SEABROOK SAYS: Do we in Gaston County worry about gang activity – or do we worry about the lack of family strength that yields gang members?
Do we have gangs in Gaston County? It depends on who you ask. But here are the facts. In 2005, the Governor’s Crime Commission labeled Gaston County as having the 5th largest gang problem in North Carolina. Statistically speaking, our crime rates were in line with where Los Angeles was 20 years ago.
The federal definition of a gang as used by the Department of Justice is :
- An association of three or more individuals;
- Whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity, a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti;
- Whose purpose in part is to engage in criminal activity and which uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives.
Criminal activity is what separates gangs from fraternities, sororities, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Masons, etc. It is not actually illegal to be in a gang, it is illegal to commit the criminal acts in order to prosper the gang. The gangs we have in Gaston County may not be like what you see on TV (Gangland, movies, documentaries, the news) but we have gang sets and gang members and they are causing major disruptions on our streets, in our schools and in our county.
So, what do we do about this growing epidemic? In 2006, the Gaston County Anti-Gang Initiative was formed. This was a multi-agency, countywide initiative to offer prevention, intervention and suppression services to combat the growing gang problem in Gaston County. Prevention programs, like Street SMART, to help younger children resist the temptation of gangs and build confidence, self-esteem, and life skills were implemented in the Boys & Girls Club and Parks & Recreation Departments in the hot spot communities. The Community Outreach Program is an intervention program funded through the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council with the purpose of helping those kids who are already gang involved find an alternative lifestyle. This program is a wrap-around approach to get to the root of the problem and offer services which may not be available otherwise, like mental health or substance abuse counseling. Suppression is our law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Office, County Police and Gastonia City Police work together to document and suppress the criminal activity associated with gangs in our communities. Knowledge is key when it comes to fighting what we are afraid of or do not know, and our Law Enforcement agencies are the ones who see and are fighting gang violence day in and day out, on our streets and in our jail.
After spending time with a lot of these kids, they have also taught me. They crave guidance, discipline, attention and love. If they don’t get it from home, they will find it someplace else. During one of our programs, I sat down to talk with “Z”, who rarely talked to anyone. The more I listened, the more he opened up. I was in awe at the things he experienced during his short 15 years. When I asked him “Why?”, his answer changed everything. He lived with his 2 younger siblings and a drug addicted mom, who allowed the men she brought into their home to beat on them daily. There was never any food, or clean clothes, no money, definitely no love, no praise or stability. But then the gang found him and he never had to worry about getting beat on, because they protected him. He didn’t have to worry about food, money or clothes, because the gang supplied him money just for being the “lookout” when they conducted their drug deals. The gang loved him and provided for him when his mom couldn’t. This is the lure of the gang.
How do we compete with that? Be a mentor! Take time and be a positive role model for a kid that doesn’t have someone to rely on or look up to. One hour a week is all it takes! One hour can change a life!
Arin Weatherford Farmer
Executive Director, The Alliance for Children & Youth/Communities In Schools
Project Director, The Gaston County Anti-Gang Initiative