A group of about eight to ten of them had gathered in a circle outside. Black hooded sweatshirts, black New Era hats, that was normal. But now most of them were also adorning black bandanas, worn in the style of bandits of the old west, concealing their faces from the nose down.
There was a lot of movement. A few of them were slinging around baseball bats, the rest were hopping on the balls of their feet, floating like Muhammad Ali, warming up and throwing jabs into the air. This, I realized, was not looking good.
In 2009, I joined Teach For America and taught 1st Grade Bilingual at Public School #8 in downtown Passaic, New Jersey. In the spring of my second and final year there, I was teaching night classes of English as a Second Language to adults, mostly parents of kids who attended the school.
In the minutes leading up to 6:00pm one night in early May of 2011, I was watching the scene above as it began to unfold in the parking lot adjacent to the school. I knew who they were. It was Brave Heart; the Latino street gang that considered 4th Street and the property of our public school to be their own.
As my class was about to start, we heard screaming from outside. The nervous parents stood up and rushed over to the window to see what was going on. I ran out of the door and into the parking lot. The conflict Brave Heart was anticipating had come and gone in a flurry.
Someone had been stabbed.
I ran outside because a handful of my students, six and seven-year olds, were playing soccer in that parking lot, several yards away from the scene of violence that had just erupted. I yelled at them to get over to where I was. They hadn’t even realized what had happened. None of them were with a parent. I put as much distance as possible between our little huddle and the crime scene and sternly instructed all of them to go home immediately.
Then I went back inside, had someone call the police, and returned to the business of attempting to teach my group of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Dominican mothers how to pronounce vowels in English and identify sight words such as “yes,” “it” and “but.”
While this was the only scene of violence that I was personally present for in my time at the school, I knew they were relatively common in the neighborhood, and that the vast majority of it came from conflicts that Brave Heart had with other gangs.
In Passaic, gangs are essentially semi-organized groups of confused, unskilled and angry young men who channel their general animosity towards other groups of confused, unskilled and angry young men. These groups periodically release their feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and societal alienation in the form of violence against each other, as evidenced by the evening stabbing in the school parking lot.
The presence of Brave Heart was felt on 4th Street. Although relatively few in number, the gang very effectively used graffiti and an aura of recklessness and intimidation to cast a shadow of fear over a neighborhood of otherwise peaceful and hardworking recent immigrants.
The pictures below give a glimpse into this shadow and expose just how easily a group of adolescent thugs can damage an entire community when they are allowed to operate with virtual impunity in areas long forgotten by political leaders, the media and even the police.
230. Passaic, NJ. Welcome to Casimir Pulaski School, colloquially and less imaginatively refered to as “Number 8.” The first day I arrived at the school, days before the 2009 school year was about to start, I thought I had mistakenly arrived at an abandoned building. I was wrong.
231. Passaic, NJ. Many of the school’s airplane-dense windows bear the scars of bullets.
232. Passaic, NJ. Allow a public building to fall into such a state of degradation, and you should hardly be surprised that adolescents begin to act accordingly around it. The man walking on the ground in this picture is not a gang member, he was just passing by. The man (teenager?) dressed in all black hanging out on top of the school is a member of Brave Heart.
233. Passaic, NJ. Here is one of the doors into the school, relentlessly tagged by Brave Heart. Notice the gang hand symbology in the lower left.
234. Passaic, NJ. Claiming 4th Street as their own, Brave Heart uses the number 4 in much of its graffiti. This image depicts an absolutely fascinating psychological reality. Brave Heart is a violent street gang. But…here for all to see, they have recorded their self-proclaimed values. “For Leaders, For Love, For Loyalty, For Life.” Taken in a different context, it seems that slogan could just as easily fit as a respectable mantra for say, a fraternity or some other benevolent social club. Did the young men who are now stabbing each other in parking lots due to gang affiliations aspire to this behavior as dreaming children? I doubt it. To such an obvious and perhaps frustrating extent, we are all products of our environments.
235. Passaic, NJ. Now we’re on to tagging local businesses. On the left, we have “La Cautro” a misspelled attempt at “La Cuatro” or “The Forth” in Spanish. Roman numeral IV on the right.
236. Passaic, NJ. Spanglish gang graffiti. The syntax is grammatically incorrect here, even in Spanish. “Loca vida” is an attempt at “Crazy Life.”
237. Passaic, NJ. Shoes on phone lines can mean many different things and sometimes mean nothing at all. But usually, it’s not a good sign. Brave Heart graffiti covers two entire walls below.
238. Passaic, NJ. Now we’re on to claiming people’s homes. “B4” means “Barrio Cuatro” or “Forth Neighborhood.”
239. Passaic, NJ. “B.H” is Brave Heart.
240. Passaic, NJ. When neighborhood kids and their parents go to play basketball on this net-less hoop, they are reminded that Brave Heart considers this a part of their personal property.
241. Passaic, NJ. And into the lion’s den. This is some sort of storage or grounds maintenance facility that technically belongs to the school. In practice, it belongs to Brave Heart. This is where they hang out, drink and get high.
242. Passaic, NJ. Interesting juxtaposition of the phrase “Evil Side” written using hearts.
243. Passaic, NJ. But of course, what is the point of being in a gang if you don’t have another gang to get yourself all riled up about? In black spray paint, you can see a rivaling gang’s tag “3rd” which has been reclaimed by Brave Heart’s orange and white graffiti with the “BH” and “4 St.” The “CV” in the lower left means “Corazones Valientes” or “Brave Hearts” in Spanish.
244. Passaic, NJ. Months go by. Then another rival gang comes in with black spray paint, puts a big “X” over Brave Heart’s graffiti, and marks it with their own initials “VL” (Vatos Locos) or “Crazy Dudes.” Brave Heart then reclaimed this wall once more putting a white “IV” over the whole mess.
245. Passaic, NJ. This is another angle of the “4 Leaders” door into the school, after it had been repainted by the school, and then retagged by Brave Heart, and then dissed again by the “3rd Block” gang. In case you’re keeping track here, yes, 3rd street and 4th street are literally separated by a single city block.
246. Passaic, NJ. This is what the K-3rd grade students stand next to while lining up to come into school every morning.
247. Passaic, NJ. This is the former Passaic Public School Administration Building. It is located on a busy street about a mile from School #8. For years, this is what the property has looked like, decrepit and left to be used as a canvas upon which street gangs can advertise themselves. What kind of message does this send to the kids who walk past this on their way to school? Who is really in control in this community? The responsible adults, or a minority of disaffected youths with spray-paint cans, bandanas, and knifes?