Big Murk's Kids

Politics and mismanagement closed the books on the city's anti-gang program, but try telling this South Dallas fixture the problem's solved

Between 1991 and 1992, Murkledove quietly helped engineer a truce between the "Oak Cliff Gladiadores" and the "Pleasant Grove Vatos," who had several tense entanglements. His photo book contains images of the first hesitant dinner and DJ parties, more relaxed photos of a joint weekend trip to Austin, and a Christmas present exchange.

Part of deflating the lure of gangs is filling whatever void the gang itself is filling. Murkledove knows this can be as simple as giving kids transportation. What good is it to give a kid tickets to the circus, he figures, if there's no way for them to get there and no guarantee they're going to go? The answer is to drive them yourself.

The void can be as simple as a car or as complex as an identity. For that reason, Murkledove never used a gang's official name. "We didn't give them that identity. That was one of the things they thrived on."

Victor Calderon Jr. was killed after attending a city-sponsored anti-gang dance.
Victor Calderon Jr. was killed after attending a city-sponsored anti-gang dance.
Victor Calderon Jr. was killed after attending a city-sponsored anti-gang dance.
Photos by Mark Graham
Victor Calderon Jr. was killed after attending a city-sponsored anti-gang dance.

The whole mission, as he saw it, was to find the kids who needed help because they weren't going to find him. He recruited teachers to go with him door to door to alert parents to their children's truancy or gang membership and gauge their situation at home. He offered incentives--trips, tickets, and the rides to get there--to kids who attended his five-day-a-week activities. His touch was personal and focused. Isolated from the rest of the city's program, Murk operated as a troubleshooter, a neighborhood saint.

To the park department, the way he ran his fiefdom wasn't worth the effort. "Billy's really dedicated to South Dallas. That's his passion," says assistant park director Ralph Mendez. "He really tried to help as many kids as he could. He had a wider variety of programs other places didn't have, but other places had programs he didn't have either...We found that for the amount of [staff] time spent on four or five kids we were missing a lot of other kids, too."

If the Juvenile Gang Prevention Program were a spaceship, it would have been launched with a crew that despised each other and had too little food to go around. Funding was so light that by the time school let out, the staff was on its way home. Insiders say that by 1995, after a fatal shooting, numerous directors, and a drop in gang violence and membership, the program was being dismissed as more trouble than it was worth.

"By the early 1990s, the park board agreed we should be more involved in prevention than intervention," Mendez says.

Evidence of the change in the city's attitude can be found in a 1996 letter from Mayor Ron Kirk to The Dallas Morning News, his response to the editorial board's plea for increased support for the park department gang-intervention program. The mayor wrote that the park program "represents only a fraction of the city's effort to keep Dallas youths out of gangs." Kirk highlighted the city's other efforts. He credits corporate sponsors, his own summer job-training programs, and the existence of the city's park system for stemming the tide of gangs.

Where once there was concern for a generation in need of rescue, now there were kids who could be reached before they got into trouble. The letter oozes with preventive measures; isn't it better to swim at public pools than it is to hang out on street corners?

The letter seems strange unless you consider what was going on behind the scenes before, up to, and after 1996: The city was already practicing what anthropologists call selective neglect, when a parent quietly favors one sibling over another. In short, the program was already slated to die.

"It wasn't really a program that you could say was helping kids, and that was because there was never enough money," says Jesse Diaz, Pleasant Grove chapter president of the League of United Latin American Citizens and a member of the city's now-latent Gang Task Force. "Now, they more or less have withdrawn from [youth intervention.] There's never been enough money, and they spread it around so much because politics got involved."

Diaz--who makes it clear he means "John Wiley Price" when he says "politics"--says the program was hamstrung with under-funding from the start, and the lack of resources led to infighting over its allocation. Activists pointed out that the original $100,000 in funding was 10 times less than what Fort Worth had allocated to anti-gang operations. The amount was raised to $330,000, but it just wasn't enough to go around. "Basically, it was baby-sitting," Diaz says of the program.

Finding someone to serve as director of the sparsely funded program would have been difficult, but race politics made the difficult impossible. From its inception, the position became a political battleground where activists and politicians assassinated anyone who tried to take the helm.

In 1991, park director Frank Wise set up an official gang-prevention effort within the department, naming Diane Boyd as the unit's first coordinator. A pilot program had been funded a year before, after city funds were kicked loose in the wake of high-profile gang shootings, and the official program was lauded for facing a serious social problem.

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