COLUMBIA – Purvis Hunt III, the Youth Development Coordinator for Columbia’s Youth Empowerment Zone, said that as an adolescent, he got involved with a gang for “money, power and mad respect.”
Members of his father’s family were from the traditional Los Angeles-based gang the Crips, and members on his mother’s side were Bloods. The grandiose lifestyle was “fascinating,” as the seeming omnipresence of his uncles, cousins and brothers could “equip you with what you need,” he said.
But “when you gang bang it’s 110 miles per hour” and eventually the opportunity for college dissuaded him from the gang lifestyle, Hunt said.
Hunt addressed a group of more than 20 people who gathered Tuesday evening at a gang awareness seminar called “Recognize the Signs.”
The seminar was presented by Officer Mike Hayes, whose message focused on identifying at-risk children and sharpening the practice of communitywide preventative measures.
Defining traditional gangs was something Hayes, of the Columbia Police Department’s Community Service Unit, emphasized. A traditional gang has three or more people who share a common identity, which is sometimes represented by a defining symbol, such as a tattoo or hand gesture.
In his heyday as a gang-member, Hunt said that he could signal his street, neighborhood, side of town and gang affiliation just by the contortion of his fingers.
Hayes said that Columbia is definitely seeing an increase in gang activity and that “it’s going to take an effort from everybody to address and identify the issue.”
Through Hunt’s lens, he said he sees gang activity that has the potential to "skyrocket" into organized activity of traditional gangs.
According to a slideshow provided by the National Crime Prevention Council, many of the individuals who turn to gangs often do so because of unsupportive family surroundings, the potential for financial gain, or as in Hunt’s case, family tradition.
Although Columbia has not witnessed the presence of national gangs, Hayes said, “traditional gangs see Columbia as an opportunity to increase their franchises.”
Conditions such as unstructured after-school time and a limited access to stable jobs usually create environments that enable the fermentation of gang-like groups, according to Hayes.
Monique Evans, 17, who attended the event with her mother, said that teenagers might join gangs because “just hanging out with certain people makes you seem cool. (Gangs) could give them status in school or in the neighborhood.”
Evans, who is homeschooled, said she’s heard of a particular group of students at Hickman High School that call themselves “Squad Up.” She says that she does not consider them a gang, rather, a “social group.”
Hayes said that this is not the first complaint that he’s heard about “Squad Up.”
Karita McDowell, the organizer of the seminar and Community Empowering Youth coordinator, thought the event was “great success and a start to a greater awareness.”
On Columbia’s increasing gang activity she said, “I don’t label it as gang activity — it’s youth violence, and I see it on the rise.”