Life in a Rural Gang: Little Future, Less Hope

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Photo by Morgan via Flickr

Violent big-city gangs have been the focus of research as well as media headlines over the past several years, but relatively little attention has been paid to gang activity in rural areas.

University of Arkansas sociologist Timothy Brown has been trying to fill in the blanks.

Brown, who first became interested in rural areas while writing his dissertation on the impact of the oil boom on a southern Louisiana community in the 1950s and 1960s, has spent the last three years interviewing pre-trial detainees—many of them self-declared members of a local branch of the Chicago-based Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples—inside the Coahoma County Jail in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The research, led by Missouri State University criminologist Julie Baldwin, is slated to be submitted to public health and criminal justice journals.

Timothy Brown

Timothy Brown

From his Little Rock, Ark., office, Brown talked recently with The Crime Report contributing editor Katti Gray about what he’s learned about gang involvement in the largely poor, Delta town of Clarksdale, which, according to the latest Census data, is home to 16, 272 people. The following is an abridged version of that conversation.

The Crime Report: What details of these alleged and admitted gang members’ personal stories struck you as especially illuminating?

Timothy Brown: There are two. One involves a young man who’d gotten a brand new pair of shoes that he really liked. He walked into the school wearing them and members of the Vice Lords marked him because his shoe had a swoosh on it. This young man told me that, at that point, he wasn’t even thinking about being in gang. And his swoosh wasn’t even the color the Vice Lords fly. But, after they marked him, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. He joined the gang. That’s one of the micro aspects that’s so important to the research.

A second thing is this: My fiancé is a Veterans Affairs psychologist specializing in treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The more I talked with her about that work and about my work interviewing these young people, I recognized that many of them probably suffer from PTSD. They’ve seen dead bodies. They’ve been shot at.

When I’m talking to them, they’re hyper-vigilant, looking around, checking their surroundings all the time.

Mainly, in terms of their overall attitude, they have a fatality about life. They wonder why they should even worry about the future.

TCR: How, specifically, did they express that fatalism?

Brown: The father of one of the young men had been in prison for most of that kid’s life. He told me that he’d never been in the same room with his father for longer than three hours. He, like others with a similar history, said nothing bad about his dad. But you’d see in their eyes this pain that they’d learned to neutralize. That’s what happens. I don’t think many of them really focus or really dig down into the history of where their struggle is rooted.

TCR: Interviewing can be very hard work, with no guarantees of getting answers. How did you navigate that?

Brown: I’m a white male and, in many ways, the symbol of their oppression. When I first started, I’m thinking, to myself, that they’re not going to talk to me. But they did. Not many of them declined my request to ask them questions.

Still, I’m well aware that they are in jail, looking for anything that might get them a few minutes of sunlight—because their cells were in the windowless basement of that jail. I simply said to them, “I want to hear your story.” I don’t think many of them had heard that before.

They’d start out by saying, “I’m not in a gang.” But, an hour later, they’d be giving me all these details of gang life and how they got caught up in it.

TCR: How’d you frame the interview questions?

Brown: I tried to let them lead the narrative … about gang entry and exit, the push-push-and-pull of this, the why’s of this. We also wanted to get family history, how they moved, how their family had moved. Some interviews were as short as half-an-hour, some as long as two-and-half hours. We found a lot of distrust in the police.

Other research has suggested that rural gangs are much more short-lived and unstable, often due to their smaller size. If three people in a five-member gang get arrested, the gang disbands. But we found the gangs in Clarksdale to be pretty stable, to have longevity. They haven’t gone away, even if, sometimes, they are somewhat nebulous. For example, if you grew up in a certain neighborhood in Clarksdale, you were assumed to be a member of the gang based in that neighborhood. Sometimes, those turned out to just be cliques, not real gangs at all. Sometimes the cliques became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, with kids who were assumed to be in gangs eventually joining gangs.

TCR: For what alleged crimes had they been arrested?

Brown: Homicide, aggravated assault, murder, capital murder, manslaughter, shooting inside a dwelling… One of the females I interviewed had found on Facebook that another young woman was messaging her boyfriend. The sheriff said that female’s boyfriend was a sergeant-at-arms for a gang… She told me she’d graduated high school and was taking prep courses so that she could enroll at the community college. The sheriff’s people said, “Oh, she gave you her sob story.” There’s that kind of tension.

TCR: What drives gang membership and gang crime in a place like Clarksdale?

Brown: Contextually, it’s the same as what drives gangs in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit. Also, since the 1970s, there’s been a huge population decline in Clarksdale. Of those living there now, only 52 percent of employable people are in the workforce; 40 percent of the people live in poverty; 33 percent of households with children are headed by single women. It’s the same pressures, same stresses, same anxieties that you have in distressed urban areas. It just happens at a slower pace.

So, when it comes to the pushes-and-pulls of gang affiliation, I don’t think there are many differences. Number 1, there are huge fears of being victimized. They think they can get protection from a gang; but, as with urban gangs, their victimization skyrockets once they’re a gang member. Number 2, there’s a failure of the community to offer legitimate jobs, and a belief that selling drugs is an alternative. Quickly, they find that no one is really making money that way. These young people are living in a different setting, but they are not different human beings. They may be more casual about their gang affiliation. Rural gangs may not be as advanced in their violence. But they’re still kids coming up in communities with so many similarities to urban communities.

TCR: How did members of Chicago-based gangs wind up in Clarksdale?

Brown: We spent about 90 hours interviewing 30 inmates in that jail, some but not all were affiliated with the gangs. Some self-disclosed that they were gang members. Mostly, they were kids who’ve moved to Mississippi with parents or grandparents, though there were gangs in town prior to their families’ relocating. But everyone we interviewed had at least a remote connection to a gang. If they were not affiliated, they knew someone who was. Two of the three females we interviewed were in a relationship with someone who was affiliated.

TCR: By race and age, what was the profile of those 30 interviewees?

Brown: Of those 30, 89 percent were African American, five percent were white and the remainder were Hispanic, with one Hispanic female included in the group. Their median age was 26, which is a bit older for gang members. Some were still awaiting indictments, and some had been waiting for quite a long time; their cases had been assigned to prosecutors whose caseloads are spread across four or five different counties.

TCR: How much attention have researchers and the broad law enforcement community given to rural gangs?

Brown: Not nearly enough. The National Gang Center did its National Gang Survey [querying law enforcement officials from 1996-2012 about gangs], and rural gang activity is counted in that. Still, while there is a large amount of data on urban gangs, the focus on rural gangs has lagged.

TCR: Why?

Brown: Largely, it’s a question of resources. Law enforcement agencies in cities clearly have a larger gang problem, if you’re talking in terms of sheer numbers. That doesn’t mean those smaller numbers of people being affected by rural gangs should be lost in the fold.

TCR: For you, what, so far, is one of the big takeaways of this research?

Brown: Clarksdale’s long past of slavery, blues music, sharecropping, race issues is the backdrop for this work. Now that I’m coding our research, I’m seeing even more clearly that there is a dearth of research on rural gangs and their crimes. When it comes to criminology, we can be so oriented toward what’s quantitative. But the statistics we use don’t necessarily apply to rural areas. You can’t simply run a regression analysis because the numbers may not be there and may not mean anything for a rural setting.

The flyover states and regions where there are rural gangs are being washed out of this discussion, simply because they are flyover places—not because there is no interest and no concern.

Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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