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'Violence is not the way': Current, former gang members call for peace

San Diego Union-Tribune - 8/7/2022

When Alvin Hayes was a kid in San Diego, his mom would tell him to go outside and play.

"Now you don't see no kids out, unless they're accompanied by their own parents," Hayes, 62, said.

That's the consequence of gun violence in many neighborhoods, especially in underserved communities where gangs are a way of life, as Hayes and other men on a panel recently noted.

The group came together last month at Charity Apostolic Church in National City, where they not only called for peace among gangs but also spoke of the effects of violence on communities and the need to offer youth alternatives to gang life. It's a lifestyle most of the men know well. The panel included a gang member and five former gang members.

The discussion July 28 was organized by Shaphat Outreach, a ministry of Charity Apostolic Church. It was part of Shaphat Outreach's ongoing work to help prevent gang and gun violence.

Authorities say several recent shootings in San Diego were tied to gangs. Prosecutors say a gunman fatally shot a Little League coach in the Ridgeview/Webster neighborhood July 17 in a gang-motivated act. In a separate case, San Diego police say a teen issued a gang challenge before a 14-year-old boy was gunned down July 10 on a sidewalk in City Heights.

"We have to teach these kids that violence is not the way," said Michael Singletary, a former gang member in southeastern San Diego who later worked in case management and customer service for the city of San Diego and now is retired. Violence, he added, solves nothing.

Michael Whyte, who identified as a gang member in southeastern San Diego, echoed Singletary's comments.

"Peace benefits everybody," including mothers and sisters who suffer from the repercussions of violence, especially when the boys or men in their lives die or land in jail or prison, said Whyte, who works for Pillars of the Community, a nonprofit that promotes social justice.

Five years ago, Whyte said, he completed a 10-year prison sentence for a shooting. Whyte, 44, now thinks about all the time he missed with his mother while he was behind bars.

Hayes, who left behind gang life and works as an interior and exterior painter, said peer pressure is what sometimes makes kids feel like their only option is to join a gang.

Terry Patrick, 53, a former gang member in San Diego and former co-CEO of record label Break Bread Records, said he followed in his brother in joining a gang. "Pretty much everything he did, I was right behind him," Patrick said, adding that gangs provided a sense of unity.

The panelists highlighted various problems of gang life that consume young people, including drugs. Some of the panelists said they sold and used drugs when they were part of their gangs; others didn't touch drugs.

Now there's also social media. Young gang members post to social media, and the posts show their location, which sometimes leads to trouble if rival gang members show up at their location.

And the guns. It's relatively easy for youth to get their hands on guns, panelists said, adding that back in their day only a few gang members carried guns.

"We used to physically fight," Hayes said, adding that guns became more prevalent among gangs in the late '80s. "Now it seems like everybody got them now."

He and others added that young gang members revere murders at the hands of their gangs.

"Let's glorify no murders," Patrick said.

The panelists said violence traumatizes gang members and yet sometimes drives them deeper into gang life. Singletary said he was 14 when his friend was fatally shot in front of him outside Ocean View Liquor Store in the Mountain View neighborhood of San Diego — a tragedy that didn't scare him out of gang life.

"What it did was make me more dangerous," Singletary, 54, said.

He said he left behind gang life in his mid to late 20s, with the help of a former high school baseball coach who steered him in the right direction.

Several of the panelists said they just detached themselves from their gangs one day. Hayes, who spent 31 years in prison for murder, said he had vowed to walk away from gang life after 30 years. He was in prison when the 30-year mark came up, and he changed the course of his life.

The panelists said youth need to realize they too can change their lives. But there are barriers. Hayes acknowledged that when he was young he ignored any talk of changing his ways.

Another problem is that communities lack resources and programs to keep youth off the streets, the panelists said.

"We want them to put the guns down, but what do we have for them to pick up?" Hayes asked.

Asadullah Johnson said "economic resources" were his way out of gang life. He called on elected officials to invest more in jobs, mental health treatment and Little Leagues.

The panel floated the idea of calling for a ceasefire among gangs at certain locations, such as churches and schools. Such agreements would be small steps that could lead to bigger changes, Hayes said.

Clyde Price, 44, a former gang member in southeastern San Diego who now owns a clothing company named Footprints, said he takes accountability for his part in the "mess" — the violence created by gangs — and wants to help clean up the "mess."

"What are we really doing, but holding us back from prosperity?" he asked.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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