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The 41st Street Crips.



The name may sound like something from a movie or a rap video, but it’s real.

Take a closer look at the street sign at the intersection of 32nd Street and Waters Avenue. Someone has painted a red, six-pointed star over the W in the sign.

“That indicates disrespect for the West Side,” says Detective Jose Ramirez, who heads the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Gang Unit.

Actually, Ramirez is the gang unit. “I cover the whole of Chatham County by myself,” he says.

In the beginning, there were four gang unit officers in Chatham County. That number dropped to two, then one -- although another officer is expected to be hired for the gang unit at some point.

But for now, there’s just Ramirez. A voice crying out in the wilderness? Hardly. He has a passion for what he does. “I enjoy it, especially interacting with youths,” he says. “But I do need help.”

Residents should reach out to the city council and county commission to demand that something be done to counter street gangs, Ramirez says. “Life doesn’t mean anything to the gangs,” he says. “That kind of violence will escalate.”

As Ramirez drives the streets of Savannah, he sees signs of gang activity in many areas. “The graffiti is everywhere,” he says. “I see people use hand signs. It’s a battle I face every day.”

But the problem isn’t limited to Savannah. Quiet, rural Effingham County is battling the production and sale of methamphetamine. The problem is so severe that Effingham County has been nicknamed “Methingham,” Ramirez says.

“This West Coast issue is hitting our back yard very, very hard,” Ramirez says. “People say these are not true gangs. But youth violence is on the rise — dramatically. If you look at many of the homicides lately, they involve youth violence.”

Ramirez cites the murder of Gloria Peloquin, who was shot and killed by 16-year-old Kareem Petty on April 22, 2004, as she drove away from a grocery store. The homicide, which occurred in broad daylight near one of the busiest intersections in Savannah, shocked the entire community.

Many residents are in denial that there is a gang presence in Savannah, but there are at least 13 gangs that are active here, some with as many as 50 members. “Gang violence is everywhere and we’ve got to deal with it,” Ramirez says.

Yes, there are Crips and Bloods in Savannah, but Ramirez’s biggest fear is the emergence of Latino gangs, including Surenos 13, which is associated with the Mexican Mafia. Some of the new Latino gangs are being founded to show respect for gangs “back home.”

“They might have family members in gangs in California, Texas or Arizona,” Ramirez says. “That makes it easy for them to set up a gang somewhere else.”

Even Hilton Head Island may have a gang problem. Ramirez says Surenos 13 gang graffiti has been found there. “It shows loyalty to the Mexican Mafia,” he says.

Surenos is Spanish for Southerner, which in this case refers to Southern California. The number 13 refers to the 13th letter of the alphabet, M. “That stands for the Mexican Mafia,” Ramirez says.

Walk into any bathroom in any public school and you will likely encounter gang graffiti, Ramirez says. A gun located on the Beach High School campus was traced to a local gang, and a homicide in 2004 was attributed to gang members who attended Windsor Forest High School.

Look closely and you will see gang activity, Ramirez says. For example, some gang members who sell drugs “advertise” by wearing jeans with the type of sleeveless tank top called a “wifebeater” and carrying a towel.

If the towel is draped over the shoulder, it means the gangster is carrying drugs and is open for business. If the towel is in a pocket, it means the drugs are sold out.

Gang activities are often glamorized through pop culture. “Snoop Dogg is a Crips member,” Ramirez says. “Yet he was on Sesame Street.”

Gang symbols, hand signs and clothing can be seen in several music videos. Ramirez admits that he himself is a fan of rapper C Murder.

“I listen to the stuff,” he says. “C Murder is in prison and has been arrested for murder, but he did a music video from jail over the intercom phone.”

Some rap and hip hop contains anti-social messages that have an effect on children, he says. “Our kids have been taking it in every day. (They learn) how to disrespect women -- and domestic violence increases.”

Child abuse rates also have risen. “We have guys who ran from a parole office and tossed a two-year-old child from a car,” Ramirez says in reference to another crime that stunned Savannahians.

While Ramirez is the only current member of the city’s gang unit, most officers with the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police have received special training to help them deal with gangs.

About five years ago, nationally recognized gang expert Ken Jones, who teaches at the Institute of Police Technology and Management at Jacksonville, was recruited to train officers in Savannah. Ramirez was one of his students.

“A few years ago in Savannah, we started noticing this graffiti,” says Dan Drake of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “About three to four people have the education to know if it’s gang-related, or if it isn’t gang-related. We wanted to bring someone in for training. By a stroke of luck, we got Ken Jones.”

Jones says gangs are attracted to cities that offer the least resistance. “Savannah is not any different than any city of comparable size,” he says. “You should not feel bad because gangs find your city attractive.”

The reason gangs find little resistance is because the community has a problem accepting that there is gang infiltration in Savannah. The thought is a frightening one people don’t want to believe.

