Up From The Streets

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It was the kind of research project most social scientists avoid. The researcher had to lay out $50,000 of his own money. He spent six years in one + of Detroit's most dangerous neighborhoods in the company of two of the most violent street gangs in America. He routinely asked highly personal questions of edgy young men who earn small fortunes selling drugs and have few qualms about killing people who inquire too closely about their activities.

For obvious reasons, most research on violent urban subcultures is done with computer printouts, not with tape recorders and notebooks on the mean streets. Not so with Carl S. Taylor, adjunct professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and director of the Criminal Justice Program at Jackson Community College. In 1980 Taylor set out to study Detroit's two biggest and most powerful youth gangs: Young Boys Inc. and the Pony Down. In the process, he encountered four additional groups. The resulting book, Dangerous Society, published in February by Michigan State University Press, provides a harrowing portrait of how the gangs transformed themselves from opportunistic street punks into sophisticated drug-dealing empires that rake in hundreds of millions a year.

Taylor's work is of far more than academic significance. His major discovery is that even as Young Boys Inc. and the Pony Down were unraveling in the mid- 1980s following the jailings of their leaders, they were being quickly and silently replaced by far more sophisticated and highly secretive business operations. Taylor's findings contradict the sanguine attitude of fifth-term Mayor Coleman Young and his political allies, who insist that the Motor City no longer has a serious gang problem. Says inspector Benny Napoleon, who monitors gang activity for the Detroit police: "We have nothing remotely resembling a large, well-organized gang."

Taylor presents convincing evidence to the contrary: the groups have become less obvious to the police simply because they have shifted into more covert and more profitable enterprises. "Detroit kids just laugh when they hear people in L.A. are still wearing colors," says Taylor. "What's sweeping this city are what I call CEOs -- covert entrepreneurial organizations. They do not wear gold chains or beepers or Fila sweatsuits anymore. They're probably wearing ragged clothes and driving ratty cars. They've seceded from the union."

Cocaine sales fueled the evolution of Detroit's gangs. They began as what Taylor calls "scavengers," youths preying on the most vulnerable residents of their neighborhoods. But when the double whammy of crack and job cutbacks in the auto plants smashed into Detroit's poorest areas during the 1980s, the gangs developed "corporate" organizations with a concern for the bottom line and enough discipline to use violence mainly to protect their drug-dealing turfs.

Though smaller and far less visible than the original Young Boys Inc., which pioneered the use of hard-to-prosecute juveniles to sell drugs, the new-style crews have mimicked its security-conscious structure. "In Y.B.I., one of the keys was that the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," Taylor says. "That's still true. At the top of each organization you have what amounts to a wholesale operation."

Though most of the membership is drawn from the impoverished underclass, an increasing number of recruits from middle-class families have been lured by the promise of quick financial rewards. Taylor also discovered that female gangs, once considered relatively harmless adjuncts to male crews, have become dangerous, independent groups. In an interview with Taylor's research team, one female gang member bragged of ousting unwanted guests who tried to "bum rush" a party. The guests fled, she said, after "I cut loose on their fake asses with that Uzi."

Taylor believes that gang members share a grossly distorted version of the values mainstream Americans hold dear. The difference is that gang members want money and status faster, and are willing to kill to obtain them. Asked to identify his role models, one 14-year-old cited the cocaine-snorting protagonist of the movie Scarface and Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca. "Lee Iacocca is smooth and he be dissing ((disrespecting, in street lingo)) everybody," the youth explained. In some cases, parents encourage their children's criminal careers. Said one: "My momma talk about how proud she is of me making doughski. She used to dog me and say I wasn't s---, but now she's proud."

Taylor grew up in the West Side neighborhood from which both Young Boys Inc. and the Pony Down sprang. He escaped with a scholarship to Michigan State. While pursuing a master's degree in criminal justice and a doctorate in education, he started a private security company. He first became aware of Young Boys Inc. when several of its red-sweatsuit-clad members swaggered into a concert at Joe Louis Arena in 1980.

Taylor urges an all-out war on the poverty, poor schooling, broken family structures and dire job prospects that make the urban underclass a seedbed for crime. Unfortunately, such prescriptions are not only familiar but also too expensive and time consuming to attract much political support. Detroit is already a case study of what happens when the conditions that produce gangs are allowed to fester. Warns Taylor: "We need to face up to the fact that there is a major crisis in this city."