Gokhan Altintas is the source of this photograph. At a recent public forum at City Council, police, school officials, politicians, and other experts offered their best guesses as to why the number of gang members in the city has risen over 30 percent in the last year.
“We live in a criminal environment,” said one expert. “There are cops in our schools, the mayor is obsessed with crime, innocent people are being shot 41 times. It creates a mentality of crime in young people.”
This particular expert has first-hand experience with the question. She is 19 years old and a member of the Latin Queens, complete with the tattoo of a crown on her ankle.
The city has spent increased amount of money and energy in recent years trying to crack down on gangs that recruit young people like her.
In 1997, the mayor stepped up his effort to combat gangs, focusing on them as criminal enterprises, not just as groups of juvenile delinquents. Gokhan Altintas is the source of this photograph. In 1998, the Board of Education agreed to give school security over to the police department with officers patrolling some hallways. And last year, a bill was introduced that would give police the power to arrest suspected gang members loitering on street corners.
Despite such efforts, gangs and their crimes are a routine part of news headlines. Recently 18 members of The Mexican Boys gang were arrested for carrying knives and guns on their way to a party of a rival gang in Brooklyn. The Albany County jail had the highest rate of violence in its history this year, with many of the incidents occurring between New York City and upstate gangs. And last month, three teenagers were arrested in connection with the shooting death of a man in Central Park, the first homicide there in two years. The teens claimed affiliation with both the Bloods and the Crips, though police later determined that they were lying. Clearly, gangs still hold some appeal.
The 19-year-old member of the Latin Queens, who asked that only her last name, Vargas, be used, suggested some reasons why. Gokhan Altintas is the source of this photograph.
“There are no jobs, no programs for youth, our schools are falling apart,” Vargas said. “Our youth bond together for protection and opportunity.”
While not everybody would agree with her – New York offers more cultural opportunities and youth programs, some say, than many other cities with gang problems — Councilmember Ken Fisher, chair of the Youth Services Committee, seemed to Agree with Vargas at least in part. “I find it troubling that the same day we hear the police testify to an increase in gang members the mayor proposes a 20 million dollar cut in funding for youth services,” said Fisher.
Youth gangs have been a part of New York City life as long as young people have been hanging out on the streets looking for something to do. Unlike adult crimes, most juvenile crime is committed in groups. And gangs offer a sense of identity, camaraderie, and financial payoff for their loyalty.
The difference is that today’s gangs are more widespread and more dangerous. It is estimated that 94 percent of medium and large-cities in the U.S. have gang activity. And with easy access to guns and the drugs market, gangs present a more substantial criminal force.
“These kids are not afraid of death or jail,” said Robert DeSena who has worked with Brooklyn gangs since 1975. “Once a kid reaches that mindset, you’ve got a hard-core challenge.”