By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Discussing gang presence in Deep Ellum with Dallas police or a merchant from that area is a dance of verbal negotiation and qualification. They will use the "g" word only if pushed. They will only reluctantly admit that the Deep Ellum Association has paid to redirect traffic on Friday and Saturday nights for a nine-week trial period (we're coming up on the third weekend) because, in part, a small percentage of the cruisers who have been congesting Main are probably gang members.
You must push them to say the obvious about this cruising demographic--that the majority of guys who create bumper-to-bumper clogs on Main after 11 p.m. on weekend nights, high-fiving each other from opposite lanes through the open windows, are young and Latino. And that some of them blast gangsta rap from their radios, have symbols shaved into their hair, and sport baggy pants, backward caps, bandannas, and tattoos. And that the April 24 introduction of the Main Street barriers is nicely timed with what police acknowledge is an annual citywide upsurge in gang activity--warm Dallas springs, when everyone, including gangbangers, likes to spend time outside.
These young men come from the working-class Hispanic neighborhoods of East Dallas and nearby Oak Cliff. Cultural stereotypes dictate that because they are brown and dressed in the vestments of hip-hop culture, they must be gang members. Yet only an idiot would deny that gangs are active in some Hispanic Dallas neighborhoods, and that the real 'bangers look disconcertingly like the good kids. And that both like to pile in their cars and go where the action is on Friday and Saturday nights.
Unfortunately, perception is everything in commerce--especially when you have crowds of nervous white people with large disposable incomes, who are the vast majority of those who make weekend treks to Deep Ellum's bars, restaurants, and clubs. With a local media eager to pounce on any instance of violence in downtown's eastern entertainment district and an understandable desire not to link the words "Hispanic" and "gang" automatically, the natives can't be too careful of what they say.
"I was told by a major media outlet that if anything violent happened in Deep Ellum, it would immediately be one of the top stories," says Mark Sonna, president of the Deep Ellum Association. He took over the post last October and, along with the association's Julie Driver, was instrumental in coordinating the anti-cruising effort. "The Deep Ellum Association has waged a six-year campaign to convince people that this area is not a dangerous place to come. We got that reputation in the late '80s, in part because it was more dangerous then. But all our work could go down the drain the instant someone is killed or badly hurt."
The current crime picture seems to bear out Sonna's optimistic view of Deep Ellum safety. Sonna and Lt. Jeff Cotner, who oversees the Central Business District that includes both the West End and Deep Ellum, as well as Sgt. Mark Langford and Detective Sam Schiller from the DPD's gang unit, confirm that assaults and robberies in the area have decreased slightly over the last two years. The scuffles, brawls, and robberies are unusually low, they insist, when you consider that around 60,000 people a week visit Deep Ellum, most on the weekend. There's been only one murder in the past calendar year. It and most of the other problems were not related to gang activity.
But all involved admit that there's an indeterminate gang element among the Main Street cruisers, who are now forced to choose Canton or Commerce rather than use the busy Main as their strip at the height of Deep Ellum nightlife. Sonna confirms--without using the "g" word--that heading off potential gang conflict was on the Deep Ellum Association's collective mind when it decided to pony up $412 every Friday and Saturday night for extra cops to stand at Good-Latimer and Malcolm X. "We wanted to do that, we wanted to clear the congestion caused by cruising, and we wanted to open up these establishments so people could enjoy them."
"I'll be down there this Friday night," Lt. Cotner says. "And there are people who're going to raise a red flag. My officers will be watching them. But it's very challenging to us, because we can't act just because of how someone looks."
So how, exactly, do the police determine what is "gang activity" and what is typical teenage behavior?
"You can dress like your buddies and walk around calling yourselves The Four Thugs," says Langford of the DPD's gang unit. "But the police don't consider you a gang unless you're committing criminal activity. And so a lot of our work is just observing."
"What you have to remember is, most of these kids who look like gang members are just wannabes," says Jessie Diaz, president of Council 4496 of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Only about 5 percent are mean, the ones involved in the stabbings and the shootings. The others who dress and talk are just going with the flow. And a certain look--baggy clothes, backward caps--is popular in the Hispanic community."