The Day I Quit My Gang

PAO SAE CHAO

July 20, 1993|By PAO SAE CHAO

Richmond, California. -- How do you break away from your gang?

Every day judges forbid kids from associating with their gangs as a condition for putting them back on the street. What judges don't realize is that quitting can be even more dangerous than going back to jail, and cutting your ties requires the kind of diplomatic skills it takes to end a war.

One recent Saturday my friends and I had a picnic at a park. This wasn't your everyday picnic. Here was a meeting for the SODs (Sons of Death), my street gang. Affiliated with the Crips, the SODs -- mainly Laotian kids -- are one of the most feared gangs in Richmond, California.

While everyone was having fun eating and drinking their fill, I was figuring out how to tell my homeys the bad news. I wanted out. I was scared not just because they might kill me for betraying them but because I would be letting a lot of friends down.

I had joined the SODs formally when I was 12, but for years I had been hanging out with OGs -- original gangsters. Though I was a lot younger, they treated me like a son. They taught me how to steal cars, how to shoot a gun, how to fight.

My family had come to California from Laos when I was four. I couldn't speak English then and I was the only child. As I grew older all I wanted to do was go out and be somewhere -- be a part of America. The gang was the only place where people accepted me. To most people a gang is made up of hoodlums, killers, thieves. To me the gang was a like a group of brothers.

Only now looking back do I understand what joining the gang meant. It was like taking a silent oath no words can define: I would always be there for the gang and they would be there for me. I could say anything to them and they would understand. My parents A part of me always will be a gangster.

loved me but they never understood.

But living on the streets isn't as much fun as you might guess. You're always looking to see who's coming around the corner. When we'd see the police, we'd take off. When we'd see someone we didn't know, out would come the guns. In a matter of seconds, a peaceful street could become a battlefield. Our gang's code was simple: if someone cuts off your arm, you cut off both of his.

Bit by bit, I was also becoming aware that each time I got into trouble I faced more serious consequences. By the time I was 17, I had spent more than two of my teen-age years in jail. Another misstep and I could face a life behind bars. I was also afraid that my little brothers were growing up just like me. I wanted them to have the respect on the street I had, but I didn't want them to do the same things.

When the time came to speak I was surrounded by the SODs. Yet I felt completely alone. The faces I knew so well had suddenly become the faces of strangers. I knew I couldn't show weakness. I had to say what I wanted yet not be disrespectful.

The words didn't come out the way I expected: It was like someone else was saying them. Many people were offended, including one of my closest friends, and an argument broke out. It went on for a long time before things cooled down. I kept on talking and finally people said the choice to leave was up to me.

To show them I wasn't joking, I tore off my bracelet with the word ''CRIP'' and laid it on the picnic table along with my blue bandanna. Next I did what only a fool would do. I turned my back on them and walked away.

I hadn't gone four feet before I heard footsteps behind me. I thought it was my time to die and I braced myself to fight. But when I turned my head, it was my friend with my blue bandanna in his hand. ''You can leave the gang, but you can never leave the Blue Rag,'' he said. ''That's part of your life.''

Now, weeks after the picnic, I know he's right. I've chosen a different path to walk on because I know the old path is a dead end. But I still find myself wanting to be around my friends. And though I no longer see myself as a gang member, the younger and newer SODs look on me as a big brother or an OG. If I turn my back on them altogether, they'll think I think I'm too good for them.

But I'm not. The streets and the gang gave me an education that no school textbook ever could -- and more. They gave me lasting friendships. No matter what I say or how I feel, there's always a part of me that will be a gangster.

Pao Sae Chao is a reporter for YO! Youth Outlook, a newspaper published by Pacific News Service and the Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University.

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