Rehabilitating the lives and minds of former and potential gang members
Intervention can be risky but effective
Gang activity has been a serious problem in Los Angeles for decades. Although law enforcement and the prison system are the ultimate remedies for such deviant behavior, rehabilitation of those individuals who participate in gang activity is essential so that they do not repeat the same mistakes, after they have been arrested and served their incarceration.
There have been gang intervention programs that have been able to influence the personal transformations for many in Los Angeles. Although the rehabilitation of an individual with a gangster mindset can be difficult, the history and success stories behind various intervention programs in Los Angeles shows that it is not an impossible task.
Groups such as Compton’s Thee Other Side, which emerged in late 1991, have been established to thwart young people from getting involved in gang activity and instead, lead favorable, productive lives. Kevin Brown is the director of the group, and he gets strong support from head counselor James McDonald. Both are former gang members, and their goal is to show younger generations of Blacks in Compton a positive way to achieve respect and success. Thee Other Side is aimed especially at young Black males in the Hub City.
The leaders of the organization said they quit gang activity because it was getting them nowhere. They felt it was time for Blacks to unify and get to know one another. Although it was not publicized, Thee Other Side held a unification barbecue in Compton, bringing rival members of the Crips and Bloods together, to honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., before the civil unrest of 1992 occurred.
“Our organization was built in an effort to reach out and touch another brother,” Brown said. “First you have to respect yourself,” Thee Other Side’s leader insisted. “I mean, you see it (disrespect) all the time among us. We call our women b—es. They call us dogs. That has got to stop. It starts with self-respect. If you don’t respect yourself, how are you going to respect your woman or your brother?”
McDonald said the message of Dr. King “woke me up” and changed his way of thinking. “What (King) was saying was that Black people, when they get together, can do something to help each other,” McDonald said.
Essentially, Brown stressed, Thee Other Side is a support network that works to put aside differences, eliminates gang activity, and focuses on civic pride and community cohesion. “We’re just trying to touch another brother,” Brown added. “Even if I had a gang-fight with this man years ago or whatever, now I’m here to help him. The bottom line is we’re Black. We’re the same.”
Like Brown and McDonald, Melvin Brisbaine works to find common ground in an effort to reduce gang problems in the Antelope Valley (AV). He is also among the ranks of former gangsters, who work in gang intervention. Police have come to rely on people like Brisbane to ease tensions.
To bolster the anti-gang programs in the Palmdale, Lancaster and Quartz Hill, Brisbaine says law enforcement officials are offering training to help former gang members, who are now gang interventionists. And it is not easy. They are faced with treading the precariously fine line between gangs and law enforcement. They are constantly trying to balance between not endangering themselves or others (e.g., family, friends) and falling back into gang life.
“It’s real hard to do, and it can take a lot out of you,” said Brisbaine. “Training a person in this is a challenge.”
According to Brisbaine, as former gang members, he and his colleagues have access to a culture that can be exclusive. With street credibility earned through gang activity, doing prison time and even doing favors for gang leaders, the code dictates that these veterans are respected and have a “license to operate” or permission to move freely through gang territories.
However, they must make it clear to authorities and gang members that they no longer participate in or approve of gang activity. At the same time, they cannot verbally reprimand gang members, because that can lead to alienation.
“It’s complicated,” explained Palmdale probation officer Eric Francis. “It is a struggle for (gang interventionists) to remain on the edge of a way of life that they adhered to so ardently. In some cases, it was a family rite of passage. It was a lifestyle that they threw their allegiance to and reaffirmed that with clothing, nicknames, and tattoos. These things gave them a sense of identity, community, as well as income from crime.”
“The street has a hell of a pull,” said Aquil Basheer, who runs the interventionist training course Professional Training Institute of Intervention (PTII) in Los Angeles. “That’s one of the biggest barriers that we face in this work.”
Alex Alonso, founder of streetgangs.com, believes that it is worth the risk to rely on the work of ex-gang members, because they can act as a bridge to reduce violence. “Even though you are taking a chance,” says Alonso, “these people can provide you with options and better opportunities for reconciling situations more effectively than law enforcement can.”
When interventionist Ronald Barron was shot to death last February by a graffiti tagger he confronted, other interventionists were called on to spread the word that the killing was not gang-related, thwarting possible retaliation.
When gangs held parties in parks known as “Hood Days,” interventionists negotiated with rival gangs to prevent gun-toting gatecrashers. “The reality is,” Alonso explained, “the ex-gangbangers can talk to people cops can’t talk to. Therefore, it is just good business for those two forces to come together.”
Although former gangsters and police have come together to prevent violent situations from occurring, the funding some of these programs rely on, particularly in the AV, has been reduced due to the budget deficit California is facing.
“We have experienced a drop in funding for our program,” commented Paul Greene, gang counselor with Quartz Hill’s Out of It and Proud of It (OIPI). “The donations and government funding has gone down in the last six years. Prior to 2004, we used to enjoy yearly donations ranging from $500,000-$850,000. Since 2004, we have been able to get $125,000-$350,000. Many of our gang intervention specialists are volunteers. Some are ex-gang members, some aren’t. We just want to keep the program going to rehabilitate past gang members and reach those kids who are at-risk due to their behavior, environment, etc.”
The ability to reach these at-risk people is more challenging because of decreased funding, pointed out probation officer Francis. However, he stressed, that is not an excuse to neglect making an effort to teach these men and boys the skills, standards of behavior, and mindsets to enable them to be productive members of society.