"I was fourteen when I first saw the power of violence. At a party, this guy just walked up and spat in another guy's face then punched him. I was in awe that somebody could be that blatant and not blink. For all the guns and the shootings I saw later, that really stuck with me. It turned me on to what you can do to shock people and make them afraid of you.
"There was violence everywhere when I was in high school. Your survival depended on letting people know that you wasn't gonna be punked. There were lots of cliques and posses. My group mostly came from single-parent backgrounds, were dirt poor, felt powerless and as if nobody was really listening to their struggles. We got together to watch each other's backs because a group of bad-ass girls was bullying everybody. Within a few months we went from just trying to protect ourselves to looking for trouble.
"My first violent act happened one Halloween. I was fourteen or fifteen. A few of us girls were riding the trains with a group of guys that robbed people. The group just got bigger until there were 35 or 40 kids running through the subways. Whoever was in the way got run down or beat up or robbed. It was totally out of control.
"I remember grabbing a gold chain from a woman but I didn't feel as if it was me doing it because I wasn't really an individual any more, I was a piece of this big mob. People looked petrified but they understood to mind their own business and hope that it wasn't them we were coming after. They were just quiet.
"My heart was racing, it was a full adrenaline rush. It was almost like being on a real emotional high where you could just do whatever you wanted and it didn't matter. A total wilding experience. Most people don't experience that—the ability to be totally wild and do things that are totally wrong and get away with it. I wasn't at all afraid of getting caught. For once, I felt really powerful and invincible. It was a really good feeling. I also saw I had the potential to be the best at robbing and beating people up.
"I went home that night with rings and chains and lay them on my bed and looked at them, then I put them on. I wore them for a while then I gave them away.
"My group officially became a gang, the Deceptinettes, after we joined up with these guys, the Decepticons. They got the name from the bad guys in The Transformers, a cartoon about robots that could transform their appearances. I remember sitting in the leader's house and laughing, picking out which characters we were. Bottom line, even though we thought we were really important, we were still kids! Now, in my work, trying to get kids out of gangs, I'm reminded of that all the time. They're kids!
"The Deceptinettes grew from about ten girls to forty or fifty. There were a few hundred Decepticons, mostly male, in schools across the city and there are still Decepticons in New York today.
"To sharpen our fighting skills, we made up this game, ‘one punch knockout’. We would randomly pick someone as they left the train station—mostly it was school kids—and just try to knock them out. You never knew if they'd pull a gun on you or fight back. I hit men and women, it didn't really matter. The first girl I hit was huge but with the taunting and cheering on, I did it. I don't know how badly I hurt her but she wasn't conscious. I just used my fist. I was known for being able to knock people out on the first punch, and that made me happy. I wanted to be the best girl fighter.
"We laughed and talked about her and then we walked away. If you really don't care about yourself, you don't care about anyone else. People become objects. I felt nothing for them. I could watch somebody cry or bleed and it wouldn't touch me.
"Everyone knew our gang but there were other cliques at school. They weren't gangs, but one group sold drugs, another sold guns, another was into really heavy drugs. Some people really liked fighting and others used guns. Everybody had their own specialty. We're talking kids between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. There were a lot of fights at school. With us, we fought fist to fist or with knives or weapons, but mostly we tried to fight fairly.
"We also did a lot of beach parties and picnics in the park. We'd go to Great Adventures theme park together. We did things most kids did. I'd take my sisters along although they were never in the gang. It was a fun group. We did things we thought were family oriented and went on the AIDS walk and other charity walks. At night, we'd have parties at the beach and barbecue.
"We liked to dress nice and we prided ourselves on the fact that you'd never know we were gang members. If we were going to get dirty, we dressed kinda thuggish in big jeans, sweats or oversized leather coats or Ralph Lauren Polo coats which were the latest fashion, but mostly, people wondered how we got into the gang because we were so ladylike.
"We were angry, angry individuals though and we needed to fight. Guns were never our weapon of choice. The Deceptinette girls were known for carrying baseball bats and hammers. We put them up our sleeves or down our trousers when we were getting ready to fight another group. You'd go meet them and battle.
"I was jumped a couple of times and sliced above my eye by a scalpel in one fight. When it's happening, of course your head races and you wonder if you're gonna get out of it but my friend jumped in and saved me. She took the brunt of it, the scalpel sliced her hand right through, which just reinforced my belief that these were the guys that I needed to be around. I loved them, definitely. With the kids I work with today, breaking that bond is my biggest challenge. A gang is like a family.
"People always ask about sex. I never slept around but some girls had such low self-esteem they slept with guys for the protection. If you were "sexed in" to our gang, you never got respect. Noone was raped but to get in, you did have to prove that you knew how to fight. There were blacks and hispanics and a couple of white guys in the Decepticons. As you long as you were useful, you were welcome.
"I was never into heavy drugs Sometimes I drank and smoked weed but not often because we thought of ourselves as soldiers and soldiers don't drink and fight at the same time. It was us against the world and we were just angry at society.
