Inside Injunction: Q&A with professor, former Ogden gang member

Monday , November 23, 2015 - 9:18 AM10 comments

Robert Duràn wants to change the conversation about gangs. They’re not about crime, he argues, but complex social groups trying to fill the needs of marginalized communities. Duran also has a unique perspective on the issue, studying gang life from the inside.

Duràn grew up in Ogden and joined one of its gangs at 16. He became a father by 19. But he went on to graduate from Weber State University and get his PhD in Colorado. He’s now an associate professor in sociology at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. As part of his graduate studies, he studied gang life in both Denver and Ogden.

He turned that research into a book, “Gang Life in Two Cities: An Insider’s Journey.”

Unlike many gang stereotypes, Duràn didn’t come from a gang family. His father worked as a miner and his mother was heavily involved in his life, making sure he went to school and church. But Duràn began gravitating toward gang life after feeling excluded from Ogden’s largely white, Mormon culture. 

Duràn won’t reveal which Ogden gang he joined in 1993 because he said it could interfere with his research. But he spent significant time with many gang members and associates in the city, including those affiliated with Ogden Trece. The Standard-Examiner asked Duràn about his life in an Ogden gang and his thoughts on the Ogden Trece injunction.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your life like as a teen growing up in Ogden?

I was more or less like everyone else. I had some ideas about what I could be when I got older, but I was not really sure. I wasn’t thinking of going to college back then. Gangs were around, and when I was younger, they appeared cool. You saw them in music and movies and that style was impressionable. When I got in a fight early on at Ogden High, I didn’t think gangs were very cool anymore and I didn’t want to go down that route. But my friends’ routes stayed the same. Eventually I got pressured to join. I joined for support, for friends, not to be a criminal.

You write in your book that police often confuse gang “members” with gang “associates.” What’s the difference?

From a gang research perspective, I’d say a gang member is someone who has been initiated into the gang. Usually they have a jump-in process. An associate is someone like a friend or family member, who associates with someone initiated into a gang, but they themselves haven’t joined. Most people don’t join gangs, even in places seen as the centers of gang activity.

In your research, you’ve spent significant time observing both gang members and law enforcement officers. Why do you think Ogden’s police and the Weber County Attorney want to bring back the Ogden Trece injunction?

When I was observing the police in Ogden, I saw they enjoy that aggressive approach to the community. Especially in central Ogden, the Latino side, an injunction gives them more freedom to continue that stuff. They feed on it, they’re used to practicing that way. An injunction just validates their aggressive tactics that they want more of. Which is too bad, because that data doesn’t support that it’s effective.

What solutions do you see for Ogden’s gang issues, if not an injunction?

Creating better opportunities and resources for everyone, especially for young Latino young black kids in the poor sections of Ogden. They need more educational support, more encouragement and less of a hostile resistance approach. We need to be increasing the number of people from those communities going to college, becoming doctors, lawyers and police officers.

There are some people who are going to continue to engage in violence no matter what. But there are already laws in place for them to be arrested and incarcerated when they don’t change that lifestyle. There are consequences that already exist. Making certain things illegal through an injunction, like who you associate with and being out past curfew, it won’t stop them. An injunction just feeds into the inequality.

Here’s a comment from one of our readers: “All individuals in this country have the same opportunities to excel ...  it is the individual will and initiative that propels him to succeed in life.” One might point to your own life as an example of someone who found initiative, pulled himself out of a bad situation and found opportunities to succeed. What’s your response?

They’re just living in a fantasy Disneyland. Opportunities aren’t the same for everybody. With my own research, and even as I’ve traveled to other cities and other states, one thing I do is walk neighborhoods. I’ll look at U.S. Census data and figure out which neighborhoods have the highest concentrations of white households, and which have the highest concentrations of blacks and Latinos. I’ll walk around and see how things are. In the upper East Bench of Ogden, for example, things are different than on 26th and Adams. To say we’re coming from the same point is imaginary. It’s not realistic.

For myself, it’s rare what has happened with my life. In statistics, there are always outliers — things that don’t match up with the odds are expected. I only made it with a lot of luck along the way.

You’ve spent a lot of time studying Ogden’s gangs from the inside. What makes Ogden Trece so unique that law enforcement might want to specifically target them with an injunction?

Some of the other gangs formed more recently or they’ve fragmented, changed, or have new names. Trece probably has one of the strongest bases in Ogden, because it was created in Ogden.

Law enforcement says the Trece gang is unique because it’s not turf-based, it’s citywide. Is that the case?

Well, it’s probably more based where racial ethnic minority groups are segregated to. That’s where police patrol the most, too. 

Would an injunction have been effective for you, personally? Would it have prevented you from joining a gang?

No. It would’ve probably made sure I had more arrests on my record and more charges. It would’ve made opportunities for college and jobs less likely. It wouldn’t have changed the reason I joined the gang. 

How hard is it to leave a gang once you’re a member?

Most people just drift out. I think that’s the thing — police departments have a classification system, and once someone gets classified as a “gang member“ it takes five years of no police contact to get off. But it doesn’t match the gang research. Most people stay in gangs for a year or less. Most people do drift away from that stuff. It has a lot to do with what’s going on in your life. 

What’s a day in the life like as a gang member?

Gangs do have these core ideals and expectations of how to behave. But most people can’t live up to them. There’s a lot of loyalty and support. With the people you hang around with the most, you already have some of those bonds built, those friendships, but then you have to extend it to people you don’t really know because you’re all a part of this group.

There’s an expectation to represent the gang, to be proud of what you belong to. In a lot of ways, it’s not that different other organizations. People have pride in the military, in different universities and schools they come from it. It just exists in a different social world, a different social environment.

The social environment gangs grow out of is problematic. No one is fixing things, really, for the residents of those communities. So if you live in those places, who do you have to go to for support? It’s not the police. So how do you resolve conflict? 

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