Gang Summit Held In Roanoke Highlights Pervasive Problem In Virginia

Deputy AG Michael Favale talks about gangs during last week’s meeting.

by Gene Marrano

How pervasive are gang influences on young people in this country, or just in the Commonwealth? Much greater than you might think, according to Virginia Deputy Attorney General G. Michael Favale, who spoke on behalf of his boss, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, at an executive level Gang Summit at Hotel Roanoke last week. Cuccinelli was elsewhere, waiting to comment on the impending health care decision later that day by the U.S. Supreme Court, which he initially called “a dark day” for the country.

Favale was an able pinch hitter; the former New York prosecutor spends a good deal of time crisscrossing the Commonwealth, speaking about gang influence, distributing copies of several DVD’s about the subject to those that are interested. The two-day summit in Roanoke, staged by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, drew law enforcement officers from around the state, including the Roanoke area.

Topics included how schools and police departments can work together, a community approach to combating gangs, information on what has worked in cities like Miami and the G.R.E.A.T. program, which aims its anti-gang message at late elementary school and middle school children.

Former Roanoke City Police Chief Joe Gaskins was reluctant to talk about organized gangs in the city, lest he give them the publicity they might be seeking. Current chief Chris Perkins has been more open to the discussion about possible organized gangs in Roanoke. According to Favale, that publicity and notoriety is what has helped make gangs acceptable to young people seeking to find acceptance somewhere.

“I’m going to make an impassioned plea to you,” said Favale as he began his Power Point presentation, “we’re talking about protecting kids.” He used to prosecute gang members in New York and said they frighten him the most since “they go after kids.” One way they do that is via media messages, according to Favale. He displayed one ad featuring the tennis-playing Williams sisters (Venus and Serena); the Compton, California natives appear to be flashing the “C” sign used by the notorious Crips gang.

Another television ad aimed towards young people uses a song by Snoop Dogg, Drop It Like Its Hot, which seems innocuous enough until reading the lyrics, which Favale displayed. The words tend to glorify violence and gang life. “Gang influences are everywhere in our society,” warned Favale, “and the reality is we’ve accepted it.”

Even those at the highest levels of government can’t seem to avoid references to personalities that may glorify violence and gang activity said Favale: witness a clip showing President Obama’s mention of Lil’ Wayne when speaking to an audience of school children, perhaps trying hard to relate.  Obama seemed to hold up Lil’ Wayne – who has spent time in prison on gun charges – as someone they could aspire to.

“We don’t do enough,” said Favale, quick to point out that he was not questioning the President’s motives in invoking the rap star’s name. “We don’t do enough – [gangs] are constantly targeting our kids.” Then he showed the words to a Lil’ Wayne song that spoke of gangs, violence and blood in positive ways.

Favale showed portions of one video the Office of the Attorney General hands out, The Big Lie, which exposes the “con game,” he claimed gang life is. “We [also] offer solutions for kids – get involved with positive things.” Cuccinelli claims, “gangs are the number one law enforcement problem in Virginia,” according to Favale, “responsible for fifty percent of violent crimes.”

Favale wouldn’t say if he knew specifically that organized gangs exist in Roanoke, only that, “we know that gangs are everywhere.” They’ve gone high tech as well, recruiting new members on Facebook and MySpace. Some gangs use violent video games as a recruiting tool and since some allow players to speak to each other over the Internet, bonds can be formed.

It will only work said Favale if both government agencies and the community at large work together. “We will continue to work on getting folks in the Commonwealth engaged,” promised Favale, “[because] these folks scare me the most.” (see www.dcjs.virginia.gov for more information on combating gangs.)