20 November, 2007


Mr. Gary A. Johnson is the Founder and Publisher of Black Men In (, the premier online magazine for African American men. Mr. Mike Ramey is a syndicated columnist, award-winning journalist, a substitute teacher, minister, and probation officer.. Recently, Mr. Johnson conducted a straight-no chaser interview on gang issues with Mr. Ramey who is launching a new column -- THE GANG LINE -- in January 2008. And Mr. Johnson and Black Men In has granted IN SEARCH OF FATHERHOOD® permission to reprint the interview. Are gangs and gang violence creating a national crisis in the United States? What are the signs of gang activity? Why do children join gangs? What roles should neighbors, educational institutions and the religious community play in the lives of our children? Mr. Ramey’s shoot-straight-from-the-hip” responses are enlightening and thought-provoking.

BMIA.COM: Why are you so passionate about gang violence?

MIKE: First, let me say thank you for interviewing me. I’m in the big time now, baby! Anyway, let me also say that I am pro-color, because I am color. So, if some who read this interview want to make accusations, just remember that some of the most vicious gangs in American history were run and maintained by more of the lighter hue than those of color. Further, gangs are not a new phenomena. Now, what fired me up about gang violence this time around was a NATIONAL Juvenile Justice conference I attended back in 2003. One of the main speakers at a seminar admitted that the juvenile justice system had, literally, run out of money at ALL levels AND that the next five to ten years would HAVE to be spent in finding more ways to get parents involved in disciplining their OWN children instead of running them to court for every little problem. This was in 2003. Needless to say, I was not happy because not only had parents been sold a bill of goods, so had many of us who had been working in juvenile justice as probation officers, counselors, detention officers, etc. Up to that time, our training and skills were sharpened to convince both wayward teens and the public that the system ‘had’ the answers. Now, this comes along, which reinforced a lot of what I had been feeling for a long time; IF you don’t get the parent, or parents involved, the teen will have problems…including gang violence.

BMIA.COM: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became a soldier against gang violence?

MIKE: I’ve been bumping heads with this issue off and on for more than 20 years. As a crime reporter in the 1980s, my home city of Indianapolis, Indiana saw gang crime go off the charts. There was plenty of bickering among politicians as to whether or not we had actual ‘gangs’ in our city. Well, after a study was done and verified the fact, then the politicians and police HAD to act, and start locking these Bangers up. Then in the 1990s, I did several print columns when I made the jump into newspapers and did research with some experts both in and out of Indiana. That was when I found out about how vast the problem was, how girls were starting to form their own gangs, how the ‘Gangbanger funeral’ wasn’t just a joke, and how teens…OUR teens...were entering gangs as some kind of job.

Now, after spending six years as a juvenile probation officer working with the roughest of juvenile criminals, I’ve seen teens younger than 13 getting wrapped up in this madness, and the system isn’t having much of a dent in breaking them up…at least in public. When I received my national certification as a Street Gang Specialist in 2006, it solidified, consolidated, confirmed, and expanded a lot of stuff I already knew, and had seen while working as a reporter, substitute teacher, pastor and probation officer. That’s when THE GANG LINE became more than just a thought; it became a business and now, and added weapon of reaching out via the Internet.

BMIA.COM: Why do you think kids join gangs?

MIKE: I think that they join out of typical rebellion…BUT they get far more than they bargained for. It is natural for young people to rebel; to test their limits at home and in society. However, when you have a society that is scared to do its job, and parents being challenged every time they want to properly supervise their OWN children, and taxes going up to subsidize programs that have little in the way of success, you can see what we are up against.

Then, you have the spiritual void. Modern street gangs, in spite of all their faults and dangers ‘represent’ a type of ‘religious void filler’ to a lot of teen males and females. Prayers are prayed. Items are held to be ‘holy’. Alms and support are provided for members who have fallen defending the colors. The ‘no snitch’ code has replaced the ‘love’ code put forth in the last generation of gangs. There is a fraternal/sorority ‘excitement’ to become a member after initiation and accepting your ‘new’ name, in front of your homies.

Gang structures are very rigid. The gang bylaws or gang constitution is designed to break the individual and mold them into being a gang soldier through their own processing and involvement. Read one sometime if you can get ahold of one…they clearly show what is expected and demanded. Members LOVE such concrete expectations…but forget that there is a high price tag at the end. It’s the COST of being a gang member that most in society are reluctant to comment on.