“Most individuals believe if the gangs did not come from New York, California or Miami, they are not gangs,” Jones says. “But if you leave them alone, the wannabes will become gonnabes.”

Gang problems can exist in all racial groups. A Savannah high school student, who is white, says he was approached by gangs while living in Colorado.

“The first initiation, they jump you,” he says. “The only way to get out is to die or move. They threatened my family, so we moved back to Savannah.”

Girls can belong to gangs, too. “Young ladies have always had a role in the gang,” says Jones, adding that today, girls play a much bigger role than in the past. “Good girls like bad boys.”

Gangs can be large or small. “A gang may have as few as three members or hundreds or thousands,” Jones says. “The Los Angeles Crips have in excess of 100,000 members. There are 63,000 gang members in Chicago. These cities have not found a solution to the problem, and I don’t think they will now.”

In some cities, gangs have an enormous presence. “One gang was so successful, it was called in to advise a school board about a school suspension program,” Jones says.

“Number One on the gang code of conduct is silence and secrecy,” he says. “They lure in kids before the parent ever realizes it.”

The territory controlled by a gang can be large or small. “A street gang may control a block, a street, a school or an entire community,” Jones says. “Gangs seek out areas where they can profit. The reason gangs have growing profits is because of drugs, especially crack.”

The average age of a gang member is 13. But there are adult gang members, too -- some in their 40s. “Now some of these groups are generational,” Jones says. “Some are born into gang life.”

Gangs have standards their members must meet. “Unity, loyalty and reward are necessary to the gang’s survival,” Jones says. The gang assures its philosophy is followed by any means necessary. They do it without remorse because life doesn’t mean anything to the gangsters.”

The reasons kids join gangs are many. “A significant number of studies show that kids joined gangs because they wanted to,” Jones says. “They may join because it allows a level of status not possible outside the gang.”

Kids also might be harassed by gang members until they join.

Traditional gangs are the most familiar to most people, Jones says. Traditional gangs often have a constitution and a code of conduct. They are hierarchical, with clear leaders and followers.

They also use colors, symbols and hand signs to show their gang affiliation.

“All Folk Nation followers wear everything to the right,” Jones says. “If they’re wearing a baseball cap, it is turned to the right. They might roll their right pants leg up, untie their shoe on the right. It signifies solidarity. These tools are used by the gangs to recruit.

“This is something our schools fight every day,” Jones says. “It’s always, ‘Pull your pants up, tie your shoes.’”

Clothing with sports team names and logos also is being used by gangs. This has nothing to do with the sports teams -- it is used as another identifier.

“Colors have unique meanings,” Jones says. “Red symbolizes the blood of the oppressed.”

Wearing the wrong clothing in certain neighborhoods can be lethal. “Kids are killed because of what they are wearing,” Jones says. “Not knowing a certain kind of clothing (symbolizes gang affiliation) can get them in trouble.”

Although traditional gangs may be more familiar to most people, most of the gangs in Savannah are non-traditional gangs -- also known as contemporary, wannabes or New Hybrid.

“These are the ones that give the most problems,” Jones says. “The Skidmore Mafia can be just as damaging as the Crips. This is Enemy No. 1 of most communities.”

That’s because, unlike traditional gangs, the non-traditional gangs have no code of conduct, wear no specific colors and are linear, meaning there is no hierarchy, or leadership. That makes the gangs more unpredictable and harder to spot.

Gangs cover all economic levels. Younger members are most sought. “They like to recruit young children because they know the judicial system won’t be as hard on them,” Jones says.

“Many hard-core gang members don’t survive past 21,” he says. “If they do, they may spend most of their life in jail.”

The image of the gangsta rapper is a powerful one to children. “Tupac, Snoop, 50 Cent -- they have an unbelievable influence,” Jones says.

“Children are attracted to this,” he says. “Almost everything the gang provides to children stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. Parents suppress.”

There are five levels of gang control. At Level One, there is no known gang activity in a community.

At Level Two, there may be some peripheral gang activity. By Level Three, there is an emerging gang problem. “If you’re at Level Three, it’s already too late,” Jones says.

A Level Four community is a community in crisis. And Level Five means the community is controlled by a gang.

“We know when a gang is emerging, because it does a lot of drive-bys,” Jones says. “It’s trying to make a reputation.”

When a gang does invade a community, legitimate businesses leave, the tax base erodes and children pull their children out of school, Jones says. “The police become so burdened, they only respond to shots,” he says.

“When we live in a community with a declining overall lifestyle, we pull up and move,” Jones says.

“The gangs don’t do that. They organize. A gang-controlled community could happen in downtown historic Savannah. It could happen in the best communities.”

Gang activity should be treated with zero tolerance, Jones says. “Every day you allow the graffiti to remain, it strengthens the gang.”

“Education is the key,” Jones says. “If a child has information, they are armed. They know it’s not okay to take another person’s life. It’s not okay to sell drugs.” w







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Linda Sickler

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