The Mean Streets of Long Island


A new book explores how New York City's affluent suburbs are coping with the rise of youth gangs

gangsingardencitySarah Garland, a New York-based investigative journalist, was researching gangs in East Harlem when a professor suggested she take a look at Garden City, L.I., an affluent suburb 21 miles east of Times Square. Garland soon discovered that the inner-city doesn't have a monopoly on violent youth. Her troubling account of the five years she spent following the largely Hispanic gangs in suburban Long Island is now a book: “Gangs in Garden City: How Immigration, Segregation, and Youth Violence are Changing America’s Suburbs,” released by Nation Books on June 29th.

The Crime Report's Cara Tabachnick asked Garland about her findings.

The Crime Report: Long Island is usually considered a safe suburban area outside of New York. Is there a difference between suburban and city gangs?

Sarah Garland: Both care about the blocks that they control. The …setting is obviously different, but the concerns are the same. In the Long Island suburbs, (in) towns like Freeport and Roosevelt, the housing stock has deteriorated. There has been a shift of the problems of the inner city to the suburbs.

TCR: Why did you name the book “Gangs of Garden City”? Most members of the gangs you write about live outside of this wealthy Long Island enclave.

Garland: The gang members don't live in Garden City and that was sort of the point of the title. It was used as a metaphor. Garden City was one of the first suburbs in Long Island, and at the turn of the century was marketed by the developers as an exclusive haven to bring wealthy people in and keep undesirables out. When you drive from (the nearby minority enclave of) Hempstead into Garden City there is a stark difference.

Garden City has wide streets and huge trees and it feels safer. It is just a nice place to live. Hempstead is no longer a nice place to live. There are such disparities in wealth and so much isolation between towns on Long Island. For example, Hempstead High School is 99 percent visible minorities and Garden City High School is 99 percent white. Kids who live in Hempstead are isolated: they don't see a way out. They won't live a life like their neighbors in Garden City. But, in 20 years the majority of the United States won't be white anymore, so what is going on in these neighborhoods should be everyone's problem.

TCR: How did the rise of gangs happen so quickly in immigrant suburban communities?

Garland: Mara Salvatrucha-13 (MS-13) and 18th Street might have formed anyway if the immigration system in this country was functional, but one of the main reasons they've grown so big, so fast can be directly linked to bad immigration policy. (Ed Note: MS-13 can now be found in 42 states with an estimated 10,000 members. 18th Street has 30,000 to 50,000 members in 20 states. The FBI says MS-13 and 18th Street are the fastest growing and most violent of the nation’s street gangs.)

The gangs originally formed among Hispanic immigrants marginalized in Los Angeles. A lot them were refugees from the civil wars (in Central America) funded with American money who were denied refugee status, so they were traumatized people left living on the fringes of society with not a lot of options for upward mobility – and the same type of scenario is still going on today.

U.S. immigration agents pick up about 8,000 kids illegally crossing the border alone each year. Many of those kids are going to meet their parents, who left them behind in their countries years earlier because they were desperate to find some way to support their families, even if they had to do it illegally. This family separation has been a disaster, and I saw a lot of kids who were drawn into the gangs because they were not coping well with the trauma of the border crossing and the reunification with parents they barely knew.

garlandheadshot1TCR: One gang you followed–Salvadorans With Pride (SWP)– like many regional Hispanic gangs actually started out as a civic youth support group. What happened?

Garland: I am not exactly sure. Salvadorans with Pride (SWP) met with the Hempstead police for their blessing to run the group and the police said no. Then younger members joined, and SWP had fundraising parties with alcohol and that caused strife with MS-1. Things just escalated. Add to this the anti-immigrant feeling that has been growing in this country – hate crimes against Latinos have risen by 40 percent in the past few years – and you have a situation that is ripe for street gangs.

In Long Island, for example, there have been several very visible attacks, including white teenagers preying on Hispanics – beating them up regularly without much intervention by the police. One man was killed last year. For kids growing up in this climate of fear, it seems almost inevitable that some would want to join gangs, for the protection, but also for the respect and the emotional support.

