an interview with gini sikes    

photo of gini sikes

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How did you first become interested in subculture of female gangs?

As a writer I'm intrigued by outsiders in our society, as many writers are, and gang girls are the ultimate outsiders. If gang men exist in a second-class world, gang women are third class.

I was also intrigued by the public's perception of gang kids. For the most part the media has both mythologized and demonized gangs. My first exposure to gang girls was while writing an article for Vibe magazine on the subject. I met a posse of girls on Manhattan's Lower East Side called the Nasty Fly Ladies, or NFL. One of the girls' face was scarred from a fight with another girl who had a razor blade concealed in her mouth. These girls were pretty tough. Sometime during the night some guys came into the Burger King where we were talking and began harassing and threatening us. Ordinarily I think the girls would have fought with them, or at least gotten into a shouting match. But the girl with the scars on her face was concerned about my safety. Even though she'd just met me, she considered me a vulnerable adult and we left without incident, though I'm sure they thought they had lost face with their opponents.

That made me think these kids were not the amoral monsters presented on TV talk shows. I wanted to reveal other sides of them to readers. Reporting the book turned out to be a cathartic experience. I used to be the kind of person who could get nervous riding the subway, but an experience I began in fear I ended with hope.

How did you meet your subjects?

A variety of ways. As a writer for MTV and a producer at In the Mix, the PBS show for urban teenagers, I was constantly meeting high school kids. One guy told me that a female posse in New York's Lower East Side was trying to recruit his girlfriend and through him I eventually met The Nasty Fly Ladies.

I also contacted teachers and agencies that worked with gang kids. Typically they'd introduced me to a girl starting to move away from her gang. That girl would introduce me to another, more hard core girl, who in turn would introduce me to yet another girl. In this way I was able to get closer to a few of the bigger players, such as Shygirl of Lennox 13 who was tough enough that sometimes boys had to fight her to join the gang. She also had the name of her gang tattooed across her forehead. The first contact was always superficial, but with repeated meetings the girls began to open up.

Sometimes I'd just show up in a known gang area. There was a housing project in San Antonio notorious for gang activity. At the time San Antonio was the drive-by capital of Texas and the kids were on the look-out for any unfamiliar car in the area because it could transport potential danger. When I pulled up in a rental car, a group of teenage boys surrounded my car to find out what I was doing. The boys turned out to be the 8 Ball Posse, and through them I met the 8 Ball Chicks.

What shocked you most as you got to know them?

There were many things, but one that sticks out in my mind was how numb the kids were to their own brutality. I'd be speaking to a girl who I'd known for a while and liked and suddenly she'd be relaying an incident of sickening violence and laughing. I couldn't reconcile the girl I knew with the one who was capable of such horrific acts. Sometimes the kids seemed to exist as two people: as an individual and as a member of a mob. Certainly there were acts that took place in a group of kids--brutal attacks, gang rape--that none of the participants would have committed had they been on their own.

As for the way they distanced themselves, which I came to believe they had to do because to examine all the horror around them would have made life unlivable, I began to shut down myself. After you hear the third story of gang rape, sadly it ceases to have the impact if had at first.

One night, to witness the other side of the gang "problem," I tagged along with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's gang unit. First I followed deputies through a sprawling apartment complex, where a gun man was on the loose with a Mac 10 machine gun. We then pursued a teenage Crip who, minutes earlier, had shot and paralyzed a man down the block. At the end of the evening, I was staring at the shattered body of a woman who had put a bullet to her own head after a domestic dispute. Looking at her, I didn't feel all that much. I figured it was because I didn't know her. I think it's the same kind of numbness that cops and gang kids experience. That was yet another night that opened my eyes to what life was like for many gang girls; after all suicides and shootings are an everyday occurrence in their world.

The other shocker was how wide spread gang rape or sexual abuse seemed to be and how adults ignored or denied it, perhaps because of the reasons I just mentioned. In San Antonio particularly, girls seemed to accept boys' predatory sexual behavior as a fact of life. Many had been abused by their stepfather or their mother's boyfriend while the mother turned a blind eye. Although the city had plenty of programs trying to deal with gang violence, they rarely dealt with sexual initiations or attitudes toward female gang members. I remember going to a night club for teens--no alcohol allowed--where adult bouncers looked on as the girls and boys were invited onstage to strip. So much for family values.

