By Jeremiah Graham and Dominique Jennes
Larry Morris was a teen looking for structure and guidance. The Memphis native had family issues and saw what he felt were positive aspects of life in the streets. For him, he just wanted to belong to someone or something. That is when he made the decision to join the Gangster Disciples.
“It’s just basic human nature in a sense,” said Morris, who is currently a business major at the University of Memphis. “It’s tribalism. People want to be grouped together with people they got things in common with.”
Morris is one of many Memphis youth that were attracted to gangs. According to Forbes, the city was ranked as the fourth most dangerous city in the country. Forbes collected their information from the FBI Crime Statistics Database. Since 1985, the total violent crimes in the city have totaled above 8,000 each year.
The number of youth joining gangs in the United States is on the rise. In a study conducted by Michelle Fowlkes, the executive director of the Memphis Shelby crime commission, violent crimes have decreased since 2006 but there has been a 54 percent increase in arrests of youth committing violent crimes.
Jeffery Futrell, founder of Young Man University, a Memphis based organization geared to assist youth who have been gang affiliated, said the problem is a lack of consistency. Futrell is a former gang member who spent 11 years in prison.
“Gangs are always available,” he said. “Our youth are looking for consistency.”
Futrell said the inconsistencies come from the home. Whether it be a family structure or economic background. Those factors could potentially drive a child toward gang affiliation.
“This is a capitalist society,” Futrell said. “It’s(money) on TV and in the music. Gangs on the surface appear to be getting money so it’s driving our kids. But we put it right in front of them. They want to get stuff so they look for avenues to do so.”
John E. Gnuschke, director of the Sparks Bureau of Business Economic Research at the University of Memphis, agreed with Futrell’s assessment.
“They’re small businessman in some strange way,” Gnuschke said. “They want to make money so they either steal things to make it or sell drugs to make it or do other kinds of illegal activities that don’t fit in any kind of legal structure.
Many factors contribute to a young person’s motivation for joining a gang. Usually, according to Morris, there are signs leading up to a youth joining a gang, but often times they go overlooked. However, the main reason is peer pressure.
“Memphis City Schools is crazy,” said Morris. “It’s gangland … and that is what cause a lot of people to get into gangs. For like protection and to not get picked on.” Morris added that sometimes youth are bullied in school for not being in gangs or being in gangs that are a minority in the school.
“For instance kids would end up getting killed just by getting bullied by the Vice Lords or messing with the GD’S,” he said. For Morris, poverty is another contributing factor behind gang membership. A lot of youth look at hip-hop artists glorifying gang life and money in their music and then want to emulate that lifestyle.
“You see the dope boy riding clean with nice cars and clothes and you want a piece of that life,” Morris said. “That’s what makes the street life so appealing. It’s fast money. Way faster than getting a job flipping burgers.”
After leaving gang life as a teen, Morris graduated from Melrose High School in 2008 and joined the Air Force. He then adopted the moniker “King Clover” and has pursued his passion for music.
Morris said his military travels matured him. During an overseas stop in Japan, he saw how “silly” his past gang life was. “I saw people over there claiming they were Bloods and Crips,” he chuckled. “I joined the military to leave that all behind and here are these folks who aren’t about that life claiming to be something they not. It was goofy as hell.”
In addition, Morris said many of the youth who join gangs come from a one parent home. They grow up seeing their parent struggle financially and want different. Consequently, make decisions to make ends meet. Even if it means illegal activity. Memphis’ poverty rate continues to climb.
Gathering data from the Census Bureau American Community Survey, The Commercial Appeal reported back in September that the percentage of residents living below the poverty level rose from 18.4 percent in 2015 to 19.4 percent in 2016.
“We have always had a high poverty rate,” Gnuschke said. “The number doesn’t surprise me. Basically 1 in 5 people are living in poverty.”
Gnuschke said the issue that will resolve all of the high crime is poverty. If the issue of poverty is resolved, then he said there will be a decrease in gang violence. But it starts by changing how we work.
“I think you have to recognize we are a member of global economy, and that means opportunity exists all over the economy and we have to compete with cities and countries all over the globe,” Gnuschke said.
Morris did not see a solution, only alternatives.
“For me, if I tell you to stop doing something I feel like I should be able to give you some type of options for something you can do instead of what you’re doing,” he said. “I can’t just tell you to stop if that’s how you’re making money or that’s all you know.”