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CURRENT ISSUE:  October 4, 2010
VOL. 48, NO. 17   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Catholics called to reject ‘cultural shift’ on human person
Congress urged by bishops to remember working poor during tax-policy debates
Stepping up to end gang violence

Oakland deanery learns to
recognize gang links and
how to intervene with youth

See related story below:
  • Oakland pastor takes action to stop violence plaguing his community
  • Gangs: How to recognize and intervene

This poster of gang colors and symbols was on display during the recent training for parish leaders in Oakland.

Captain Paul Figueroa opened a September gang awareness workshop at his alma mater, Oakland’s St. Elizabeth Elementary School, noting that as a student at the parish’s neighboring high school, he couldn’t wear the school’s red color because he didn’t want to be confused with the Norteño gang that controlled his neighborhood.

Now wearing the dark blue of the Oakland Police Department, Figueroa helped bring about the first of several planned workshops in the diocese to teach parents, educators, clergy and staff how to recognize gang involvement and intervene.

About 70 teachers and staff from St. Anthony, St. Elizabeth, St. Bernard and St. Louis Bertrand parishes attended, learning about the symbols, colors and mentality associated with the city’s largest Hispanic gangs.

“We’re really going to be aggressive about trying to give you the information so when you see it firsthand, you can try to reach out and stop it, right from jump street,” Figueroa said.

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone requested the training, which will eventually extend to parents and children in the parishes, said Father Jesus Nieto-Ruiz, pastor of St. Anthony Parish. Father Nieto-Ruiz is leading the training efforts for his largely-Latino deanery.

“The idea is to get parents training on the gang culture and see if there is a way to intervene and prevent more teens from joining gangs,” said Father Nieto-Ruiz, noting that Latino gang members’ families are generally Catholic.

Gang culture hit close to home as Officer Doug Keely showed a clip from “Gang Wars: Oakland,” a television documentary that followed Keely and other members of OPD’s eight-man gang unit through familiar Oakland streets, as well as violent members of Oakland’s primary Hispanic gangs: the Norteños, Sureños and Border Brothers.

Keely indicated that the gangs mostly operate in East Oakland and parts of West Oakland.

Captain Paul Figueroa opened the workshop at his alma mater.
The Norteños’ color is red, and members are the “foot soldiers” of the prison gang La Nuestra Familia, Keely explained.

The Sureños wear blue and are affiliated with the Mexican Mafia prison gang. The Border Brothers wear black, he said.

Each of the gangs has various cliques, which are smaller neighborhood gangs affiliated with the larger gang, Keely said.

Keely said most gang members no longer flaunt their colors, but generally wear white t-shirts and blue jeans so rival gangs won’t recognize them. He said they will conceal gang colors and symbols — especially on belts and belt buckles — or wear bits of color on shoe laces, bandanas, undergarments or cross necklaces.

Also popular is sports clothing in gang colors, he said, noting that gang members sometimes wear gang-colored clothing that has a sports team logo on it. “Everyone’s a big fan of the Oakland A’s, but they don’t normally wear red,” he said.

“We have to be aware of how dangerous the colors are,” Keely noted, pointing to the 2008 Oakland murder of 19-year-old Marco Casillas, who was wearing a red hat while walking his dog and was mistaken for a Norteño member.

“His father bought him that hat for Christmas or his birthday. It had nothing to do with gang life . . . but because that color was wrong,” Keely said.

Gang members also identify themselves with symbols in tattoos, clothing and graffiti, Keely explained.

Norteños, he said, often incorporate the number 14, representing N — the fourteenth letter of the alphabet — for Norteño or Nuestra Familia. They might use variations like XIV, X4, 14, or tattoos on hands or elbows that include a single dot along with four dots, Keely said.

Similarly, Sureños use 13 to signify the letter M for Mexican Mafia, he said. Rival gangs will cross out or replace an S with a dollar sign in their graffiti to show disrespect to Sureños, he said.

Gang members also display gang signs, making letters or symbols with their fingers, such as BB for Border Brothers, Keely said.

Though the training’s primary focus was on Hispanic males, Keely noted that two new female gangs are on the rise in Oakland, and that there are many violent non-Hispanic gangs in the Bay Area.

Following the OPD presentation, California Youth Organization discussed school strategies and gang interventions. Service providers on hand were Spanish Speaking Citizen’s Foundation, Catholic Charities of the East Bay, La Clinica de la Raza and Project Reconnect.

Feedback was positive, Father Nieto-Ruiz said. “Many participants felt it was very worthwhile and they learned so much. For some it was overwhelming, but eye-opening,” he said.

