“The beating up was the Easy Part”

As Northern Virginia’s gang problem escalates, so does the effort by law enforcement and social services to combat it.

As Northern Virginia’s gang problem escalates, so does the effort by law enforcement and social services to combat it.

By Lindsay Holst

Members of Jose’s former gang exit the group the same way they enter it: Getting “jumped” by their fellow members.

For Jose, the first time had been on a summer evening in an otherwise-empty church parking lot. He had been allowed to cover his face as three other members punched and kicked him while another watched and counted to 30. It had been an act of initiation, one even of camaraderie. They all shook hands afterwards, and became “brothers.”

The second time was different.

The length of time that the other members of the gang were allowed to assail him with blows had risen to 40 seconds. They were less cautious about avoiding his face. And the bouts of hitting and kicking were no longer a perfunctory formality.

“They go harder on you when you get out,” Jose says. “Because they’re angry now.”

It was in December of 2009 that Jose decided to leave the gang—to which he’d belonged since July—“just in time for Christmas,” he says softly.

Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Jose’s decision to leave the gang had really begun when he was reported as a suspected “at-risk” student. The mechanism used by Jose’s reporter, likely a teacher, is known to students at his high school simply as “the box”—a repository for names of students suspected to be committing gang-related or “high-risk” activities.

“Either someone put my name in the box,” Jose says, “or my mom called Fairfax County. She knew I was getting in trouble and hanging out with the wrong people—and I know that I was making her really sad.”

Reported students are approached by a representative from an Intervention, Prevention and Education (IPE) program run by Northern Virginia Family Services. Jose received a phone call, and was assigned to an IPE counselor named Alysha. They began meeting on a weekly basis to discuss his classes, extracurricular activities and goals for the future. Gradually, Jose’s grades began to improve. Alysha encouraged him to join the wrestling team—a much healthier way to release the feelings of aggression he would so often describe.

“I think a lot of kids join gangs because they don’t know how to get their anger out,” Jose says. “Everyone has their own thing. For me—I’d get very angry with my parents, and didn’t know how to deal with it. But, yeah, I’m pretty sure everyone in the gang had anger-management issues.”

The IPE program fleshed out for Jose the path he may or may not have realized he was treading as a member of a gang. “They kind of taught me all the bad things that could happen to me,” he says. “And—I know my mom was worried.”

His mother walks through the room now, a dark-haired little girl with big brown eyes balanced on her hip. She smiles, says something to Jose in Spanish.

“We’re going to go down to the Potomac to have a picnic later on,” he says. “We like to do things as a family now.”

As for letting his gang know he wanted out—as Jose tells it, that was the “easy part.”

“You just tell them,” he says frankly. “At a meeting, or maybe you go up to a leader on the side, and you just tell them, ‘This isn’t for me.’ That’s what I did. And, in my case, they were really cool about it. They understood—and I was lucky. Because most people don’t understand.”

You’d think he was telling members of the school’s Chemistry Club he just wasn’t that into science.

It seems strange that a group of adolescents thriving on violence and arbitrary ranks of superiority would treat a lower-level member who elects to leave of his own volition in such a laissez-faire manner. It almost seems that Jose is attempting to make the situation sound more amiable than it was. But then, of course, there is the matter of the beating—which likely serves to allow the gang members to handle their feelings of “aggression” in a manner they deem appropriate.

Of the beating itself, Jose doesn’t say much. Yes, it hurt. And, yes, it was strange that those who were his friends days before were now purposefully harming him. But he insists that the real difficulties came in the weeks and months ahead.

“I just got really quiet for a while,” he says. “I tried to sort of drop off the radar, just stay on the low.”

Now, when Jose would see the familiar band of faces in their usual “chill spot” at school, he couldn’t talk to them. He could no longer hang out by their lockers between classes, or sit with them at lunch. Instead of coming and going from home and school as he pleased, as he had used to do, he began abiding by a strict schedule—leaving school at 2:05 to make the bus, and getting home at 2:30. If he partook in a planned after-school activity, he would have to be home by his new curfew—4 p.m.

And, at first, he was lonely.

“The getting out part—the actual beating up—that was easy,” he says. “But later, the emotional part came. Because you feel like you just betrayed those guys. And now no one wants to talk to you. I really missed the life at first—and I wanted to get back in.”

Was there any activity that he missed in particular? “Just hanging out, basically,” he says, invoking that elusive turn of phrase used to describe seemingly every modern teenage social activity. “Just sitting there, together … talking, smoking.”

Jose has learned that the rules of the gang have changed since he got out—he still has a friend who is in it. For one, the members are now responsible for bringing in money. “I think $10 a week or something,” he says. “When I was in the gang, you didn’t have to do that.”

And allegedly, it’s more difficult to get out now, as Jose describes succinctly: “I heard that now, you have to die if you want to get out.”

This, at the end of the day, is how conversations with Jose are. One minute dwelling in youthful trivialities: the modicum dues that a member of, say, a math club might pay; or the particular way a gang member might wear a bandanna. The next, talking about threats of death and what sort of knife a member ought to carry. While most members of the wrestling team are sufficiently occupied with dropping weight in time for meets, Jose was additionally burdened with the task of quitting the cigarettes to which he’d become addicted. And though his cherubic face provides at least a patina of youthful innocence, Jose has clearly seen things and been places that your average young teen has not.

In that sense, Jose is himself a microcosm of the sort of adolescent gang to which he belonged—presenting a disconcerting collision of the innocent and the experienced. Movies like “The Sandlot” and “Stand By Me” have taught us to endearingly accept groups of boys who run around together, scrape their knees and face minor spats of trouble. But we instinctively reject the notion of gangs—groups of boys who also run around together and get into spats of trouble. Only, these spats often involve drugs and violence—products of their environments, or perhaps simply of poor choices. The line that separates the two is significant, but the impetus for belonging to both is the same: the need to be part of something.

Having gone from wanting to be a lawyer (in middle school), and then a mechanic (when he began working on cars with his stepfather), Jose now thinks that he might want to be a tattoo artist.

Which brings us to the drawings that flow into the margins of his notebooks and onto the backs of his worksheets. Jose has also written several poems since getting out of the gang—“about girls, loneliness, my feelings”—and turned them into raps. He frequently goes to a studio at a nearby recreation center and practices with a friend, another former member of the same gang.

And while Jose still occasionally sees his former “brothers” at school, he says that he no longer misses the gang. When asked if the ubiquitous threat of death makes him afraid of them, he shakes his head, laughing softly.

“To me, it’s just something they say. Look—if I get one more F, I’m not going to pass the school year, and it’s because of them. They’re clowns to me, and they tried [to] ruin my life.”

But, they didn’t. Jose marvels at his packed schedule, filled with wrestling practice, church activities, rapping and meetings with his counselor. He shows his report card, drawing specific attention to the “absences” column. A few months ago, the column was peppered with 3’s, 4’s and 5’s to indicate how many times he’d missed a particular class. This quarter, the column holds a 0.

“I feel like I’m busy all the time now,” he says. “I guess I’ve just found a lot of better things to do.”

This is the last article in a three-part series about gang violence in Northern Virginia. This installment continues the story of Jose, a teenage Nicaraguan immigrant who served as a member of a regional gang for five months.


(September 2010)


Part 1: ‘They’re Kids Who Don’t Understand’

Part 2: “Sometimes you have to die”