Inside the gang life: An interview with an Omaha gang member

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February 13, 2012 - 6:00pm

For more on gang activity in Nebraska and the U.S., check out two documentaries airing tonight, Feb. 14, on NET-1 and NET-1 HD. Airing at 8 p.m. CT is "The Interrupters," a FRONTLINE documentary that presents a compelling and observational journey into the stubborn, persistent violence that plagues our American cities. Following at 10 p.m. CT is NET News documentary "Gang Fight: Nebraska," which examines gang violence - and efforts to curb it - statewide, including Omaha and Columbus.

"When I got all the way in, I was 18. For me, it was all I really knew."

Alex Johnson has lived and thrived in the neighborhoods 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 a gang. 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.

NET News

"Hood 2 Hood: The Blockumentary" is a straight-to-DVD film about gang life across the country, including Omaha. This still-shot is of a gang member who calls himself "Murder One," from the Omaha segment, posted on YouTube. (Contains disturbing language and images).

Screen grab

Watch a trailer for the 2011 NET News documentary "Gang Fight: Nebraska," which examines the current landscape of gang activity in Nebraska, and efforts to fight back, including both urban and rural areas. Watch the full half-hour documentary here.

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 waits 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 said.

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 said, "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, (and) 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; he's 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 said he still has allegiances, and if he's called upon, he will do what "needs to be done."

"You've got to be willing to shoot people. You've got to be willing to sell dope and carry firearms. 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 said. "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."

"They are scared to death to come out of their houses"

But that willingness has taken a toll. Johnson said he's suffered from bouts of severe depression and chemical dependency, and said 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 said.

Recent studies conducted by the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry show about a third 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's 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 agreeed with Johnson about the long-term effects of living in an area with heavy crime and violence.

And it's a cycle which only perpetuates itself, as gang members, impacted by violence in their own lives, inflict it on others. Gonzales noted 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 said, "and can truly go out and play baseball or football 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 them and ease them back into society. He said it's a daily battle.

"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 said. "It's a lifetime thing with these kids."

Lieutenant Darci Tierney of the Omaha Police Department echoed these statements. Tierney said 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 said. "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 percent in Omaha and 18 percent in Lincoln in the first six months of the last year, compared with the year before. Tierney said these numbers indicate police strategies are working. But according to census numbers from 2010, 18.2 percent of children in Nebraska live in poverty. That's a 2.9 percent increase from 2009 - and Tierney agreed that 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 said. "And sometimes they look up to their gangs to get that support."

"Really, they are involved in criminal activities," she said, "and what may seem glamorous to someone looking in, it's really just a life of crime."

"I think about it everyday"

The ills and benefits of the gang lifestyle aren't missed on Johnson. But he insists that undoing the destructive influence of gangs and violence is more complex than expanding new employment efforts in North and South Omaha, which is 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 said, 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 said. "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 seems like an eternity. He said there are plenty days ahead for him, and he considers himself lucky to still be alive. Johnson pauses momentarily, before answering whether he'd consider leaving the gang life.

"I think about it everyday, I think about it all day everyday," he said. "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," he continued. "That in itself is something that tears at my conscience."




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