Parsing Fact From Fiction With Street Gangs Online
The use of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook by street gangs has been recurring area of interest for WCPN this year. One question we’ve been asking ourselves is whether “cyber-banging,” as some have called it, represents truth, fiction or a blend of the two. There’s little doubt from law enforcement that some videos posted online carry over into real life. The head of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Juvenile section, Duane Deskins, said as much after the arrest of dozens of suspected gang members in a big sweep in October.
DESKINS: “As I said in the indictment, there are multiple instances of talking the talk and walking the walk. There are murders, there are robberies, there are assaults, there is ample evidence of people walking the walk. […] And they’re proud to let the world know the things that they are doing, and what we’re seeing is that they are not only doing it online, but actually doing it on your streets, and in your neighborhoods.”
Deskins says gangs--including the BBE 900 gang targeted by police in this round-up–view the internet as part of their turf just as much as the streets. Deskins says, their strategy is to use music or social media as a recruitment or intimidation tool.
DESKINS: “They share videos, they share photos, and these young people are part and parcel of that. That’s how they communicate with one other, that’s how they intimidate one another, that’s how they show their prowess to one another”
When announcing the 299-count indictment, Deskins said social media were a key part of the gang’s propaganda strategy.
In this video on YouTube groups of young people sometimes make signs with their hands, or blow smoke toward the camera. In another video they sometimes hold or point guns, though it’s not clear if they’re real. The rapper is referencing the BBE gang, and he calls himself…Marii Jetz. His real name, as we discovered, is Rasheen Bledsoe, Jr. – a 15 year-old in Cleveland. He was shot to death on July 10 of this year.
Prosecutors have charged Sterling Manning Jr in the death of Bledsoe. Manning is one of the adult members charged in the BBE 900 gang indictment. Prosecutors also believe Bledsoe was a member of the same gang.
Even though there appears to be evidence of suspected gang members posting their exploits online, others caution about taking everything on the web at face value. Richard Starr is a former gang member, now a Boys and Girls club mentor. He told WCPN earlier this year that young people are sometimes clueless about putting gang material on social media:
STARR: “13-year-old boys, never did any juvi time, never did anything, but guess what they’re putting it in social media, on their bios. But do they really know? No.”
The internet provides investigators and casual web surfers, alike, with an insight into the prolific and sometimes short lives of young people in the center city. Whether their posts are fact or fiction, whether from criminals or wannabe entertainers, they are sending messages, according to University of Michigan researcher Desmond Patton.
PATTON: “They may live in a tough community, and they’re trying to figure out how to stay connected, stay protected in that community. For those who are in gangs, there is a culture in urban communities of this idea called fatalism, in which you may live in a community where you don’t believe you may make it to 25.”
Prosecutor Duane Deskins sees these gang videos and similar online activity as propaganda offering false hope to prospective members. Still law enforcement and researchers like Patton, no doubt, will keep watching posts to the web for crime-related clues.