used as evidence by New York City police to make arrests. Brooke talks with WNYC reporter Kathleen Horan about this policing technique.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In New York City, 30 percent of all shootings are tied to gang rivalries. There are over 300 street crews here, loosely affiliated gangs that battle mainly over turf, and their rivalries often play out over social media. In particular, they produce rap videos. And those videos are being used as evidence by New York City police to make arrests. Police arrested 11 crewmembers, with the aid of a music video produced by the Dub Gang Money crew. Here’s an example of one of their songs.
[DUB GANG MONEY RAPPING “MIND ON MY MONEY”]:
Get it or get outta the way
I’m livin’ like every day is a holiday.
Dollar after dollar,
I’m flyin’ the metro parlor
Your pockets is on a diet….
WNYC reporter Kathleen Horan reported for a year on the death of New York City kids by guns. Welcome to the show.
KATHLEEN HORAN: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about Xavier Granville, a 17-year-old shot and killed in Queens a year ago. His death seems to have been connected to a rivalry between his gang, the 40 Boys, also known as the Flamers, and another crew called the Flock. I’m going to play a little bit of a song posted on YouTube by Xavier's friend Deandre Kelly. You can hear him talking about a gun, his Glock, and name-checking the rival Flock.
[YOUTUBE FLAMERS SOUNDTRACK]
I’m grippin’ with my Glock,
2012 crazy now I’m beefin’ with the Flock.
Free Wocka, chicken can’t stop ya -
Now, let’s hear a song from Flock seemingly about Granville’s murder
[YOUTUBE VIDEO/FLOCK RAP]:
Better take your last breath, yeah.
Next time I see your name comin’
It’s at the [ ? ]
And I didn't really want to do it
But I had to
Put myself in your shoes
This [ ? ] I’d be mad too…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “I didn't really want to do it, but I had to,” he said. Why is this useful information to the police?
KATHLEEN HORAN: In the Flamer video, Xavier appeared in that with all of his neighbors and friends who happened to be in his crew, and they’re taunting the Flock; they’re taunting the rival crew. That month, Xavier was shot, so that would tip off law enforcement that maybe they should look at it. These videos offer a window into things are going on that most people in these communities wouldn't volunteer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This staff can't be used as anything other than circumstantial material, right?
KATHLEEN HORAN: It's part of an investigation. One video isn’t going to take down a crew. Oftentimes, you see law enforcement investigate crews for years. They look at these videos to give them clues and try to decipher what’s a real threat and what's just music. But I speak to other people that work with street crews and they say that, while they understand that some of these videos can be incriminating, they don't trust that law enforcement has the sophistication to decipher what’s a battle rap, someone just describing what they've seen going on in their neighborhood and someone who's actually incriminating themselves, someone who pulled the trigger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is there any sure way to know? I mean, are there clues, if you were smart enough to pick them up?
KATHLEEN HORAN: You know, I’m not a member of law enforcement, but they're saying that if crews are behind such a huge chunk of shootings and kids are dying, and if the writing on the wall is from social media, they have to look at that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The NYPD looks at Twitter and Facebook to track the activity of these gangs. Does that work?
KATHLEEN HORAN: Like a lot of kids, they don't leave the house without posting it on Instagram or Facebook. If, if they didn't post it, it didn't happen. And what you see with rival crews is that they'll take a picture outside a rival’s housing project and then post it as a taunt. We’ve seen cases where a kid is shot and the rival crewmember will post a picture of them wearing the dead kid’s jacket on Facebook. It’s very hard for some of these members to resist doing these things, even though we've heard time and time again that law enforcement is monitoring social media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You spoke in one of your pieces to David Brotherton, who is a sociologist, and he explained why.
DAVID BROTHERTON: You know, you want to be somebody, and yet, in your daily life you’re nobody. I mean, in a sense, you’re invisible, and yet, if you’re in a gang you’re very visible. You know, in fact, you strike fear in the very people who want to make you invisible.
KATHLEEN HORAN: What you hear from, you know, sociologists like Brotherton and law enforcement is that the urge to be visible and to belong to something overrides other concerns. Their lives get carved up into ribbons, where they can go and where they can’t go, and it makes their life incredibly small. And part of posting on social media and making these videos and being seen is trying to expand their life and their experience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the conventional wisdom on, on why kids join gangs, despite the likelihood of being killed or arrested?
KATHLEEN HORAN: Because these street crews are battling over turf, you see buildings that are separated, where there’ll be a crew in the front and a crew in the back, and the kids in the back can't go to the front or they’re risking their life. They can't walk a straight line to school. These street crews, oftentimes these are kids you grew up with. They live in your neighborhood, they live in your building. Sometimes you join because they have your back, and it makes it all the difference if you can go to the store or not.
So here’s Assistant Commissioner Kevin O'Connor on the practical need to join a street crew.
ASST. COMMISSIONER KEVIN O’CONNOR: I’m not telling you not to be in a crew, because I don't know what the answer is to get in the front door. If that’s the, the tool they need to get home, that’s what they do. But what we do is we make them aware of the consequences of calling yourself something.
KATHLEEN HORAN: Kevin O’Connor also has talks, you know, for parents, for kids, trying to warn them about what they post and who they’re friends with can have consequences, that they can get swept into an investigation if they’re posting, and even if they’re a wannabe. You know, sometimes with these videos, kids will save up a bunch of money and they’ll hire a semi-professional to film them, the actual crewmembers, the drug dealers. There’ll be - everyone will be out there. And just because some of the people in the videos happen to be involved in the crew doesn't mean that the rappers are part of the crew. But, again, it's guilt by association.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was really surprised in the - by the production values of some of these.
KATHLEEN HORAN: And 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 hits.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Way past your block.
KATHLEEN HORAN: I know. We’d be lucky if we got those many hits.
They’re just talking about street life. They're talking about the hood. And they want to legitimize their hood. I post about public radio because I work for public radio; that’s where I spend my time. Well, they live in public housing, they live in the hood. I mean, you just post about what you know. But sometimes what they know and what they see happened to be criminal acts.