Keeping Philly boys out of gangs with boxing gloves and early intervention

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 Alex Gonzalez, 13, used to lead a hybrid gang of kids in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood called Bad Boys Rumble. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Alex Gonzalez, 13, used to lead a hybrid gang of kids in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood called Bad Boys Rumble. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia is home to loosely organized gangs, such as Kensington’s Bad Boys Rumble, that recruit very young kids. Police and community acitivists are doing their best to reach children with alternatives before they join up.

Part one of a two-part series.

Philadelphia has a serious gang problem, but these groups aren’t the nationally known gangs — the Bloods, the Crips, the Latin Kings. Philadelphia is home to more loosely organized gangs that recruit kids as young as 7 years old.  Alan Gonzalez, 13, is a wiry kid, but somehow he looks perfectly at home in the noise and sweat of a boxing gym. With big black boxing gloves punctuating the ends of his skinny arms, Badlandz Gym on American Street in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood is where Gonzalez now spends his free time.

“It’s like, you gotta jump rope, shadow box, push-ups and exercise — all this other stuff,” Gonzalez said.

He admits he used to spend his spare moments up to no good. “I used to get into a lot of trouble,” he said. “I used to be in this little group where, like, people used to jump people and all this other stuff. I used to think it was cool.”

Gonzalez was the leader of a group called Bad Boys Rumble. Community activist Shawn “Frogg” Banks says as soon as he heard about the group, he knew it was trouble.

‘We had to stop that’

“It was a gang, a clique,” Banks said, “a group of boys that get together — and if you messed with one of them, you’ve gotta deal with all of them. So we had to stop that.”

Banks, a former gang member, goes into Philly schools and uses his personal story to deter kids from joining the gang life. He says he doesn’t sugarcoat his message. “I tell them about incarceration, I faced death, the whole nine — and I don’t want them to go down that road, because there’s no win,” he said.

Banks says even though Bad Boys Rumble is very different from nationwide gangs such as the Latin Kings, Bloods or Crips, it still functions in a very similar way: people bandings together to perpetrate violence and crime.

Banks met young Alan Gonzalez when talking to students at William McKinley Elementary School and says he quickly tried to put an end to Bad Boys Rumble.

“I had the whole gang through the leader,” Banks said. “I sat him down — he brought all his other guys that was involved in the gang, and we sat them down — and we diffused the whole situation, and everyone denounced themselves. That’s letting everyone know they’re out of the gang lifestyle.” 

Banks says gangs have always recruited young kids. They act as lookouts, or sometimes gang members stash cash or drugs on the little ones when police come around. These days, he says, kids are organizing themselves.

To give the young guys another place to focus their energy, Banks brought some to Badlandz Boxing Gym.

Khadir Gaitan, 12, another former member of Bad Boys Rumble, says he had anger issues, and his parents are glad he spends his free time at the gym.

“They think it’s good that I’m doing it instead of getting in trouble a lot,” Gaitan said. The neighborhood can be dangerous, he says, and at Badlandz he feels safe.

Small, but ‘just as dangerous’

There are other, more formal efforts to keep kids away from gangs in Philly. Philadelphia Police Detective Joe Valdes knows the gang life. He grew up in Chicago and had cousins and uncles who were involved in the Latin Kings. He says he’s not sure why they didn’t pressure him to join.

Now Valdes takes his firsthand knowledge, and his passion for helping kids, into Philadelphia schools, where he educates and warns students about gang life. “I’ve seen them talking about joining gangs as early as 7-year-olds, because their parents are involved in gangs,” said Valdes.

Valdes says Philadelphia is home to so-called “hybrid gangs,” non-traditional groups that have structures and membership rules that are often looser than more well-known, established national gangs. Their members are often young — elementary and middle schoolers as well as teenagers. The younger kids are often driven by a family member’s influence. The hybrid gangs behave in similar ways to the big gangs — participating in drug dealing, theft and other crime.

Whether you call them gangs or groups or something else, Valdes says there’s no doubt Philly has a problem. Their actions, he says, range from violence to street theft — like Alan Gonzalez’s gang — to drug dealing. Philly’s collection of young gangs includes the North Philly Rockers, the Erie/Torresdale Boys, and one called Philly Illest Barbie.

Valdes says they’re not at the level of the Latin Kings, but “it has been shown that more than half the crimes that are committed in these cities are done by these hybrid gangs.”

Valdes says it is not wise to underestimate them. “They’re just as dangerous,” he said. “They carry the same weapons, they do the same crimes, if not even more, because they want to show that they’re just as strong, just as bad as any nationally recognized gang.”

Valdes says Facebook and other social media have made gang recruiting easier, because kids can connect with gang leaders even if they normally would not bump into them on the street or in school.

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