The Boston Phoenix
July 6 - 13, 2000


The gang star, continued

by Lisa Birk

Four days before New Year's, Phoung calls a security meeting. At 7 p.m., Blackie, Bruce, Tony, Tun, and Donna* sit at the long table. Blackie, Bruce, and Tony are gangsters. Phoung chose them deliberately because "they have a lot of weight on the street. They hold a lot of ground and power." Phoung laughs. "To work with them is to quiet down the street."

Baldwin and Phoung map out security "zones" for the Revere New Year's celebration. They role-play anticipated problems. Finally, they remind the "guards" to shed their gangster skins for this one day.

"I'm asking you guys," says Phoung, "whatever's in the past or the future -- you have a beef with this guy or that guy -- for that day, you're security. Don't say, `It's all right. It's my boy having a beer.' We need to be solid."

There is something else going on here. These young men aged 25 to 30 -- the first generation of local Cambodian gangsters -- must learn a hard lesson: to stand down in order to end the cycle of violence. It doesn't come easy to these veterans of terror, war, starvation, and street life.

Just before the meeting breaks up, Baldwin says, "There will be nothing related to red, blue, or gray [gang colors]. Need I say more?" She and Phoung are not just employing the teacher's trick of co-opting troublemakers by naming them monitors. They are also showing these men a bridge between gang life and the community. They are showing them that they can use their skills -- a knowledge of the street, a certain beefiness and authority -- for good.

Blackie is trying to make the switch permanent. It's a long process. Phoung estimates that he's been working with Blackie for four years. At 30, Blackie's two years older than Phoung, but he thinks of himself as Saroeum's little brother. "I always trust him," says Blackie of Saroeum. "He talks from his heart."

Cambodian New Year's Day dawns sunny and warm, the first nice day in weeks. Lowell's celebration has come and gone without fallout. By 10 a.m., a half-dozen girls, participants in the Cambodian fashion show, sit on chairs waiting to be made up. Hairspray wafts through the room. Two Roca teen staffers inflate balloons. Phoung heads outside carrying a walkie-talkie.

Kids run sack races, bob for apples, play tug-of-war in the gangster-built playground. Phoung roves up and down the block, checking the progress of the stage, the refreshments and security.

By noon, Phoung is relaxed. Mostly, he's on stage introducing acts. When a baby-powder war breaks out among the under-10 set, it's confined to the playground and monitored by four young people.

Blackie, wearing his trademark two gold hoops per ear, covers Zone Five all day. Earlier, leaders from two different gangs had asked him what they should do if a third gang showed up.

"Let it slide," Blackie said. And they did.

* Names with an asterisk have been changed.

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Lisa Birk's last article for the Phoenix was on the weird, weird world of home shopping. She can be reached at