Vanessa West, a heavyset 15-year-old from New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood, has strings woven into her black cornrows. The strings are red, the color of the Bloods, a national drug gang with roots in California and members all over the country – including many in New Haven. West wears a red and black plastic belt, a red necklace, and two plastic buttons on her shirt, each with a picture of a young black man, and the words “Rest in Peace” in neon letters. West has lost six friends to gang-related shootings in the past two years. Despite—or perhaps because of—this, West is a Blood.
The New Haven Police Department sits on Union Avenue in the Hill, the neighborhood that forms the city’s southern border. It is surrounded on three sides, by the Church Street South public housing projects, a train station, and highways that lead out of the city. The projects used to be like fortresses for gangs, says Detective Ricky Pelletier. “Once you were inside, you could hide in there pretty easy. With the close proximity to routes of travel out of the city… Well, certain places in the city are inherently good for dealing drugs,” he says. “We’re in one of them.”
Inside the Hill, the area immediately around the police station is known as the Jungle. It was once run by the Latin Kings, a national gang of mostly Latinos and Italians that began in the 1940s. By the late 1980s, however, a gang called the Jungle Boys, who lived in the Church Street projects right behind the police station, had taken hold. “We’d come out for lineup in the morning and hear gunshots,” Pelletier remembers.
Pelletier has always been fascinated with New Haven’s gangs. He is a tough guy, and looks it. He is hefty, well over six feet tall, with a blonde buzz cut and a small, thick blonde mustache that would make him look menacing if he didn’t chuckle so often. He joined the NHPD in 1988. After working briefly in patrol—“not enough action”—and the firearms and narcotics units—“I was dealing with the gangs on a regular basis”—he became the NHPD’s de facto expert on the city’s gangs and neighborhood rivalries.
Last year, the department finally created an official Gang Intelligence Unit, a collaboration between city, state, and federal police and national government agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The new unit is part of NHPD’s attempt to keep abreast of the changing nature of gang violence in the city; Pelletier and his partner, Detective Mike Novella, were put in charge.
They are aided in large part by their leadership—the city’s new Chief of Police Frank Limon is a thirty-year veteran of the Chicago police force, where he supervised 600 people in the Organized Crime Unit’s efforts to combat guns, drugs, and gangs in that city.
Within days of taking office this past April, Limon rolled out Operation Corridor, an effort to flood the city’s most gang-ridden streets with enough police officers to stop the gunfire. But twenty years of gang history, and a city divided by rivalries that may run deeper than the gangs themselves, means that he has his work cut out for him.
Outside the five or so square blocks that make up Yale’s central campus, New Haven is divided into rival neighborhoods that date back half a century. North of the university, says Pelletier, the Newhallville neighborhood known as “the Ville” is effectively run by Bloods and Crips, two of the most infamous national gangs. In the past year or so, it has also become home to R2, also known as R2 BWE (Beef with Everybody) Black Flag, a gang that was linked with a spate of recent homicides and assaults. On the eastern edge of the city, a housing complex known as “the Island” overlooks the Quinnipiac River. It’s the turf of the Island Brothers, a gang whose glory days, says Pelletier, have come and gone, but who are still very much a presence on the streets near the river. Northwest of Yale’s campus, the Tribe is nestled between the Ville to the north and the Tre to the west. The Tre is home to Kensington Street International (KSI), one of the tougher gangs from New Haven’s worst days. Recently it has also become home to Bloods and Crips from New York and New Jersey who have moved in to recruit new members. Each neighborhood has its own flavor and its own rivalries, but for the most part, it’s the same story all over town. Kids just have different colored bandanas (“flags”) hanging out their back pockets to show where they’re from and who they’re fighting for.
Almost everyone is fighting for something. In the late 1980s, when Pelletier joined the NHPD, New Haven ranked among Camden, New Jersey and South-Central Los Angeles as one of the most dangerous cities in America. “Traditionally, most of the crime was in the housing projects,” Pelletier explains. “When I came on in ’88, it was the Island Brothers, KSI, the Latin Kings, and the Jungle Boys that were running the show. They were mostly based out of the projects.” During the late 1980s and early 1990s, drugs and the gangs that formed to deal them exploded on the city streets.