BMIA.COM: What are most people missing when it comes to recognizing gang violence?

MIKE: The fact that teens who are involved are NOT stupid. They copy the tactics used by gangs on video and in the movies, some of them can be traced back to the Prohibition days of the USA. In fact, teen bangers are highly intelligent, and cold-blooded when it comes to performing violence. Remorse? Many of them save it for court. They just ‘use’ their gifts for crime…without thinking about the punishment. They rehearse their ‘rap’ for authority figures, and many authority figures are still ignorant of the fact that gangs and gang members have changed their dynamic and have learned how ignore criticism, and block questioning about their activities.

Teen Gangbangers RESPECT those who will have the guts to pull them over to the side, set them down, and break down their reality. Sure, they’ll threaten, but as an old solider myself, I know how to reach the young--by putting the mirror UP to their faces and explaining how fast life passes by. I had a 17 year old and his parent in my office one afternoon, and spent about 20 minutes JUST on the subject of his priors, and lack of attending school and how he was a functioning statistic because he had missed three years of school and was too DUMB to even qualify to get INTO a GED program…by his OWN efforts! He was in TEARS! His parent hadn’t seen him cry in public over his own shortcomings. That parent and child, hopefully used those tears to get him to take responsibility and rebuild his life.

BMIA.COM: Share with us some facts about gangs and gang related violence that we should know.

MIKE: Gary, there are REAMS of information out there on this particular subject. I tell those who come to my trainings where to look and how to look for such information. However, my BEST piece of artillery comes from, of all places, The National Center for Policy Analysis. In a nutshell, a teen who is involved street gang activity has a 25% chance of being killed; they will be arrested at least six times; they will suffer at least two non-life threatening injuries. Also, they (gang members) value their lives far less than the average teen.

BMIA.COM: What is the most shocking or jaw dropping thing you’ve seen when it comes to gangs?

MIKE: Watching white kids use gang signs and ‘represent’ traditional Black and Hispanic gangs and the police and the community let them ‘roll’ on, while coming down HARD on Black and Hispanic gangs for doing the same thing. I’ve seen white kids drop flags RIGHT in front of white cops, and the cops will just roll on by like the kids are just talking about a football game. There IS a double standard. The gangs know it…and they play on it. Among Black probation officers there is a saying that is true; THEIR kids get therapy, and OUR kids get time.

Another shocker, this one involving a young man who was on my caseload. I had to get a copy of his grades from his middle school, as a part of the court order for probation. The school gave me a copy of his report card. He was an eighth grader for the second time and his GPA was 0.0035. If his grades were being translated into an EKG monitor strip, he would be one TICK away from DEAD.

BMIA.COM: Talk with us about girl gangs.

Girl bangers are going to be covered in a separate column for the series, but I can tell you this. I’m one of the few who dares to state on the record that girl gangs can be traced back to the feminist movement of the 1970s. You see, Black women and women of color are not held to be equal by their white, feminist sisters…UNLESS they ‘happen’ to serve a purpose to help ‘the agenda’. Now, we are seeing the handiwork of the feminist lie. More and more young Black and Hispanic women are heading to jail and prison, and more and more young white women are heading to therapy for the SAME offenses. Further, the girls in gangs thing can be traced to a failure by women to train their younger sisters. You have older female relatives ‘helping out’ with some girl gangs in terms of plotting hits and securing weapons, rather than teaching these SAME girls how to cook, clean, and sew and secure an education.

Girl gang members are adept at using their fists, weapons, drugs, whatever it takes. They are not above using the West Side Story model of ‘rolling in with superior numbers’ in order to make a point. They are not above posting ‘catfights’ on the Internet in graphic detail…which makes them techno savvy. They have enough sense in throwing gang signs one moment, and appearing innocent the next. Yes, it takes a woman to reach a girl. Males in the criminal justice system are not truly equipped to handle girl bangers.

I’ve seen some female cops, probation officers, and teacher break DOWN a swaggering teen sister in rapid fashion using a nod, a change in tone, and ‘the look’. However, those women in law enforcement are rare.

BMIA.COM: How young are some of these kids?

