The "g" word

An uneasy mix of stereotypes and commerce helps prompt Deep Ellum's cruising ban

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."

Diaz is unafraid to use the "g" word when it applies. This isn't surprising, as he was involved in violent gang activity as a young Dallas man in the '70s, lost his brother in a drive-by shooting, and pulled his own son out of gang involvement. He speaks with candor about the violent stereotypes that hover around young Latino men.

"There's an old joke that says a car full of white kids is a club, but a car full of black or Hispanic kids is a gang," Diaz says with a laugh. "We don't like to admit it, but we're automatically intimidated when we see a group of young minorities together talking and dressing the same way. Even me. The other day I was at one of these multiplexes in Mesquite, and as I was opening my car door in the parking lot, a group of young white men walked by. Didn't think a thing about it. I realized later I would've been very intimidated if they'd been black or Hispanic."

Diaz, who worked for five years in gang intervention before becoming a LULAC president, agrees that as far as he knows, Deep Ellum sees a small amount of gang activity. But he also readily admits that gang-related crime is harder to track these days for a couple of reasons.

"Gang members got smart during the late '80s, when TV newscasts broadcast warnings to parents that said, 'If your child looks like this, he's in a gang,'" Diaz says. "Nowadays it's much harder to tell who's really in a gang, because everyone looks alike. The signals are a lot smaller, like certain tattooed symbols and 'throwing sign' (a system of hand signals, almost like American Sign Language, that gang members make to each other, often in hostile, 'fuck you' attitudes).

"And there are no more territories. When I was growing up in Dallas, there were whole sections of the city you didn't wander into. If you were from East Dallas, you didn't go into South Dallas. But these days, you have different gang members living on the same street. And they travel more into different areas."

An unknown minority of gang members are part of the larger flood of young Latino men who've begun to bring their car clubs, their girl-watching, and their laid-back, auto-to-auto socializing to Main Street in Deep Ellum. The perception problem--a combination of appearance, ethnicity, and some nasty traffic snarls, among which the "g" word fits somewhere--had already set a precedent across downtown in the early '90s, when the West End, facing similar street impediments from largely young, Hispanic male cruisers, instituted the city's first "no-cruising" zone.

Bethany Reed, who was president of the West End Association from 1990 to 1997, remembers working closely with Cotner to create a "partnership, a campaign with the city" that also included businesses cleaning up any weekend graffiti every Monday morning with paint and power hoses. She notes that this included a decision by the merchants of the West End Marketplace to ban backward baseball caps and bandannas. Working now for Collin County Community College, she had to "put her West End cap back on," and was afterward loath to use the words "gangs" and "the West End" in the same sentence.

"There was a period when young people frequented the West End Marketplace who dressed like that," she says. "At the time a teen club operated there for 14- to 18-year-olds, which was eventually shut down at great expense to the property owner, who had to buy back the lease."

And as far as the bandanna and ball-cap ban, she said, "They enforced it right down the line. I remember they had to ask a sewing group of older women who were wearing these little bandannas they'd made to please remove them."

Needless to say, you needn't be in a gang to trouble patrons and police: Hormonally charged post-adolescents loitering in a business district with no particular purpose are an invitation to higher rates of assault, robbery, vandalism, and drug use. And you needn't be Latino to find your idle hands suddenly preoccupied with nefarious projects in the devil's workshop, although LULAC's Diaz claims there's a distinctly angry undercurrent to the lollygagging in his community.

"This is true in the Latino community, and I've heard it's true in the black community: Men don't look at each other. Hispanic men don't make eye contact, because so many of us are walking around very angry."

As far as Deep Ellum goes, the Main Street barriers appear to have dramatically reduced Friday- and Saturday-night traffic in their first two weekends. Many of the young cruisers have already become frustrated with the rerouted traffic and moved on to other stomping grounds. What cruising impediments won't do is stop white anxiety when middle managers and executive secretaries from Plano and North Dallas come downtown for dinner, drinks, and live music and encounter backward-ball-cap-and-bandanna-wearing Hispanics who are down there simply to enjoy the same services. In a city where the Latino population is poised to overtake the Anglo population sometime early in the next century, that kind of tension shows no sign of shrinking.

Diaz, for one, has to laugh at the cultural subjectivity of fearing young minorities because of the way they dress--especially considering that every Friday and Saturday night Deep Ellum features no shortage of underage white kids on foot with shaved heads or multi-colored hair, and a ring or stud through every soft spot on their bodies. These young stragglers inspire an emotion in many Hispanics, he says, but it's not fear.

"A lot of us laugh at those kids," he says. "We see this skinny white guy with chains and a shaved head and studs through his tongue, and we think, 'Man, how do you expect to get a girlfriend?' Or you see white girls with earrings through their noses, and you wonder, 'How do you manage to blow your nose when you get a cold?'

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