Up until about 1995, the housing projects were insulated crime dens, a labyrinthine network of apartments within apartments, which could be taken over by a particular gang and used as home base to stash guns and sell drugs. Gang members from other cities—the Latin Kings of New York, the Crips from Chicago—could drive into the city and disappear into their respective fortresses to drop off drugs or hide from police. The daily fights and shootings in the city were over drug turf: if you weren’t a Jungle Boy and you tried to sell drugs around the Jungle, you were asking to get shot.
When the projects were redeveloped in the mid 1990s, they were remodeled into regular apartment-style buildings, getting rid of the rooms-within-rooms-within-rooms layout that had previously made them such good safe havens. This, along with a series of major investigations by police and federal agents, forced drug gangs to other parts of New Haven.
The Corridor, from which Operation Corridor takes its name, became New Haven’s next hot spot. Known on city maps as Orchard Street, it cuts diagonally across the western part of the city, through the Tre and the Tribe. It’s the center of crime in New Haven, the scene of most drug sales and shootings since the mid 1990s. Along the Corridor, different gangs claim houses, but in recent years, there’s been less fighting over which gang sells drugs on which corner.
“The kids got smart that we were using undercover cops to bust them on street corners,” Pelleteir explains. “So instead of standing on a corner and continuing to be a target, they would give a client a phone number and say ‘call me up, I’ll get you what you need.’ They’d set a meeting spot, drive to a dark place to make the exchange.” Because of this, it is now easier, and arguably safer, than ever before to deal drugs in New Haven without getting arrested or jumped by a competing dealer. There’s no need to fight for turf.
So why are kids still shooting each other?
Just kid stuff?
The need for allegiance dies hard. When the national gangs of the 1980s and 1990s were shut down by the New Haven Gang Task Force, many of the major adult players in New Haven’s crime scene were taken off the streets and incarcerated. They left behind a generation of kids who had grown up watching every adult they knew fight to represent—rep—their gang on the streets. The city’s kids took the lesson to heart: you fight for what you stand for. And, in the temporary absence of strong gangs to stand for, they stood for the only thing they had left: their neighborhoods.
A gang, says Pelletier, doesn’t need to be national or even particularly powerful. Legally, gangs are defined as three or more people involved in ongoing criminal activity with a common sign or symbol. Hood alliances often show similar attributes: shootings in the name of the hood, hand signals or colors to signify membership. For example, members of the Crips, a national gang, and residents of the Ville, a local hood, both identify themselves with the color blue.
Kathleen Edwards, the supervisory prosecutor of the Juvenile Court in New Haven, says that just a few years ago, kids repped neighborhoods more often than they repped gangs. The juvenile offenders she prosecuted told her they identified themselves by where they lived in the city – the Tre, the Tribe, the Ville. “The kids give themselves names, maybe have a handshake or a symbol they identify with, but they’re mostly identifying with their neighborhood,” she explains.
Now, however, the city’s gangs are gaining national affiliation yet again. Over the last eighteen months or so, says Pelletier, small sets with national reach have exploded across the city. “We do still have smaller street gangs, but everyone—even those—have taken on national affiliations.” Most common are the sets of the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and the Black Gangster Disciples, a national group with a heavy presence in Chicago.
Like the shift from street-corner drug deals to Orchard Street rendezvous, Pelletier credits technology with the change. “Before, kids might have wanted to call themselves the Bloods or the Crips but not really understood what that meant. Now, they’re picking up on the philosophy,” says Pelletier. “We see it in interviews with kids. They can use the Internet, can Google the gang’s philosophy, can connect with an actual Grape Street Crip or a Blood from California. It’s easier to pick up.”
In concert with these means of technological enlistment, adult Bloods from New York and New Jersey have moved to the Ville and the Tre, and are actively recruiting young new members.
Vanessa West is one of the gang’s new charges. She calls herself a five-fifty, just half a Blood. “We called five-fifties ‘cause five is the five-pointed star [a national Blood symbol], and fifty ‘cause we only half down,” she explains. Half down? “It means you rock wit’ all Bloods and not Crips, but if your Bloods gonna jump somebody, or they gettin’ ready to bang [fight], you can decide either ‘yeah, I’m down,’ or ‘nah, I’ll pass.’”
