Is It Time To Pull The Thug?

Gang style blasts through popular culture. Can the media be used to fight back?

In 1992, the Evanston Human Relations Council in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, filmed a public-service announcement with an anti-gang message. The spot created an Olympics of hate crimes, showing a white skinhead, a robed Ku Klux Klansman and a black gangster receiving Olympic medals. It asked which hateful group of thugs killed more African Americans each year. The answer was the gangster.

The proposed mass media campaign, accompanied by posters to be displayed on buses and elevated trains, had been tested at screenings that included both blacks and whites -- to favorable response.

But when the ads finally aired, "The citizens had an absolute hissy fit, especially the African Americans," says council director Paula Haines.

Brian Stauffer

The campaign was denounced as racist, and Haines believes that the comparison of African Americans to two groups so roundly despised by the community was too much to bear. Only two stations aired the spots, but yanked them after the snit hit the fan.

"It was a powerful, powerful piece," Haines says now, but she admits that the council hadn't anticipated the racial backlash.

But it wasn't ready to drop the issue, either. A few years later, the council produced another anti-gang PSA, this time with an upbeat musical message. It won a prestigious media award, which meant nothing, because the message never screened.

"I didn't see the second one air at all," says Haines. "It died an interesting death, and it won this beautiful award."

The state of Arizona collects more than $100 million a year in tobacco taxes. The Arizona Department of Health Services gets about $25 million of that money to spend on anti-tobacco education, and about half of that goes to TV, radio and print ads that include the ubiquitous "smelly, puking habit" campaign. The legislature appropriates another $400,000 a year on advertising to convince young people to abstain from sex.

Although law enforcement agencies say they've counted more than 600 street gangs in the Valley, with nearly 5,000 gang members engaged in a wide range of criminal activity, no one sees fit to craft media campaigns to steer youth away from gang membership.

As the Evanston spot showed, it would not be easy. Smoking cuts across socioeconomic lines, while gangs fester more frequently in disadvantaged minority neighborhoods.

"You don't have the political correctness issues" with smoking, says Malcolm Klein, a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California and internationally recognized street-gang expert.

Furthermore, as Klein points out, gangs have the perverse talent of twisting every message to suit their adolescent egos. Say they're bad, and the gangs agree -- they want to be bad. Send the police to bust their heads, and you're picking on them.

Last month, for example, after the Phoenix Police Department cracked down on the Las Cuatro Milpas gang in south Phoenix, neighborhood residents stood before TV cameras and defended the very criminals who terrorize them against the well-deserved assault by police and press.

And because they flourish in disenfranchised neighborhoods, gangs aren't as visible a problem to the folks who would spend the money to campaign against them.

"Most of the legislature doesn't live in areas where there's serious gang violence or the ever-present trouble of random gunfire," says state Senator Chris Cummiskey, whose district includes some of the toughest gang neighborhoods in Phoenix, "so it doesn't come to mind of those in leadership positions down there. It runs the gamut not just on gangs, but everything you can think of. And that's the trouble with the Legislature: the disconnection to the real world."

"The bottom line," says Linda Bergsma, the Tucson-based chair of Media Literacy, an organization that seeks to educate children to be wary of what they see on TV, "is there's no money for it. There's not the millions of dollars it takes to do really good spots. No one has $4 million to put on an anti-drug or anti-gang-violence campaign."

Which is ironic, because the media, perhaps more than anything, spread gang culture like a computer virus that permeates all levels of today's society.

Youth has always taken its style from the fringes, sending adults into paroxysms and panic. In the '60s, every long-hair in patched jeans looked like an acid-dropping, R.O.T.C.-building bomber to the older generation. In the '80s, we knew a father who swore he'd never criticize his son's hair as his father had criticized his. He kept his promise, but not without a considerable rise in blood pressure when his own son came home with a foot-tall, spiked purple Mohawk.

Now, at the end of the century, rebellion is celebrating the culture of badass.


After the film Colors highlighted urban street-gang life in the mid-'80s, police departments in Phoenix and elsewhere claimed it spawned an upsurge in real-life gang violence, as if gangs needed a primer in how to commit drive-bys.

Gangtsa rap may have incited plenty of white, middle-aged angst when it first emerged, also in the '80s, and though it has faded from fashion, its influence probably makes Tipper Gore long for encrypted Satanic messages that can only be heard when an LP is played backwards. The white group Sublime, for example, lays an upbeat pop melody over lyrics promising to "stick that barrel right down Sancho's throat/ believe me when I say I've got something for his punk ass." Which is not to say that suburban kids are going to run out and "pop a cap in Sancho," but they don't think twice when the singer says he will.

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