MIKE: According to the stats that I received and researched, there are gang members who have been recruited as young as eight or nine years old. Twenty years ago, gangs were actively recruiting in high schools. Ten years ago, they started recruiting members out of middle schools. Now, you have gangs who have been recruiting kids from elementary schools as far back as 2002. Among Hispanics, the recruiting age is about the same, but, the dynamics are different because--and I want folks to read this carefully--the patriarchy is still firmly in place in the Hispanic community. Daddy still rules the house, and the oldest male child is held to be in charge until the father returns. They haven’t become ‘Americanized’ yet…but that day IS coming.

BMIA.COM: You have a unique perspective as a longtime substitute teacher and probation officer. Where are things breaking down?

MIKE: Things are breaking down in courts, with the police and with government because they won’t tell the public the full truth as to how bad and pervasive the gang situation is. The government will raise taxes to ‘cover’ diversion of funds to other non-essential areas, but these same officials won’t be courageous enough to let the public know how bad it is on the streets. Funny thing is, the public will spend $5 Billion Dollars to decorate, costume, secure candy and have parties for Halloween, but the same public ‘stutters’ over the need for society to free parents to get involved with the raising of their own children.

The schools are just as bad. Teachers are not being protected. Safety and security forces are being cut back. Ignorance is being exalted, and social promotion STLL continues even under NCLB. Until the parent is allowed to be involved with the process, there will continue to be problems. Then, on the other side of the dynamic, we have Black parents who have ‘made it’ and gotten their children in the ‘best’ schools…but have NOT followed up in being accountable as parents and staying ON their kids to study, work, sweat, and achieve. The mistaken impression is that once our young Black kids get into a ‘good’ school, that is the end of the rainbow. Balderdash! All this means is that you’ve got more folk who are going to put pressure on your child to achieve…because you can ‘afford’ to go to their school. The rules for success have not changed. You can’t get ahead, if you are Black, without an education. You may be ‘socially promoted’, but you have not been educated…IF you don’t make some decent grades.

BMIA.COM: Let’s keep it real and talk about some of these parents and guardians. Tell us what you see.

We are seeing more and more extended family members stepping up to serve the role as parent, because for one reason or another the father OR mother OR BOTH have decided to drop the kids and run. When I was active with the court, I had grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, cousins, uncles and even older siblings and family friends serving as parents. I also saw more and more single mothers so wrapped up in man-chasing, drinking, drugging, or who were locked up themselves and serving time. Add to this the fact that teens who were in the system had, in some cases, fathers who were in prison for a variety of crimes.

Gary, I’ll be honest. What separates me from a lot of so called ‘experts’ on street gangs is that I don’t pretend to be an expert; I’m a specialist--I work on connecting the dots to come to a conclusion or spotting trends, and pegging where gang activity is heading. I can be wrong on a few things, but not very many. All gang issues are local but have national ties and implications. It doesn’t matter about the names of many of the gangs we see…it’s the mindset. Once you understand the mindset, you understand the particular gang because they ALL operate the same way. If the parents understand the basics, THEY become the ‘experts’ because they know--or should know--their children better than the courts, the cops, and the therapists.

What role should neighbors, churches and schools play in the lives of our children?

MIKE: Encouraging unmarried singles to get married before having sexual relations. There is a LOT of resentment in society from kids whose parents never married. This is another ‘dirty little secret’ (DLS) that society does NOT want to get out. A summer of love is always followed by a winter of woe for those who don’t have the guts to get married, but have the guts to have sex. I believe the aforementioned should also encourage the parent to be a parent! Single parents COULD be more than just statistics IF they stepped up and determined that their children were NOT going to become gang members. If this means that mother needs to stop trying to ‘drink and chase’ with her friends every weekend and spend some time teaching her daughter or son about the ‘birds and the bees’ or a proper education, then so be it!

The modern church--and I can speak on this--has gotten soft, lazy, and uninvolved. We have forgotten that in order to impact lives goes beyond drive by prayer vigils, street marches for the cameras, and ‘declarations’ against gang violence. Gang bangers have parents. If you walk BY the home, and don’t make the effort to VISIT the homes in your community Mr. And Mrs. Church Member and Mr. Senior Pastor, you won’t have the credibility to demand change in society. The Bangers in my community KNOW me on several different levels. The dynamic has changed, fellow Christians; WE have to go up the next level and get the parents of the wayward child some help--getting them to complete their educations; getting parents to BRING their children to church instead of the church picking up the child; leading the parent/parents to Christ THEN encouraging the parent to lead the children to Christ IN THE HOME.

