Behind the violence: An interview with an Omaha gang member
February 16th, 2012
Omaha, NE – Gang activity runs rampant in some Nebraska neighborhoods. In Omaha there are 3,000 alleged gang members, and in Lincoln there are at least 600 members, according to the Omaha and Lincoln police departments.
The attraction of what can seem like an easy road to easy money, for many, turns out to be a life of violence, crime, jail time or worse. KVNO News’ Brandon McDermott sat down with a gang member in Omaha, for an inside look at the gang life, and what drives young people to join up.
“How did you get into the game; how old were you?”
“When I got all the way in, I was 18. For me, it was all I really knew.”
Alex Johnson has lived and thrived on the streets of North Omaha. Pacing familiar streets with a wad of cash in his pocket and a .38 Colt Revolver strapped tightly to his vest was the norm for Johnson for about 10 years after he joined. On this day, as I make my way into what Johnson considers his safe haven, the pungent aroma of marijuana fills the air in the room.
Johnson and another man who did not want to give his name, cordially pass several rolled marijuana blunts back and forth, taking moments to reflect between each puff. As Johnson leans back in his chair and awaits his turn, he talks about a lifestyle that can seem perfect for those born into a life without much structure or support.
“The gang lifestyle is tailor-made for self-destructive people,” Johnson says.
Though Johnson wasn’t officially a member of a gang until he was 18, he was still roaming the streets selling drugs and hustling at just 12 years old.
“For me, it was just something that…rite of passage if you will,” he says, “and was something that was predestined and predetermined to happen.”
“I just didn’t really see anything else for me, I saw maybe 10 more years of life, I wanted to live it to the fullest and that was the lifestyle I wanted to choose.”
To be clear, Johnson no longer considers himself an active member. He no longer sells drugs or runs the streets, and he is trying to distance himself from his criminal record, which includes drug possession and assault and battery charges, but nothing more serious than a misdemeanor.
Now at 28, Johnson has a full-time job and a family, and for the most part, walks a median between what he calls the “real world” and “hood life.” But he says he still has allegiances and if he is called upon, he will do what he says “needs to be done.”
“You’ve got to be willing to shoot people. You’ve got to be willing to sell dope and carry fire arms. You have to be willing to be a target at all times. You have to be willing to basically martyr yourself is what it boils down to,” Johnson says. “You have to be willing to subject yourself to continuous constant unfair police attention and harassment. But again you are living the life; so you know it comes with the territory.”
Johnson says the gang life has taken a toll. He’s suffered from bouts of severe depression, chemical dependency, and says he experienced suicidal and homicidal tendencies as a teenager. In fact, he believes gang members often have mental health problems that are ignored, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“A lot of these gang members and these menaces to society are really just minorities with mental health problems that go undiagnosed for whatever reason,” he says.
Recent studies conducted by the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry show about 30% of young people who are exposed to even one violent act develop PTSD. Those figures are even higher than the rate found in troops returning from war zones.
“When you are having to deal with living in a neighborhood that is devastated with gang violence, you are going to go through a lot of stress,” said Alberto Gonzales, who works in gang prevention and intervention for the Omaha Boys and Girls Club.
Gonzales agrees with Johnson about the long-term effects of living in an area with heavy crime and violence.
And it’s a cycle only perpetuates itself, as gang members, impacted by violence in their own lives, inflict it on others. Gonzales notes the effects it has on children living in gang-ridden areas.
“Compared to a child who lives out in a different neighborhood where there is no violence,” he says, “and can truly go out and play football or baseball out in the yard without having to worry about bullets flying… They are scared to death to come out of their houses.”
Gonzales works with at-risk youth to combat the influence gangs have on them and their families. Gonzales also works with ex-gang members to rehabilitate and ease them back into society. According to Gonzales, it’s a daily battle: one he fights tooth and nail for everyday.
“Judges and probation officers send them and say, ‘You got them for six months, or you got them for a year, work with them, see if you can turn their lives around.’ You know these kids from birth to 15, 16 years old, have been through so much garbage, it takes longer than six months, a year to work with these kids,” Gonzales says. “It’s a lifetime thing with these kids.”
Lieutenant Darci Tierney of the Omaha Police Department echoes these statements. Tierney says there is an ongoing effort to combat gang activity in Omaha. OPD works alongside the Empowerment Network – a key community partner in tackling violence in North Omaha – to engage the community and educate young people about the destruction of gang life.
“You know, it’s difficult,” she says. “But there are ways to change that. I think mentoring is a great possibility if (the community) were to come in and mentor some of these kids and show them a different part of life, maybe something to look forward to instead of the gang activities.”
FBI statistics show violent crime fell 8% in Omaha and 18% in Lincoln in the first six months of the last year, compared to the year before. Tierney says these numbers indicate police strategies are working. Also according to census numbers from 2010, 18.2% of children in Nebraska live in poverty. That’s a 2.9% increase from 2009. Tierney agrees poverty plays a big role in gang activity. The idea of easy money and being your own boss seems worthwhile and attainable to many misled youth.
“I think a lot of this is actually a lack of structure and support,” Tierney says. “And sometimes they look up to their gangs to get that support.”
“Really, they are involved in criminal activities,” she says, “and what may seem glamorous to someone looking in, it’s really just a life of crime.”
The ills and benefits of the gang lifestyle aren’t missed on Johnson. But he insists undoing the destructive influence of gangs and violence is more complex than expanding new employment efforts in North and South Omaha. That’s a key part of the city of Omaha’s plan to combat violence. Many ex-felons can’t find work when they get out of prison, he says, and it’s an easy road back to selling drugs or being an active member.
“You have these individuals out here with no recognition or any type of treatment plan, any sliding-scale billing, they don’t have access to that type of information,” Johnson says. “They don’t have anyone to tell them ‘hey, if you are having these problems, you can come and talk to somebody about it.’ That can sometimes make the difference.”
Johnson again slinks back in his chair inhaling for what would seem like an eternity. He says there are plenty days ahead for him and he considers himself one of the lucky ones to still be alive. Johnson pauses momentarily, before answering whether he’d consider leaving the gang life.
“I think about it every day, I think about it all day every day,” he says. “You know, there are people who are dying that I know….the closeness of the relationships vary from person to person. But the awareness of the person as an individual…”
“Just so many people dying, all different ages, and neighborhoods…That in itself is something that tears at my conscience.”