Battle Lines

Gangs keep their murderous hold on the streets of St. Louis. And kids like Lil' Robert Walker pay the price.

But the boy — a thirteen-year-old in baggy black shorts and a long white T-shirt — denies Pickering's allegations. The cop soon moves his attention to the fifteen-year-old seated next to him on the curb. Etched onto the teenager's backpack is the gang name "3200 OCG" — Ohio Crips Gangsters. "Are you in a gang?" Pickering asks. "It's not against the law to be in a gang. You can tell us." The kid comes clean moments before his mother arrives out of nowhere.

"What's going on?" she yells. "Is he being arrested? What did they do?" Pickering tells the mother that he's with the police gang unit and her son had just admitted to being in a gang. But the mother won't have any of it; she adamantly denies that her son is in a gang.

"Ma'am," says the officer. "He just told me he was in a gang. Many of these kids that he's hanging with here are in a gang. We're not going to arrest him. We just want you to know."

As Pickering continues to engage the mother, the other officers record the names, addresses and home phone numbers of each kid seated on the curb, as well as taking a picture of them. Ross and his officers will later use the phone numbers to contact their parents and inform them that their child was hanging with known gang members. The photos will be stored in the gang unit's archives.

"The first people homicide calls when they find the body of someone under 25 is the gang unit," explains Ross. "More often than not we got a photo that can ID the body."

In 1991 rapper Ice Cube released his single "Summer Vacation," a song describing how Los Angeles gangs established drug networking outfits in St. Louis. In truth, says criminologist Scott Decker, there's little evidence to suggest any affiliation between St. Louis Crips and Bloods and gangs with the same names in California.

"In St. Louis it was the 1988 movie Colors and the popularity of gangsta rap that had the biggest impact on local gangs," says Decker, who for years chaired UMSL's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and has written several books on youth gangs. Of the 99 St. Louis gang members he interviewed for his 1996 book Life in the Gang, Decker says, only one of the subjects had ties to California, having moved to Missouri in part to escape gang life in LA.

"It would make sense with East St. Louis right across the river that there'd be more influence from Chicago gangs in St. Louis, because criminals across the river are going to the same prisons as the Gangster Disciples and Vicelords of Chicago," adds Decker. "But what you see is that gangs all over the world emulate those in Los Angeles. They've got this huge publicity machine via rap music and movies to promote their lifestyle."

What makes St. Louis different, Decker continues, is the highly disorganized and fractionalized makeup of gangs, with more and more groups claiming control of smaller pieces of turf. "The public image is that they're well-organized and fiercely loyal, but in regard to gang murders in St. Louis, more Bloods kill Bloods and more Crips kill Crips than they do each other."

It's the highly disorganized nature of gangs that make them particularly difficult to prosecute, says St. Louis Assistant Circuit Attorney Chris Hinckley. In 1993 the Missouri General Assembly passed a criminal street-gang statute that allows courts to tack on as much as four years to sentences involving known gang members. But in more than three years of prosecuting gang members, Hinckley has effectively used the statute only once.

"The problem is you have to prove a hierarchy," says Hinckley. "The jury wants to see a real close connection, and most of them are so loosely organized it's impossible. As a prosecutor, do I want to press the gang issue that might damage my case, or do I want to go with what I got — the drug charges or assault charges that landed them in the court in the first place? With our case load, it's just too difficult to press it."

Back on the street, Ross and his officers never do find the Winnebago Boys. Instead, they come across a new gang lurking outside a corner convenience store on Nebraska Avenue. An interrogation begins of three fourteen-year-old boys. One of the kids sports a tattoo that reads "Ace MOB Crips." The kid is only too happy to tell the cops that MOB stands for "Money Over Bitches," and that the gang controls the 3500 block of Nebraska. The boy's smile fades when Ross informs him that the name Ace Mob is already taken, belonging to a gang in north St. Louis. The number of gangs in St. Louis, it would seem, has exhausted the list of available names.

"You think they're going to take kindly to you stealing their name?" asks Ross. "Tell me, what do you think people are going to say at your funeral?" The kid just shrugs his shoulders. After taking down the kids' names and numbers, the police let them on their way.

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