One other thing, there needs to be a cessation of mentoring programs for young men and young women. Encourage and support their parents to do their jobs. Too many mentors, therapists, and counselors are being used as well-paid baby sitters for the single parent, thus letting them off the hook. ENOUGH!

BMIA.COM: Again, you were a part of the criminal justice system. How is gang violence affecting black boys and young men?

MIKE: The true impact is the rising level of better excuses to justify criminal behavior, from the hood to the suburbs. Sadly, when I was actively attached to a court, it mattered little the monetary location of the family, because more of the Black families came from lower-middle to upper-middle income homes. Now, there were some families who were Black and Hispanic who were ‘poor’, but they were the exception, and not the rule. Cops, Probation Officers and Parole Agents, when dealing with juveniles…even young adults involved in gang activity are having to help ‘train’ parents (who were babies themselves) in what their role SHOULD be when it comes to raising their children.

Some of our Black young men…and their parents…are so warped in their thinking that this next example will wake you up as to how bad it is. Brothers with two strikes on them at between 23 to 26 years of age NOW want to ‘warn’ their younger counterparts about the ‘dangers’ of gang activity as ‘public speakers’. The only drawback is, this the only activity some of them can do, because they have screwed up their lives with felonies to the point that they would be unfit for work at McDonalds. MOST of the public speakers in street gang programs that have ‘real’ impact don’t have criminal backgrounds.

BMIA.COM: What are the signs of gang activity?

MIKE: The FIRST sign of gang activity in the individual is the commission of a crime, and the starting of a juvenile criminal record. Up to THIS point, it is all talk. Once arrests start taking place, and trips to court, and payment of court fees, the teen (male or female) gets their ‘gang’ name. The SECOND sign of gang activity is the increase in LIES by the young person involved, followed closely by skipping school, hanging out with less than trustworthy friends USUALLY at night. The THIRD sign of gang activity is the SECRETNESS of the teen involved, followed closely by the arrival of new bruises, tattoos and ‘smells’ of liquor, marijuana smoke, and flashing of cash money. Once it gets to the third stage, the fight will be on by the parent to get the child out of the mindset of the gang life.

As I do trainings and presentations, I cover specific differences from the religious standpoint. Many of the colors, signs, and numbers used by gangs are rooted in the Bible, but have been twisted in their use. Then, I also examine the cultural roots of some of the Hispanic gangs and their involvement in Santeria and other forms of saint worship. Some of THESE gangs, to Christians IN law enforcement, actually CAST spells on case workers, police officers, probation officers and judges in order to ‘get’ their way. The use of witchcraft by these and other gangs take the gang issue to another level and I’m one of the few who addresses these types of issues.

BMIA.COM: In your opinion, does rap and hip-hop music play a role in gang violence? If so, how?

MIKE: Rap/Hip Hop is the blueprint for gangs rising, gang motivation, and gang recruitment. Put it this way; what happens on the CD, MP3, and TV screen soon translates into what is happening in the various communities. Here’s an example, because I go into a longer discourse of Rap/Hip Hop impact on gang recruitment; THIS year, there has been a marked RISE in the number of Rap/Hip Hop videos featuring, spotlighting, or having in the background children under the age of 12 participating in the throwing of signs, riding in banger cars, and dressing in smaller versions of the Rap/Hip Hop stars. As a Probation Officer, I KNOW the curfew laws of my jurisdiction like the back of my hand. When I see a pack of teens walking around at 1-2-3 am on a school night, it does not bode well for someone.

Another reason why Rap/Hip Hop is such an indicator on gang activity is its quick assimilation into the mainstream. We know that Rap/Hip Hop did not start out this way, but we know that the mainstream does not spread the ‘best’ about us in the first place. Just as there is Speed Metal, Death Metal, and Thrash Metal as genres of Heavy Metal Music, there is Porno Rap, Gangsta Rap, and Destructo Rap in the genres of Rap/Hip Hop music--meaning that the more that you listen to one of the ‘sub genres’, the more likely you are to act out upon it, or USE it as an excuse to inject yourself against what ‘the teen’ sees as ‘wrong’ in society. Gang members have to ‘consume’ many hours of the genre EVERY day, must be able to ‘recite’ the words of the song BACK to superiors IN the gang, then sustain that train of thought on a regular basis.

