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Street Wise

 
John Johnston

Robert Duran was lying face down, his hands tied behind his back, when his life as a gangbanger came to a violent, terrifying end. A group of men who said they were cops had busted into the apartment the eighteen-year-old Duran shared with his girlfriend. Now she was next to him on the floor, waiting as the men shredded their home, threatening to kill them both. Upstairs, the couple's baby daughter wailed.

"Things had gotten really crazy," Duran remembers. "I was right in the middle of it, and it was out of control. I realized that day that I didn't want any part of that. I didn't want that kind of life to be my future. I didn't know if I'd even have a future.

"It was really hard, but I just decided to let it go," he says. "It had to end."

Like many young men in the early '90s, Duran got into gangs in high school, drawn by the dangerous glamour of the life portrayed in movies and music. His family lived in a working-class barrio outside of Ogden City, Utah, where his father worked as a miner. The town broke along racial lines, with whites living apart from blacks and Latinos. In Duran's neighborhood, there wasn't a lot for kids to do. He looked up to the older guys in the area's biggest gang, who seemed to command respect from everyone.

"It was a gang that had been around since the early '70s, and it was like a cool thing to be a part of," he says. "It was a lot of older cousins, a real family kind of feeling. It was like, by being with them, you could play at something you're not. Everyone's trying to be tough and get respect."

As a freshman, Duran acted and dressed -- and got in trouble -- like a little banger, even though he wasn't truly part of any set. But as he got a little older and bigger, he learned that he could earn the respect of real OGs by using his fists. Strong and lean, he was hot-tempered and not about to back down from a challenge. He soon developed a reputation as a scrapper -- the kind of guy who was fun, and handy, to have around. At sixteen, Duran was jumped into a growing Hispanic gang that was gaining ground in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"I liked to fight," he says. "I wasn't afraid to get mobbed up. It was kind of my way of establishing myself and making myself stand apart, so I'd be more respected. The night I was jumped in, people said I got pretty messed up, but I held my own and had all my bones intact when it was over."

By the time he was seventeen, Duran was drinking heavily and doing dirt for his set -- fighting, mostly, and selling pot. Things had heated up between the town's two major Latino gangs; old friends Duran knew from the neighborhood were now sworn rivals. He had his own collection of guns, which he never used but was glad he had.

"For a while, it seemed really cool to have this status and to do things for the gang," he says. "There were all the movies and the alcohol that made it seem like a cool idea to go down in a blaze of glory. But things got really tense. They got really scary. People were getting shot. There was a strong police presence in my life during that time."

By 1994, Duran was making moves away from his gang. His older brother had landed in prison on manslaughter charges after knifing a guy who later died as a result of his injuries; Duran revered his brother, and seeing him locked up was a jolt. "After my brother went away, I thought, that's it. I'll be in the same shoes and go to prison, too," he remembers. "I felt like I should have been in his place, because my brother had always shied away from the gang stuff. He just got in this fight that got out of control. And here I'd been putting myself in the way of all kinds of stuff, and nothing really had happened to me."

Duran now had a child as well as a high school diploma, and he started taking auto-mechanics classes so that he could support his family. When his gang friends came around the apartment asking him to come out, he made up excuses why he couldn't join them. Life was calling him to grow up.

Then came the raid on the apartment, which ended when the rival gang members posing as cops grabbed some stuff and left. Duran's first instinct was to round up his homeboys and go after the guys who'd jacked him up. He'd always adhered to the code of street reciprocity: One incident begat another, and anyone who did him wrong was due for a reckoning.

But this time, Duran didn't retaliate. Instead he made a conscious choice to get out of the life altogether.

Duran moved back in with his parents and enrolled in a small business college. He'd never been much of a student, but he did well in the program and was surprised to discover that he liked school. And the further he got away from gangs, the more intrigued he became with his own culture. He began studying Chicano history and fooled around with lowrider bikes.

"I got away from alcohol and drugs, and my mind was clearer," he says. "I started looking into sociology and thinking about what it meant to be Chicano -- who my people were, where we were going. I decided I didn't really like what I was hearing about the course we were on, so I wanted to do something to help change it."

