"Anthony" was raised in East Los Angeles and joined a gang associated with the Sureños when he was 13 years old. His father and uncles were also members, and Anthony said it didn't feel like anything was wrong or unusual when he began participating.
"I saw it as a close-knit community," he said. "It was seen as all of us just being together. It was part of growing up."
But as he entered his late teens and early 20s, his level of involvement in the gang increased. "Anthony" spent more than 10 years in state prison for robbery convictions. He didn't elaborate on the nature of his crimes, but said that once he entered prison, he kept getting in trouble and prolonging his sentence. He declined to give his last name or consent to a photograph because he did not want to make his family a target, he said.
Now in his 40s and on parole, Anthony is starting a new life in Lodi. He has met individuals in the town's Norteño and Sureño communities during his two years living near East Elm Street.
He spoke about Lodi's gang situation and potential remedies in an interview with the News-Sentinel.
Q: It seems like most citizens aren't concerned with gang violence in Lodi because so-called "innocents" rarely catch stray bullets. Would you agree?
A: Definitely. I would say that you are no longer an "innocent" when you join a gang. Take the shooting that happened early Monday morning as an example. What are you doing in a rival gang territory with your colors on at 2:45 in the morning? Whenever there is a gang shooting, my first response is: What did they do to get shot? It's not to excuse the incident or glorify the shooter, it's just a question that needs to be asked to understand the situation.
Q: What do teenagers not realize about joining a gang?
A: Simply put, if you are seriously committed to the gang, you will go to prison. It's a vicious circle, because gang culture is so wrapped up in respect. And you gain respect in the crew by going to prison.
But there can be a lot of pressure for teenagers to join up. If a kid joins from ages 14 to 19, he's pretty much committed until his late 20s or early 30s. I think that's the other thing they don't realize.
Q: How can you avoid getting recruited by a gang?
A: A lot of it has to do with the parents. My brother, who was also in a gang, has several children. While he was raising his son, he told the gang members in his neighborhood that his kid was off-limits. Parents have to be involved in their children's lives. It goes a long way. If your parents are constantly on you, it's harder to get away with anything.
But we also need more education and community involvement. I think we should be teaching kids as young as 6 or 7 about the realities of gang life. They should be shown what the different types of graffiti looks like, what gangs control what areas and what they are about.
It would be best if we could get current gang members to partner with police to go into schools to do this, but it's a delicate situation. Ideally, you would take a Sureño and have him talk to a school in a Sureño community. You wouldn't want anybody to feel set up. But they have to be active members. They can't be dropouts who have lost the respect of the gang. I think the cops know who to approach and who to talk to. They see these guys on a daily basis.
But it's important you tell these kids the truth. People can be scared and think it's too harsh, but these kids can handle it. They are already living in the neighborhoods and hearing gunshots and shouting; it's not like they don't have some idea of what's going on.
Q: What other advice have you given to your nephews and others that seemed to work?
A: I ask them if they love their mom. I ask them how they would feel if they were in prison and got a letter one day saying their mom died six months ago. Losing loved ones will eat you up, especially if you aren't there to say goodbye.
One of the most effective things is tell them what prison is like. You may have been the boss on the street before you go to prison, but once you are inside, everything is different. Some have this perception that prison is easy or fun, and that all you do is kick your feet up, but that's not the case.
Q: How do you get out of a gang?
A: As I said, it's tough to get out during those critical years once you're in it. I've seen 19-year-olds get caught up in it, and a year later they want out. But it's too late. I tell them they never should have gotten involved to begin with.
I lost a lot of my life because I was in prison. Now that I'm out, things are different. As you get older, it's easier to get out because you're more mature. Having the support of family and a good woman helps, too.
Q: What are your impressions of some of the gang members in Lodi?
A: There are people I respect, but there are some real knuckleheads out here, too. Some of these kids are out here showing their guns off, and that's not something you should be doing. Where I was raised, you kept the gun hidden until it was time to use it, and you never showed it off.
Also, there will be a shooting in the area and the people who did it will come out looking at the scene when the cops arrive.
But there are also people out here that I have respect for. I've seen Norteños move into Sureño communities here without a problem, and vice-versa. There are rules for doing that. If you live in a rival territory, you can't be having all your friends over and cause trouble. You have to respect their community.
Q: How do you perceive Lodi?
A: I like Lodi a lot. I lived in Stockton for a while but hated it. Lodi has its problems, but things could be much worse.
The one thing I will blame the city for is some of the conditions on the Eastside. There are alleys throughout the area with broken mailboxes and mail thrown all over the ground. That sight is a sign of bigger issues, and I don't think they would let things like that happen on the west side.
Lodi does have the potential to be a goldmine for a gang with enough energy and dedication. There have been cuts to public safety, and the area has a lot of places to hide. The closing of the local district attorney's satellite office also means there will likely be fewer cases prosecuted because there isn't the time or resources.
However, while Lodi could be ripe for the taking, I don't see it happening in the immediate future because it's not worth it. The community is still too small, so it's hard to stay under the radar. And the gangs out here aren't highly connected to the major gangs.
Q: Does Lodi's size prevent it from being more violent?
A: I think so, but you can never say for sure. There has been a lot of violence recently, but I think the reason things aren't a whole lot worse is because it can be hard to hide from your enemies in a community this size. If you are going to order a hit on someone, you'd better be sure they are going to stay down. Otherwise, if they live and find you, it's going to be all bad.
Q: What drugs are the gangs into in Lodi?
A: There is no huge network of suppliers out here. This area doesn't have big-time methamphetamine manufacturers like other parts of the county. However, there are meth producers out here. The other drug on the rise in Lodi is heroin. Since the push was made by cops to crack down on Oxycontin, heroin use has grown because it's cheap and readily available. And once these kids out here get hooked on that, life becomes very difficult for them.
Often when a gang member gets busted for drug sales or possession, it's something he's doing on his own because of his addiction; even though he gets charged with selling drugs to benefit a street gang.