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Menace to Society: Why Many Young Black Men are Accused of Being in Gangs 

Wednesday, Aug 8 2012
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Testimony like Broberg's, defense lawyers who have worked gang cases argue, inevitably taints a jury. "The general public who comprises juries tends to find a police officer's opinion pretty credible," says Lew Yablonsky, a criminology professor at California State University Northridge and author of Gangs in Court. "They'll look over at the defendant and see a gangster."

The background information from gang-expert testimony was necessary, says Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian, because in order to prove that Bender was carrying the gun "for the benefit of" the gang, "you have to prove that the gang exists."

Even if the gang evidence is shaky, it fits the narrative. In a 2009 attempted murder trial, for example, Officer Damon Jackson's testimony about Phillip Pitney's alleged Eddy Rock membership included Pitney's presence at a memorial service for another alleged Eddy Rock member, Pitney's T-shirt printed with the dead friend's face and "R.I.P.", and statements Jackson heard from a confidential informant.

Much of this information is hearsay. Yet because the testimony is "not offered for truth," explains Martin Sabelli, an attorney who authored a paper challenging the constitutionality of gang-expert testimony, the defense team cannot question the people who originally made the "out-of-court statements vulnerable to cross-examination."

The April 2010 police report cited by Broberg stated that officers pulled over a speeding Buick after witnesses reported seeing somebody waving a gun out of a passing car's window. As the officers approached the vehicle, guns drawn, it took off. Still, the officers reported that they were able to "positively identify" Bender in the passenger's seat. But those officers did not testify in Bender's trial or face questions about how sure they were.

Neither did the security guard whom Bender threatened in September 2009. Broberg, conveying the accuser's police statement, said that Bender told the guard, "I'm the real Oakdale boy, you gonna get blasted up here [if] you keep fucking around with me" — and that Bender mimed a shooting motion with his index finger. Bender had claimed that the guard had been harassing him and following him up the hill. In a recorded conversation between Broberg and Bender, the inspector even disclosed that he'd heard other community members complain about those security guards. Without the guard under oath on the witness stand, though, Bender's defense could not challenge the reliability of his statement.

Instead, the police reports stand alone, without much context. And jurors must contemplate the evidence of the gun charge alongside hours and hours of testimony alleging that Bender is a hoodlum who hangs out with other hoodlums.

"Our justice system is based on the principle that a person is only tried for crimes that they committed," says Adachi. "And what the gang evidence does is, it opens up a Pandora's box of a person's background, which becomes fodder for arguing that the accused is a bad person and therefore should be convicted."


Broberg himself acknowledged that San Francisco's documented black gangs are different from more widespread, organized gangs like MS-13 or the Crips. "With [this city's] African-American gangs, it's a little harder to make determinations [of whether an offense is gang-motivated]," he testified. "Their actions are not as overt or apparent as maybe some other gang crimes."

Like the city's other documented black gangs, Oakdale Mob has no initiation process, no hierarchy, no cohesive plans, no prison ties. Community members, as well as Adachi, assert that these groups should not be legally classified as gangs.

"They're not gangs at all," says Rudy Corpuz, a former gang member with the long-defunct Down Town Boys gang who now runs the local youth center United Playaz. "Gangs are when you get jumped in, you're organized, you're structured." Instead, Corpuz argues, for these kids the "gang" is just the neighborhood. Most black gangs in the city are exclusively associated with a block — Eddy Rock, Kirkwood, 25th Street — or a housing project — Towerside, Down Below Gangstas, Knock Out Posse.

"It's about reppin' where you're from," says a 21-year-old on one of the Visitacion Valley injunction lists. "We ain't got much to be proud of. Our schools suck, some people's mom's on drugs. All we got is our block, our building or whatever. It ain't the nicest in the world, but might as well be proud of it."

There is certainly much violence in the neighborhoods the police have classified as "gang territory." There are kids with guns in their waistbands and anger in their hearts. Some turn to stick-ups and slangin'. Some get caught up in personal beefs that escalate, with friends getting friends' backs, from fistfights to shootouts to retaliations. "But it ain't got shit to do with colors or sets," says the Visitacion Valley gang member.

The media help perpetuate the connection of this violence to gang activity. SFPD Chief Greg Suhr recently explained that a string of homicides in Visitacion Valley this summer was not caused by rival gangs: "They were all friends not long ago — now they have turned on each other," Suhr told the press. Even Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius mused, "It isn't really even gang violence." Police did tell reporters that the people involved were either documented gang members or on the injunction list, which was enough to set the headlines. "Gang Dispute Fueling Violence in the City," proclaimed the San Francisco Examiner. "It's gang warfare, and the enemies were once allies," read the Chronicle's front page.

Because the groups are geographically based and because there is no structure or initiation process, membership is vague, subjective, and in flux. Broberg testified that the difference between a gang member and a kid in the neighborhood is that a gang member consistently participates in the group's criminal activities — itself a subjective definition, given that he considered Bender, who had never been charged with drug dealing, robbery, or assault, a gang member.

The City Attorney's office maintains that the city's methods for identifying gang members are based precisely on the language of the STEP Act. "If activists and lawyers object to the classifications, they should go to the legislature," says City Attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey.

About The Author

Albert Samaha

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