Portland’s top gang expert on The List, Hoovers, Aryan gangs, ‘Tubby’ & ‘Do-overs’

Poor for a Minute
12 min readJun 13, 2017

It’s summer, which in Portland means parades, picnics, parties.

It also means the return of youth gang violence.

Sunday, a 17-year-old was taken to the hospital with life-threatening gunshot wounds after a shooting near SE 131st and Powell. That night, shots were fired just a block away at 132nd and Powell, hitting a house. In May, 19-year-old Carlos Yowan Batista was arrested by the Gang Enforcement Team after a shooting on NE 6th and Alberta.

Antoinettte Edwards, Director of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, outside her office next door to the Portland Police Bureau’s NE Precinct. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Edwards’ office, next door to the Portland Police Bureau’s NE Precinct, is near the geographic center of Portland’s historical black community. But in recent years, as privilege has moved in at a rate of 111 per day, a significant portion of the African-American community has been displaced.

Has the citywide youth violence picture changed because of gentrification?

“People are kind of moving out that way, [toward Gresham] to where housing’s available,” Edwards said. “You go where you can live. There are people that may be gang-impacted that may be living out there, but it’s really different now.”

Of course, many who move away retain ties and return. But Edwards’ take on the effects of gentrification is that it’s making youth violence more mobile.

“Transit has made a difference,” Edwards says. “You can get on transit, and you’re packing, and you can go wherever. So, [youth violence] is pretty mobile, actually.”

You mean the MAX Blue Line?

“You know the Numbers,” Edwards said.

In May, Edwards shared an hour out of her busy day to talk about the intersection of poverty and youth violence and field a few tough questions.

Tough is what this woman does. Every day.

Like nurses, police, EMTs, social workers and others whose job it is to respond to trauma, Edwards’ job turns her into a kind of white blood cell. Instead of running away from an injury, she goes toward it —going to the aftermath of a gang shooting, for example, talking with victims and survivors, killers, suspects, “O.G.’s” and teens, Crips and Bloods and Hoovers, traumatized community members.

“You don’t run away. You don’t run,” she said.

“I’m aware of that whole scene when there’s a shooting and I’m there, and how the whole community, the whole family’s traumatized by that. And that we’re all hurting and grieving, and serving time. And there’s no winners, because with the retaliation, it’s two families, I’m sitting with both families: someone that’s lost someone, someone that’s going to lose someone if they’re going to go and serve time. But we don’t run away. We run into. We run to.”

Portland’s infamous, 81 percent minority ‘Gang List’

Edwards says the city is considering a revision to the infamous “gang designated” list, a list compiled by police of suspected gang members which an Oregonian investigation found “amounts to a secret suspect list.”

The O’s investigation found the list is four-fifths racial or ethnic minorities. Edwards says revisions could be announced this month.

“We’re in the process of looking at that, and writing a new program, so that it doesn’t look as if you’re profiling,” Edwards said. “Because right now, it almost feels like profiling.”

“We’re working on our draft right now, to really revamp it,” she said. “Because I see that there’s some errors in it.

“We don’t want this to be seen as a tool where, ‘you look like a duck, you quack like a duck, you must be a gang member.’ That ain’t working for me.”

Edwards wants there to be an “exit” door from the list, and wants to make changes to the “entry” door, the process police use to add supposed gang-affiliated individuals to the list.

Despite her concerns, she doesn’t support getting rid of the list.

“I think it can serve a purpose,” she said.

What purpose?

“To direct [listed persons] to services.”

Is there some ambivalence on your part?

“There is. I want to get the community more involved. If it takes a list to get elders more involved, it’s kind of like a community court. [But] there’s some criminality. People are being killed. People need to be safe.”

Edwards said her office worked with Black Male Achievement, a city initiative in the Office of Equity and Human Rights, which looked at using a Restorative Justice model in conjunction with the list —like asking people if they should be on the list, for example.

Some people clearly should be on it, she implies.

“I’ve asked some folks, [and they’re like] ‘Yeah, I’m a gang member, I’m going to die a gang member.’ Alrighty then! Good luck to you.”

“Well, mom, he came in and he said he was [a gang member]. If I can offer some services and some resources, fine.”

‘Can’t be brothers’

Gangs can offer a support system for young people, Edwards says.

“There’s a connection there, there’s a relationship there,” Edwards says. “People tend to see the negative side, but I’ve seen folks that, that’s my set, from way back when there was no one there for me.”

The Gang List is not the only thing about the criminal justice system Edwards would change. Another is the way in which the system restricts association between those who have committed crimes —even after they’ve served their time.

“I was on a panel, two Measure 11 young men incarcerated, black and white, doing really well, life had been less than kind to them,” Edwards recalls.

