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Street Gangs Now Staking Space Online

Cedarside Mone in one of his music videos. (Screenshot/YouTube)
Cedarside Mone in one of his music videos. (Screenshot/YouTube)

In recent months police and justice officials have made high profile moves against members of a predominately Cleveland-based street gang, the Heartless Felons. Earlier this month, a founding member of the gang was indicted on charges carrying up to 10 years in prison. In May five other members were indicted on charges ranging from murder to robbery. Dozens of teenage members of the gang have also been linked to violence in the Cuyahoga County juvenile system. While much of the gang activity is where you might expect it, on the streets or in prison, it is also prominent online.

MUSIC: “I’m Downtown like Progressive Field, they ain’t repping how I’m repping let’s keep it real. Cedarside CCo you *** know the deal, like a car factory I always keep that steel.”

This is rapper Cedarside Mone, who has posted his music and videos to YouTube. His material is full of Heartless Felons imagery, signs, calls, locations. He is from a county housing project at Cedar and 30th, and he describes presumed drug activity on nearby 28th

MUSIC: “Money being made on the 28th strip...??? Got the jump hopping on my parking lot ***, you want it, you need it we got them bricks...Got that weed, got that coke, got them pills, got that dough?”

You may not expect gang activity to be public and prolific on social media, but it is. Cedarside Mone has a Facebook page and says he’s representing the gang. And the Heartless Felon codes can be entered into Instagram to bring up photos of apparent gang activity. It’s true, these things may not prove gang affiliation, but it sure appears that way.

MUSIC: “It’s okay, it’s okay, I’m still paid, I’m a G, I’m still made, you can go and tell somebody I’m repping Heartless Felons, keep it stepping before I pop a Smith and Wesson, now you telling you know I’m repping Downtown.”

WATSON: “Back in the day people didn’t have social media… so now in the generations coming up, it will only get worse.”

Tone Watson is social media director for the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, a city collaboration of interest groups combatting street violence. Watson says rappers used to exchange insults or threats through DVD’s. But social media is making things worse.

WATSON: “You can be made or be destroyed on social media.

GANZER: “What do you mean ‘destroyed?’ Reputation?”

WATSON: “Reputation-wise. And if you’re making all these videos telling everybody where you’re at you’re telling on yourself. Somebody can be like, ‘I just saw your video, I can ride through your hood and see you, in the same spot where you shot your video at.’ Like I said, you can be destroyed or you can be somebody famous”

MUSIC: “Torn up home had to do it on my own, weak *** can’t survive got to be strong. No role models except my *** Smurf. Fore a *** shoot me, Ima shoot him first. Rest in peace…[list of fallen gang members]”

These Heartless Felon-associated videos clearly show Cleveland neighborhoods, businesses, people. And the rapper and his associates seem to welcome publicity. In a magazine aimed at inmates, Cedarside Mone called the Heartless Felons a movement, built on family and loyalty. But if you disrespect them, you’ll get your head cracked.

TERRELL: “They are not afraid because they don’t have respect for human life neither do they value their own lives.”

Gregory “Tonto” Terrell is with the Black Nationalist Society for Non-Violent Change, also a member of the Peacemakers Alliance. He says the Heartless Felons specifically are all over Cleveland, not just at 30th and Cedar…but on St Clair, Hough, Kinsman. And combatting their messaging takes efforts online, and on the streets.

TERRELL: “We can go into places the police can’t go in to. People talk to us who won’t talk to police because they know we have their best interests at heart, and that we are hood people ourselves. We come from these same streets they walk and kill on every day. So I want to say that this problem is citywide. It affects us all.”

That gangs are a problem is sadly not new, but their activity online is attracting more and more attention. Some researchers have seen insults on social media turn into actual violence between gangs. And police in many cities have units monitoring social media activity, but it’s not always clear how that information is being used in practice.

But for groups on the streets—like those in the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance—they say they need more resources, more police…just more community help.

-Extended interview with Desmond Patton, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Information, University of Michigan

-Extended interview with members of the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.