The Bottom Girls and the Bottom Boys. The Knockout Kings. The Whitesville Boys. The Headbusters. What about the Crosstown Squad? And don't forget the 3rd Mob of Portal.
These are only a few of 15 gangs here in Bulloch County - most of them inside the Statesboro City limits. Gang activity is here, according to law enforcement officials, school officials and a gang expert, Dr. Sharon Tracy, professor at Georgia Southern University.
Tracy and a panel of law enforcement leaders met Tuesday night with about 60 members of the community to talk about gang activity, explain why it exists and what the community can do to combat the problem.
In the past, local leaders have said there was no gang problem in the area. But proof can't be ignored, and the issue will only get worse if people do not take steps to battle the gangs, Tracy said.
Event organizer Karen Manahan, alternative school director for Bulloch County Schools, introduced Tracy and greeted the crowd.
"By the size of this crowd I can see gangs and gang related activity is a great concern in Bulloch County," she said.
Tracy used a Power Point demonstration to help explain why gangs form, why they are attractive to some and what characterizes a gang.
Kids are drawn towards groups that give them the support and sense of belonging they may not get at home, she said. Gangs give them " a sense of importance, self esteem, self identity. Your gang-bangers, they think you are important. They think you matter."
Most gang members start out as mischief makers and adventure seekers, she said. Both normal and deviant activities bond the kids involved and solidify trusts and create closer relationships.
But mischief turns into criminal activity. A group of people who commit crimes together is a gang, Tracy said.
"Typically, they just sort of get together ... slide into it .. and suddenly, it's their lifestyle," she said.
Respect, toughness, esteem
"Toughness is a virtue," she said. Gangs garner members respect, and esteem is given to winners who can prove they are tough by committing crimes. Serving time for crimes is a badge of honor, "kind of reverse of what we'd like to see," she said.
Willingness to use violence to protect yourself and appearance is important, she said.
Clothing of a certain color, worn a certain way, or of a certain type can identify gang membership. An example is the baggy pants worn below the waist. While not necessarily an indication the wearer is a gang member, it is a gang-related style, she said. "I love to watch the kids with the baggy pants. When no one is looking, they hitch them up so they can walk."
But when people are watching, they let the pants hang and swagger to keep them on while walking, she said.
Other abilities that meet gang approval are "ability to put others down .. giving disrespect ... to be able to get into their face and talking trash," she aid. "Revenge is also an important goal" in gang lifestyles.
For many, it is also the need for companionship, excitement and adventure, especially in female gangs, Tracy said.
And when teens have no skills, and institutions that are supposed to help them do not respond to their needs, and no positive opportunities are there, then negative opportunities such as gang involvement are appealing, she said.
Youth at risk include those who have lost family members, who exhibit problem behavior such as fighting, drinking and drugs; who display delinquent beliefs such as it is "ok to steal small things," she said. An example may be a gang member would see no harm in stealing a pair of $100 shoes because "Why should he have them when I cannot?," she said.
At- risk youth may display poor academic performance as well. And when these youth come together, the risk increases.
"Birds of a feather flock together," Tracy said. "You are characterized by your friends."
How to stop gangs
Tracy agreed with others on the panel Tuesday night that incarceration is not a solution, but exacerbates the gang problem. The only way to fight gangs is through community involvement, she said.
That means community organization, social intervention, opportunity provision and law enforcement efforts, she said.
Family involvement tops the list, and limiting kids from watching violent television that promotes gang activity is the first step. Music is the strongest influence, and Tracy cited several rappers who glamorize the gangster lifestyle: Ice T, the Hoover Crips; Ice Cube, the Rolling 60's and Crips; Snoop Dogg, the Crips; and Tupac Shakur, the Bloods.
Get involved in parenting, she urged.
"You need to stay involved in your children's lives. Where are you going? 'Out" isn't an acceptable answer. What are you going to do? 'Nothing' isn't going to cut it."
Demand answers, know your children's friends, get to know t heir parents, she said. "Be informed."
Check for scars and tattoos, watch for clothing styles and fashions tat may indicate gang-related tendencies, and watch for doodles in school notebooks that may be gang symbols, she said. "Develop open, frequent communication."
And report any suspected gang activity to local law enforcement, she added.
The law is watching
Bulloch County Sheriff's Capt. Todd Hutchens said there has been no sign of gang-related activity in the rural part of the county, and joked that if he saw any he would "push it back into the city."
But seriously, he said, he and the Sheriff's Department will do everything possible to assist the Statesboro Police and any other law enforcement agency in battling and monitoring gang activity, and will be keeping tabs to make sure no gang activity takes place in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Statesboro Police Det. Sgt. James Winskey readily admitted Statesboro is home to gang activity and has been for some time.
"I've been here since 1997 and it was here before then," he said.
He and his peers have photographed graffiti, tattoos, and other evidence of gang activity and when it is found in connection to a juvenile, "we contact the parents," he said. Oh, and gang members involved in crimes are prosecuted as well, he added.
Bill Martin, with the Department of Juvenile Justice, said his department works closely with police to "identify children in our case load involved in gang activities.
"About 60 to 70 percent of the 300 (children involved in criminal cases) are somehow involved in possible gang activity," he said.
There are gangs on the Georgia Southern University campus as well, Tracy said, telling the crowd about some gang members "crashing" one of her classes on gang-related topics. There are even "one, maybe two gangs in Portal," she said.
(The second story in this two-part series will address possible local affiliation with nationally recognized gangs, how incarceration affects youth with respect to gang involvement, and steps the community can take to eliminate gang activity.)
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at 489-9414.