The Boston Phoenix
May 20 - 27, 1999


Gangsta girls

Although not as visible as their male counterparts, female gangs are on the streets, ready to fly their colors

by Sarah McNaught

Two older men sat on the front stoop of a big white Bowdoin Street Victorian, enjoying the warm breeze that rippled through the willow tree in the yard, sipping beer and playing checkers on a board so old and tattered that some of the squares were rubbed off.

The men hesitated a moment as a gaggle of girls passed by, poking each other, giggling, and exchanging mock insults. Each of the six girls inconspicuously wore a white or blue bandanna -- wrapped around a hair bun, draped through a belt loop on a pair of baggy jeans, or tied to a backpack strap. These weren't fashion accessories; they advertised the teens' identification with the Crips, an infamous LA-born street gang, a faction of which infiltrated Boston four years ago. The color blue is for the Crips; white is for the Doves, the nickname used by many of the females associated with the gang.

The girls ignored the men playing checkers. They were busy making plans. Someone had dissed a member of their group, so the subject was retaliation. But the setting wasn't some dark alley away from the probing eye of the cops. The teens plotted revenge as they made their way down Bowdoin toward Geneva Avenue -- to all appearances, they were nothing more than a group of students coming home from school.

Somewhere on the other side of the city, the girl who had bumped shoulders, perhaps accidentally, with one of the Doves was unaware of what would be waiting for her at school the next day -- a group of angry young women prepared to take turns assaulting her for the supposed slight. The target of the Doves' wrath had apparently boasted membership in another gang, but the Doves knew she had been cast out and was therefore easy prey.

"She's frontin'," declared one of the girls. "She don't roll with them no more. She can't represent. We're gonna beat her down."

Street gangs, of course, are traditionally a male province. But now, many fear, more young women are adopting the posturings and rituals of gang life. Cops and social workers say that female gangs, an under-the-radar presence in Boston for several years now, appear to be on the rise in neighborhoods such as Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester. Girl gangs tend to be smaller and more loosely organized than their male counterparts, but they're no strangers to violence. And, like male gangs, they can send their members' lives on a downward spiral.

"They are a definite presence out there," says Lieutenant Michael Hennessy, head of the Boston School Police. "We are seeing a shift from groups of girls fighting over boys to gangs of girls who have become much more volatile, participating in crimes such as robberies, assaults, and drugs."

Police and street workers admit that lack of research makes it difficult to gauge the magnitude of the girl-gang problem, locally or nationwide. The US Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates that male gang members in New York outnumber female gang members by 20 to one; in Chicago, of 12,502 gang-associated offenders identified in the late '80s, only 250 were female. Still, the Justice Department cautions, "data on the number and distribution of females in gangs are extremely sparse . . . we know much less about the characteristics and performance of gang females than gang males."

To date, police and educators have identified 30 female gangs in Boston -- some autonomous, some male-gang auxiliaries -- with membership totaling around 400. That number includes those girls who've been accepted as full-fledged members of gangs that were once male-only. (In many cases, girls get drawn into gang life when they date male gang members and begin witnessing crimes.) In addition, says Hennessy, there are numerous loosely organized groups of five to 50 girls. By contrast, Hennessy notes, there are more than 1200 male gang members in Boston -- representing about three percent of the young males living in gang hot spots such as Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester.

In and out of gangs, violence among the city's young women is on the upswing. At the Boston Public School Counseling and Intervention Center, where students are sent after breaking school codes of conduct, 122 of the 621 kids referred for violent behavior this past school year -- almost 20 percent -- were girls, a marked increase over earlier years' nine percent. Law-enforcement officials, who have worked hard over the past decade to bring male-gang activity under control, hope to head off this new crisis before it gets any worse. Last month, four female officers, accompanied by members of the city's probation department and the school police, began visiting schools and talking to girls about the downside of gang membership. By next fall, a written curriculum being compiled by the police may be available to all the city's schools.

Girl-gang activity began attracting official notice four years ago, when police, probation officers, and social workers were gathering information for Operation Ceasefire, a much-lauded effort to reduce the gang violence that exploded in the late 1980s and early '90s. Most of the research, and the crackdown, focused on male gangs, but in the course of their studies, experts identified some prominent female groups such as the Bad Mother Fuckers, the Corbitt Street Girls, and the Champer Dames. These gangs were basically autonomous, with loose ties to larger male groups for whom they carried weapons or delivered drugs. And they were fairly violent, meting out punishment to any member who betrayed the group or refused to participate in beatings, robberies, or drug dealing.

Today, those hard-core girl gangs have virtually disappeared as their members have had children, gone to jail, or simply outgrown gang life. But new female groups have taken their place. Dana Nurge, an assistant professor at Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice, has interviewed school administrators, street workers, law-enforcement officials, and female gang members about the growth of girl gangs. Today's female gangs, Nurge reports, may evolve from informal cliques -- whose criminal activity is limited to petty theft and assault -- to more-structured organizations that adopt traditional male-gang attributes such as colors, tattoos, hand signals, initiation rituals, oaths, and regulations. Although girl gangs shy away from such male-gang trademarks as graffiti and gunplay, police say, they do deal drugs, beat people up, and carry weapons -- especially knives, razors, and bleach spray bottles, which they use like mace.

"Make no mistake, these girls are not girl scouts," says Lieutenant Gary French, commander of the Boston Police's Youth Violence Strike Force. "They are not as organized as established male gangs, but they are getting close."

