Bling, Bang, Little Gangstas
Just because gangs aren’t so easy to spot in Fort Worth doesn’t mean they’re gone.
By MICHAEL WHITELEY
Around town in the past few weeks, parents and officials have gathered to talk about whether the Fort Worth school district should require all kids in some grades to wear uniforms. Part of the debate is the idea that keeping kids in plain, regimented outfits could eliminate the problem of gang “colors” in class.
Well, like so much in education, it’s just not that simple. Gangster garb and music is in vogue from Dunbar to Paschal, but limiting student-body fashion to, say, white shirts and blue skirts or pants, isn’t going to get rid of it. Not unless the uniform policy also addresses details like shoelaces, neck jewelry, and whether kids wear one earring or two in each ear.
Oh, and the place an anti-gang dress code might be most useful isn’t in high school — it’s in elementary and middle schools, the hunting grounds these days for a gang culture that is recruiting at the pre-teen level.
Since the bloody summer of 1993, when the gangbanging body count reached 60 in the streets of Fort Worth, almost everything has changed about street culture in Cowtown. Gang members are younger. They’re more about money and less about turf. And they’re nearly invisible.
Police and gang intervention specialists here believe that what they’ve done together in the past dozen years has made Fort Worth so unfriendly to big-time gang activity that the hardcore gangbangers with national connections to groups like the Crips and Bloods just don’t stay in town very long. They come through, sell drugs, get involved in identity theft, look for recruits — but by and large they don’t hang around. And it’s not just police work that’s made the difference — it’s former gangbangers who’ve seen the light and come back to try to keep others from following their path. It’s campouts and faux funerals and former cops and streetwise counselors stationed in the schools that have helped reduce the gang threat here.
But reduced doesn’t mean gone. Cops and teachers say they are worried that the allure of the gang image — the music, the bling-bling, the hand signs — is becoming more acceptable than ever to kids all over town and may be putting students at risk who have no thought of ever actually joining a gang. And even though affiliations with national crime syndicates like the Crips and Bloods is down among local bangers, a new and deadly international group is beginning to cause a few worries here.
“Open your eyes. Every color that you see here is being worn by a gang.”
Fort Worth Police Officer C.C. Meadows was talking to a group of very scared parents in a conference room at one of Fort Worth’s suburban high schools, formerly white-bread and middle-class, now home to a much more diverse group of students.
Meadows and three other members of the Fort Worth Police Department’s 37-officer Gang Prevention and Intervention Unit were at the school because some kids were acting out, and signs of gang activity had surfaced — what the officers call “having love for a gang.”
A teacher pulled out a black t-shirt that had been confiscated from a student. It sported a drawing of a snowman and the warning “TRAP or you die.” The cartoon symbolizes a figure America’s children are coming to know as “Da Snowman,” otherwise known as the drug man. “Trap or die” is a demand that people sell drugs. The t-shirt was the first of its kind seen at the school.
Meadows’ remark about the diversity of colors in gang insignia was meant to make parents aware that gangsta fashions are constantly changing and that they should watch for signs more subtle than red shirts or blue jackets that might indicate their children were getting interested in a gang. In past years, when some schools mandated uniforms to keep “colors” out, the bangers turned to specially rolled-up pant cuffs, earring styles, bandanas in back pockets, and jewelry with gang markings — much of it available from a particular mall jeweler — to identify themselves. (“These gangbangers are wearing crosses over their bulletproof vests, hoping the Lord will protect them while they’re out robbin’, shootin’ and stabbin’,” Meadows said.) Gang members wore red or blue shoelaces for the Crips or Bloods or black and gold for the Latin Kings, one of the major Hispanic gangs in Poly, Stop Six, and the North Side that has gained strength with shifting demographics. Some schools have limited shoelaces to black or white in the past few years, and Meadows’ group is urging school officials to ban other colors districtwide.
The allure to kids of that semi-secret stuff worries Meadows and people like Johnny Muhammad, gang site coordinator at Dunbar 6th Grade Center in Southeast Fort Worth. At a time when 80 percent of Fort Worth’s school kids name hip-hop as their music of choice, Meadows knows that gang-related videos and attire are just as attractive to the white kids from the upscale homes around Texas Christian University as to minority kids in the neighborhoods stretching down Berry Street to the east. The music and hand signs bridge the barriers of race, gender, and economics.
Meadows and the other officers wanted the parents and teachers to know the signs that kids might be getting interested in a gang. But they also wanted them to realize that even faking it — wearing gang jewelry or flashing hand signs — could get innocent students in trouble with the real thing. Throwing signs could be considered disrespect by the plainclothes, school-uniformed gangbangers walking by, she said. “It could be throwing the signs of the Crips or the Bloods. It doesn’t matter,” she told parents. “What matters is it’s dangerous.”