Jasmine Williams, a 12-year-old from the Hill, explains that the difference between Bloods and Crips is especially important for girls. To become a Crip, she says, a girl has to “be sexualed” with every man in the local group, or “set.” It’s not rape, the girls insist; it’s just what you do to get in. Only boys must go through initiation rites to be a Blood, Williams explains. They’re “banged”—beaten—by other Bloods for a minute and thirty-one seconds. (The numbers zero, three, and one are significant to the Bloods, which originated in southern California, where the telephone area code is 310.) Girls, explains Williams, do not have to go through initiation rites to be a Blood. “If you a girl, you can be a Blood if you wanna be a Blood,” she says. “The only reason why I’m a Blood is ‘cause every boy I know is a Blood.”
West corrects her. “You ain’t a Blood, you a five-fifty too.” Jasmine acknowledges her overstatement—it’s true, she’s only half a Blood. “Well I wasn’t gonna even be a five-fifty, but I started askin’ all the boys on my street: Are you a Blood or a Crip?” she says. “Every single boy I roll with is a Blood or a five-fifty. So I wanted to be a five-fifty because it means I can rock with them whenever I want, and they protect me.”
Protection is important in the Hill, a neighborhood where, Williams says, there aren’t many Crips besides her brothers. “I got fourteen brothers and fourteen sisters,” she says. (Volunteers at Your Place, an after school youth center founded by Jane Jeuland Div. ‘09, confirm Vanessa’s claim.) “Half my brothers is Bloods, and the other half is Crips. All they do is fight all the time—we gotta rotate in and out of foster care and my mommy’s house so my siblings ain’t all in the house together at the same time. Yesterday, Shaun—he’s a Blood—shot DayDay, ‘cause DayDay’s a Crip and looked at him the wrong way. Shaun missed, but we all had to get out the house.”
Shaun, Jasmines’ 26-year-old Blood brother, was likely just following the rules. In a recent raid carried out by Detectives Pelletier and Novella, NHPD seized two Blood handbooks, used to indoctrinate new members of the gang. The documents include an oath (“Blooding is about respecting your family and doing what you could”), a prayer (“Will I ride, Yes I’ll ride, cause I bang with pride, when I die bury me 5 feet up with red on me”), a pledge (“I pledge allegiance to the Blood flag and all my millas in this nation”), and the rules of Stoney Face Milla, a subset of Bloods from the Ville. The rules are a code of conduct. According to both Pelletier and the five-fifties, new Bloods have to memorize everything in the handbook, so that they understand the philosophy of the family they are joining. The consequences of breaking the rules is stated clearly: “Rule #21: All twenty rules must Be enforced and followed, if caught Breaking any of these rules, you will Be terminated on site.” Terminated, explains Williams, means shot.
Some of the rules seem practical:
“Rule #4: No nastiness, meaning shower at least once a day.”
“Rule #2: No treason meaning no backbiting and no divide and conquer.”
“Rule #9: Exercise meaning work out your body, mind, and soul spiritually.” Some are more threatening. Shaun, the Blood who shot his Crip brother, must have been following Rule #20: “No playing with the enemy, meaning if you see an enemy, tear his face off.”
Even Williams and West, the two girls who call themselves half-Bloods, seem intimately familiar with the rules, prayers, and symbols of the gang. While West talks about the friends she has lost to gang violence, she absentmindedly doodles their names in red and black, the colors of the Bloods: “RIP my fallen angels,” she writes around pictures of five-pointed stars. “Nonnie, Brillhead, Moe-Milly, Lil Larry, Tank, Cornell.” The letter “C” in “Cornell” is drawn with a slash through it, a visual disrespect to the Crips. The “B” in Brillhead is drawn bigger than any other letter on the page, meant to symbolize Blood dominance. These handwriting trends are standard in Blood personal writings and graffiti across America; the same habits are visible in the handwritten Blood codes seized by NHPD. When Williams and West speak, they use Blood code words that are translated in the handbooks. Despite their half-status, these girls have absorbed too much of the national philosophy and insignia to be brushed aside as wannabes.