The "Green and Goldies" of Dorchester Avenue, near Ronan Park, prove his point. Since it formed last summer, the 10-member gang, headed up by 15-year-old twins, has gained a certain notoriety in Field's Corner for verbally challenging groups of males the same age. The twins boast about everything from slashing the tires of rival groups' parents' cars to mugging commuters exiting the Field's Corner MBTA station. They wear their colors in the form of hair clips or rubber wristbands, and they've developed an extended-thumb-and-pinkie hand signal similar to the gestures seen at hard-rock concerts.

"We've made girls snatch purses, beat other girls down, and even steal other girls' boyfriends in order to join," says "Squeaky," one of the twins. (Although the thin blonde claims that her name is derived from the nickname of the "coolest chick in the Manson family," Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, her sister says she got her moniker as a toddler with an unusually high-pitched squeal.)

Billy Stewart, a juvenile probation officer at Dorchester District Courthouse, says that girls join gangs for many of the same reasons boys do -- "the camaraderie, the prestige, and ample access to drugs and cash." Squeaky agrees with that last point: "If you drive around Dorchester, the people with the phat cars, phat clothes, and wads of cash are all gang-bangers," she explains. "It's the easiest way to get what you want."

But there are deeper motivations. A closer look at some gang girls' family histories uncovers serious troubles. According to the US Department of Justice, most contemporary female gangs are located in poor inner-city communities, and most girls who join them have family members who were or are gang members themselves. Many come from homes plagued by drugs, abuse, and violence, and many have only one parent involved in their lives.

"They take that type of upbringing to the street," explains Stewart. "They find girls like themselves and collectively take out their frustrations on rival groups of girls, strangers, or anyone they think poses a threat.

"Economic background is not the only common denominator, though," he says. "Like the guys, girls join for a sense of family they don't have in their real lives."

Sixteen-year-old "Tanya," for example, has been second in command of the FC Posse, a female gang in Dorchester, for the past two years. During that time she has been in and out of the court system three times. Her offenses have been minor -- trespassing, disturbing the peace, and shoplifting -- but she knows it's not likely to stop there.

"I met my father once, right before he went to jail, when he came to the house to get money from my mother," says Tanya, kicking the tip of her red-and-white Adidas sneaker into the base of a fire hydrant at the side entrance of Town Field, in Field's Corner. "My mother sells weed and sometimes she lets me run for her so I can make some cash." She says her gang, which street workers say is all but unknown outside the small Dorchester neighborhood, is 15 members strong and spends most of its time protecting its name and reputation against rival female gangs.

Protection also seemed to be the main concern of four teens hanging out outside the Payless shoe store in Uphams Corner on a recent afternoon.

Each wore a large silver hoop earring in her left ear -- the only visual evidence linking the group. The oldest was 14, a tall Latina girl with long, curly black hair and black nail polish. She calls herself "Kiss," which, in gang parlance, means slashing someone with a straight-edge razor -- something Kiss claims she's done many times.

After a few questions, though, a less threatening picture emerges. During the past school year, Kiss and her friends have become targets of larger groups of girls in their neighborhood. Mainly in the hope of intimidating these girls, they began calling themselves a gang.

"We don't got a name yet, but we don't need a name to fuck you up," Kiss says, but her words are sheer bravado. She glances around at her friends for support, seemingly uneasy in her role as leader. "We got our boys, we got weapons, and we got cash. We don't need a name."

No, they don't need a name, agrees Mike Hennessy. "They need guidance, someone to listen to them, and someone to explain to them that gang life is something that, once they get involved, can only destroy their lives."

There's a price just to getting involved -- initiation rituals involving beatings, stealing sprees, muggings, or mental tests administered by members of male gangs associated with the female group. "Sexing in" -- forcing potential gang members to have sex with male gang members -- is sometimes part of the initiation as well.

And leaving the gang life can be equally perilous. A few weeks ago, the Youth Violence Strike Force was called to Downtown Crossing. When they arrived, a group of Asian girls, known as the Oriental Street Girls (OSG) -- an offshoot of the Oriental Street Boys (OSB) -- were "beating out" several members who had requested permission to quit.

"It's not uncommon for female gangs to carry out rituals established by male gangs," explains Gary French. "Beating out, or taking turns beating up each girl who wants out, is one of the ways gangs cast out disloyal members. But we've heard of cases in the past where members have had to kill those who wanted out. We've even heard of members being ordered to kill a family member in order to get out of a gang."

But eventually, most female gang members do get out before they fall headlong into a life of criminal behavior.

"There is a tendency for girls to grow up and grow out of it," says Billy Stewart, who has 20 years' experience in the juvenile system in Dorchester. "They are drawn to the power, the drugs, and the cash that male gangs have but learn much more quickly than the guys that the hassle of obtaining and maintaining that financial and social power isn't worth it."

Some aren't so smart or lucky, though, especially those girls who were drawn into gang life through sexual relationships and became pregnant as a result. Every day, streams of young women, babies in their arms, enter the Nashua Street prison to visit men imprisoned for gang-related crimes. They leave their bandannas in the car and cover their tattoos before they enter the jail, but these young mothers suffer the daily consequences of the gang life they chose, even if only for a brief part of their lives. Their children's fathers are behind bars and can't provide for them. Their fellow gang members -- the only friends or "family" many of them know -- may turn their backs on them, impatient that they've been tied down by maternal responsibilities. And they lack the skills or education that might catapult them out of this dismal existence.

"These are the girls the little ones need to look at," says Hennessy. "These are the girls we talk about when we go into schools and address groups of wide-eyed preteens who have no idea what they are getting themselves into when they don the colors and adopt the codes that dictate the gang lifestyle."

Sarah McNaught can be reached at smcnaught[a]

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