In 1997, Duran began taking sociology classes at Weber State University in Ogden City. Today, at 28, he's about to complete his doctoral work at the University of Colorado at Boulder and earn a Ph.D. in sociology and criminology, with an emphasis on race and urban studies. "I wanted to get my doctorate so people would listen to me," he explains. "But, honestly, I don't know how I got where I am. That's why I'm always wearing a rosary. For some reason, I was able to break away from so much of the negative stuff that I brought into my life. I can't explain why."


In the movies, gangbangers who try to leave are shot, brutalized and stalked. But lots of people manage to escape in one piece. They stay alive, and out of jail, and move on, starting families and getting jobs. Some filter their early experiences into education: The expanding field of gang research is sprinkled with academics who spent time banging on the streets.

Getting out is possible, but it isn't easy.

Since founding Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives in 1987, the Reverend Leon Kelly has worked with former and current gang members from all over the Denver area. He settles beefs or calls for truces between rival sets; he smooths over conflicts between gangbangers and cops. "Basically, we do damage control and try to be a buffer, whether it's at a funeral, a concert, whatever," he says. "We try to get the kids to do the right thing. We try to get there before a situation crosses the line into something really dangerous."

Kelly sometimes succeeds in getting kids to do the right thing, and sometimes he doesn't. The phone at his California Street office rings constantly with collect calls from young people who are locked up in jails all over the state.

"I get stacks of letters from prisons," he says, holding up a regulation-style envelope from a penitentiary in Florence. "They promise me the world they're not going to go back. I hear all the time from guys doing five, seven years. 'I'll never come here again,' they say. But then they get out, they start dealing with the pressures of freedom. They go back, because being in a gang is like a drug. You've got clout, prestige. You're exalted. If you take that away, what have you got? Who are you?"

One wall of Kelly's office is covered with photocopies of people killed by gang-related violence in Denver over the past decade. Young men, women and little kids smile from the grainy pictures on the black-and-white fliers; most are Hispanic or African American. Kelly ran out of room for all the photos years ago, so he's started using binders to keep track of the dead.

Another wall is covered with snapshots of young people who've managed to make lives for themselves outside of the gang lifestyle.

"There are so many ways to get jammed up in gangs," Kelly says. "A lot of times, people get in when they're young and have no idea what they're into. They want girls, to bond with other people. There's a whole cycle of denial that goes into it in the beginning, and before they know it, they feel stuck. The challenge is to get them unstuck."


For Robert Duran to become completely unstuck, he had to leave Utah. When he started school in Boulder four years ago, nobody knew a thing about him. They didn't know his family, his neighborhood, his past. After years in Ogden City -- a town about the size of Pueblo, where everyone knew about his banging -- that came as a refreshing change.

"When you're an ex-gang member, you're always trying to get free of that stigma," he says. "When you're in it, it seems like you have all the status in the world. But really, that status is only within a very small circle. Outside that circle, the rest of the world definitely doesn't think it's cool.

"When I came to Boulder, it was almost weird at first, because no one was sweatin' me," he continues. "I'd walk around. There were trees and squirrels and clouds, and everyone was happy. It was great."

That world wasn't always welcoming, though. Duran wasn't much older than the undergraduate students he worked with -- first as a teaching assistant for a sociology professor, then as the instructor of his own class. But culturally, he was light years away from many of them. Physically, too, he stood out: He wore baggy clothes, had cropped hair and a dark tattoo that ran the length of his inner arm, spelling out his name in Old English lettering.

At times he struggled with the ethnic and class differences between himself and much of the CU population, including professors. "I think my attitude from the beginning, was, 'Yeah, you may think I'm a thug. If you want to judge me, go ahead.' I guess if you just looked at me, you wouldn't think I'm working on my Ph.D.," he acknowledges. "But I enjoy the idea that I'm living in defiance of the stereotype. It reinforces a lot of what I'm talking about, because here I am."

