City Lit: Gang, She-bang

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I was a drug-gang “Queen Pin,” and I spent five years in prison for it.

Trust me when I say I know first-hand that there is a great deal about the lives of girls and women who join gangs that has been completely overlooked by society in general, mass media and even the women’s families. That is until now.

8-Ball Chicks: A Year in the Violent World of Girl Gangsters is a remarkable peek into the lives of girls in gangs. It proves two things once and for all–these women do exist, and they are screaming for help. The book’s author, Gini Sikes, is a veteran New York-based journalist who spent two years chronicling the worlds of these complex girls and women in three American cities–Los Angeles, San Antonio and Milwaukee. What she found on her journey through backyards, living rooms and housing-project stairwells was startling. There are perhaps thousands of girl gang members across the nation, and yes, many of them are violent. Yet police departments around the country ignored this phenomenon until quite recently, when TV talk shows brought it to light.

Sikes’ book underscores the sexism prevalent in the lives of these girls. The subtext is that, along with racism and poverty, second-class citizenship actually inspires girl gang activity. Despite much of the despair suffered and caused by the girls who join gangs, both prior to and during their gang affiliation, girl gangsters are considered unimportant by the men who run the institutions in their lives–their homes, their ‘hoods, and their local precincts.

Unlike in my case, most girls do not rise up their gang’s hierarchy, especially if there are boys or men involved in that gang in any capacity. Instead, as noted in 8-Ball Chicks, many of the girls are used and abused both sexually and physically. More often than not, Sikes writes, gang members are beaten by boyfriends and by both male and female gang members. They also suffer from a variety of abuse both at home and on the streets.

8-Ball is especially clear about female victimization as it pertains to the horrifying claims of gang-rape among female initiates. In San Antonio, where many gang members are middle-class, white children, Sikes reports rumors of a gang practice called “roll-ins” whereby new female recruits are forced to roll dice and have sex with as many guys as the number that appears. “A 12-year-old girl now sat in the juvenile detention center on charges she had lured her 13-year-old friend to a party in a trailer, so that nine male gang members, ranging in age from 14 to 31, could brutally rape her. During her indictment, the girl showed no remorse. The same had been done to her,” Sikes writes. “In detention she’d received dozens of letters from gang boys who admired her nerve.”

But because Sikes is careful to profile a wide cross section of women (neither girl gangs nor their members are all the same), we are introduced to women who cannot be seen merely as victims.

Many of the girls in 8-Ball Chicks are looking for love, family, or, as I was, power. It should surprise no one that gangs often give a person all three. Some of the women in the book are mothers; many of them aspire to higher career and educational goals.

T.J., a 19-year-old Mexican girl with whom I found myself identifying most, has completely turned her world around. She once attempted to avenge the murder of her homegirl’s 12-year-old brother, Danny, by going up to the suspected murderer at a party and shooting him point blank, only to discover later that he had survived. To carry out her criminal activities, she often disguised herself as a man, noting that people never suspected women were capable of such acts. But T.J. also worked part-time, illustrating children’s books, “creating scenes she herself never experienced of yellow-haired girls cradling rabbits on lawns with white picket fences,” writes Sikes. I cried at the book’s end, when T.J. peeled off her gangster gear and told an all-white, upper-middle-class audience about how God changed her life–because that’s exactly what happened to me.

Parents should definitely read this book, particularly those who are having trouble with their children, because it offers a great deal of insight into the way some young people think–both collectively and as individuals. The book shows how pressing social or economic needs render children immensely vulnerable. However, the gang members in 8-Ball who finally make their way out of their troubling situations are the girls who have concerned parents or mentors.

Sadly, 8-Ball Chicks does not include a referral list of agencies or centers that work with girls in need of support. It seems to me that because this is the type of book that could actually inspire at-risk girls to say, “Damn it, I can change,” a resource list could have made all the difference.

In any case, as a woman who experienced the silent hell of gang involvement and only figured out there could be another way once I was incarcerated, I wish girls who are in trouble could read this book. It might help them realize that there’s not only darkness in life.

Mary P. is a housing organizer with a local nonprofit group.

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