This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community.
I recently met a former gang member. For many years he was a pretty big player in the Nortenos, one of Oakland's three main gangs. We sat down for coffee at a cafe near Frank Ogawa Plaza and he started telling me about his life. He asked me not to use his real name, so I'll call him Paco.
I met Paco through an intermediary who does some work with gang members who have left -- or are trying to leave -- the gangster lifestyle. I met a few of these guys, and all of them told me that no matter how hard they tried, it was impossible, really, to leave their old lifestyle completely. It followed you around, they said, no matter what. It painted you and scarred you and left you looking over your shoulder all the time.
"You can never really get out," he said. "You can live your life, be a family man, but never really get out.
"I was raised up into it," Paco told me. "My mom was into it, my whole family was living that lifestyle."
From an early age, Paco started "puttin' in work," he said. He robbed, stole, dealt drugs. He was 2 years old when his father was sent to federal prison. And Paco was well into his 30s by the time he met his father for the first time. "I always wanted to meet him, but not in prison," he said.
I asked him to describe what he saw when he closed his eyes and thought about his life and his long-term association with the gang. He did so, leaning back in his chair, furrowing his brow. "When I think about it, I see cells," he said. "Like a jail cell." He told me it was all but impossible to distance yourself from your gang if you did wind up in prison. The gang was your family.
But the gang, according to Paco, was also prison.
How confusing it must have been, and probably still is, to have all those concepts -- family, future, safety, prison -- melt so fluidly and seamlessly into each other, and for so many years. I mentioned this to Paco and he nodded.
"I was raised up not to care," he said, and then corrected himself. "I just chose not to care about anybody except myself and my partner. I think now. Before, I didn't think, I just reacted."
I had heard this kind of thing before. Reacting without thinking is a common sign of being hyper-stressed. More than likely, most of the people Paco was hanging out with were also in the same state of psychological and physiological chaos. I had an image suddenly of Paco and his cohorts walking confidently, angrily along the streets, totally unaware of just how unstable they were inside. The two images are so discordant, violence and vulnerability, and so common.
"I remember shooting a couple people," Paco said suddenly, "and I felt pleasure."
"Pleasure," I asked him.
He nodded. "It was all my anger," he said.
I asked him what he got out of all the years in the lifestyle he was trying so hard to leave behind. "Nothing," he said. "It's a bunch of deception, manipulation and lies." He said that he and people like him had been victims before they turned into victimizers. Most, he said, had been physically or sexually abused as kids. Thus the anger, he added, the momentary pleasure that came from shooting people.
How to untangle this web of psychological terror, I wondered, and how to survive it?
He talked about the "crackhead babies" who have grown up now. "They grew up with no family structure, no morals, they raised themselves," he said, "It was a dog eat dog mentality, you don't care about nothing."
Paco is one of the luckier ones, actually. He knows people who have done so much that there's "no turning back," he said.
Paco has children. "I tell 'em, don't live that lifestyle, it's not cool what me and your mom lived, it's not cool."
His kids listen, he said, they're not stupid. One of his sons told him he wanted to be a cop. They're just another kind of gang, Paco told him. Join the DEA, he suggested, or maybe the FBI.
I watched him as he looked around the plaza at the people coming and going, bustling, talking on their phones. He tapped his foot nervously. I wondered if he felt connected to the world he was seeing, if it felt like his, and if it didn't now, if it ever would.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.