STOCKTON, CA - The city of Stockton has a population of nearly 300,000 people. It also has 70 documented gangs.
Stockton police said of the 49 homicides in the city this year, gangs are responsible for one-third.
In May 2011, Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston announced an effort to start solving the city's escalating violence. Johnston called it "The Marshall Plan," after the post-World War II initiative to rebuild Europe with combined Allied forces.
Stockton's "Marshall Plan" is a collection of community leaders whose mission is to find the causes behind the street conflicts, reach out to the individual neighborhoods and to figure out ways to put an end to the violence. They had their first meeting on April 6.
In the same month, I began making introductions with Stockton's gang members. The goal of the story was to hear from those closer to the street violence who can provide the insight the city and police want. I was open to hearing gang members, both active and affiliated, tell their full stories with the promise that I would not pass judgment.
Stockton's gang world is an impoverished one, semi-isolated, with its own set of rules created out of a unique history and cultural norms.
I met with seven gang members, but not all were open to talking on the record. However, every one of them said they became involved in their gang almost by accident. They were all adolescents, who, for various reasons, lost a parent or felt neglected by the adults in their lives. So bonds and fierce loyalties were made with childhood friends. They said gang activities started out as harmless fun or adolescent angst, and petty crimes driven by hunger.
A Stockton community advocate helped me set up one interview with a young man who calls himself "The Barber."
The Barber is a former member of the Northerners gang, a street branch of the Nortenos. The Barber said he voluntarily dropped out of the gang while in jail, after guards searched his cell and found a "wheela," a small piece of paper with his gang information. The Barber said he felt he would soon be shunned by the gang after the wheela was taken by authorities, so he took the opportunity to drop out. He is still active in a smaller, neighborhood drug gang.
The second interview came after a Stockton police officer tipped me off to look at YouTube videos gangs posted. I then contacted rapper C-Lim through his YouTube and Facebook accounts. C-Lim is an affiliated Crip member from Stockton who now lives in Ventura, Calif.
C-Lim said he gave up criminal behavior when an opportunity to run a legitimate business became attainable. He still uses the Crips to market his music and merchandise, and still keeps his connections within the gang sets in the Stockton and Sacramento areas.
The only incentive for The Barber and C-Lim to cooperate with me was to have their story told. They revealed several street secrets and background on the mentality of gang members in the hope they can help be a part of stopping the violence. To understand Stockton, they said, is to keep an open mind: Nothing is as it seems.
"I'm selling my drugs, but I don't want to get caught with all of them on me or robbed of all of them," The Barber told me. "So, I'll put most of it inside a McDonald's bag.You can throw crys (crystal meth), coke, crack in there and just throw it on the ground. Who's going to think to look in trash?"
Street litter plays an even bigger role in shootings. According to Stockton's gang members, guns are hidden all over the city.
"You go out west and they got choppers like AR15s, Deuce Deuce rifles, SKSs just sitting in a trash can," The Barber said. "You can have a .38 snub nose and throw it inside of a little chip bag and throw it right there while you're on the block."
Stockton gang members said most of the guns they use are either stolen or purchased from drug addicts. They said it's harder for police to pin a weapon or drugs on them and have it hold up in court if it is found out in public. Their answer is "it could be anyone's," but if they need a gun, it's only a few feet away.
Transporting guns is just as easy, especially when multiple gang sets join forces and share resources.
"We used to always sneak guns into the state fair," revealed C-Lim, who said gangs largely stopped going to the fair after cultural night was cancelled in 2003. "There's hecka Bloods and not that many Crips in Northern California, so we used to meet up with all the other Crip sets, just to be deeper than the Bloods."
Drug territory and easy access to guns help contribute to the violence, but gang members said the feuds are no longer confined to rival Stockton gangs.
"Crips are killing Crips. Homies are killing homies," said C-Lim. "People moved out here from the Bay Area killing Crips, and Crips are killing them. People moved out here when Hurricane Katrina hit, they migrated out here, setting up dope shops, and getting into feuds. So, the hood ain't the same."
PART 2: Gang members talk about how to curb violence
Gang members said the changes in their neighborhood cause them to pick up a gun and pull the trigger, instead of putting up their fists first.