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Penalty of Prosperity : Gang Violence Spreading to the Old South

September 11, 1986|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

JACKSON, Miss. — A nighttime rumble in the parking lot of a deserted shopping mall: shots ring out. A member of a teen-age gang called the Q Boys is hit in the back and dies. Two members of a rival gang, the Vice Lords, are charged with murder.

Such stories are usually associated with the gang-infested ghettos and barrios of cities like Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. But, in a bitter twist that discloses a grim side of the South's economic renaissance, the slaying of Q Boy member Charles Louis Triplett took place in this once-sleepy Mississippi capital, now the self-styled "Crossroads of the South."

Before the Sun Belt boomed, gang violence was virtually unknown in the "Old Plantation" South--a region stretching from Louisiana, across Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia and up through the Carolinas into Virginia.

With the South's new-found prosperity, however, people by the millions have been lured from the depressed urban centers of the Frost Belt, many of them families with teen-agers previously involved in, or familiar with, gangs. And, as decay in Southern inner cities has begun to match that in the North, gangs have found a natural breeding place.

Jackson is only one example of the growing gang problem below the Mason-Dixon Line. In Virginia Beach, Va., a high school student was fatally stabbed last month when a fight broke out at a skating rink. Police charged two members of the Ebony Playboys, a gang that circulates in the Norfolk-Chesapeake-Virginia Beach area, with murder.

Chattanooga Slaying

In Chattanooga, Tenn., where police reportedly have identified 15 to 20 gangs, an 18-year-old died from a gunshot wound inflicted last October when he was caught in the middle of an argument between members of a gang and other teen-agers.

In Atlanta, a notorious and well-organized gang known as Down by Law has been linked to a string of murders, robberies, rapes, assaults and harassment of public housing tenants in recent months.

"This is a whole new phenomenon in American society," said Walter B. Miller, a Cambridge, Mass., authority on organized youth gangs and former director of the National Youth Gang Survey. "Until 1979, there never were any reports of problems with youth gangs in the 'Old Plantation' South."

Since then, he added, at least 10 cities and perhaps 20 or more have reported incidents of gang-related activity, including Baton Rouge, La., Mobile, Ala., Memphis, Tenn., and Greenville, S.C.

Gang Arrests Cited

"I have a copy of a report to (Atlanta) Mayor Andrew Young from the then-deputy police chief which is dated November, 1984, and says that, over the past 12 months, records indicate that 46 arrests were made related to gang activity," Miller said.

In Jackson, a city of 203,000 with booming downtown and suburban development but stagnating inner-city neighborhoods, gang activity first drew strong public attention in April of last year, after the shooting death of a junior high school student as he was walking down a street with friends.

"The majority of the gang members are kids whose parents moved to Chicago from Mississippi years ago and then decided to move back to the South when the economic prospects and the social climate looked better here," said Charles Robinson, youth services coordinator for the Jackson Urban League.

Two of the biggest Jackson gangs--the Vice Lords and the Folks--have adopted not only the names but the dress customs and identifying symbols of long-established Chicago gangs. The Vice Lords wear their hats tilted to the left and spray-paint buildings in their territory with five-pointed stars. Members of the rival Folks slant their hats to the right and mark their turf with six-pointed stars.

The murder of Q Boy member Triplett at the Jackson Mall in July provoked such a widespread community outcry that Mayor Dale Danks created a 62-member gang task force to study the problem and opened a teen center in the section of town where gangs are most heavily concentrated.

'Time on Their Hands'

"I think these kids' economic needs are not being met," said Jimmy Bell, director of the criminal justice program at Jackson State University and co-chairman of the mayor's task force. "They have a lot of time on their hands, and they're not involved in any supervised recreational activities. What's more, we don't have enough child advocacy groups focusing on their needs."

However, in a sign of the split in public opinion over how best to combat the gang problem, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the city's leading newspaper, said in a tough editorial that the mounting gang violence calls not for "namby-pamby talks or studies by sociologists, but for strong police action to break the backs of these gangs and put them out of business."

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