“Will it Ever Go Away?”
Whether Bloods are fighting Crips, or kids from the Tre are fighting kids from the Hill, the fact remains that kids believe it is more dangerous not to have a crew than to join a gang or rep a hood. Without backup, it can be hard to walk through other parts of the city. “If you walkin’ in a place where you don’t know people, the people from that hood gonna check you,” says C.J. Pike, a scrawny 13-year-old-boy from the Ville. “They gonna surround you, ask you where you from, what you doin’ in their hood, how long you gonna be there for.” The kids who claim that hood are likely to defend it against an outsider without a pack of friends alongside him. “If you don’t say you gonna leave real soon, they make you leave.” Two of Pike’s friends got shot in broad daylight this year for walking in a hood that wasn’t their own. Last year, Maurice “Tank” Wilson, a college-bound seventeen-year-old, was shot in the middle of winter, usually a calmer time. Wilson was lucky—the shot wasn’t fatal.
Even with luck, however, it’s hard to avoid the system of violence. Kids are especially susceptible to gang affiliations if their blood relatives remain active. “I got a friend whose parents are both Crips, and her three older brothers are Crips,” says Williams. “She’s an honors student.” But she isn’t a Crip, so “she had to move out the house because her parents don’t want nothin’ to do with her.” West and Williams both seem to understand that if parents show their children love and affection at an early age, the kids are more likely to stay off the streets. “The kids that got beaten when they was young, they the ones who’s in the streets now,” says twelve-year-old Williams solemnly. “Give them respect instead of beating them. Take them out somewhere so they don’t get bored and hang out with bad kids on the streets. Show them love. Then they’ll stay out the hood.”
For streets to be safe for Williams and her friends, the city needs to prevent the next generation of youth from stepping up and re-populating the major gangs. Community centers like Jeuland’s Your Place and after-school education programs like Youth Rights Media, a nonprofit that teaches kids to make documentary films, may be getting closer to effective gang prevention. Your Place meets weekday afternoons from 4:30 to 7:30pm, the idle hours between school and curfew during which kids are most likely to commit crimes. The program schedules activities to occupy kids during the prime hours of criminal activity, and gives kids creative outlets for emotions that might otherwise turn ugly. In addition to the counselors, school tutors, career specialists, and religious mentors that Your Place provides, Jeuland schedules “supervised free time” – activities like karaoke and painting – for kids to express themselves in a way that adults can positively reinforce.
“That might seem like it has nothing to do with gang violence but every single one of our kids has either seen a shooting, run away from a shooting, or lived their lives in fear of getting shot,” says Jeuland. “Kids who have been traumatized like this, they’re expecting people to give up on them, to tell them they’re bad kids. To get up and sing in front of friends, and have adults cheer them on – it makes a world of difference. We’ve seen it.”
The schools are stepping up, too. This year, two middle schools in New Haven introduced Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.), a national education program in which police officers teach kids about the dangers of joining gangs. Will G.R.E.A.T. be successful? Sergeant Ricardo Rodriguez of NHPD, the officer who teaches the program, is enthusiastic. “We won’t know for sure for years, until we see whether or not these kids have stayed out of gangs, but they’ve responded really well so far.”
Can the city actually keep its kids from shooting each other? Pike, for one, thinks the violence will extinguish itself if he just waits it out. “Probably by the time I’m 24, there will be no more Bloods or Crips,” he says. Why 24? “They’ll all be in jail or dead by then.”
West disagrees. “Lockin’ people up ain’t gonna stop it,” she says. “It will just get worse inside the jails. You can’t lock all the people up that’s involved in this gang violence; its too many.”
And Pelletier plays the realist when discussing violence in New Haven. “Will it ever go away? I been working here for 20 years. I don’t think you can ever stop it,” he says. Of the violence, and the guns and drugs that come with it, he says, “it’s like trash—it never stops coming, it’s just a matter of taking it out. But if you don’t take out the trash, it’s gonna pile up and be bad for everybody.”
Note: Names of minors in this article have been changed to protect their identities.