For all those reasons, gang officers don’t expect any change in school district dress policies to make a serious dent in gang activity. But the discusssion about uniforms has refocused attention on gangs and what has changed since about a decade ago, when gang colors, and gangs, were so strong that they changed kids’ decisions about whether to play sports for certain schools, and national gangs staged an all-out drug war on Fort Worth streets.
In 1990, the gang scene here was heating up dangerously. Fort Worth police tallied 31 gang-related killings in 1990, 23 in 1991, and 11 in 1992. The Bloods and the Crips, violent national African-American gangs, were facing off. As today, police figured that only five or 10 groups out of the 200 or so operating in the city were at the heart of the problem. Their names were linked with streets, such as the Truman Street Bloods, and their uniforms were unmistakable right down to the labels.
Both sides — the Crips in blue and the Bloods in red — were as loyal to Fort Worth-based Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co. as they were to their turfs. Muhammad and others said the bangers (then and now) wore Dickie’s twill work pants, cut off at the knees, with red or white t-shirts. (Williamson-Dickie vice president JonRagsdale said leaders of the company — which also makes school uniforms —have known for some time that gang members were wearing their work pants, but so are millions of other people. “We don’t cater to them,” he said. But, “unfortunately, these guys get noticed.”)
The loyalty to color was so fierce that potential athletes among the Bloods stayed away from the high-profile teams at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School because its colors were royal blue and white.
The eventual all-out war that erupted in 1993 was fought mostly in the streets of Stop Six and Polytechnic Heights. Drive-by shootings became a nearly nightly occurrence during a summer when 60 people died from gang-related violence. Many of the shootings were drug-related, Muhammed said. But that wasn’t necessarily the heart of it.
“It never was about money. It was about color” — race — “and turf,” said Alton Wilkerson, who headed Fort Worth’s gang unit from 1990 to 1995. Wilkerson said he never believed the local Bloods and Crips had the kind of organizational and financial ties to Los Angeles ascribed to big-city gangbangers — but they were still deadly.
As the war escalated, jailers at the Tarrant County Corrections Center noted the troubled state prison system was inadvertently helping prolong it. Terry Grisham, executive administrator for the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office, said the overloaded prison system’s decision to stop taking certain classes of inmates in the early 1990s fortified the positions of the original gangsters and kept them in the local trenches.
Deputy Sheriff R. G. Almendarez said that back then, he routlinely booked in suspects who’d done all of their felony time on previous cases without ever leaving the county jail. “They’d never seen the inside of a prison cell,” he said.
The OGs — “original gangsters” — continued to play a role in the drug war, Grisham said, and their homeboys never really lost touch. It sends a different message, he said, “if you’re going away for long periods of time.”
But the bloody summer of 1993 triggered a series of major changes in the local gang landscape. District Attorney Tim Curry’s gang unit started prosecuting gangsters for lesser crimes than murder and drugs.
Following the lessons of U.S. Treasury Agent Elliott Ness, who put Chicago mob boss Al Capone away for tax evasion, Wilkerson and the prosecutors hit local gangsters where they lived.
“We knew they were selling drugs when they went into the projects, so we arrested them for criminal trespass,” Wilkerson said. “This was Fort Worth. It was not New York City. You get out and patrol your neighborhoods, and you’re going to prevent crime.”
Cops impounded cars when gangbangers failed to produce drivers’ licenses or proof of insurance. In doing so, they cut the wheels from under the war wagons and left some gang members pedaling bicycles. “They weren’t going to do any walk-bys,” said Wilkerson.
In a few years’ time, the OGs who once functioned as local capos for gang nations were gone from the landscape. A former drug addict who joined the battle on his way out of rehab, Muhammad knew most of the OGs around Dunbar’s environs in Stop Six. “A lot of the gang leaders that I knew that used to be in this section are locked up or dead,” he said.
But police and community leaders worried that a new crop of toughs would soon replace them, if nothing else were done.
Wilkerson decided to use the lessons he had learned from war and went after the minds of the enemy. “I used the same tactics I did in Vietnam, short of killing people,” he said.
Veteran cops and savvy ministers took the battle back to the streets with a ground force of 25 men — mostly big men, mostly black — who’d been where the gangbangers lived.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Fort Worth earned national attention with their Comin’ Up Program, which involved employing gang members to resolve disputes. And then in June 1994, retired police community liaison officer Luther Perry, the Rev. Roosevelt Franklin Sutton Jr., and others launched UMOJA, a Swahili word for “unity.” Using their own money and later with help from the city’s crime control district, they sought out the OGs still alive and in state prisons to negotiate a truce between the Bloods and the Crips. They raised money to put their own site coordinators in Fort Worth schools. After he retired, Wilkerson became UMOJA’s site coordinator at Dunbar Middle School.
