Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Exterminating Cockroaches

No popular media has influenced so many people on gangs as the History Channel's "Gangland."  As a disclaimer, I was approached near the beginning of the series and asked to consult. After viewing their  episode on the Aryan Nation, I declined. Gangland is long on scary images and gangsters looking and talking tough, but very short on context.  It is the definition of stereotypes, not research.

The Gangland world is not the world of the streets, but the world of the TV studio. Its a world of black and white, good and evil, Us vs Them. As in this clip about the Traveling Vice Lords in Memphis.

So are gang members cockroaches to be exterminated by the blue-clad good guys? Are they "shitbags" as a Chicago law enforcement gang specialist insisted, and nothing else?   Or are they human beings,  who do wrong and very real damage but also live everyday lives, with mothers and grandmothers, children, wives or husbands?  Here's a simple question:  What do gang members do more:   drive-bys or washing dishes?  In other words, like all of us, gang members are real human beings. Their lives are mainly mundane.

But what about the violence? We should do everything we can to prevent it and people who kill and harm others need to be punished. I'll have more to say about violence in future blogs, but we need to keep in mind that street violence isn't the only kind of violence oppressing us. Let's not forget our wars of questionable legality and whose victims are mainly noncombatants.  Phillipe Bourgeois calls that "Direct Political" violence.  Bourgeois also reminds us of "structural violence" of unemployment, racism, and poverty.  This leads to "Everyday Violence" of survival, with hyper-masculinity an ever present reality. Street violence needs to be kept in context. 

Lest we forget, the police aren't always the good guys. What consequences do you think Jon Burge had in Chicago by torturing over a hundred black male gang members? And what example do CPD units like SOS provide in Chicago, when they robbed drug dealers, sold the drugs to gangs, and set up one gang to the benefit of another? And when the cover-up was threatened, its leader,  CPD officer Jerome Finnigan,  hired a "2-6" gang member to murder a fellow officer!  Now that is setting an example. What a role model!

Finally, the "exterminating the cockroaches," "good vs evil" mindset is deeply embedded in western culture. While this is too much to deal with today,  our designation of people as "evil" and our lives as a cosmic battle goes back to the early years of Christianity, according to Elaine Pagels in her classic,   The Origin of Satan

Its not that evil doesn't exist. But I think evil is mainly a quality of behavior, not a way to categorize humanity into good vs. evil, non-gang vs gang, white vs black..... oops!  Maybe I spilled an official secret.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Mexican Mafia

This summer I testified at a RICO trial of two Mexican Mafia members in Del Rio, Texas. It was an unsettling experience, both in getting a clear look at the day to day work of the Texas Mexican Mafia, the Mexikanemi,  but also the actions and rhetoric of the government prosecution. The trial, if you can call it that, was little more than an act of ceremonial injustice.  When it comes to gangs in courts, apparently anything goes:  lies and perjury, bribery,  and making up facts that fit a demonizing prosecutorial story line.

In most testimony I give at trials I dispel stereotypes of a prosecutor alleging gangs are highly organized conspiracies, hierarchal organizations of evil.  In fact, most gangs are loosely organized, unsupervised kids and violence is almost always an act of desperation, anger,  or passion.  For example, a prosecutor often alleges a murder took place so the offender can "rise in rank in the gang" even when there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate it.  When gangs are involved, stereotypes quickly replace evidence.

But in this case I took a very different and, for me, troubling stance.  The US Attorney alleged the defendant was a Lieutenant in the Mexikanemi, and had ordered "hits" for six people at a "junta" or meeting near San Antonio.  The intended victims had failed to pay the "dime" or ten percent tax all drug dealers had to pay in "830" a Mexikanemi-controlled area around San Antonio and Del Rio.  What evidence did the government present? No audio or video recordings, no one who wore a wire, no non-gang testimony.  The only witnesses to the "conspiracy" were several former Mexikanemi soldiers who struck deals — one guy got two years for a murder — to testify they were at a mass meeting where the hits were openly ordered.  The plea deals were so obvious that at one point, the defense attorney told me,  a gang witness looked at the US Attorney and asked if he was telling his story right!

My testimony went to the contradiction in the government's case. They asserted both that the Mexikanemi was a secretive,  highly structured organization AND that a mass meeting of leaders and soldiers was held where ranked members ordered hits in front of a big group of members.  I testified that when "business" is being discussed in most structured gangs, care is typically taken to protect leadership. Potential prosecution revolves around snitches and it seemed "crazy" to me that multiple hits would be discussed in front of so many people. The "junta," I concluded,  was likely a figment of the US Attorney's imagination, invented in order to better make his case. 

The appointed defense attorneys seemed ill-equipped to provide a serious defense.  The jury returned their verdict in only a few hours,  but the verdict in this case was in before the trial even began. The trial was not merely Kafkaesque, but an elaborate myth rather than the reality of justice.  According to Meyer and Rowan, belief in a myth like "justice is being done" acts to legitimate law enforcement institutions. But this belief in "justice" need not have much to do with facts, the evidence, or any rational notion of "truth."  What is important is the appearance of justice,  a myth of the US Attorney as an avenging angel for the public, doing battle with Satan himself, in the case the evil Mexikanemi.   In his closing, the southern Texas US Attorney began with the trusted cliché of terrorists and 9-11 and predictably proclaimed the absolute evil of the defendants. He said conviction was a "no-brainer." 

He was right. Trials like this are not about facts but about the potency of dominant myths to carry the day, or at least a jury. "Gangs" are reduced to images draped in evil and the prosecution case reinforces “implicit stereotypes" of them, as I mentioned in an earlier post.  Uncontested, dominant myths always win.

I had a close look at how the Mexikanemi works and indeed they are a organization that regulates the drug trade through violence.  But while the death toll mounts on the Mexican side of the border, the notion of a "spill-over" of violence is contradicted by the facts.  San Antonio's homicide rate has fallen to all time lows, with only four, yes, that's "4" drug related homicides in all of 2009.  Del Rio, a border city of 35,000, had only one homicide all of last year.  El Paso ranks as one of the nations SAFEST cities: Chicago's homicide rate is TWENTY TIMES higher.  While one homicide is too many,  the drug gangs in south Texas, like the Mexikanemi meet regularly between themselves and there are no drug wars as between cartels in Mexico.  Murder should always be prosecuted, but homicide is not a south Texas problem on the same magnitude as poverty, unemployment, health care, and our obsession with foreign wars. 

This data puts the government's hyperbolic prosecution of gangs in perspective.   We need to sadly recognize that our "law enforcement" agencies have too often produced perjured testimony and some prosecutors will do almost anything to get a conviction.  In Chicago, Police Commander Jon Burge, routinely used torture on gang members to produce convictions for prosecutors who apparently didn't care how he got the confessions.   

Today gangs and terrorists have become so evil in media and law enforcement eyes that torture, bribery, and lies are accepted as necessary to "prosecute" justice.  "Execution first, trial later" said the Queen of Hearts. This is why I do this blog: especially in court, we need research, not stereotypes.