Middle-Class Gangsters: Is Poverty a Good Excuse for Being a Gangster?

The subject of middle-class youths joining gangs was raised in both the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New York Times last weekend, but in very different ways.

The Times, predictably, describes such youths as “swept up” by forces beyond their control, like their poor counterparts, as if they have no responsibility for choosing to commit armed robbery:

“Raylin [Footman] comes from a good background,” said Mr. Footmon’s aunt Lisa Polite, 44, the correction officer.  [Footman was killed while participating in a violent armed robbery where the store owner opened fire after the robbers began pistol-whipping his employee] “My nephew didn’t have to rob anybody. His mother took care of him. I don’t know why he was there.”

Actually, nobody has to rob anybody.  People don’t commit crimes in order to pay community college tuition: they commit crimes because they choose to break the law.  “Mr. Footmon was a marketing student at Technical Career Institutes in Manhattan,” the Times irrelevantly tells us, going on to describe the academic accomplishments of fellow criminal Bernard Witherspoon in even more detail:

[A] 20-year-old man from East Harlem hoping to get a job with the city sat down at a computer in a building near City Hall and took civil service exam No. 8309. . . Witherspoon, had graduated two months earlier from Borough of Manhattan Community College with an associate’s degree in liberal arts. . . The passing score on the exam is 70. Mr. Witherspoon earned 82.5.  Nearly a year later, Mr. Witherspoon’s life has taken a dramatic turn: He sat last week inside the Manhattan Detention Complex, not as a guard but as a prisoner . . . “I’m not a naïve mom,” said Mr. Witherspoon’s mother . . . “He was really a good kid. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. He really was.”

“[H]ad taken a dramatic turn.”  As if Witherspoon just looked up from his studies one day and was standing in a store, beating an innocent man while his friend waved a gun.  “[W]rong place at the wrong time.”


The Times seems annoyed that the public was not appalled, as they were, when an innocent store owner defended himself and his employees with a gun (“a simple Western-style parable,” they sneer).  They set out to correct their wayward readers:

[T]hat reality coexists with another, less publicized narrative: That while the four men may have put their lives and the lives of others at risk, not all of them fit the stereotypical profile of violent offenders.

More whitewashing.  Armed robbery is not secondhand smoke.  Walking into a store, pulling out a gun, and threatening to kill people cannot be couched in the soft verbiage of “putting others at risk,” at least not by people writing honestly.  But the Times is not interested in honesty.  They are unwilling to examine their ruling preconception: that criminals are merely poor people expressing their feelings about the injustice they experience, that they are victims of society.  The fact that virtually all poor people do not engage in criminal activity to “express themselves” is irrelevant: law-abiding poor people are merely one group they misrepresent, in the interest of mythology.

Then, faced with a situation that even the Times cannot fit into this chosen narrative, they don’t question the narrative: they simply manufacture a new one.  These “sons and strivers,” as they label the armed thugs, are just a slightly different style of criminal-victims, led astray by authentic (“stereotypical”) criminal-victims, but no more culpable than they are, which means not culpable at all:

“No matter what people might say, they did not know [Footmon],” Umar Abdul-Jalil, an imam who is the Department of Correction’s top chaplain, told those gathered. “We knew him. He was a good son.”  Moments later he reached into his pocket and pulled out something small and held it up in the air, to applause. It was a pebble.  “Let those who do not sin cast the first stone,” Mr. Abdul-Jalil said.

In other words, even though a young man of some promise is dead as a consequence of his own action, that action — participating in a violent armed robbery — must not be seen as the cause of his death.  Footmon was not responsible — how could he be responsible?  Maintaining the illusion of “not responsible” is more important, even, than learning how to prevent the next dead young man.


The Times, likewise, learns nothing, even though they are forced by minimal adherence to journalistic standards to include another fact that says a lot:

Raylin Footmon had one previous arrest. Last June, he was charged with robbing a Queens gas station attendant; he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal facilitation, was given a conditional discharge and served no jail time.

Curiously, other papers reported that Footmon’s record was more extensive:

Raylin Footman, 21, who had prior arrests for robbery and weapons charges . . .

Either way, Footmon was not really a naif.  He had committed robbery before, probably many times before being caught, and (according to the Post) had been arrested on other weapons charges.  When he was caught victimizing a poor working person in Queens, there had been no consequences.  This is all about the courts: the police arrest them and the courts let them go.  Through the magic of non-prosecution and plea bargaining, Footmon’s Queens robbery became “criminal facilitation.”  The sentence was “no time” for a violent crime.  The other arrests, if they exist, which I’m sure they do, must have ended in non-prosecution as well.

The judge, the D.A., the newspaper, the prison chaplain: all of these people sheltered Footmon (or his post-mortem reputation) at the expense of people he had targeted and would target in the future.  The experiences of his victims — the gas station and the employee — were officially purged, disappeared in multiple travesties of justice benefiting an armed thug.

Of course, for Footmon himself, said benefit was both dubious and short-lived.  Had he served prison time for the gas station robbery, it is possible that he might have decided to lead a different kind of life when he was released.  That’s a moot point now.  But this point is indisputable: had he really been held responsible for that crime, he would be alive in jail right now, thinking about his future options, instead of dead and buried.


The Atlanta Journal Constitution article explores similar territory, but it is not a brief for excusing criminal conduct.  Quite the opposite.  Where the New York Times tries to downplay the New York robbing crew’s culpability on the grounds that two of its members also attended college, AJC reporters Bill Torpy and Steve Visser elicit reactions from observers who are shocked that Atlanta college graduates and other middle-class youths would choose a life of crime:

[Defense lawyer Mawuli] Davis said more middle-class kids were being drawn into gangs, which he partly blamed on the media-generated “thug culture.” “It is almost like a kid who is embarrassed by his privilege, trying to show he is as hard as those guys,” he said. . .

That point was driven home to Morehouse College history professor Augustine Konneh last March when he testified at a bond hearing for a star student charged with murder.

Derek Davis, 27, a former Morehouse student from an accomplished family, is accused of joining another family: Prosecutors say he participated in the Nine-Trey Bloods’ “discipline” of [Jesus] Cintron and is among those charged with his murder.

Konneh came to the hearing believing he knew his favored student well and that the charges would be dismissed. After all, Davis’ mother was a banker, his father was a counselor dealing with deviant behavior and his stepfather was a school board president in Texas.

After hearing the case against Davis, the professor no longer knew what to believe.

“When the prosecutor said there were other members of the gang at Atlanta University Center, that really scared me,” he said. “I left that place trembling.”

Did Derek Davis get bonded out?  Is he one of the 43 accused murderers walking Atlanta’s streets?


Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Mayor and the Chief of Police are gearing up to introduce a new “gang intervention” initiative that will probably be just another expensive, “expert” driven pony show to cover up the fact that they are not really removing dangerous people from the streets.  Expect more of your tax dollars to go into the pockets of ministers and activists who have already made untold millions from your taxes already — all under the guise of “outreach, not incarceration.”

No wonder middle-class kids are joining gangs.  There are few consequences, beyond lots of attention, which kids crave, and the chance to have some exciting times and get some “bling.”  And the possibility of death, of course, but that’s hard for the adolescent mind to conceive.


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