"Growing up, my dad would come and go. He's an artist. My mother, who is a social worker, was a single mother raising four daughters. I don't know exactly what she knew about what was going on but she didn't really know what she was dealing with. Maybe it was denial. Some people close to her had recently died and looking back, I think she was depressed.
"My big thing was getting out of the house because she never let us out. So I simply wouldn't go home after school and faced the consequences later.
"Once, I heard my mother and my teacher on the phone saying, 'What are we going to do with Isis?' I was supposed to have a future. I was in a special writing programme and still got good grades, but I didn't care about that. I had another plan. I was going out with the leader of Decept and I thought I was going to marry him and have the Decepticon children and we was just gonna have a Decept world. We were going to be like the mafia. That was real to me.
"We didn't plan on living past eighteen, we expected to go out like soldiers, eventually. Partly it was being willing to die for the cause; also, so many of our peers were dying.
"Once, there was a hit out on my life. I beat up a guy and didn't know that he was the little brother of a big drug-dealer. He was hurt really bad. That happened in my neighbourhood but I wasn't scared - I wasn't smart enough at the time to be scared. I just thought, 'Whatever!' I didn't know how a bullet would feel but I kind of welcomed the feeling. That's the sick, suicidal kind of thoughts that a lot of us had, though we never thought of it as suicide.
"Right after I turned sixteen, I was arrested for assault and robbery. We were acting stupid on the train, riding to the last stop just to fuck with people. I saw a girl with a nice bag and coat and because I was the leader, some kids who were trying to get in my favour robbed her. Two hours later I bumped into the same damned girl and she rushed me. We were fighting and the police came.
"As I was sixteen, I was put in jail with all the druggies and prostitutes. The two most gorgeous black undercover cops arrested me and when I realised they were paying no attention to me I looked in my little mirror and thought, 'Isis, you're just a thug!' Seeing the fat-assed guards sitting outside this cell eating cake and barbecued spare-ribs and screaming at you and putting chains on your ankles, was it for me. I wanted out of the gang.
"I'll never forget my mother's face either. Oh, that look of disappointment in her eyes! She said, 'You're so stupid! You don't know, little girl, what you're getting yourself into!'
"Before I was sentenced, I promised, 'Please Lord, don't put me in jail and I will do your work and make amends!' I got five years probation and restitution. Sometimes I'd slip back into the gang. I believe gang violence is an addiction like drugs. The adrenaline rush can pull you back any time.
"There were a few dark months where I was at five gang members’ funerals. It seemed like there was a funeral every week. Then the leader of the Decepticons was shot in the head. I wasn't there but someone pulled a gun on him during a game of ‘one punch knockout’ and he was paralysed.
"Then a really close friend died. He was only sixteen but a really powerful drug dealer. He also thought he was invincible. Apparently, he was showing off his gun and when some guy asked to see it, he handed it over and the guy shot him with it. I was very, very close to him and really had a crush on him so that really affected me. I cried. It wasn't really his death but the reality that everybody was dying hit me.
"That night, I was so upset I climbed into bed with my mum. When I woke up, she was looking over me, crying, and I thought I'd died and was in the casket. Suddenly, I could see I had one foot in the grave. People were calling my house and threatening my life and my family, and I decided I wanted to live. "Leaving the gang caused a lot of stress and pressure. The Deceptinettes didn't come after me but I wasn't very popular. People who used to think I was a queen didn't love me anymore and when you leave, you no longer have the gang's protection and the people you've hurt know it's your weak time so you're vulnerable. It was tough.
"My teachers and my mother worked together to send me away to college and my probation officer took a chance on me and let me leave the state to go to school in Tennessee. That was one of my first lessons in value and self-worth. She had more faith in me than I had in myself. I spent eighteen months there. When I came back, I was eighteen and I immediately began working with at-risk kids because they could relate to me.
"Now the Deceptinettes feels like a very vague dream. Yet it's always with me because of the work that I do. Looking back at the people that I hurt, I haven't made complete peace with it. A big reason I'm doing this work is really restitution.
"I've often run across people that I hurt. When I was buying shoes for my first job interview, a woman with a baby said, 'You don't remember me, do you? If I didn't have my child, I would kill you right now! You don't know how you changed my life!' She had a scar on her face. I know I did that to her but I didn't remember her or anything about it. I felt extremely ashamed. I said, 'I'm so sorry,' and she stormed out. That caught me off guard and I felt really guilty. I saw her again and we wound up talking and I begged her forgiveness.
"Now, my life revolves around my son, my husband—who knows my background—working with communities and intervening with high-risk kids referred by the juvenile justice department, schools and churches. I earned my master's degree in l997 and I've started my own Youth Empowerment Mission to help kids get out of gangs. It's so rewarding when at the end of a workshop a kid says they're dropping their gang colours. It's incredible if you can get somebody to even think about leaving a gang. They won't even say the words. They think the gang is all they have.
"I can definitely see myself in these kids. I can see the goodness in them. If we delve a little below the surface and help them with their struggles with friends, family or school, we can get them out and give them real power in the world, not this bullcrap power that they're getting from gangs."
The Independent, UK
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