Ex-member’s view of life in the gang

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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Editor’s note: The 17-year-old’s identity is not being revealed because of possible retaliation. Like many other Lincoln High School students, John Doe likes sports, especially basketball. But the 17-year-old didn’t always care about sports. For four years, starting at age 12, John was in a Lincoln gang. And his focus then wasn’t making baskets but rather on joining his gang members in fights. “It wasn’t the kind of things that a normal teenager would do,” John said. But, as a 12-year-old, John didn’t feel like he fit into any social group. He joined a gang because members promised they would be like a family and protect the new recruits. “The gang brought kids together and told us they’d look after us,” John said. That promise was short-lived, according to John. “At the beginning, you feel like you fit in,” John said. “Toward the end, it turns out worse and you get involved in fights. We would leave school for fights. It makes you more disrespectful to society.” While the Lincoln Police Department’s Lt. Dave Ibarra told The News Messenger that there is little gang activity at Lincoln High School, John has a different view. “The gangs at Lincoln High are not as much as in the Bay Area,” John said, “but a quarter of the kids here are in gangs. That’s a lot for a small town.” And gang members from out of town visit their friends in Lincoln, he added. The high school gang members are both Hispanic and white, according to John. And while Lt. Ibarra told The News Messenger that Lincoln gang members range in age from 12 to late 20s, John said the members “calling the shots” are in their 30s and 40s. John didn’t want to talk specifically about the fights he was in, except to say that he “probably hurt people physically and emotionally.” “The No. 1 thing I remember from being in the gang is all the fights and drama of being in it,” John said. What kept him in the gang for four years, John said, was peer pressure. “There were times when I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ My friends would say this is what you want,” John said. “The peer pressure kept me there.” He wouldn’t listen to his parents’ about his lifestyle choice. “My parents cared for me but I stayed away from home and avoided my parents,” John explained. “I thought I’m a teenager and I didn’t understand they had also been my age at one time.” John was one of the luckier gang members. He left that lifestyle last year and doesn’t want to return. He credits Juan Hernandez of Redirect, the nonprofit organization formed a few years ago in part to keep youth from joining gangs, with changing, his life. “Juan helped me in sports; he kept me as busy as he could to keep me off the streets,” John said. “I started working with him when I was 14, 15.” Today, John doesn’t miss his time with the gang. “Now, once you find something better, you open your eyes,” John said. “You see that’s not what I wanted.” John now has a clear plan for the near future. He hopes to go to college and “is looking into being a police officer.” “Life is better without all the problems,” John said. “My life is now way better. Before, when I was in the gang, I never thought of what I wanted to be.” His advice for prospective gang members? “I would tell them, ‘Don’t do it. It’s not worth your time. Find advice from someone else like a teacher,” John said. And his advice for parents? “Keep kids busy. Have sports going on so they stay off the streets,” John said.