Tallahassee Democrat, June 23, 2007
Here's one gang that's out to take your money
By Adam Weinstein
I grew up in South Florida, where there are gang shootings in shopping malls and you make a point of avoiding certain neighborhoods. At my inner-city high school, dice games in the hall sometimes ended in stabbings, and you could always buy an assortment of drugs in the bus lot at lunch time. Compared with childhood, my college years in New York City, where I lived and worked on the edge of Spanish Harlem, seemed like a cake walk.
So forgive me for sounding cynical when I ask: What Tallahassee gang problem?
Seriously. This city is the nicest place I've ever lived. Yet for the past year, city and county officials have gone to Herculean lengths to portray the Big Bend as New Jack City.
In a succession of news conferences and town-hall meetings, these politicians and law-enforcement professionals have scared the citizenry silly, telling them how to take action if little Johnny and Jane start hanging out with a new clique, wearing one color of clothing and scrawling “nonartistic” doodles in notebooks or on walls.
Wow. Imagine. Adolescents acting cagey, defiant and creative.
Call the vice squad and tell them to shut down that Hot Topic store in the mall!
Don't misunderstand me. Is one gang member in Tallahassee too many? Absolutely. And is doing nothing ever a prudent law-enforcement strategy? Absolutely not. But “gang activity” is one of those catch-alls, like “homeland security” or “weapons of mass destruction,” that can mean nothing and be used to justify everything.
Just ask the experts. In the middle of last spring's public-relations onslaught, a Leon County detective and gang specialist told WFSU-FM that, compared with gangs of yore, local groups “now are just not as organized. . . . We can't look at our groups and say, 'OK, we can compare them to the gangs in Chicago and Miami and L.A. and New York.' ”
When one resident asked if gangs were to blame for a specific graffiti design that was popping up around town, the detective answered that the scribbles were not gang “tags”; they were merely the work of some random kids starved for attention.
So where are all the alleged hoodlums? The officials who devised spring's meet-and-greets are long on rhetoric but short on details. When pinned down, they claim there are a whopping 100 to 200 gang members among Leon County's quarter of a million residents. But, as that county detective reminded WFSU listeners, “Gang membership in and of itself is not necessarily a crime.”
In other words, you and I don't have much to worry about.
But local politicians sure do. The Legislature just passed deep statewide cuts in property taxes, an idea that's popular with voters but not with local officials whose budgets rely on tax revenues. What's that got to do with "The Gangs of Leon County”? Plenty.
Since Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature floated the tax-reform idea, nobody has fought it harder than the Big Bend's elected leaders. Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell, who also heads the Florida Sheriffs Association, told legislators he'd have to cut “school resource officers, helicopters, school crossing guards” if taxes went down - resources he'll desperately need to fight the not-yet-declared War on Gangs.
County Commissioner Cliff Thaell echoed those sentiments. If local Caesars didn't get their usual tributes, he opined, “We would be very challenged to even fund mandatory services like law enforcement, the jail and the constitutional offices.” Count Tallahassee Mayor John Marks and Assistant Leon County Administrator Alan Rosenzweig among the other politicians who have voiced similar warnings.
Give them credit. No politician ever lost his or her fortunes by playing on the public's fears. And the “gang activity” phantom menace is the mother of all fear-mongering stunts, one that makes you reflexively question that tax cut, your liberties, and all the other vagaries of human existence. It plays on your most pre-rational, knee-jerk fears: fear for your child's safety, fear of crime, fear of poverty, fear of out-of-towners, immigrants, minorities and inexplicable hand gestures.
Don't give in to your fears, Tallahassee. The cut in property taxes will force some local belt-tightening, but it's reckless and irresponsible for leaders to intimidate you into thinking crime will soar as a result. That's all they're trying to do by putting "gangs" on the tip of everyone's tongue. It's a shameless ploy to manipulate your emotions and your votes.
Besides, to the extent that gangs actually do exist in Leon County, our outstanding law-enforcement professionals have proven they can handle it.
Now, if only they'd protect us from that local gang of politicians.
Adam Weinstein, a recent copy editor at the Tallahassee Democrat, returns to Columbia University this summer to work on a graduate degree. Contact him at email@example.com.