Oakland pastor takes action to stop
violence plaguing his community

Father Jesus Nieto-Ruiz

Less than one week after Father Jesus Nieto-Ruiz, pastor of St. Anthony Parish in Oakland, brought to fruition the first gang awareness workshop in the diocese, five shootings on a single Sunday in Oakland underscored the need for even greater effort.

“Violence is destroying our community,” he said. “This violence needs to stop.”

Father Nieto-Ruiz, whose parish is in a neighborhood impacted by gang violence, is spearheading training efforts for parents, teachers and other adults working with youth in the diocese to recognize the signs of gang involvement so they can keep children from getting caught up in a “cycle of violence,” he said.

“All of the pastors of the congregations are tired of burying our youth due to gang violence. Maybe if we understood it better, we could minister to these families in a deeper way that helps them with the issue,” he said.

“Many parents are in denial of their children’s involvement and do not know where to turn for help,” Father Nieto-Ruiz said.

In addition to the parish and school staff workshops like the one held in September, Father Nieto-Ruiz said, trainings will be held in each parish for parents of children in parish schools, CCD, youth groups, Confirmation groups and the community as a whole. “That way parents will get the pertinent information and support necessary for their families,” he said.

He also plans to reach out directly to youth, with workshops for youth groups and Con-firmation classes, he said. Pro-grams will be “geared especially for youth who may be experiencing the pressure to join a gang, are in a gang and want to get out, or who want to join, but are still on the fence,” Father Nieto-Ruiz said. “Our hope is to give them the information necessary to leave that lifestyle and seek the appropriate help.”

Father Nieto-Ruiz heads up the deanery that includes St. Anthony, St. Elizabeth, St. Bernard, Mary Help of Christian and St. Louis Bertrand parishes. He is also co-chair of Oakland Community Organizations which has been working to reduce violent crime through call-ins and street outreach.

Gangs: How to recognize and intervene

With gangs recruiting children as young as eight years old, Anthony Del Toro with California Youth Outreach is teaching parents and adults who work with children to recognize signs of gang involvement and to intervene.

Signs of trouble
Del Toro said to look for these signs of gang involvement:

• Decline in grades
• Truancy
• Alcohol and drug abuse
• Large sums of money or expensive possessions the child cannot explain
• Abrupt change in friends
• Attitude problem with parents, teachers and authority figures
• Glamorizing gangs
• Withdrawal from family
• Abrupt change in clothing style and music
• Body modifications like tattoos, scars, burns or branding

Once adults suspect gang involvement, they should talk to the youth and identify his particular issues, said Del Toro, who is experienced in gang interventions as a street outreach worker. “Don’t label all gang members the same,” he said.

The approach will depend on factors like why the gang member joined and how long he has been involved, Del Toro indicated. Someone who glamorizes the gang lifestyle but has yet to actually join will be easier to reach than someone who has been in and out of the penal system or whose family members are in the gang, he indicated.

Del Toro recommends asking questions that will help the gang member decide to leave on his own.
Be respectful, Del Toro said. “For many gang members, the gang has become their replacement family. You can’t just tell them to get out. You have to become their family,” he said.

What parents can do

The Oakland Police Department makes these suggestions for parents to keep children from joining gangs:

• Know children’s friends and discourage them from hanging around gang members
• Occupy children’s free time with chores, school and church activities, sports and city recreation programs
• Have good and open communication with kids
• Plan family activities and expose children to different places outside the neighborhood
• Prohibit wearing gang-style colors or writing gang names, symbols or signs on books, papers, clothes, walls or skin
• Set limits on acceptable behavior at a young age and establish an anti-gang atmosphere by expressing disapproval of gangs
• Don’t let children stay out late or spend too much unsupervised time on the streets
• Be aware of gang and drug activities in the neighborhood
• Know how gang members speak, dress and behave
• Be informed through meetings, articles and activities
• Participate in children’s education
• Participate in the community and teach your children to have civic pride

What schools can do
Del Toro said schools should employ the following strategies to deal with gangs:

• Develop policies and rules specific to gang issues
• Complete a campus gang assessment
• Provide training and updates to all staff members
• Provide gang prevention and intervention curricula
• Photograph and remove graffiti within 24 hours
• Set rules with consequences for all students and enforce them consistently
• Post and discuss the rules with students and allow them to participate in rulemaking
• Keep up with current gang-related words, activities, rap songs and dress
• Know gang members’ street names and nicknames, but do not use them in class
• Understand the gang rivalries and how they affect students’ safety
• Refer youth to a counselor or intervention program as appropriate

• California Youth Outreach:
• Spanish Speaking Citizens’ Foundation: www.sscf.org
• La Clinica De La Raza (mental health clinic, Casa Del Sol): www.laclinica.org/CasaDelSol
• Project Reconnect: www.projectreconnect.net
• Catholic Charities of the East Bay (Crisis Response Support Network): www.cceb.org

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