Gangs: Out of Control or Is There Hope?

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Street gangs have long been a fixture on America's urban landscape. And today, they have expanded becoming firmly entrenched in rural and small towns across the country. Is it out of control or is there hope?

It is a lifestyle glamorized by today's hip hop culture and made popular on sites like Youtube and MySpace.

For Troy Evans of Grand Rapids, Mich., the first step to this lifestyle wasn't that unusual.

"I guess I was right around 15 years old. I started skipping school, doing some of the normal things that you would see in a kid that's headed down the wrong path," Troy said.

A path that eventually led Troy into the gang life, where he was welcomed with open arms.

"They were very loving; they accepted me for who I was," he said. "I quickly joined because of a friend. He joined and we decided together to get involved."

Troy quickly learned the ways of his new "family."

"Drug selling was my big thing," he said.

Street gangs have been big things in cities like LA, New York and Chicago.

According to the FBI, there are some 30,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs in the U.S.

Some of the more organized and infamous are:

-The Crips and the Bloods

-The Latin Kings - with as many as 50,000 members

-and MS-13 - a group so notorious that the FBI has assigned an entire task force to it.

"MS-13 came out of El Salvador, that's caused a lot of havoc, a lot of harm throughout many communities," said Herb Brown with the FBI. " has 13,000 gang members but they are prevalent in 34 states, that's a national concern," he said.

Many are expanding their terror operations to cities and towns -- where residents are accustomed to leaving their doors unlocked.

Brown heads the criminal gangs division for the Federal Bureau of Invesitgation.

"What we've started to see five or six years ago is that gang starting to spread to smaller communities in America, moving from the west coast to the Omaha region then from Denver on out to Charlotte," Brown said.

Dunn, N.C., is home to about 10,000.

"We had some Sur 13 members from neighboring communities that had tagged the entire side of this building on this side and the opposite side along with some other areas of town had been tagged," said Lt. Rodney Brown with the Dunn, N.C., police department.

Residents are concerned.

"It really upsets me because the gangs are really taking over, you look at certain parts of town how it's gone down and if you'll ride through it you'll see it's nothing but gangs," Dunn resident Bruce Johnson said.

Lashana Williams, another Dunn local, said "it makes me feel upset that it's around here because I got little brothers and sisters."

A little further up the state in Elizabeth City, Officer Gary Bray says national gangs have become a menace.

"About three years ago, we had three guys come in from New York," said Lt. Gary Bray with the Elizabeth City, NC, police department. "They all moved to Elizabeth City probably to escape some type of prosecution in New York and that's when we saw the Blood gangs open up."

Brown says one of the biggest reasons is they have access to the Interent - to both communicate, and recruit.

"If you look at gang activity generally, I use 1975 as a good benchmark, we had about 55,000 gang members in 1975. Fast forward in 2008, we have 960,000 gang members," Brown said.

That brings us back to Troy Evans. After becoming a Christian, he walked away from gang banging.

Today, he tries to steer at risk kids away from gangs -- the subject of a recent workshop he hosted in Grand Rapids.

"It really started because I see the need in the church specifically and smaller urban communities and even in suburban communities where the lack of information, not knowing about this epidemic, knowing about this hideous disease called gangs," Troy said.

Members of Troy's former gang attended the workshop.

John McKinney, 33, has been a member since he was 12.

"I had problems at home, my dad was a drug addict, my mom was an alcoholic and drug addict. I grew up in the ranks and I became a leader," John said.

But John argues his gang is not a bad influence.

"We are a peaceful organization, we are not negative people. I'm a Christian, it's crazy to say it this a Vice Lord how can you be a Christian we are Christians, we are Christians," John said.

Meanwhile, gang specialists blame certain images in the media and the breakdown of families for rising gang membership.

"Kids are watching TV and everyday. this is glorified. At this point, they don't want to be what used to be on TV; they don't want to be the Cosby kids anymore they want to be what they see on TV which is 50 Cent, Snoop Dog and whoever else is out there," said gang outreach specialist Rickey Pickens.

Former gang member Jose Velez of Chicago, Ill., offers this warnings to those who think that way.

"I tell them if you think it's cute, then go to your neighborhood morgue and let me know if it's cute when you see that body with three or four bullet holes, ages 16 and 17, or when you want to go out and see your friend and you have to go through these bars and cells and travel four or five hours to a prison, no, it's not nice, you get tired of it," Jose said.

As for Troy, he is just thankful that he made it out of the gang alive.

"God has blessed me so that I can make it out to talk about it but there's so many people that have not made it out that live, to live to talk about it or they're behind bars right now for the rest of their life, consider more than just today."

*Originally aired on September 30, 2008.

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Charlene Israel

Charlene Israel

CBN News Reporter

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