Gangstas in Paradise

Galveston has beautiful beaches, the Strand and Moody Gardens. North of Broadway it has the projects, crippling poverty and big-city problems. And now the bad guys are back.

"We have people in this community who with a shake of a pen can make something happen immediately."

Steve slumps back in a studied pose, disdainful, guarded, hostile and tough. The 16-year-old in the red-checked shirt can't go to the Boys and Girls Club dance after being suspended from school. He's not happy about that or about much of anything else, it seems.

He says he's a gangster, says he's a Blood, says he's that way because that's the way he was raised; his relatives were all Bloods. He hangs around with his fellow gangsters, gets in a few fights from time to time. He's been in trouble once, got sent to the detention center in Texas City for holding onto a kid's bike, not letting him leave, but says that won't happen again. He says he doesn't know why he did that, but it was stupid.

Captain Edward Benavidez runs a military-style operation to fight gangs.
Deron Neblett
Captain Edward Benavidez runs a military-style operation to fight gangs.
Club president Johnny Enriquez predicted funding cuts would lead to trouble.
Deron Neblett
Club president Johnny Enriquez predicted funding cuts would lead to trouble.

Last October, he and one of his homeboys were in a car in a parking lot when a Crip stabbed his 15-year-old friend. "I had to run because the police came. I ran to A&M store." His friend didn't die, but he got stitches. "The guy who did it went to TYC over that."

Despite his toughness, Steve is one of the kids Frank Bankston and the Boys and Girls Club think they can save. He says he's toned down his gang involvement. He wants to go to the University of Houston and eventually be a professional athlete in football, baseball or basketball. His grades are B's, C's and D's with "one or two A's," so the dream isn't just wishful thinking.

He lives in Magnolia Homes and would like to change schools, moving away from Ball High and his friends there. School fights don't go on that much, he says, except "sometimes the Mexicans fight each other and sometimes the Mexicans fight the blacks," but right outside school is a different story. The first week of classes police were dispatched to Ball High at every afternoon release. By that week's end there was enough police presence -- complete with paddy wagon -- to keep things calm. The next week it rained, further cooling off tempers.

Steve has talked to his mother about going to school in League City, but that's doubtful. How's he going to get there? He spends summers outside Texas in various parts of the country. But during the school year he rarely ventures over the causeway except to buy school clothes. He likes living in Galveston but doesn't think he'll do well if he stays.

He had a court date in late November because of the tobacco ticket he got for smoking a cigar. Asked why he lit up, he's instant belligerence: "'Cause I felt like smoking it."

He and the police are not pals. Police single out young black men all the time, he says. "They see two black kids in a car, they're going to automatically pull you over." In his most recent encounter, he says, the officer asked them why they were driving so slow, trashed their car, then gave them a ticket for turning on the wrong blinker, using the right when it should have been the left.

Not everyone who lives in the projects is a gang member, Steve says. Not everyone who wears red is a gangbanger, he adds. And not everyone who wants to be a gang member gets included, Steve says.

"You got to be raised up in a local project [to be a Blood], on a street that's known for being a hood. Many people get rejected because they say they're from there but they're not really from there." But these kids aren't discarded entirely, Steve says. Some are used as gang flunkies, assigned undesirable errands and chores.

Pressed again for why he became a gang member, Steve says, "For friendship, true friends." He has a mother, father and three siblings, but the gang is where he went for friendship. When asked about the option of joining school clubs instead, words fail him.

Steve says he's never owned a gun and that "killing don't make you a gangster." The rising number of gang shootings is a maturity thing, he says. "Kids are getting older and more mature and think they should do more mature things. Instead of fighting they think they should shoot."

He likes the Boys and Girls Club. "There's always something to do." He doesn't take the bus home from there, though; doesn't want to miss any fights, which he says are fun to watch.

"[The police] come by. They don't come by on time. They come by in the police car, but they don't got time to get out the car and chase after nobody."

Steve contradicts himself when he talks about what his parents know of his gang affiliation. First he says they're trying to get him out of it. Then he says they don't really know that he's in a gang. According to Bankston, who talks to Steve's mother, she's well aware her son is a Blood.

Four times during the interview, Steve dropped his guard. He laughed when he was asked if he liked country music. On his own initiative he offered to demonstrate his gang's handshake. He giggled about watching fights outside the A&M. And he said his trip to Universal Studios was really cool and way better than Disneyland.

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