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.

Criminal histories kill job opportunities, Owens says. Asked if the military wouldn't be a good channel for their aggression, Owens is quick and brief. "That won't work. They don't like authority."

One of the very sensitive areas is whether there's a history of police racism. Gang members say there is. One social activist, who did not want to be named, said there clearly is racial profiling, causing cops to issue a lot of tickets to African-Americans. That causes hostility between the community and police.

Owens says he's been told the force used to be racist. But he's been with it only four and a half years, so he doesn't know. He does know that most of the kids he encounters have been taught by their parents to hate police.

Officer Jim Bitner says gang members want to fight with guns, not their hands.
Deron Neblett
Officer Jim Bitner says gang members want to fight with guns, not their hands.
Late at night in Galveston, Officer Owens (right) and others check stories.
Deron Neblett
Late at night in Galveston, Officer Owens (right) and others check stories.

Clay is a dark figure in a dark night standing in running shoes on a sidewalk across the street from the Cedar Terrace projects. Even though relatives live there, he's not allowed in -- Galveston Housing Authority rules ban felons from the property. And Clay has recently finished up eight years flat in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

So he sits across from Cedar Terrace, visiting every day from his new residence in La Marque. He denies he's a gangster; in fact he mostly denies that anyone on Galveston Island is a gangster. The police say he's a bona fide documented gangbanger.

In fact, police say the 26-year-old is among the top three gang leaders running the Cedar Terrace operation. Which he does from across the street.

At first, he doesn't want to talk. Assured his real name won't be published, he decides to walk down the block a little, away from other people, and answer questions.

"When I was 11 or 12 I first started selling weed," he says, quickly riffing through his résumé. "I was hanging with people who steal, but I didn't know how to steal. My mom was trying to raise three kids, and we didn't have the money. I was looking for something to get into that would bring me the money."

He was kicked out of school. Asked why, he dismisses that with a vague "There were too many distractions."

He was 16 when he went to prison. What he leaves out is why: aggravated robbery, evading arrest, four counts felony theft, two attempted murders, possession of a controlled substance, an unlawful weapons charge, and that's just the major stuff.

He spent considerable time in the law library, he says, and knows his rights. In the two years since his release, he's been in Galveston jail a lot. He says that's because he speaks his mind, and is the target of fake charges and police harassment. Police say it's because he keeps breaking the law and has a violent temper. He has been known to kick out the windows of patrol cars after being placed inside, police say. Officer Bitner says Clay has probably been arrested 30 times since getting out of prison.

He wears a lot of colors, just doesn't happen to like red, which doesn't make him a Crip, he says. He takes care of his family, he says, likes to organize block parties, and helps people. He says he counsels kids to keep them respectable.

But even in his accounting, violence remains part of his life. His brother was shot and killed. He, himself, was the target in a recent shooting. He says he has no idea what caused the other guy to fire at him. He works different jobs when he's not in jail, says he's going offshore to do sandblasting.

There is no way he wants to leave Galveston. "Why would I run? Why would I leave? Why can't I stay in the community?" At one of the community meetings, he asked the mayor: "Why do you feel I can't change? Just 'cause I wear blue doesn't mean I can't change."

His civil rights are violated all the time, Clay says. Go to the other side of Broadway, and there's no problem standing out on the sidewalk in front of your house, talking with your neighbors. "They see us, they feel like they have to break us apart. We're just having a good time."

Bitner concedes that one, to a point. What Clay apparently doesn't realize, he says, is that residents in that very neighborhood are calling in on him, tired of the drug dealing. "And yeah, people in the other parts of town don't get citations for standing on the sidewalk in front of their homes and talking. But I don't get calls there like I do on Winnie and 29th."

Thanked for the interview, Clay strolls off, only to be called back for a moment by Bitner. "Just for grins, and I promise I'm not going to jack with you," Bitner tells him, "let's see what's in your right front pocket."

Clay shuffles backward, an aw-shucks grin on his face.

Bitner asks again. With a shrug, Clay pulls out a wad of $100 bills -- $1,400 worth. This is some well-paying part-time work.

Michael will tell you straight out, he hasn't had a very happy life.

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