He'd done well as an undergraduate at Weber, but the CU program was more rigorous than anything he'd experienced. "When I was younger and hanging out with my friends, I wasn't thinking about school," he says. "School was for nerds. You wouldn't catch me with a book. Somehow I managed to graduate from high school, but I didn't really ever try. I'd never decided to apply myself or take an interest in it. When I got to CU, I felt like I was really on my own, and the program was really competitive. It challenged me to step up and be able to back up everything that I was saying, because they didn't just take me at face value anymore."

In 2001, Duran returned to Ogden City to hang out with his former homeboys. This time, though, he wasn't a fighter or a pusher, but a straight man -- a researcher wielding a tape recorder, not a gun. He'd realized that his past experiences could provide the raw material for a doctoral dissertation, and he wanted to learn as much as he could about his old city and his old gang.

For the next three years, he traveled back and forth between Utah and Colorado, working in Ogden during the summer and on breaks from CU. He interviewed anyone who would talk to him: gang-bureau cops, district attorneys, probation officers, more than a hundred active and former gang members. Some he knew, some he didn't. Many members of his gang had left the life behind; others had been swallowed up by prison. Some were dead. Many of his old friends, as well as his old foes, were suspicious of his questions -- and reluctant to talk for fear of reprisal from cops or other gang members.

"In the gang world, everyone's always worried about snitches," says Duran, who eventually destroyed many of the interview tapes to protect the identities of his sources. "They were a little bit afraid about what I was going to do with the information. People didn't want to talk on the record. But some of them were real cool with me. It was just weird for all of us, seeing this transition. It was like, 'I used to be out on the street with you; now I'm here to study you.'"

Duran's approach was something new for CU. He learned more exacting methods like ethnographic statistical analysis, but he also folded his own personal experience into his doctoral research. He dove into theories and case studies conducted by others working in gang research, but it was his hands-on fieldwork that set his project apart. The sociology department hadn't seen a doctoral candidate like Duran, had never worked with a student who could provide such a personal perspective on a subject that usually was addressed only in books.

"We don't get many people of color successfully pursuing a Ph.D. in this field," says Patti Adler, Duran's graduate adviser at CU. "Too much of the research on gangs is superficial in nature. Now here's some gang research coming from the perspective of a former gang member who has a better understanding of the things he's looking at -- the role of the community and the neighborhood in influencing gangs, the relationship between the police and a community. There's a very active debate in scholarly literature on these topics, and a lot of conflicting assertions being made. Duran brings a kind of access that isn't found in all of that."

Duran hoped to use his research to document the underlying social and economic issues that contribute to gang life. He also wanted to unravel some of the myths surrounding gangs -- like the perception that most young people of color are gangbangers in the making, or that all inner-city neighborhoods are breeding grounds for gang activity. Even in South Central Los Angeles, the most notorious gang enclave in the United States, it's estimated that only about 10 percent of African-American and Hispanic teens are actually involved in gang activity, he points out.

At the heart of Duran's work is his desire to correct inaccurate stereotypes. That can be a challenge at CU, a school with an overwhelmingly white student population. "Every semester, we start at one point, and we've got to get them to the other," he says of his classes. "A lot of my students come in with the idea that everyone is so quick to complain 'racism.' They think brown and black people should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps. White society gets tired of hearing about it; they think the Œrace problem' has been solved. But that's why I have to point out that if things really were equal, if they really had worked out, then things wouldn't be so vastly different for brown people versus white people.

"Sometimes we can only see our own perspective," he adds. "That's when you really need to step in someone else's shoes."

Duran revels in research, and he likes to crunch numbers: "I'm trained to use data as a weapon." But he also gets a lot out of just talking to people. In one interview typical of those included in Duran's dissertation, a 27-year-old former gang member complains of being stopped for trivial offenses like a cracked windshield, then pumped for information by the cops. "They stopped me for everything," the man told Duran. "They even stopped me a couple times to tell me they liked my car. I'm not sure what that had to do with anything.... Now that I think back, I realize they would take down all of our names. We were just glad that we weren't in trouble for anything."

