December 12, 2009 by JSOnline — Gang activity probably is not on the rise in Milwaukee, but it’s hard to tell based on the “thug” behavior you see portrayed across the city.
Inside a Red Snapper on Burleigh, I watched a group of young boys greet each other with gang handshakes. At Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, teens interlocked their fingers in gang fashion. On the city’s south side, residents repeatedly painted over gang graffiti that had been spray-painted on their garages.
Is it the work of real gang members?
Or is this simply gang wannabes exemplifying “thug” behavior?
It doesn’t matter. All of these kids are fascinated in some way with the “thug” or “goon” mentality. And that disrupts the learning process in schools, places neighborhoods on high alert and keeps Milwaukee’s jails full.
Unfortunately for wannabes, they try so hard to impress gang members that they often find themselves immersed in the same negative behaviors. Gangs may not be on the rise here, experts tell me, but their popularity can easily be seen if you just look.
Breaking this thuggish mentality is critical to tackling the gang problem and addressing a widespread achievement gap between city and suburban schools. The two are tied together. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how many thugs you know who are valedictorians.
Teachers have long complained about minority children failing to realize their potential out of fear of being labeled as “acting white.” So they disrupt the class, skip school and fail themselves.
We know that the only way for many poor urban youths to break the cycle of poverty is through a solid education. That starts with a high school diploma that prepares them for college. Yet, of graduating seniors in Milwaukee Public Schools, only 40% continue their education within a year of walking across the stage.
Without college or other post-secondary school, the chances of breaking free of poverty are slim, and for those thinking that gangs can take them far in life, the honest truth is that such activity only makes life that much more difficult. Gang activity more often than not leads to criminal behavior, which leads to trouble with the law.
In Wisconsin, one in every 39 adults is on probation, in jail, in prison or on parole. I’m willing to place a bet that some of these adults have been involved in gangs.
Can children imitating gangbangers be saved before that happens? Of course they can, but it requires a strong grass-roots effort.
To reach the unreachable requires an alternative approach, Victor Barnett, executive director of the Running Rebels in Milwaukee, told me.
Running Rebels and Violence Free Zones are two alternative approaches that employ counselors who are unafraid of getting in these young people’s faces, unafraid of going into their neighborhoods, even into their homes. They earn the respect of gang members by being honest. In some cases, they come from the same neighborhoods.
These programs are working in eight Milwaukee Public Schools high schools; in a little more than two years, violence has decreased 32% and suspensions nearly 40%.
Expanding these programs to each high school would help, but I would go one step further. Some of our young people are exposed to gangs so early in life that I would suggest expanding the program to middle schools as well.
The problem is money. Estimates for expansion to other high schools could top $300,000. But that’s pocket change when you consider that the Obama administration plans to spend nearly $5 billion for troubled school districts that are willing to make changes to improve education as part of its Race to the Top grant program.
Shouldn’t some of that money go into programs such as Violence Free Zones and Running Rebels, programs that are steering young people away from gangs and violence?
When I was a high school student in the mid-1980s, the popular gangs at that time represented their streets, and you knew who they were. There were the 2-7 Boyz, 2-4 Boyz, 1-9 Boyz, Latin Kings and many others.
If you were not in a gang, there was no way you pretended to be.
Today, the lines are blurred, and it’s not so easy to determine legitimate gang members from those who just think they like the thug mentality, said Maurice Turner, principal at South Division High School.
Turner attended John Marshall High School with me so he knows what the old gang culture was like.
As he walks the halls at South, Turner said some of the young people who display what looks like gang handshakes do so as a way of saying hello or goodbye.
“It’s not how it used to be,” said Turner, who avoided gangs because he was a star basketball player and had a mother who was a teacher and a father who was a preacher.
Turner agrees that too many young people are absorbing negative behavior and seeing it as a form of excitement.
We need to get back to a time when being involved in school activities was exciting. It takes baby steps, I know, and home life for a lot of these kids may not be ideal.
But the idea that it’s gangsta to fail is wrong.
Our young people need to start thuggin’ for their education, because right now they’re getting jacked.