In 1972 Gary Barner, a self-proclaimed ``mama's boy,'' was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to one year at Fenner Canyon Vocational Training Camp in California. Today, he lives ``the clean and quiet life,'' heading up one of the work details at Community Youth Gang Service (CYGS) in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where members from opposing street gangs work together to improve their communities. Urban youth gangs are a nationwide phenomenon.
In Los Angeles some 400 gangs have more than 50,000 active members, ranging in age from 14 to 30 years.
Mr. Barner believes young people join gangs to find something to do with their ``idle time,'' as well as for protection. When he was a teen-ager, he recalls, ``We played jail tag and basketball.''
``But then those games developed into more gang-oriented games,'' he says. ``We began to hang out as gang members and we began to go to jail.''
Leon Watkins, director of CYGS, agrees that gangs can also serve as extended families for youngsters, lending status and stability to youths who experience little of either in their day-to-day lives.
``It gives them a sense of belonging, filling a need that has not been met in their lives, for self-esteem, acceptance,'' Mr. Watkins says. ``If a kid doesn't feel like anything at home, he can go out on the street and play `crazy Jake.' It gives him a sense of worth. It's a surrogate family.''
CYGS is a community-based response unit that handles neighborhood reports as well as police referrals on gang-related incidents.
According to Watkins, the group's main function is ``intervention and mediation.''
``There's not enough people concerned about changing the lives of our young people,'' says Barner. ``CYGS is one agency; then there's a few good policemen, a few good teachers, a few good parents, a few good politicians - but it's just not enough.'' Fear as a factor in joining gangs
Between last January and October, CYGS responded to 401 calls on gang-related violent crimes. Many contend that young people should have seen enough gang violence to know better. But Barner says community violence encourages youths to join gangs.
``It gives them even more reason to team up with a guy, because they're scared! These guys are not running in gangs because they're bad. If they were so bad they wouldn't run in gangs, they'd run individually,'' he says.
Leonard Henderson, an imprisoned member of the Crip gang from Los Angeles, puts it this way: ``I Crip for a reason, not for a season.'' In other words, he has joined not because it is the fashion but because he feels a need for gang protection in his neighborhood.
He insists that corrupt police are a key source of the drugs in his community and says he joined the gang when he was 10 to make things in his neighborhood better. He'll be 22 when he gets out of prison. The need for decent-paying jobs
``Our young people need decent paying jobs, that's why they get into gangs,'' says Watkins. ``They opened up the Department of Public Works [to provide summer jobs for young people] - little nickel-and-dime jobs. Gang members are working their hearts out there, because it's an opportunity for them to make some money [$3.60 an hour]. Don't tell me they won't work!''
Watkins believes society's priorities are askew. ``Don't say you have no money,'' he says. ``Say you don't want to use the money.''
``At one time in my life,'' Barner recalls, ``people were saying, `He'll never amount to nothin', he's not going to turn around.' But I have turned around, and if I can change, anybody can.''
What's the first step?
Barner says he believes that ``you have to spend some `quality time' with that young person and find out what's bothering him, what's going on. And if we help him, he helps somebody else. And if everybody helps somebody, we can change this thing around. But if nobody helps nobody, then nothing changes.''
Barner says youths are looking for answers to poor schooling, unemployment, and an often unstable home. Many think the gang way of life is the only answer.
``I know guys that are involved in drug dealing and gangs and they come to me all the time and say, `Gary, get me a job, man. Get me a job.' And I have to say, `Well, I'll try. I'll ask around and see if I can find you a job.'''
In the meantime, Barner says, these young people with nowhere to go and nothing to do are just ``out there learning how to become a problem to society.''