Many of the Hispanic youths Duran interviewed said they felt profiled and picked on, identified as gang members when they weren't. They expected to be pulled over and questioned by police on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Duran's white students, on the other hand, had had little or no interaction with the cops.

"Most everyone is afraid of the cops, so they do whatever they want," Duran says. "They don't even think to challenge something that's become such a norm -- it's just so much a part of life. They want to stay away from the cops, they don't need any more problems. So they do what they say."


On a sunny day in late April, Shareef Aleem walks down 34th Avenue, passing out cards with printed instructions on what to do if you're stopped and questioned by police.

"You don't have to let them put their hands in your pockets," Aleem says to a fifteen-year-old African-American kid wearing a white T-shirt, a Walkman and a dazed expression. "Did you know that? They can't put themselves all over you like that."

Fourteen years ago, Aleem moved from Milwaukee to northeast Denver, an area that was a hot spot of criminal activity. A couple of hard-core crews had control of the place. "There used to be Crip conventions in the park," he remembers. "There'd be 200 of them out there meeting. There were maybe 100 or 200 of the real hard-core members who'd shoot people, hurt people, beat people up. They sold drugs. They had a hold on things."

Today, Aleem teaches classes and works out of the Eastside Islamic Center on 34th Avenue. He knows most of the folks in the neighborhood: As he walks down York Street, he's greeted by people in passing cars and out on the sidewalk. Everybody around here knows everybody's business, he points out, which is why he can say with authority that the area's days as a gang epicenter are over.

"Yeah, you've got your little wannabes who do errands and things for some of the OGs because they look up to them," he says. "But for the most part, a whole lot of those OGs is dead or in jail. If they're out here, they're not doin' nothin'. They're crackheads, or they're sitting around talking about what they used to do. It's nothing like it was before. You see what I'm wearing today?" Aleem asks, pointing to a small splash of red on a tan shirt. "I could not have worn this ten years ago. If you were walking down this street wearing anything red, you were just asking to be messed with."

Along with Robert Duran, Aleem belongs to an activist group that empowers young people to keep an eye on the police; the two work together to build rapport between young blacks and Latinos. Like Duran, Aleem believes that the youth in his neighborhood have an inordinate amount of contact with cops. That's one of the themes of Breakin' It Down, a community-access program he hosts on DCTV. On a recent show, Aleem interviewed a pair of black high school kids who were arrested for a burglary that was committed while they were playing basketball in a park.

That sort of incident is typical, Aleem says. To prove his point, he stops five kids on the street and asks if they've had recent contact with police. They all answer yes. One says he was stopped and questioned while walking across a field with an ice cream cone. Another was put on the ground in front of his house and questioned while his mom watched from the front door. If any of them are gang members, they don't admit it.

"They're not making a dent in any real crime when they stop these little kids like this," Aleem says. "These are just little kids that wear hip-hop clothes. They wouldn't even know how to get up into anything."


Robert Duran's early encounters with cops gave him good reason to be leery of law enforcement. When he was sixteen, an undercover police informant took him to a gang party, then left him there. Duran found himself surrounded by six guys who circled him, beat him and claimed him as one of their own.

Like many of the people he interviewed for his dissertation, Duran had been stopped, searched and questioned by cops -- their guns drawn -- for doing nothing more than walking down the street. "It wasn't until I got to school that I realized some of these cops had been doing me hella wrong," he says. "The cool thing about studying sociology and criminal justice is that you get to take all kinds of law classes, criminology classes. It taught me what kinds of things cops are supposed to do and how the system is supposed to work. It also taught me to think like a cop."

Not long after moving to Colorado, Duran got involved in police watchdog organizations such as Denver CopWatch and People Observing Police. At one point, the action came to him: In April 2003, Westminster police officer Karl Scherck shot and killed Michael Grimaldo, an unarmed Hispanic man, in front of Duran's apartment building in Westminster; Duran's daughter was playing outside at the time of the shooting.

Duran isn't anti-cop -- cops helped a lot during his research, he says -- but he's an advocate of police oversight. And some high-profile police incidents, including last July's fatal shooting of fifteen-year-old Paul Childs, moved him to merge his street smarts and academic training into a grassroots form of activism, taking his beliefs outside academia and into the streets.

