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Researchers Probe Criminal Gang Life in Rural Mississippi

Clarksdale, Mississippi largely is known for the dire poverty that many of its 16,272, mostly Black citizens endure and for a blues music culture drawing fans from around the globe.

That Delta town is a far cry from, say, Chicago, with its own international attractions — and its run-on of headlines about violence committed by, among others, gang members.

Dr. Timothy BrownDr. Timothy Brown

But gang activity is a fact of American life that those two locales, 600 miles apart, hold in common. That’s according to a pair of research scholars who are probing the lifestyles and motivations of young people in small town Clarksdale who claim gang affiliations — some of them migrated from Chicago to the South — and whose alleged crimes are linked to gangs.

“We wanted to look at their whole life course,” said Dr. Timothy Brown, a sociologist who teaches in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s criminology department. Inside Clarksdale’s jail, he has spent 90 hours interviewing 30 inmates who either were directly or remotely connected to gangs.

Brown and the project’s lead researcher, Dr. Julie Baldwin, a Missouri State University criminology professor, now are logging and analyzing their research, funded by a federal Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant. The scholars aim to submit the findings for review and possible publication by journals spotlighting public health, crime and/or criminal justice.

“What hadn’t been utilized, regarding rural gangs, was qualitative research,” Brown added. “A lot of what’s been analyzed is statistical and quantitative in nature … We wanted the qualitative, to get rich, holistic data. We wanted to get their life history.

Those jail detainees’ alleged crimes included homicide, aggravated assault, manslaughter and shooting inside a dwelling. Most are men; 89 percent were Black, 5 percent were White and the rest were Hispanic.

Some of them told interviewers that they had been involved in gangs back in the Windy City and moved to Mississippi with their parents or grandparents. As a group whose average age was 26, they were disproportionately jobless, underemployed and under-educated. They were part of an underclass in Clarksdale, where 35 percent of people exist at or below the federal threshold for poverty, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, and where yearly per capita income is $14,868. The average household income is $29,175 annually, which compares to $55,322 nationwide.

Many of them hailed from fractured families. Some of them had been mistaken for gang members back when they weren’t even thinking about becoming a part of a gang, according to the researchers.

Brown said he was especially struck by the story of someone the Vice Lords initially mistook as one of their own when he wore a pair of new sneakers, with a “swoosh” on them, to school.

“This young man told me that, at that point, he wasn’t even thinking about being in a gang,” Brown said. “And his ‘swoosh’ wasn’t even the color the Vice Lords fly. But, after they marked him, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. He joined the gang. That’s one of the micro aspects that’s so important to the research.”

The researchers landed in Clarksdale because a local sheriff, no longer serving in that post, had invited them to explore rural gang life from there. Baldwin and Brown said there is scant research on rural gangs. And, they said, what does exist doesn’t dive deep into what fundamentally feeds gangs in rural outposts.

It doesn’t explore the fear of being victimized by gangs for refusing to join a gang and related factors; or how and whether, as examples, police strategies, employment efforts and such have the potential to erode gang involvement; or whether gang members have been diagnosed with, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments linked to their overall life circumstances and gang activity.

“There are not a lot of resources and, some think, not much incentive to not be criminally involved,” said Baldwin. “Unemployment, poverty, these are big things. Really, the gang crimes … are part and parcel of all that.”

Still, she is hoping the research pushes change in Clarksdale.

“There are lot of people who enjoy living there,” Baldwin said. “They have a thriving music scene. There is this strong sense of community. That is something they can capitalize on for developing different programs and prevention strategies. The research could help with some community interventions.”

Added Brown: “We are focused on trying to incorporate best practices in order to help this community see a light at the end of the tunnel. Clarksdale, in many ways, is a desolate place, but there is a juxtaposition. There’s that real sense of community. Even those jail inmates who are in gangs, as they highlighted the negatives, said they still feel a connection. Clarksdale is home for them, and they want it to get better. I hope that is what people will get out of this. I hope they begin to understand that these kids need someone, and that the whole community is in this, together.”

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