Gang seminar puts local face on national problem

Symbols and phrases spray-painted on buildings, streets and mailboxes around the area prove a national and local gang presence in York County, leaders say.

And police say stars, crowns, pitchforks, 8-balls, martini glasses and even the Playboy Bunny -- all used in tattoos and graffiti to identify gangs -- have been seen on the Freedom Center, in Cherry Park and on houses and apartments around Rock Hill, Lake Wylie and western York County.

"We have three gangs in Sharon. It's not big enough to turn around in, but they're shooting each other in downtown Sharon," Rock Hill Police detective Tim Ayers said in a talk bout gang trends in the area Friday as part of "Beat the Streets," a gang awareness seminar to inform people about gangs and give them resources to help.

About 200 people have registered for the two-day seminar.

"We had a good turnout today," said Chana Sanders from YouthNet, a sponsor of the gang awareness conference that continues today with youth-oriented programming.

Some local teens are learning about national gangs online, but Ayers said that doesn't mean they aren't acting like real gangsters in real life.

"We see kids in Lancaster and Chester associating with our kids," said Ayers, a gang investigator. "We see gangs out of Lancaster and Chester counties starting up in York County. Our own kids in our neighborhoods are sometimes more of a problem to our neighborhoods than those from the national groups."

Caroline LeMay, who works with children in Chester County, learned about how to identify the different gang symbols Friday.

"It's a local problem, not just a national one," said LeMay, of Rock Hill. "We need to own it, not deny it."

Tattoos aren't the only way to identify someone as a gang member. Ayers showed photos from MySpace.com, a popular social networking Web site, that featured teens from York and Chester counties proudly showing off their gang's hand symbols.

Another way to identify what gang someone is affiliated with is by beaded necklaces, Ayers said. Adding a cross makes those religious symbols, something schools and jails are fearful to ask someone to remove because of lawsuits, he said.

This free gang awareness program continues at 10 a.m. today at the Baxter Hood Center at York Technical College. For more information, call 366-3391.

Why youths join gangs:

• Respect and self-identity

• Protection

• To replace a dysfunctional family

• Lack of economic opportunities

• Desire for excitement

• Lack of activities in and outside of school

• Gangs' acceptance in pop culture

Source: Detective Tim Ayers, Rock Hill Police Department