“They’re sitting there together, they said ‘We’ve gotten to know each other, we support each other, this is my brother. But when we’re released from MacLaren [Youth Correctional Facility], we can’t associate.’ And they challenged the [District Attorney] on that. ‘You’re saying that we can’t be brothers outside of this.’ According to their probation, their parole, they’re restricted.

“What is that saying? It’s kind of a negative, perpetuating that isolation, that you’re ‘bad,’ when y’all get together, when there are two or three of you gathered, what happens? Gang set.”

Hoovers Portland’s most active gang now

What gang is the most active in the city right now? It’s not the Crips, Bloods, Latin Kings or Aryan Nation, according to Edwards, but a Portland-based gang.

“I’d say Hoovers,” Edwards said. “They’re kind of rogue.”

“The Hoovers are kind of more or less known as those really kind of hard-core, can’t really tie down who the leader is, and they kind of go off on their own, and they’re kind of considered by police, folks in the street and other gang members as more ruthless. Like, there’s a culture, and there’s a code. They defy it all. There’s no respect.”

Edwards said the Hoovers tend to be a bit younger than other gangs, which raises the question: are kids getting recruited into gangs younger than ever?

“We’re seeing elementary and middle school,” Edwards said. “They’re getting inducted into ganglike activity early — earlier.”

Why?

“Some for protection. If they’re bullied. Some it’s generational.”

Edwards said Hoovers can be affiliated with other gangs, like Crips and Bloods, but “they’re their own sect.”

Edwards says white power gangs get sufficient scrutiny

Whether you live here in America’s whitest city, Portland, or any other, the word “gang” carries baggage. It’s one of those terms that punctures the myth of a “post-racial” America that flourished under Obama but appears to have evaporated under Trump, known for racist statements.

Edwards calls that racially-tinged image our biggest misconception about youth violence and gangs.

“There’s a picture, there’s a stereotypical picture that it goes to,” Edwards says. “Those people,” she says. “Those black people.”

The other side of the coin is equally troubling: do white gangs get a pass?

There have been recent, horrific killings of black youth by white power gangs such as the European Kindred. The alleged hate-laced killings by Jeremy Christian of three white men who stepped in to protect two young black women May 26 on a MAX Green Line train, along with Christian’s use of Nazi and other white power symbolism and his years in prison, raises many questions.

Here’s one, from Slate: “How is This Man Not a Gang Member?”

Do local white power gangs deserve more scrutiny from police than they get? Edwards chuckled at the question.

“They get it,” she said. “And them some hard core dudes. Yeah. They get it. I don’t know if it’s publicized as much. But they’re dangerous, hard-core. Yeah, the Aryan Nation, the gangs. They’re bad actors.

“I don’t focus on them, because I’m more community. So I don’t have as much knowledge of them, but when I talk with officers, they see them [as] really bad actors and deadly.”

“I think, uh, I don’t know how to say it, but white folks just blend in. Yeah. They just blend in.”

“If you look at African-Americans in gangs, I think there’s a bravado that’s expected, or more visible, sometimes more blinging. And I don’t know about white gangs. … I don’t think that they get a pass. I’d like to think not.”

Note: This interview happened May 18, before Christian’s alleged crimes.

Taking a little credit

Last year saw a dip in Portland’s gang violence. Can Edwards and her office, which includes Policy Manager Tom Peavey and 19 street-level gang outreach workers, take a little credit for that?

Edwards is humble, and says she’s grateful for the low numbers. But what she does is hard to measure.

“How do you measure when someone didn’t get shot? I’d like to take some credit that if we’re able to connect with some folks, and support them in choices, do-overs, a walk with them through, I’d like to think that we do [deserve some credit]. We have many success stories.

“We had an officer and a gang member hold each other, and come together and cry. He said ‘This officer was here. for. me. And he didn’t give up on me. And yeah, sometimes he had to arrest me.’ And it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ Not a dry eye.”

Edwards’ work is about “do-overs,” she says. Second chances. The idea that you can be arrested, and still be upstanding: a straight shooter without a gun. That you can go to prison and bounce back, even become a hero.

That your mistakes don’t have to define you.

Antoinettte Edwards, Director of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, outside her office next door to the Portland Police Bureau’s NE Precinct. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

‘Tubby’ bounces back

That message got intensely personal for Edwards in 2015 when Turon Lamont Walker Jr. was arrested for firing into a crowd at Last Thursday on NE Alberta Street, injuring three.

The youth, aged 16 at the time of the crime, is one of Edwards’ 14 grandchildren. Her nickname for him?

Tubby.

Now, he’s at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn — a place Edwards knew well before the shooting.

“I worked on a Black Bacc, a Black Baccalaureate, honoring young African-Americans that have graduated from high school and college,” she recalls, her voice breaking. “And I had brought it to MacLaren, before my grandson was there. Because the whole purpose [is] not to forget you, that you made a mistake, and restore, to become whole. And to make sure that they had the kente cloths down there, and they had this ceremony for the Black Bacc. Because they’re going to come home. You don’t forget them. How do you support them and still grow and be the best that you can be?”

