Changing outcomes and keeping youth from crime: An interview with former gang members

GANG crime continues to blight The Bahamas - often with little solution in sight. Bahamian writer and policy researcher CARLOS OUTTEN spoke to young men who have been involved in gang life to hear their views on how people become drawn into the gang world - and how hard it is to break free.

By June 29, the murder count had risen to 61, which is up by more than 13 percent compared to last year and only 14 fatalities away from 2015’s record-breaking statistic for June, posing the disturbing question of “What can possibly be done to stop all this senseless killing?”

With so many government-led initiatives, such as the 5 Pillar Approach and Anti-Gang and Firearm Task Force - which has been coined by the Prime Minister as the nation’s “toughest anti-gang legislation ever” “clearing the streets, holding communities accountable and building new opportunities for people” - already unleashed to fight the war on crime and save lives, I cannot help but to wonder if the solution to decreasing the high rates of homicide may actually be found within the one group that seems to be overlooked the most when planning such initiatives - Bahamian men, who are also disproportionately impacted the most by these crimes.

Young Bahamian men below the age of 40 are undoubtedly the most likely to commit murder and die as a result, yet they are rarely included in discussions of solutions.

In a hope to help fill this gap, I interviewed three Bahamian men, all of whom have had personal experiences of gang culture, which is a major factor in the high rate of homicides within the country. Two of the interviewees are under 35 and one interviewee is over 50, and is referred as the ‘OG’. This article aims to bring a better understanding of why young men are engaged in gangs and to be used as a stimulant for thoughts on solving this problem.

The Bahamas has a history of gang violence that expanded from the 80s to now, which highlights that this issue is not simply a generation’s issue, but rather systemic in nature. In an article written by a notable psychiatrist, Dr Mike Neville, on gang culture, he highlights that “gangs can offer protection, respect within their community, money and a sense of power. This makes gang membership attractive to kids who do not feel that they belong or are a part of society”.

In the interviews done, we found that 100 percent of interviewees grew up in a women-led single family home for most of their childhood and one interviewee experienced homelessness, jumping from one family member’s home to the next, leaving him feeling “unwanted” and personally labeling himself as a ‘trouble-child”.

Interviewees were then asked to describe their relationship with their family. Despite the challenges they expressed, no interviewee gave negative comments about their parents, describing them as hard workers or “all right”. As one interviewee described his relationship with his mother, “We ain’t really had no communication, she would be at work and I would be doing my own thing” and, the OG commented, “My family would take me in and try their best, but once I started acting out, they would have to get rid of me.”

None of these statements showed any deep connections, emotions, or relationship between the interviewees and their family. It seemed as though the interviewees did not expect their parents to nurture them as many other privilege groups may. This information may have implications for reasoning as to why the interviewees were vulnerable to organisations like gangs that do provide a sense of belonging.

When asked about reasons that someone would join a gang, the interviewees constantly talked about gangs being a place to foster friendships and community. Additionally, interviewees highlighted how gangs provide a space for young men to garner money, power, to be noticed and respected. It became clear how important respect is to both gang culture and the interviewees’ sense of identity.

Asked to describe characteristics that define a man, all of the interviewees agreed on the principles of respect, provider, independence, leadership and being trustworthy. Comparing the principles of being a man with those being offered and required by a gang, there seems to be a very strong correlation. As an interviewee commented, “In a gang, respect and trust is everything.”

Another interesting revelation was that none of these men said that they felt forced to join a gang growing up. As an interviewee expressed, “there is no initiation for being in a gang in Nassau, it happens naturally. You hang out with your friends and you all end up being recognised with the gang of your community”.

This information coincides with Dr Neville’s observations of Bahamian gang culture when he says, “It appears that most gangs (around the world) want to be clearly identified, as that helps create an aura of fear and power which helps attract recruits. The structure of Bahamian gangs, however, seems more fluid; they often disappear or fragment and alliances can change rapidly.”

