Experts Question Sincerity of Gang Involvement in Baltimore Riots

A member of the Nation of Islam stands between protesters and police at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where riots broke out on Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS)
A member of the Nation of Islam stands between protesters and police at North and Pennsylvania Avenues where riots broke out on Monday, April 27, 2015, in Baltimore. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

It was an unusual tableau: Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and his neatly dressed council colleagues stood at a City Hall news conference flanked by two young men wearing the red bandannas associated with the Bloods gang. 

At Tuesday’s event, Young praised the gang members — and discounted a police report that the Bloods, Crips and Black Guerrilla Family gangs had unified to target officers in the wake of Freddie Gray’s recent death in police custody. He said it was “clear that the notion they were planning on harming our police officers is false and simply deterred the resources we needed to focus on the individuals who instigated these riots. I applaud these young men for standing here and speaking out for our city.”

Although some city and religious leaders say such gang outreach is essential in a crisis, criminologists have been shocked to see the leaders supporting groups often associated with a drug trade that helps to make Baltimore one of the nation’s most violent cities.

While those criminologists also doubted the claim of police officials that gangs were targeting officers, they said the alert was no excuse for religious and elected officials to lend the legitimacy of their institutions to criminal groups.

“You’re a de facto gang-controlled city if you give them any power,” said George W. Knox, director of the Chicago-based National Gang Crime Research Institute. “They are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem.”

City officials should be meeting publicly with teachers, mothers, crime victims, ministers and other community leaders — not gang members, Knox said. “You embolden them when you recognize them. It gives them power and status. You are creating a bigger monster.”

Officials of the local police union had no comment on the issue; Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings did not respond to a request for comment.

Tuesday’s news conference came about 12 hours after Young joined more than 75 religious leaders at New Shiloh Baptist Church to deliver a similar message about gang members, while imploring Baltimore residents to stop rioting over Gray’s death.

The Rev. William C. Calhoun, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, and other church leaders said gang members can be instrumental in reaching the youths seen looting and rioting. Calhoun and other ministers ran into gang members by chance on Monday night when the religious leaders marched from New Shiloh to North Avenue, where chaos still engulfed the street.

Both sides quickly realized that they were braving the violence to accomplish the same thing: restoring peace. And so the ministers — still dressed in their suits from Gray’s funeral at New Shiloh — and the tattooed and T-shirt-clad gang members walked back to the church to talk.

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Source: Baltimore Sun | Doug Donovan, Mark Puente and Luke Broadwater