Edwards says the shooting “refueled, renewed” her efforts, making her job “even more personal than I think it already was.”

“We can’t lose anyone to this,” she says. “And you don’t give up.”

“He’s still incarcerated, he got eight years. Right now he’s doing well, he’s graduated from high school, he’s got all this [college] credit. It’s like, ‘Is this what it took for you to focus, Tubby? And he’s working, and he’s doing well, he’s doing well.”

Gangs & poverty

While race gets more play than it should in conversations about gangs and youth violence, poverty gets too little, Edwards says.

Of course, race and class are also sometimes inseparable. “We never got our forty acres and a mule,” Edwards notes.

A street-level gang outreach worker once told me something at New Columbia, Oregon’s largest low income apartment community, when I worked there as a social worker. It was a little thing, a joke, but it put my white, middle-class privilege in check.

There’s poor, and there’s po’, he said, emphasizing the po. Po’ is a notch down the ladder from poor, he said.

He was smiling when he said it, but also serious. “Po” is one of those kernels of wisdom that upends academic approaches to understanding complex, entrenched social dynamics like poverty, or youth violence.

Edwards’ own childhood includes not just racial discrimination but also poverty. Her childhood in Alabama was characterized not only by Jim Crow segregation — she couldn’t go into the restaurant her mother worked in — but also poverty.

“We got the government cheese,” is how she puts it, a twinkle in her eye.

The twinkle is there, perhaps, because she grew up with strong family and neighborhood support, with a “sense of community, surrounded by people who loved me.”

“But if you don’t get that, how do you know that you’re okay?”

For many of those Edwards works with, poverty becomes normalized. If there’s not an ample heap of love piled on where privilege can’t be, hope can get lost.

“It’s generational: if you don’t have wealth, you can’t pass it on. And when you’re born into poverty, how do you climb out of that? Some people, it’s normalized, it’s, ‘well, they didn’t have nothing, I ain’t got nothing, why should I hope for something?”

When interviewed, Edwards had just come from a meeting at the University of Portland of hundreds of Portland Public School high school students who gathered to talk about tough subjects. Among them: What is a sellout? What is considered an Uncle Tom? What is the House Negro / Field Negro about?

Edwards says she was touched by her interaction there with a young Muslim woman of color in hijab. Former state Sen. Margaret Carter, the first African-American woman elected to the Oregon Legislature had just spoken, Edwards said, “and she shared her experiences, and poverty and racism, and she really got the young people charged up.”

“When you make space for truth, amazing things happen,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t create a space for [young people] to speak.”

Just don’t forget the ways in which poverty can lead to gangs, she says. She mentions Abraham Maslow, whose hierarchical pyramid of need has become a foundational piece for psychology and social work. (See image.) Foundational pieces are necessary for higher tiers to become possible, Maslow found: One cannot feel safe if one is hungry or has no home. One cannot find love if one is unsafe. The reverse is also true; for example, self-actualization is made possible by all of the tiers below it.

A simple version of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

“It’s root causes; how do I address the root causes,” Edwards says. “And I really think that’s the essence of [gang involvement]. I don’t believe anyone woke up one day and said ‘I want to be a gang member, I want to be a Crip or a Blood or a Hoover. Something happened along the way, and we talk a lot about trauma-informed care, like ‘What happened?’”

“Do we get everyone? No. But if we just have that intention, that people get a chance. We get do-overs.”

Do-overs. The Office of Do-Overs.

Perhaps the greatest example of the do-over for Edwards, besides Tubby, is that many of her 19 street-level gang outreach workers themselves have what she calls “lived experience.”

In other words, some were once in gangs themselves. Indeed, a few spoke to that effect when they spoke at an emotional July 15, 2016 North Precinct Gang Task Force meeting shortly after the 2016 shootings of police officers in Dallas, on the heels of viral video of police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

“Some of our outreach workers have had a lived experience. They have that relationship. And it’s a balance. ‘I’m not ratting you out.’ And it’s a balance. And the police really have come to respect that, because when you talk about success, there’s been instance after instance when the street-level gang outreach workers have deescalated situations.

“I been to one where there was a New Year’s Eve party, and it was getting crazy,” Edwards says. “Police stood back and outreach worker’s like, ‘Man, do this. You need to get up out of here.’ And there’s this respect that they have. They’ve defused a lot of stuff.”

Edwards is excited that Mayor Ted Wheeler is fully funding her office, which was first created in 2006.

“I feel that he’s respecting the work, he’s pleased with the work, he understands the work, and like ‘You do what you do, just go and do it.’”

You can email story ideas or donate to help Poor for a Minute via Paypal and poorforaminute@gmail.com.

--

--

Poor for a Minute

We are all poor due to the broken social safety net in the United States, the world’s richest nation. Portfolio, bio, contact: ThacherSchmid.com