It appears that many young men unintentionally end up in gangs simply through their community association. Of course, this is not to say that Bahamian gangs are not strategically structured organisations, but rather it shows that the process at which young men are joining gangs is not as pervasive as some may think and that children can literally slip into gang culture unbeknownst to even them, let alone their parents. However, once accepted by the organisation and completing tasks, as expressed by the interviewees, “you cannot leave”.

Once officially a part of a gang, which happens by being involved in the day-to-day financial actions, such as selling drugs or carrying out orders for higher ranking members it is nearly impossible to leave the organisation safely. As expressed by an interviewee, “The only way to leave is to leave the country - get lost!” and “If a member of a gang decides to leave, he places the gang and its operations at risk of being exposed.” This is a key reason for many inner conflicts within gangs today, because as stated by an interviewee “the very presence of flakiness (and) they will get rid of you”.

However the OG, who held a leadership position in a gang over 20 years ago had a differing opinion, “I didn’t want to be a part of it any more, so I just stopped.”

The OG went on to say how his exit and the exit of many other gang leaders during this time was facilitated covertly by the ‘96 government. In his words: “Sir Lynden Pindling sat all of us down (the gang leaders) and asked us to talk things out and we did. He also gave each of us an envelope (of money) and jobs, which made me realise how stupid I was to be living my life in constant danger, not knowing that I could have all of this money without being involved in that lifestyle.”

The ‘96 government engaged with leaders of these organisations and provided them with respect, “a seat at the table” and resources, which ultimately did decrease gang violence during that period - evaporating the Raiders, Hoyas and other gangs of that time.

The truce being described was a total shock to me and highlighted a few things. Firstly, the power that partnership between young men and our country leaders can potentially bring, secondly how impactful it can be if we look at gangs as an organisation and tackle issues related to them from a head-down approach. Understanding that the average young man cannot simply leave a gang at whim because of the lack of social safeguards to protect them, will erase the “simple fix” approach that many Bahamians assume gang members can act upon. Only leaders have such freedom to “simply leave” their gangs without dire consequences. And lastly, this confession emphasised why many young men are in gangs, which is simply to survive - due to their limited resources.

One of the interviewees further highlighted this issue when he said, “I graduated school, I had no criminal record, but no one would hire me.” Additionally, as expressed by another interviewee, “People have to survive and eat by any means. If you can’t eat, you have to steal. You may have to ‘hot-boy’ a car to make money.” These statements emphasise how the financial gain of gangs is a crucial factor for their success.

When asked if there is anything that a parent could do to prevent their child from engaging in violence, responses revolved around parents having open and honest communication with their children that is “not sugar coated”, allowing children to be vulnerable with them. They also suggested that parents find mentors of similar experiences to motivate their children to stay on the right path. Most interviewees highlighted how witnessing a former gang member turn their life around motivated them to do the same. Interviewees also gave practical examples such as giving timeouts, limiting social media time and sending children who use drugs to rehab.

Similarly, when asked if there is anything that the government can do to help prevent young men from engaging in violence one interviewee said, “Catch the youth from when they are young.”

They all suggested forms of community events for the youth and sports tournaments, so that children are afforded the opportunity to enjoy their youth and stay busy. Another similarity between the interviewees was that they all suggested some form of a work-based learning model as a solution. As one interview described, “Birth young entrepreneurs from high school to go straight into the workforce. Have students fix bathrooms themselves. Have them fix their own government buildings. Provide environments for young men and young women to do what they love instead of going through an institution where they are not learning anything.”

In addition, they recommended training teachers to understand and communicate with students more effectively, increasing minimum wage, having teachers discipline kids and prayer.

Solving the crime issue in The Bahamas is very complex. Many factors contribute to the high levels of homicide and gang violence in our country and many stakeholders are doing an excellent job in brainstorming and initiating initiatives to defeat this pandemic of tears. By adding the perspectives of young Bahamian men, it is the hope that it will bridge the gap of political theory and the people to create practical solutions that make The Bahamas greater for all, and to, most importantly, save our young men’s lives.


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