Some current and former gang officers credit the truce with reducing gang violence in the city. Wilkerson thinks other tactics produced the result. Convicted OGs traded promises of early parole for pledges to bring peace to the streets of Fort Worth, much as other convicts find God in their jail cells, he said.
In 1995, Johnny Muhammad, whose use of crack and heroin had landed him in rehab, had just graduated from Tarrant County Community College. On his way back from the African-American-sponsored Million Man March in Washington, D.C., he fell into conversation with an UMOJA representative. The conversation lasted all evening and into the night, and by the time it was over, he had signed on to the anti-gang program. He took on the job of being UMOJA’s gang site coordinator at Dunbar Middle School, which already required a white-shirts-and-blue-pants uniform. But that hadn’t done the trick.
Dunbar and other schools subsequently banned most colors of shoestrings, so the gangbangers changed their fashion cues again, to belt buckles, earrings worn in special clusters on one or both ears, colored bracelets, bandanas, and shaved heads. Members of one Hispanic gang notched both eyebrows to represent the number that’s part of their gang name.
Over the middle and late 1990s, gang violence diminished in Fort Worth. As that was happening, Muhammad, Wilkerson and Meadows spotted other shifts — turf, race, and gender, for example, seemed to become less important, and once-rival groups began collaborating. Gang leadership seemed to weaken as the age of gang members dropped. With gang activity declining and old leaders in jail, the gangs no longer had the luxury of strict rules.
Women began to take leadership positions. A white girl with red hair rose to power in the Bloods. Key figures of three Hispanic gangs took up residence on the same street in the North Side.
“You can’t go to California and be a blond-haired, blue-eyed Crip,” Meadows told the parents’ group. “But you can in Fort Worth.”
All the while, the target age for gangbangers was dropping. Cliques of four or five children were forming beyond race and geography. There were the Southeast high schoolers who named themselves “The MVPs” to celebrate their prowess on the city’s basketball courts — perhaps marginal as a gang, but fitting the definition under Texas law: a group of at least three people with some shared identifiers, who regularly collaborate to commit crimes.
The cliques, which more often now included girls, turned social ties into criminal ones to pay for the gangster garb they were seeing in videos. The emergence of methamphetamines, which drug dealers could brew at home rather than having to buy from more powerful dealers, was lessening the need for ties to out-of-town criminal groups, such as the prison gang and smugglers known as the Mexican Mafia.
Deputy Sheriff Almendarez has seen gang members’ tattoos and fashions change as he booked them into jail over the years. But one thing has remained constant.”They’re still selling dope,” he said. “They’re getting the money from somewhere.”
Gang crime waned as the ’90s turned into 2000, and the cops and community workers who’d helped bring about that change got an ironic payoff. In 2001, acting on a report from the Justex Systems consultants, the city council slashed the gang unit from 33 officers to 12.
But the gangs weren’t gone, a fact that became distressingly clear in July 2002, when a 39-year-old drug addict named Donald Watkins failed to pay his suppliers for a “rock” of crack cocaine. They kicked and stomped him to death while a crowd watched outside the Ripley Arnold housing project downtown. When gang activity ballooned again, the council realized its error. By April 2004, the gang unit had been restored to full funding and 37 officers. A few months later, the importance of the unit was reinforced when gang members fired eight bullets into the front door of City Councilman Jim Lane’s home.
In 2006, Fort Worth police maintain a database of about 12,000 people in this area believed to have gang ties, although only about half of them are thought to be active. And the age level of those on the list has dropped significantly: When the department started building the database in 1983, the average age of a gang member was 23; now it’s 16. In the early years, new recruits tended to be 15 or older; now the average recruit is 12.
As the gangbangers got younger, they tended to change turfs more often. “They have to move when their parents move,” Meadows said. “They are going to change gangs.”
Gone are the organizational ties to the headquarters of what national experts call the “gang nations,” such as the L.A. Bloods and the L.A. Crips. Gone are the racial imperatives that still dominate the gang mainstays in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. Gone also are the boundaries of turf and money. Gangs regularly collaborate in Fort Worth to cash in on specific opportunities to sell drugs and buy guns. Meadows said many of those changes in the local gang scene in recent years appear to be unique to Fort Worth.
Last September, the FBI reported a 30 percent drop in the most serious categories of gang-related crime in Fort Worth, compared to a year earlier. But less serious crimes, including assault, graffiti, criminal mischief, and deadly conduct, had climbed 23 percent during the same period. And though gang shootings were far below the levels of the 1990s, police still listed nine murders in that year as gang-related.
