The Suburbanite’s Guide to Thugo-phobia: Is Durham really a Gangsta’s Paradise?

Paul Scott's column appears on the first and third Saturdays of each month.
Paul Scott's column appears on the first and third Saturdays of each month.

“If you ain’t never been to the ghetto. Don’t ever come to the ghetto. Cause you don’t understand the ghetto.”

“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (Naughty By Nature)

Last month, two powerful decision makers in Durham, the city and county managers released a joint editorial titled “Gangs a very real threat to public safety in Durham.”

As a long time resident of this city, I really don’t know where gangs rate on my list of primary concerns when pitted against gentrification or the risk crashing my ride into the latest road construction barrier. The problem with a call to get rid of gangs is that outside of the proper context it can be more dangerous than the gangs themselves, resulting in “end justifies the means“ type legislation.

For the record, I‘ve never been a member of a gang. As a teen during the 80’s, my knowledge of gang life came courtesy of the “Good Times” episode where “JJ” was roughed up by the Satan Knights.

But as the decade came to a close, thanks to the rise of gangsta rap by rappers such as Ice T and the popularity of movies such as “Colors” and “Boys in the Hood,” America became engrossed in what I call “thugo-phobia,” the belief that murderous gang members are hiding behind every bush in your city.

Unfortunately, instead of a thorough conversation about the origin of gang culture, most of the discussions are led by some “expert“ quoting 90’s Easy E lyrics. According to Mike Davis in his book, “City of Quartz,” the street gangs on the West Coast were originally created to protect the black community from racist white street gangs like the “Spookhunters.”

Davis also uses a quote from poet Sonia Sanchez, “the drug-taking, apathetic young black people we bemoan today are the result of our failure to protect and cherish the Black Panthers during the ’60s.” There is a lot of truth in this, as some believe the rise of the Bloods and Crips in Compton was a result of the void left by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program which “neutralized” the Black Panther Party and other radical groups of that era. This coupled with the drugs and guns that mysteriously began to show up in inner city neighborhoods produced the conditions that we experience today.

Also, while some may say “this is not a race issue, “ I beg to differ. According to a 2014 gang assessment study, 72.5 percent of gang-involved subjects in Durham County were black, followed by 23 percent Latino.

North Carolina also has a mysterious database of alleged gang members called “Gangnet.” In her book “The New Jim Crow,” Michelle Alexander writes of a similar database that contained “the names addresses and other biographical information of the overwhelming majority of young black men in Los Angeles.” Alexander argues that the criterion for inclusion in the database is “notoriously vague and discriminatory.”

We must also question who actually benefits from thugo-phobia besides the prison industrial complex and some slick talkin’ developers who would use the paranoia to scare elderly folk into selling their homes dirt cheap and moving to Kansas? There’s one thing that has always puzzled me about Durham’s purported “gang problem.” It ain’t a problem everywhere. When is the last time you saw a gang fight take place in front of DPAC ? Guess there is something about gentrified areas that makes them immune.

Why not use the same empowerment techniques that were used downtown to empower the troubled communities in Durham? If we can convince the wayward youth that they have a vested interest in the prosperity of Durham, maybe their actions will coincide.

But first we have to separate fact from fiction and have an honest community conversation about gangs. As the great wordsmith Coolio once put it “they say I gotta learn but nobody’s here to teach me. If they don’t understand it how can they reach me?“

Paul Scott’s columns appear on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Follow him at NoWarningShotsFired.com or on Twitter @NWSF

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun