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PART 1: A close-up look at gangs in Cobb County
Marietta Daily Journal - 2/13/2018
He's played the role of hero and villain.
He was a star athlete in a south Cobb high school. He got good grades and was popular with his peers. He joined the military and served overseas, then went to college, earned a degree and found a job.
He was also a member of the Bloods street gang.
"I was cool with everybody, I was active in community service, I was an athlete, I was part of student government," he said. "There's a lot of misconceptions that (gang members) are just dumb savages, all they want to do is smoke, (expletive) and rob people. That's not how it is."
Law enforcement officials say there are others like him in Cobb County.
Cobb County Police estimate there are 129 gangs with 1,429 members currently active in Cobb County.
Georgia code defines those gangs as any group of three or more members which engages in criminal street gang activity.
Gang activity spiked in Cobb in 2016 with 493 separate incidents reported by police. In 2015, 348 were reported.
FILLING A VOID
The man, who asked not to be identified in this story, said he was active in the gang during the early 2000s, when he was still in school.
"Mostly it was people looking for belonging, or people in the black community feeling like they're missing a father figure role," he said. "So they try to find other masculine energies to fill that energy void for what they're not getting at home, or at school or from coaches."
He described a difficult childhood. His family came to Cobb after his father was murdered, and he said many others in the gang also came from tough circumstances.
"You join for protection, for money - there's a lot of different facets," he said. "Like, anybody would go to a school. It's the same exact similarity, it's just gangs are looked down upon ... It's just a collective of people to fill that void of a
father figure in the house, the masculine energy to balance out the feminine energy of the mom. It's peers, most of the time. They take you under their wing like, 'I got you.' So then they feed you if you don't got nothing to eat, put clothes on your back. They give you something to sell so now you're worth something. You bring the money back to your family; it's quick money."
The former gang member said he now believes his old outlook was a mistake and that he wants to make amends by steering children away from the gang life and toward success in academics and sports. Speaking to the MDJ in a house near Powder Springs, he said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from things he has done on the battlefield and on the streets.
He described some of the things he had seen, but did not admit to personally breaking the law.
"One time, there was this rival member," he said. "The person was ordered to be taken out. And it happened."
JOINING A GANG
Law enforcement officers say specifics vary from gang to gang, but there are generally three paths of initiation. This former gang member joined in the most commonway,being "jumped in," which is when a new member must fight a certain number of others for a specified amount of time. If you can last until time runs out, you are a member of the gang.
Female members may have the option to be "sexed in," to perform sex acts for members of gang leadership under certain restraints and for a certain amount of time.
This was once the preferred option for many young women, but Rebecca Petersen, a criminal justice professor at Kennesaw State University, said most female gang members today are choosing to be jumped in.
"In the past, more were choosing if they could to get sexed in, some of the girls, because they were all sexually active, and so they thought, 'Well how bad is it going to be?' Over the past 15 or so years, I think the word has gotten out that it's going to be much worse than getting beat up ... It's much worse to get sexed in, and their status would be frowned upon by both the male and female members if they went that route."
The final method, being "blessed in," is usually reserved for family members of gang leadership. They are granted membership automatically without having to go through a trial.
The former Blood who spoke with the MDJ described when he was jumped in.
"I held my own," he said. "They had nine people, I fought nine. Usually, it's fists and feet. Some person had a bat. You get knocked down, there's a little extra to go on top ... It was 10 minutes. It's supposed to be three minutes. But the reason I said 10 minutes, I held out. I was a little stronger. I've always been a fighter."
By the time he had joined the military, he had left the gang behind, though he said he still keeps in touch with other gang members his same age of 30, and is astounded that they have not moved on.
"They doing the same thing," he said. "That's why they call it the trap. They're still doing the same thing ... At 30 years old, you get in that lifestyle, there's a lot of immaturity in their mindset. They haven't grown up. They're like teenagers in a grown man's body ... Most men (in gangs) don't mature to the age where, if they have families, they put their selfish needs aside for their children."
Leaving a gang is not as easy as it may appear.
"You don't really get out," he said. "I did other things. I channeled it into sports, academics. I've always been good at that regardless of what I've been doing. There's a lot of smart people in it, that's the thing. There's a misconception."
The former gang member said the way gangs are portrayed in the media is inaccurate. Most of the time, he said, being in a gang is like being part of a close-knit group of friends, not constantly shooting guns and committing crimes.
"It's way different," he said. "That's just like the flashy, showy stuff, you know what I mean? It's more so like a family setting, like I said, to fill the void."
Contrary to the popular image of an uneducated thug, he said many gang members are intellectually gifted.
"Black communities are looked down on in many different ways, that we're savages, that we're not educated," he said. "I would say that I'm highly educated. ... It takes a really educated person to figure out how to balance the books, how to take this much powder, flip it into this, you know what I'm saying? How to spend money to make more money back. Most Americans don't even know how to do that, how to balance their checkbook."
When it comes to Cobb's gangs, the stereotypes do not apply, said District Attorney Vic Reynolds.
"Any young person in the county could be exposed to gang activity, could perhaps be tempted to join, and contrary to what maybe some people think in the community, it's not a south Cobb problem, it's not a Mableton problem, Austell, Six Flags area problem, it's a Cobb County, Georgia, national problem, and we've got to do everything we can do, not me as a DA, but me as a human being, to make sure we give these kids some options, some avenue to go down other than joining gangs."