TCR: You chose to follow three young gang members. How did you gain their trust and confidence even though you come from such different backgrounds?

Garland: I met Julio in jail. Police had picked him up for an immigration violation and he was in deportation proceedings – actually a highly unusual situation at the time that has become much more common as Homeland Security has joined forces with local police to go after the gangs. The police believed he was one of the founders of MS-13 in Hempstead and that he was still working as a leader. He denied that he was a leader – he said he had been trying to form an organization to help younger gang members end the violence between the two rival gangs, MS-13 and SWP. He was in his orange jumpsuit and we had a brief meeting in the visiting room of the jail where he told me about fighting in the Salvadoran civil war. The next time I met with him was in El Salvador. He was living with his mom and out of work. It's nearly impossible for former gang members to get work there, and Julio never actually left the gang. He was against violence, but he said that telling the gang he was no longer a member would be a death sentence. They wouldn't allow it.

Jessica was trying to get out of her gang – Salvadorans With Pride – when I met her. She was in a program with an anti-violence organization formed by a former gang member, Sergio Argueta. Like Daniel, I changed her name in the book to protect her safety. She left the gang because there had been a rumor that she was going to be stabbed to death. Sergio helped her get out of town for a while until she thought it was safer, but she was still nervous that they might come after her. She was also afraid of her family – most of her uncles and cousins were members of MS-13, SWP's rival. She had joined SWP because she was abused as a child and she felt that her family neglected her.

I met Daniel at Hempstead High School. The principal gave me permission to interview ESL students from Central America during one of their class periods. Daniel was a thuggish-looking kid: he had the baggy pants and the tough-guy strut. At first when I started talking to him, he was quiet and actually seemed more shy than tough. I experienced the same thing when I interviewed MS-13 members in a prison in El Salvador – they looked terrifying with gang tattoos all over their face, but then when you sat to talk with them alone, most of them just seemed like awkward, gangly teenage boys who had gotten caught up in something bigger and scarier than they anticipated.

Daniel was like that. I asked him questions about where he came from and his family and what he thought about school. Eventually he opened up. His best friend had been murdered a couple of years earlier – when they were both 14 years old – and he thought about it all the time. He had also come over the border by himself. He had an horrendous journey in the backseat of a Honda. He wasn't getting along with his mother, and I think I was simply the first adult who had asked him about himself and what he had been through.

TCR: You write that “the breathless media and law enforcement reports that characterized Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street as the largest, most dangerous gangs in the world had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” What do you think is the media's responsibility in reporting on the gangs?

Garland: Although there has been some good reporting, a lot of the media response has gone with the police line or FBI line. News articles about MS-13 characterize the gang as the most ruthless and dangerous group out there. The evidence on the ground is that they have done awful things, but have not done more than other street gang. This is not the mafia. A lot of small gangs take on the name of MS-13 and 18th Street and have no connection with parent gang. Most of the Long Island gangs get money by begging at the mall, but the image of all gang members as violent criminals is one that is perpetuated by the media.

TCR: The federal government has pumped billions of dollars into programs to stop these violent gangs. Is that money getting any results?

Garland: It is a vote getter for any politician to crack down on crime. That platform is (always) going to get votes from elderly people, parents and people who are worried about their communities. (But) the deeper reasons behind gang warfare don't fit into a campaign slogan. It is not an easy solution. Long Island is very segregated it is something you may or may never be able to fix.

TCR: You write in the book, “The truth was that their rise to power revealed not what the gangs offered to a new generation of immigrants and their children, but what America did not.” Can you explain?

Garland: Kids haven't been given access to opportunities, especially equal education, and this is a huge reason why they are turning to this nihilistic lifestyle. There has also been a rise in anti- immigrant feeling across the country and some communities feel as if they are under siege. There are open doors, but people are pushing back at them trying to keep them out and then asking why they can't do better. How can immigrants from these communities then achieve the American dream? It is a high bar.

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