I’ve got a busy week coming up some I was working yesterday on three things to put in the hopper over at Pith–a short thing on the other half of the Sara Evans restraining order, my park review, which includes a discussion of the Sureños graffiti in the park (in ways I don’t really understand, not being a gang member myself, the Sureños are affiliated with the Mexican Mafia. “Sur” is short for “Sureños” and the 13th letter of the alphabet is M, in acknowledgment of their ties to the Mexican Mafia.), and a post about historical newspaper men, one of whom, John Payne, ended up being instrumental in assuring the rise of organized crime in Chicago, through his system of taking bets on races throughout the country for races happening anywhere he could set up two guys–one with a mirror to flash in code the results of the race and the other to interpret the code and hit the telegraph wires with the result.
Here in Nashville, after Payne had moved from reputable newspaper man to old, old, old school gangster outside of Cincinnati, some of his men were arrested for illegal gambling. They tried to argue that the betting was actually taking place in Kentucky, where the horses were being run and the odds being set and the bets being okayed, even though they were securing the bets here at the Climax (ha!), since they were using the telegraph to basically participate in something happening in Kentucky, where such gambling was legal. The courts didn’t buy it, but I mention it because I think it’s relevant to what I want to talk about.
That happened in 1893. A few years later, when a Chicago gangster tried to move away from using the Payne system, over a dozen of his homes and businesses were bombed. I don’t know how much Payne was involved in that–there doesn’t appear to have been a whole lot written about him. But the bombers and the gangsters (and Payne himself) were making a great deal of money off of his set-up and all appeared to have been associates of each other.
So, there’s this story in the Tennessean today about gangs and how they’re such a huge problem and they’re leaking into the suburbs. And how back in the old days, gangs weren’t so bad, but now? Oh, holy shit, we must all fall over from shock about how bad they are.
And I just want to say a few things. We have always had violent gangs in Tennessee. I don’t mean to downplay the trouble we are having; it is substantial, but when the James gang got here, they had many Nashvillians willing to open their homes to them to provide them with food, shelter, comfort, jobs, and cover stories. That was in the 1880s. Payne had his criminal enterprise that reached back to his home town stretching the turn of the century. We had any number of illegal liquor and gambling clubs that ran throughout the city for much of the 20th century.
And when I moved here ten years ago? Even then people were talking about the gang problems in Smyrna and Murfreesboro. Even then people were like, “Ugh, Hickory Hollow mall. Be careful of the gangs.”
We have always had violent criminals as part of our community. If folks are saying this is something new, they have not been paying attention.
And I think this is an important story and an important discussion to have, but pretending like everything was fine before this newest wave of young people hit is dishonest and doesn’t really help us figure out what to do about fixing things.
I mean, of course there are gangs in the suburbs. Suburban and rural folks: Do you smoke up or enjoy a little Colombian marching powder every once in a while (or use it as a diet aid)? If your pot is not home-grown or grown by your dealer, it’s got to come through some sort of distribution channel. There may be some rare distribution channel that gangs do not have a hand in, but, in all likelihood, they are not yours. Same with cocaine. (And, going without saying, same for other drugs, but I thought those were the two that even “good” suburbanites have likely dabbled in.)
And kids are idiots.
Let’s just be honest. The likelihood of us being able to stop kids from joining gangs is slim and none. I mean, shoot, I looked at the pictures in the Tennessean and I thought those guys looked hot and bad-ass and I’m not a 13 year old kid looking to be hot and bad-ass.
So, what can we do to mitigate the damage?
Some things we don’t like to talk about, like moving drug distribution into legal channels, which would remove one vital source of income for gangs. Even the state legislators who just want to legalize medical marijuana are treated like a huge joke. But it’s time to talk frankly. Gangs need drug money to survive. If means of distribution are legalized, the dealer is pretty much out of business.
Or that gangs operate on grown people my age (and sometimes older) taking advantage of the hunger of children to belong to something bigger than themselves. Do we really want to lock up children and throw away the key or are we going to find some way to intervene in these kids’ lives and move them back into being productive members of society?
No one wants to go to a funeral. So, who’s reaching out to rival gangs to see if there can’t be some understanding had that works better for the whole community? The cops can’t do this part. If they know of criminals who are conducting criminal enterprises, they damn sure better be investigating and arresting them. But there are ministers and other community leaders who might try it. Everyone has a stake in having fewer funerals. This ought to be a goal to which we can all work. But someone’s going to have to go make the connections and make the effort and, yeah, it will be dangerous as fuck.
I don’t know. There’s lots that we could try.
But I just can already see from this story that our way of addressing it is going to be to do just what the gangs do–consider the situation so bad that you have to act in order to show that you cannot be fucked with so you go out to one-up your enemy and try to raise the stakes so high that they back down.
This doesn’t work for them.
Why would it work for us?