I have lived in Jacksonville for three years now and almost every night I sit to watch the local news, there is a shooting or death due to teen gang violence. Living in Duval County, I noticed that violence amongst teens is an everyday routine and it seems like the locals are callous to the issue. These teens are the same age as my sister and I, and it makes me wonder as to why they would want to commit violent crimes and put others in harm? Why would they want to join a gang? I decided to dig deeper, trying to understand why this is an issue in my community, by interviewing a local teen. This interview was conducted over the phone for my safety. His name has been changed to conceal his identity.
I contacted an old friend of mine to see if she would allow me to interview her cousin. Mike has been a local gang member since he was 16, but now is slowly trying to change his life the best he can. I wanted to talk to him, so that I could better understand why he chose to turn to the streets. At first, he did not want to do the interview with me, but then I explained to him that I was genuinely interested in his past life and I would not judge or critique him based on his decisions. I gave him my phone number and told him to give me a call when he felt comfortable to talk with me.
Around noon, I received a phone call from Mike. He told me that he was ready to do the interview with me and proceeded to tell me about his life five years ago. Mike is 19 now and has been in and out of the juvenile system since he was 15. Growing up in Arlington, he was one of the less fortunate and grew up in a poor two-bedroom household, with a single mother and five brothers.
“I grew up in a typical African American or Puerto Rican home. No father, single mother, a lot of brothers, and not enough money. My brother and I had to grow up fast just because of these circumstances.”
Mike was the second eldest. He started working at the age of 12 for a landscaping company with his uncle and elder brother, who was 16 at that time. Every payday, Mike and his brother would bring both of their checks home to their mother so she could pay her bills, but Mike felt like he was not giving enough because she still struggled to pay all her bills. A year went by and drugs became a major part of Mike’s life.
“By the time I was 13, I was selling Marijuana and crack/cocaine. I was making more money in a day than I was in a week working at my job. It became a habit, a bad one, and I could not stop because my mother was able to provide a little better than she could a year ago. I lied to her that I was working long hours on the weekends with my uncle, when really, I was in school, on the streets, even outside my mom’s house, selling drugs.”
Eventually, bad blood came between Mike and one of his customers, the details of which are not elaborated upon, again, to protect his privacy and protection. A drive-by shooting and an untimely death were the results of the conflict. Two days after being shot in the chest, Mike’s mother died. This devastated Mike and his brothers, creating a world of problems.
Violence became one with Mike. It was who he was, who he had become. He was getting kicked out of school so much that he dropped out and turned to the streets. “I know that isn’t what my mother would’ve wanted me to do, but I had to do what I needed to, to survive. My uncle took us in, but I rebelled and joined a gang. I didn’t care about anything anymore.”
Losing his mother changed him. Mike was in and out of the system and that did not make things better for him. “Going to the detention center only made me worse. I was fighting every single day, fighting for my life. I became mad at the world and every time I came out, I went right back in. I wanted revenge for my mother’s death. I wanted whoever killed her to feel my pain. I wanted their family to feel what my family felt, I wanted them to suffer, just like we did.”
“Why did you join a gang?” I asked him. “I felt alone. I had this emptiness inside of me, I wanted to feel love. I wanted to feel like I belonged to something and joining the gang fulfilled that want. I no longer had a mother, never had a father, so I never knew what love was or how it felt. You might say I had an uncle and brothers, but my uncle didn’t have time for all of us, so we all did what we wanted. In all honesty, I wish I wouldn’t have joined.”
Mike proceeded to tell me that he now has a two-year-old daughter and that she means the world to him. He says he neither wants her to have to go through what he did, nor live the life he had to live in order to simply provide for himself.
I asked Mike what he thought about continuing teen gang violence in Duval County. “I know in my neighborhood, a lot of teens grew up with similar circumstances as me. Some worse, some a little better, but no one helps us or understands us, nor do they try to. We get judged and are thrown into the juvenile system, which makes us more violent. During those teenage years, we need love– we need to be taught. If we have no one to teach us, how will we learn? My mother died when I was 13. I had to learn life on my own. The schools here never taught me or encouraged me to stay off the streets before I dropped out. It’s a vicious cycle and the system is not helping us. We need love, not to be caged like animals. We need to be talked to and taught right from wrong.”
I agree with Mike. Teenage years are so delicate and need to be treated with care, especially when they face many hardships and struggles in life. No child or teen should have to be angry for the rest of their life and take it out on others because they do not understand or sympathize with them.
When asked if he is still active in gang activities, he said that he is to a lesser extent, but not like he was before his daughter was born. He still sells drugs occasionally to get extra money to care of his family, but overall, he tries to stay away from anything illegal and is focusing on getting his GED.
“I’m a father now, I have to act like one. I want my daughter to have both of her parents and to feel love so she does not have to depend on the streets to give it to her.”
Before hanging up the phone, Mike thanked me for listening to him and for not judging his decisions. I thanked him for allowing me to talk to him, glad that he finally opened up to me. I’m grateful for talking with Mike, because now the reason teens join gangs makes more sense to me. Teens are at a critical part of their life where they are trying to figure themselves out and are very sensitive. They should be treated with care, especially when they have had deaths or traumatic events happen in their life, and even if they are violent or have done something wrong. Hopefully, something will be done in the community to help teens in bad circumstances, before it is too late. This is a cycle that needs to be broken and arresting teens and isolating them will only make matters worse.
by Jada Barkley