Were there times researching this book where you were seriously concerned for your safety?

In San Antonio the gang world is very small, with enemies separated only by a couple blocks. Once while driving out of 8 Ball territory into BCs, I noticed the men on the street giving me hostile looks and throwing signs at my car. When I got out I discovered that the 8 Ball had written their gang name in the dust of my car and attached a black bandanna (one of their identifiers) onto my antenna. It was a little joke that could have gotten my car shot at. It was kind of funny, though.

The other thing I had to keep in mind is that teenagers in general tend to see things in black and white and experience pretty wide mood swings and gang kids in particular may carry uncontrollable rage. One time I was driving around with a BC girl when a boy from the 8 Ball flagged me down for a ride. The girl said to go ahead and let him in. With both of them in the car they got into a fight about their dead friends. The guy began threatening the girl, saying he was going to shoot up the car when he got out or track her down later. After I let the 8 Ball out, I took the girl home, then returned to the 8 Ball's turf. I had to calm the guys down, take them out for food, do some damage control. It was an error of judgment on my part to allow the two kids into my car in the first place. A few months later the 8 Ball kid was shot by the BCs, over an unrelated matter, but survived. The two gangs eventually formed a truce of sorts.

But for the most part I was not concerned with the kids I knew and talked to. It was people who didn't know me who might have posed a threat. In some of the neighborhoods the only white people these kids ever see are cops or yuppies buying drugs. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people I wasn't an undercover cop. Gang members tend to be paranoid, so I also had to reassure them I wasn't sharing information with their enemies.

On the other hand, I don't think anything I did was particularly brave. People who live in these neighborhoods, like people everywhere, love their children, have barbecues in the local park, wash their cars on Saturday afternoons, mirroring conventional middle-class life more than some of us would think. The gang element is one part of life there. It's a bad side, but not the whole picture

What do you think can be done to combat the violence of inner city youth?

I understand people's anger about gangs, but we have to change out mindset and move from anger and punishment to understanding and exploration of the causes of gangs. We've basically abandoned a generation of kids--by cutting recreational programs, allowing schools to deteriorate, offering no employment--to choose between a set of increasingly bleak options. Gangs become a "job" for kids who have nothing to do. And 90 percent of the time that's exactly what gang kids are doing--nothing. They drink beer, smoke pot, hang out, bored out of their minds. The ten percent of the time they're involved in violence provides an adrenaline surge.

Gangs are a symptom of violence not the cause. City programs that only focus on identifying gang members by baggy clothing and colors, then labeling the kids, basically do nothing. There are also hardly any programs for the girls; for instance, there's no female equivalent of Midnight Basketball. The programs I did see, while well-intentioned, tended to focus on things like hygiene and manners, which take a low priority when you're just trying to make it through the day without getting jumped or sexually assaulted. The majority of gang programs are run by ex-gang members who are men and don't address the issues that concern girls, such as domestic abuse, sexual harassment and the utter lack of power they feel. As uphill a battle as it would be, I'd like to see a program that encourages girls to redirect the energy they put into their gang to working for changes in their community. A program that tries to develop a sense of political power among them.

I feel blessed by having met these girls. Seeing the human face of violence, you discover it is something you can confront, maybe something you can stop. Yes, there are sociopaths and lost causes, but the majority of people I met were neither.

Do you think things are getting better or worse for these girls?

Well, certainly cutting welfare and gang programs hurts them tremendously. Most of the girls I met have grown out of their gang, the majority accomplishing this by getting pregnant. Having a child is one way out without question as the men in the gang don't want to see a woman with kids at home running around on the street. The girl is also treated well while she is pregnant.

That being said, I think all the girls I know want to raise their children well. They are working or going to school (so much for the lazy welfare queens of the media). Because they can't afford child care they must rely on family or friends to take care of their children. This means they remain in their neighborhood where nothing has changed, so their child will be raised in a community facing the same risks their mothers did: violence, drugs, unemployment, poor schools. These girls turned around their lives pretty much through the sheer force of their own will. We have to demand more than individual responsibility but also community and governmental responsibility to change the circumstances that lead to gangs.

What are you working on next?

I'm writing magazine pieces--on women in immigration prison and the country's drug laws--looking for my next book-length subject. I consider myself a generalist and may pursue a topic that has nothing to do with criminal justice issues. A book about animals, for instance. Who knows?
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