One Woman Shares How She Was Drawn Into A Gang At An Early Age
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In Chicago, where gangs drive much of the city's gun violence, discussion often centers on why boys join gangs and pick up guns. But what about the girls? We've been hearing stories this week from a series called Every Other Hour. It's from member station WBEZ in Chicago.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Today we'll hear why girls join gangs. Experts say girls and women are usually shown as little more than hangers-on to the boys and men, but they do play a role in gang violence. WBEZ's Odette Yousef has our story. And a warning - some listeners might find the content disturbing.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: As a little girl, all Cristina wanted was to join the gang her brothers and uncles were in. So when she was 13, she did. And they gave her a gun.
CRISTINA: It was a .380, I think, or a nine.
YOUSEF: Cristina's now 17. We're not using her full name to protect her identity.
CRISTINA: Part of me felt, like, cool. Like, OK, they finally see that I'm one of them, giving me some type of respect out here, making me hold one of their guns. It just felt like an honor, I guess. But then there was another part of me that felt, like, nervous. I was shaky. And then there was another time where I just thought, like, what if one of the rival gangs just passed by and they made me pull the trigger? What would I do? What - would I just freeze or not?
YOUSEF: Cristina's story isn't as uncommon as you might think. Dana Peterson teaches criminal justice at the University at Albany. She estimates that across the country, nearly one-third of gang members are female.
DANA PETERSON: And that number is a bit higher than we would see in law enforcement data or even in media depictions.
YOUSEF: So movies, pop culture and even police statistics are often wrong. They're also missing what girls actually do in gangs. Peterson says that's because for a long time, our knowledge of girls in gangs came chiefly from interviewing male gang members.
PETERSON: They're not seen by males in the gangs as, you know, highly valued or as gaining as high a status.
YOUSEF: But Peterson says when the girls themselves are interviewed it paints a very different picture. Girls are sometimes shot-callers. They discipline and ensure order. They recruit new members. That was one role Cristina had.
CRISTINA: I was kind of in charge of the girls my age. If I thought they was worthy enough, I would usually just bless them in. Some of the girls, I thought they were kind of weak, so I would make them just do little missions, go out and investigate what other gang members are trying to build up against us. They would have to just go undercover.
YOUSEF: The ways Cristina earned status in her gang support Peterson's findings. One way was to fight with girls in other gangs.
CRISTINA: Others, when one of the guys would get caught in a jam - and by that I mean, like, if the other rival gang has a gun and they point it out - I'll just get in front of one of the guys and I'll say, you have to kill me before you kill him.
YOUSEF: Cristina says another way to earn gang cred is to take the fall for older male gang members. Peterson says that's been an age-old role for female gang members since the early 1900s.
PETERSON: Specifically because they are less likely to be looked at by law enforcement. And if they are looked at, they have been generally likely to get lesser sentences or, you know, less of a penalty.
YOUSEF: That's even true when girls commit violent crimes. Peterson says it may be surprising, but girls are also involved in drive-by shootings. Cristina says in her gang, usually the guys would drive the car.
CRISTINA: But if the girls were in the car with them, then we had to take the gun and we have to end up shooting the other gang. I also got two points that I have to shoot. I have to pull the trigger sometimes.
YOUSEF: Do you think about that?
CRISTINA: Not really. I don't think about it at all. It's just like - it never comes up to my head. It's just like - I think 'cause of everything that I've been through it's just, like, I don't feel bad for other people.
YOUSEF: Research shows that female gang members tend to live in households that are more severely disrupted than male gang members. There can be alcoholism and drugs, family members in prison or abuse. In Cristina's case, the abuse started when she was very young.
CRISTINA: My life changed when I was 8 years old. I was sexually molested by my stepfather. I never spoke up until I was 11 years old, so it continued for a couple years.
YOUSEF: When she finally spoke up, Cristina says the grownups at home didn't believe her. They insisted she was making it up.
CRISTINA: And that was another reason why me and my little brother got close, 'cause he was the only one who believed me. He was the only one that never judged me. He took care of me. He looked after me. He never left me alone after that day that I finally spoke up when I was 11.
YOUSEF: Though Cristina is two years older than her brother, she would call him her twin. He's who she trusted most. In her world, it was always them against everyone else until five months ago.
CRISTINA: I remember that day, April 1. We was walking down my block and I saw two guys. I saw them with black hoodies. And I told him, watch out. The two guys across the street said, we've been looking for you [expletive] heads. Now, run 'cause today's the day you're going to die. I get in front of my brother. He jumped the gate and he took off. I run after the other guy. And once I heard the first shot, my heart just dropped and I screamed. And I said, no. I saw my brother laying down on the floor. I ran to him. I took off my sweater and I put it on his head. And I was like, don't leave me. Don't leave me, bro. You're the only thing I have. And he looked at me one time, but then his eyes went all white. I kept shaking him. I was like, you can't leave me. You can't leave me. After that, the firemen got there and the ambulance, police officers.
YOUSEF: After two days in the hospital, they unhooked Cristina's brother from the machines.
CRISTINA: So after we had buried him, I told him - I laid down three flowers. One, that I was going to get revenge on his name no matter what it takes, that his name will always be known out here. The second was I was going to accomplish the things he couldn't accomplish. And the third is I was going to leave the streets for good.
YOUSEF: Cristina was expelled from school in ninth grade for truancy and fighting. Now she wants back in. But many schools say that at 17, she's too old to start high school all over again. She also wants to leave the gang, but that's tough, too. She still sees the guys all the time in the neighborhood. Leaving means finding a new way to build a strong sense of identity. She says she won't give up. Everything she does now is to honor the memory of her brother, one of the estimated 2,500 people shot in Chicago so far this year. For NPR News, I'm Odette Yousef.
CHANG: This report is part of a year-long project on gun violence from our member station WBEZ in Chicago. It's called Every Other Hour. And you can find more of these stories at npr.org.
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