"There's a lot you can do in a classroom, and I love teaching, but I had to come down from Boulder and get back into the neighborhoods," he says. "I was starting to feel kind of disconnected from what was really going on."

So last fall, Duran and a loose group of fellow Chicano activists began visiting schools, community centers and neighborhood groups to voice concerns over the Denver Police Department's perpetually controversial gang list. The list made national news in 1993, after Denver's so-called Summer of Violence, when it was reported to contain more than 6,500 names -- a number that included two-thirds of the young black males in Denver. Now it looked to Duran like that list was again out of control. Since last July, the number of names on the DPD's gang list has been estimated at anywhere from 9,000 to 17,000 (see "The Gangs All Here," ). No matter how many names are on that list, Duran knows that many of them will be familiar: names like Garcia, Hernandez, Rodriguez, Ramirez. The city's list of suspected gang members and their associates is historically dominated by young Latino and African-American males.

Colorado criteria for determining gang membership is so broad that it could extend to any young person with a minor clue about hip-hop fashion and more than two friends. According to state law, a person may be considered a gang member or gang associate if he or she exhibits certain types of tattoos, athletic wear, haircuts and shoes and otherwise gives "reasonable suspicion" of involvement with a gang -- defined as three or more people engaged in a criminal activity.

"Boulder kids are not getting busted for drinking underage, though they're a group of people engaged in a criminal act -- technically, a gang," Duran points out. "The term 'gang' is so vague you'd think it would encompass a whole range of things, but it doesn't. It's only applied when it fits the accepted stereotype, and that's brown and black, two groups that are weak -- historically, politically and economically.

"The list links up with a lot of other things. It's kind of an identifier that highlights who they're focusing on. It creates a moral panic -- that 'Oh, no! Every Mexican kid we see is a gangbanger, and they're going to hurt us!' The perception of the threat and the actuality of the threat are different."

Duran's work in the community has brought him in contact with members of the Denver City Council, educators and gang-intervention programs -- including the Gang Rescue and Support Project, a group run by former gang members. In the process, he's encountered a wide spectrum of opinions on gang statistics and philosophies. The Reverend Kelly, for example, applauds efforts to track those at risk of getting caught up in gangs. For him, even a swollen gang list is better than a body count.

"I think that 17,000 is a conservative number," Kelly says. "You've got associates, affiliates, peripherals. People who hang around, talk slang, maybe even go so far as to claim a set. But if you get them by themselves, they wouldn't know how to bust a ripe grape. Is a gang going to make that distinction? Those kids are just as likely to get hit.

"People are always saying to me, 'I'm not a gang member. I'm a member of a crew, a posse,'" Kelly continues. "They get mad at the police over things like the gang list. But I say, you need to ask yourself what you were doing to get in that situation in the first place. If you talk to the parents of someone who did get killed, they say they would've given anything to have had that child stopped and questioned before it happened."


Captain Joseph Padilla, head of the 38-officer DPD Gang Bureau, used a map to track gang-related criminal activity in 2003 -- 378 crimes altogether. More than 90 percent took place in an arc that sweeps across the city, from northeast in Montbello and north Park Hill, west across Globeville and Swansea, through Elyria and Sunnyside, and south to Jefferson Park and Villa Park. In all of these areas, poverty is high and the populations are over 80 percent Hispanic or African-American. According to Padilla, his bureau has intensified its efforts in those neighborhoods -- partly because of calls from neighborhood groups and community leaders who fear that gang violence is escalating in Denver.

Late last month, the DPD released stats that showed gang-related crime was up more than 40 percent in the first five months of 2004. Outlying neighborhoods that didn't exist ten years ago are now seeing waves of street crime, especially in northeast Denver. On May 26, the DPD hosted a community gang awareness and prevention meeting with citizens in Montbello, and it plans a series of similar events through the summer.

