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New-Wave Street Gangs: Armed and Violent

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By Frank Rubino

Longtime anti-crime activist Greg Bucceroni wears a three-inch-long scar on his forehead, a souvenir from the June 5, 2008 evening when more than a dozen members of the heroin-dealing "Bart Simpson" gang - named after the brand of dope they peddled - backed him against a concrete wall in West Kensington.

Bucceroni wore a blue polo shirt inscribed with the words, Philadelphia Police Youth At-Risk Program that night as he walked toward the home of a troubled teenage boy he was mentoring.  After quickly surrounding him at Mascher Street and Indiana Avenue, several Bart Simpson members with Spanish accents shouted words to the effect that they'd "fuck up anybody who helped the cops." 

Another hollered "Kill him!" in Spanish moments before someone else heaved a brick that crashed off Bucceroni's skull.  Luckily for Bucceroni, a police cruiser pulled up seconds later, probably saving his life.

Count the 46-year-old Bucceroni, a onetime New York City Guardian Angel who still occasionally dons a beret over his shaved pate, among a cadre of volunteer crime-fighters who dispute the notion that gang-connected violence in Philadelphia is a problem of yesteryear. As reported in Part One, today's gangs are smaller, greedier and often more dangerous than the street gangs of the late 1960's and 70's who made headlines with their turf wars.

"There are violent gangs all across this city," says the father of three, who believes a high percentage of Philadelphia's street shootings have gang overtones, although print and electronic media, relying largely on the police for information, rarely report those angles.

"The Philadelphia police historically are going to deny that there's a spike in gang activity," Bucceroni asserts.  Police officials refused to discuss any specifics regarding gang activity for this series.

Bucceroni cites the Nov. 2 assault on a 25-year-old man shot multiple times inside a Buick LeSabre at 11th and Norris Streets as an example of a crime he suspects was spurred by new-wave gang conflict.   

"I call that section the 11th Street corridor," he says, adding that drug-dealing posses based at 11th and Master, 11th and Norris and 11th and York regularly skirmish over turf incursions. Scenes like the one cops discovered when they peered inside the Buick are often the upshot.

Bucceroni, incidentally, says many of the Bart Simpson dudes who attacked him, including the alleged brick chucker, were subsequently gunned down by members of another Latino dope-peddling gang, this one headquartered at Tusculum and Hope Streets.

Shawn Banks Use This.jpg"A detective asked me whether I knew anything about those guys getting killed," he recalls, "and I told him, 'No, but you know what?  Somebody did society a favor.'"

Inside his movie studio in Oreland, Pa., 20 miles west of Philadelphia, ex-North Philly gang member Shawn "Frogg" Banks looks a little like P. Diddy as he sits at his desk in a flashy orange shirt and discusses Philly street gang culture, a topic he's lived and made documentaries about.

The compactly built former drug dealer, who found himself in police handcuffs more than once, narrowly survived a 1995 kidnapping and murder plot.  Motivated by the realization that he should probably be lying in some cemetery right about now, Banks speaks in schools and takes kids on getaways to the Poconos, using his "ghetto pass" to counsel them about alternatives to dealing drugs and joining street gangs. 

Banks agrees with Bucceroni that there's often another layer to the perfunctory homicide brief you read in the Inquirer or Daily News.  In fact, he speculates that as many as half of the 305 homicides that occurred in Philadelphia in 2009 likely had street gang implications.

Frighteningly, the 40-year-old Banks reports that gangs have ratcheted up their viciousness even over the 15 years since he ran with a latter-day version of the original Zulu Nation, a 1960s and early-'70s mega-gang that operated in North Philly east of Broad Street.

"We used to have an initiation called a gang line," he says, describing a scene in which a fledgling gang member had to fight his way through two long rows of punching, elbowing homeboys.  "But fighting's out the window now.  The kids today can't even take an ass-whipping.  You beat one of 'em up, they wanna get a gun and come back and kill you."

Automatic weapons have obviously become more available since the 70's or even Banks' street-running days. He points out that nowadays it's nothing for gang members to stroll around packing TEC-9s, AK-47s, Uzis and other menacing forms of heat.

"All of 'em got a gun, and you can't even bump into 'em.  Brush up on 'em by accident and that might be it.  They talk with their guns, and they're so heinous now, they don't want to shoot you one time, they want to shoot you 14 times, lift your body up and blow your head off, demean you beyond killing you.  It's like a medal to them.  They want to impress the other guys in the squad with how ruthless they are."

Females are increasingly getting in on the act, Banks adds, relating that more than one schoolgirl has brought him up to speed on the horrors of a "buck-fitty" - a punitive measure in which a girl who crosses members of a girl gang, perhaps by being too pretty or by resisting their recruitment overtures, is held down and slashed across the face with a box-cutter.

"Buck-fitty" refers to the hope that the gash will take at least 150 stitches to close. 

"She gets scarred for life," Banks says.  "Girls are terrible nowadays."

Jack Stollsteimer, who served as the governor-appointed safe schools advocate for the School District of Philadelphia from June 2006 to August 2009 - and who asserts he regularly encountered resistance and denial when apprising school district officials of the violence problem - backs up Banks' assertions.

Now working as an attorney for the state Treasurer in Harrisburg, Stollsteimer recalls a conversation he had in 2008 with a dean of students for a public high school in North Philadelphia (Stollsteimer won't name the school).  The dean related how one day as he was counseling a teenage girl in his office, she scratched her head and inadvertently shook loose from her pile of hair a slew of razor blades that fell to the floor.

"She was a part of a group of girls, a gang, whatever you want to call it," Stollsteimer says.  "That's the kind of thing that parents hear and, you know, go off the charts.  You can see why school officials don't want information like that to get out."

Chief Inspector Myron Patterson, the school district's chief of safety, didn't respond to repeated interview requests.  School district spokesman Fernando Gallard, however, responded to Stollsteimer's assertions that district officials routinely play "see no evil, hear no evil" with respect to student-on-student brutality. 

"This district is one of the few you will see in the nation that is leading the way in providing specific information on crimes and safety in our schools," Gallard says.  "That's actually why we are one of the few districts that has schools that are considered 'persistently dangerous.'"

Greg Bucceroni, who's worked with his share of school kids, sides with Stollsteimer.  Moreover, he believes too many Philadelphia neighborhoods remain persistently dangerous, at least in part, because those fearsome street gangs of '60s and '70s lore never actually went away.

"I have a big scar on my forehead that reminds me of it every day," he says.

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