Meadows said that Fort Worth has become a whistlestop for out-of-town gang members who don’t find it attractive to stay, but who sometimes commit serious crimes while they’re here. An Aryan Brotherhood wannabe, Steven Heard, fatally wounded Fort Worth Officer Henry “Hank” Nava last November when police raided his North Fort Worth trailer, not knowing of his prison gang connections or his role in a Metroplex-wide identity theft ring. And last month, police officers called to evict suspected gang members from a West Fort Worth apartment complex discovered hundreds of stolen checks, bills, apartment applications, car registrations, and tax records linked to cases of stolen identity and rifled bank accounts in a half-dozen cities. Among those evicted was an Arkansas convict reportedly linked to the Bloods.
The front garage panels and entire side wall of an abandoned house in the 4200 block of Fort Worth’s Fair Park Boulevard got painted three times in the space of one week earlier this month.
First it was tagged with graffiti by Surano 13, known as “SUR-13” in the Hispanic stretches of the North Side and South Side. Next by Varrio Centro, a rival Hispanic gang known as the VCs.
Finally, it was returned to its original white and tan colors. Wilkerson said that in Fort Worth, taggers are doomed to watch their artwork vanish overnight. Each division of the police department contracts with house painters to erase the graffiti, although it wasn’t clear whether they were responsible for painting over the house on Fair Park Boulevard.
Before it disappeared under the bland paint job, the graffiti was replete with death warnings, references to “bitches,” and combinations of letters that ended in K, which stands for Surano killers and VC killers.
The 13 in SUR-13 is significant and maybe a harbinger. Thirteen, Meadows said, stands for “M,” the 13th letter in the alphabet. And that stands for Mexican Mafia, which may have inadvertently spawned the deadliest street gang in U.S. history.
Fort Worth cops already have spotted graffiti here from MS-13, a gang made up of refugees who fled the death squads of El Salvador and moved to Los Angeles, where the Mexican Mafia marked them for death.
Launched as Mara Salvatrucha 13, the gang has spread throughout the nation, triggering multiple executions of suspected snitches in New York’s Nassau County. Members are tattooed across the upper half of their bodies and on their foreheads. They’ve been the subject of documentaries on the National Geographic cable channel and PBS. They’re the targets of major crackdowns in Charlotte, N.C., and Miami by local police and federal immigration agents.
Almendarez has booked and photographed one MS-13 member at the Tarrant County Corrections Center. The inmate admitted his ties, Almendarez said, but claimed he had quit the gang and fled Los Angeles to avoid being killed.
Meadows said police know of no MS-13 members in Fort Worth. But she said the group is drawing the attention of the 12-year-old wannabes, impressed with the gang’s reputation for eluding arrest.
The ex-cops, ministers, and former druggies who call themselves “the men of UMOJA” are aiming their efforts at those wannabes, the boys and girls who aren’t yet wearing colors. And not just the troubled ones: Straight-A students at Dunbar may be marked for trouble, Muhammad said, because the gangsters “think they’re trying to be white.”
UMOJA regularly loads up 50 or 60 potential gangsters and takes them for weekend campouts. Gangbangers attend regular religious conferences at a local church. Muhammad said they’re told to drop their gang affiliations at the door. “They want to be told what is the right way,” he said, adding that the message must come from men who’ve been there.
“These men are involved in children’s lives,” said one Dunbar sixth-grader and UMOJA camper. “And they’re coming in from the neighborhood.”
Last June, UMOJA launched a parade from Spencer’s Funeral Home to a park concert staged by anti-gang rappers. About 400 kids and UMOJA members walked alongside an empty coffin. The message was clear — stay out of gangs, and you won’t end up in an early coffin.
Also clear, Meadows said, is the message she hopes the gang unit will send with its decision this month to reinstitute S.T.O.P., which stands for Saving Teens by Overcoming Prejudice and Peer Pressure.
This month, kids at Morningside Elementary School will take a field trip to a cemetery, stage a mock trial for a gangbanger, and learn what it’s like to live paralyzed or confined to a wheelchair.
“What these kids don’t realize is you don’t necessarily die,” in gang confrontations, but survive to endure years of suffering, Meadows said.
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, Perry, Muhammad, and Wilkerson gather in a college parking lot, meeting up with a bunch of Dunbar kids they will take on an overnight camping trip.
All the kids know about the Bloods and the Crips. One 12-year-old student says his brother, 23, is doing life for a gang murder.
As chilly winds blow across the parking lot, two sixth-graders appear to be almost dancing in the twilight as they demonstrate the hand signs of the two gangs, intertwining their pinkie fingers and mimicking moves that looked a little like gestures from old-school fraternity handshakes.
They’d seen people throwing such signs at school, they told Fort Worth Weekly, not realizing those gestures could get them killed in a different setting.
But the pair vow they won’t cross the line. And they obviously look up to the big streetwise men who have just pulled up in vans to whisk them away to some lake cabins, where they’ll eat pizza, play dominoes, and try to stay up all night.
Local journalist Michael Whiteley can be reached at email@example.com.
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