"It's pro-active policing," Padilla says. "If we make contact with someone, we'll talk to them. We're very up front about that. We'll talk to them about life and what's going on. Most of the young people we talk to are actually very eager to talk to us about gangs; the vast majority of people on the gang list are self-admitted gang members. If I was living in one of the neighborhoods where gang activity is a problem, I think I would be happy to talk to the police to try to help out with it."

Researchers believe that gang activity moves in cycles that parallel the overall economy. Because of the retaliatory nature of gang dynamics, it often takes just an incident or two to ignite tensions. In the 2002 National Youth Gang Survey -- an annual report compiled by the United States Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention -- law-enforcement agencies from across the country reported an increase in gang activity from 2001 to 2002.

In Denver, though, it's not easy to gauge the gang scene. Police blame a convoluted record-keeping system for preventing them from getting reliable statistics on what's really happening. In January, Division Chief of Patrol Steve Cooper told the city council's safety committee that the DPD needed at least $2.5 million to correct the situation. "We have a lot of officers outside the gang unit who aren't as likely to make a connection that a crime may be gang-motivated," Cooper says. "The reports come in from all over and they're very time-intensive to analyze. We want to consolidate the process so nothing is lost."

The anecdotal evidence keeps coming in, though, and a spate of recent incidents has been linked to gang activity. In late April, Jeremy Phillips, the 27-year-old son of a Denver police officer, was gunned down in Montbello after pouring beer near the grave of his friend, sixteen-year-old Carold Peoples, who'd been killed three days earlier. (Friends of both men say neither was in a gang.) On May 23, sixteen-year-old James Arellano was killed and two other kids wounded in an alley shootout in Avondale. The Denver District Attorney's Office is currently looking into six murder cases as possible gang crimes.

Captain Padilla says he'd rather see gang violence prevented than prosecuted. But he knows there are always more resources for enforcement than intervention. In 2003, Denver youth programs clung to life after a series of budget cuts threatened to flatline them out of existence. In 2002, Governor Bill Owens slashed the Tony Grampsas Fund -- which fueled youth-at-risk programs all over Colorado -- by more than $8 million. (Last October, Owens returned $4 million to the fund.) The gang bureau is currently developing a website that will pool community resources for gang-prevention and referral programs; Padilla says the effort is designed to make the most of diminished funding for youth-crisis programs and build a community-based approach to dealing with juvenile crime.

"We need help getting kids out of gangs, period," he says. "We need the community to be the ones to outline the dangers and the realities of gang membership. And if there are people who feel outraged about things like the gang list and the gang bureau working in their neighborhood, I think they should really be outraged about the people who are bringing that kind of problem there in the first place."


In November, Robert Duran will present his dissertation, "Encountering Legitimated Oppression," at a criminology conference in Nashville. After he gets his doctorate, he hopes to find a job where he can address problems in the Latino community -- and from there work to get to the root causes of gang violence.

"Academics are fine, but I don't want my work to be a book on a shelf," he says. "I want to be out in the barrio and the ghetto neighborhoods, helping other people to take on the challenge."

Although Duran's out of the gang life, he feels the presence of gangs everywhere. He feels it in the Clayton neighborhood, where his nine-year-old daughter, Jazmine, and six-year-old son, Doroteo, live with their mother and attend school. He feels it in other areas around the city where he does outreach. Occasionally, he even feels it pulling at him. So he rarely goes out at night, to avoid the possibility of inviting any trouble back through the door he closed a long time ago.

"There is a crazy part of gangs. There's always that 1 percent that will do anything," he says. "The street's a different mentality. You go into a survival mode. I can't say I know what I would do if I found myself in a fight situation. I just don't risk it."

Duran knows he's lucky: He didn't wind up dead or in prison or saddled with an extensive criminal rap sheet. During two years of heavy gangbanging, he picked up only one misdemeanor charge, for trespassing.

"When you're labeled, when you're young and told that you're not going to go anywhere, but then something so heavy happens -- you get out of it somehow -- you just don't want to do anything to blow it," he says, touching his rosary with his right hand, the one with the bold Duran tat.

He looks at that tattoo and smiles. "Honestly, I have no idea why I'm here," he says. "I just keep thinking that if I follow along, I'm going to figure it out."


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