It took MTV only 7 years, from 1984 to 1991 to take Rap/Hip Hop from the hood to the burbs. Seventy percent of Rap/Hip Hop is consumed by the white community…young white males, mainly. Now, let’s add this to the equation. From roughly 1993 to 2001, Rap/Hip Hop was HEAVILY exported out of the US and into the WORLD marketplace. Before the end of that eight year cycle, there were reports of Hispanic, Muslim, Japanese, British, Russian and other teens acting out what they were hearing on MP3s from 50 Cent, Jay Z, Queen Latifa, Usher, etc. NOW we have gang problems being reported from the Equator to the DMZ and everywhere in between.

BMIA.COM: What’s the impact of gang violence in the surrounding communities?

MIKE: Briefly, a rise in denial by Black and white parents about how deeply gang violence impacts their community. Stop and think for a moment; a lot of gang violence is not even covered by the MSM (mainstream press) because they have stopped covering the community the way they USED to for the sake of dollars and cents…and there has been little outcry by the community about the lack of coverage. Right now, there are FEWER Blacks males and females working in newsrooms than who are working in Corporate America. Thus, we have succeeded in the boardroom, but it is not being reported to the community through the newsroom, and you have young Black, Hispanic, and white teens in this ‘ain’t no use’ train of thought.

Being a gang member is a state of mind, fed by drugs, liquor, tobacco and music to maintain. In order to be a true gang member, you have to commit crimes. You have to steal, kill and destroy (and, yes I dooooo have a sermon on that, but not now--LOL) in order to impress your fellow bangers and attempt to terrify the community at large. Let me pose this to you; how many business owners--EVEN dedicated brothers and sisters are going to stay in the community after they have been robbed, pistol whipped or WORSE? Now, add to this the fact that much of job creation is tied to small business. Where are the jobs going to come from if small businesses leave a community and NOT return? That migration does NOT take all that long to spread.

BMIA.COM: If a parent or guardian believes that their child is part of a gang what should they do?

MIKE: A quick solution is to ‘Shake em down, Break em down’, and--if need be ‘Take em down’ to the nearest police station. Shake em down; search their rooms, their backpacks, their lockers on a regular basis to see what they are ‘holding’ for a friend. Check the types of clothes they are wearing on the streets during school hours and after school hours…is their ‘too much’ of one color over another? Wearing too many of one type of sportswear? Bangers wear sports jerseys and sports hats to ‘represent’, just like sororities and fraternities and lodge members wear their organization paraphernalia and colors to ‘represent’--for a different reason. Check their exposed limbs for bruises, tattoos, cuts, etc. While tattoos are on their way out as a means of street gang ID, nevertheless, some smaller gangs in smaller communities still require them as a ‘proof’ of being in the gang.

Next, parent/guardian…Break em down. Put them in a chair and grill them as to who they’ve been hanging with. Do they KNOW the REAL names of their friends, or do they only know them as Lil G, JL, or Spyder? Does your child have their OWN little ‘moniker’ on the street. Give them the 3rd degree about their grades, their career choices, etc. Then, keep talking to them day in and day out about the need for an education, a need to keep a clean criminal record, a need to keep themselves sexually pure and morally pure for marriage.

Lastly, let them know in no uncertain terms that you, parent/guardian are prepared for war on this matter. No matter how tough the gang talks, let your child and their gangbanging buddies know that IF you find contraband, it…and your child…will be going to the police at the FIRST sign of gang activity. DON’T let the cops knock on your door at 3am; knock on their door at 8am if your child is involved. Better you take them than the cops come to take them from you. Once a parent puts their foot down and means it, a lot of that stuff seems to evaporate.

Here’s a tip for single parents; society, the church, and the schools have been lying to you about how ‘weak’ you are. ANY parent can get back into the game IF they are more concerned about their children than they are about themselves. I’ve seen single parents refuse to lay down at the whim of society and actually better themselves and better their children by remembering who was in charge. Society WANTS to see your child in the system, parents…because they represent money and job security. I used to thank some of my clients for being ignorant enough in their criminal ways to pay for my next vacation. If they stopped committing crime and actually went to school, mama and daddy would have to see their tax dollars hiring more and more cops, and counselors. Taxes would be going down…not up; and violence would be going down as well. Parent, it is UP to YOU!

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