Valley Interview : Exploring the Tragic Logic of Crews, Gangs, Graffiti and Violence

In September, 1990, a gang of teen-agers mugged a family visiting New York from Utah, killing a teen-age boy who had tried to protect his mother. Later, news reports said the youths wanted money to go dancing.

Maria Hinojosa--an award-winning correspondent for National Public Radio based in New York, specializing in urban and multicultural affairs--wondered what made it so easy for a teen to reach into his pocket, pull out a knife and stab someone.

So began a two-year odyssey for Hinojosa, who hit the streets to talk to kids. Many insisted they were not gang members, belonging instead to loosely knit bands of youths called "crews" and "posses," some of which spray-paint graffiti.

Her radio report, which aired Nov. 6, 1990, on the national program "All Things Considered," gave voices to these teen-agers, who tried to explain why they do what they do.

Her reports became the basis for a new book, "Crews," published last month by Harcourt Brace. The subject has once again drawn national attention with the shooting death of an 18-year-old tagger in the San Fernando Valley by William Masters, who said he killed in self-defense. The deadly encounter triggered a storm of debate over how law-abiding citizens ought to respond to tagging crews and gangs.

In a telephone interview from New York, the 33-year-old author spoke with Times staff writer Julio Moran about the youth subculture that inspires fear among many residents and parents. She is scheduled to deliver the opening keynote address Saturday at a women's conference entitled "Creative Options: A Day for Women" at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

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Question: Is there a difference between crews and gangs?

Answer: A gang is a much more structured, hierarchical type of organization where you have specific ways of getting in and what you may or may not be able to do to get out of. A crew is really much more like a clique, the people you hang out with. It can be as small as three people or as large as 20. It's very unstructured. There's no one leader. As we all know from our high school days, there are cliques that were doing hardly anything and cliques that were doing negative things, testing their limits. Same things exist with crews. One thing that is common, however, is that there is a sense that you need to have a crew in New York to back you up in the case that you have a problem with someone else.

Q: Is tagging or graffiti a vital part of crews?

A: I think it used to be, but I think less and less now. Not every crew has a tag or going out and doing graffiti.

Q: Are crews involved in criminal activity?

A: Some of them are. Some of them are groups of kids who get together and feel they have no true access to money so they go out on a "mission" and jump someone. They do that because their perception of the world is that they cannot get a job and they don't have any money.

Q: Are they involved with drugs?

A: Not in general. You have cliques that are into drugs. Some of the crews smoke (marijuana), or do stronger stuff, but you can't make a generalization that they all do drugs.

Q: Are they still attending school?

A: A lot of them are in school. A girls' crew I interviewed were all in school. They had their crew because sometimes fights break out in school and they needed someone to watch their backs. Some dropped out and then went back and got their (general equivalency diplomas). Some of them are thinking about going to college. Some of them have not done anything since dropping out.

One of the things I'm trying to communicate in this book is that these young people are involved in things that we would rather they not be involved in, both for our safety and theirs. But they are a lot more similar to other young people in general than we may think. When you're a teen-ager, it's about testing your limits, it's about being cool, about being tough, about who has the power. Young people tend to do things without thinking about the consequences. We should be looking for commonality in their experiences rather than just what is wrong with them, what's bad about them.

Q: But why do kids cross the line of simply challenging authorities and start committing crimes?

A: I think it is very difficult to give a definitive answer. One of the kids I interviewed said he really didn't know anything about violence until one night a group of guys asked him to hang out and they started smoking and drinking. They then jumped the subway turnstile, and all of a sudden they jumped somebody. Other kids said the violence is kind of an experience of adrenaline for them. I think that is very upsetting, but it is real. With the kind of violence they see all around them in their neighborhoods, on television or in the movies, they get excited about this stuff. It's something that becomes part of their expressions. I think it is happening more because our society in general has become much more violent.

Q: A lot of the kids in your book blame their parents for the way they are. Do you believe that is valid?

A: I think their feelings are valid, but it's too simplistic just to blame their parents. I think that a lot of these kids feel that their parents were not there to back them up when they needed their help or just to listen to them, or their parents really were violent with them. But I think they also feel that society is a very strange place. They don't understand why good people they knew died, and bad people survived. Or why, when they went to school and tried to do well, some teachers would sometimes tell them that they were never going to go anywhere. So why even try? The idea that they had gone out to look for a job and no one paid any attention to them.

They feel these are all pressures keeping them down. One of the kids said sometimes it feels like you try to take one step up the ladder but then you have two forces keeping you down.

We may not agree with that, but this is what they are feeling.

Q: Do you think something can be done to change how they feel?

A: We have to realize that these young people are part and parcel of our society. I get this sense that people are walking around with this idea that if we just cover our eyes and cover our ears and move far enough away that somehow we won't have to deal with these young people and they won't get close to us, that they are an indescribable mass of uneducable, unapproachable young people who are potentially violent.

My feeling is that that is one way of dealing with it, but they are a part of our society. We all have to assume responsibility for society and we have to make efforts to reach out to them. This is not to say that we pretend they are good and we just pat them on the head, but we need to ingrain in them that they must be responsible for their actions.

To not reach out, to simply want just to get away as far as possible, to simply see the solution as simply building more jails, worries me about what that says about our society.

Q: What do you think about the public support for William Masters killing the tagger?

A: I'm really concerned. Living in New York I undertand the problems of graffiti. I've had my front door sprayed. But this notion that you can respond to graffiti by shooting someone in the back is extremely alarming. We need to have some balance. What does it say when we are allowing this to happen and not calling Masters on his (action), as well as calling the young people who are tagging? There is this notion that only young kids of color are doing graffiti. Well, that's wrong. I wonder what would have happened if the two kids had been two young suburbanites who had come in and had done the graffiti and Masters had shot them. Unfortunately, this whole case is laced with issues of racism. It is not simply just a case of "I'm defending myself."

Q: Do you think understanding these kids will help?

A: Frankly, I don't think we have tried enough to deal with this problem. Graffiti has been around forever. I think we need to try any number of things. You may lock them up for a year, but they're going to come back and they are probably going to be much more angry and probably do a lot more graffiti.

It's not going away, and just because Masters killed this kid I don't think a lot of kids are going to say, "Oh, I'm not going to do it any more." The kids are doing it because they want recognition. We should be thinking of other ways to give kids recognition that doesn't involve them tagging.

Q: Do you have an answer to that?

A: No. I think it is really complex. My book is not a solution to the problem.

Q: Do you think the kids' problems are so deep-rooted, they may never be resolved?

A: These kids do have deep-rooted problems, but society has deep-rooted problems, too. At this point, where we have vigilantism, I don't think we can just say it's all the kids' fault. I think we have to look critically at our society. I think we have to look critically at these young people's lives. But we also have to look at innocent people not being victimized by vigilantes thinking they have the solution to the problem.

Q: What would you say to people who might say your book is glorifying these kids?

A: I would say they are wrong. What I am doing is giving these kids a chance to speak their minds so we can hear their logic and have some understanding to help them and help ourselves and help the rest of our society. These kids are critical, thinking people whose lives are savable if we want.

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