Gang Comeback Not Just a Big City Problem

Durham, N.C., is home to Duke University and its world-class medical center. Most residents consider it a good place to live.

But in some neighborhoods, it's easy to find drugs, guns and young men who carry the harsh souvenirs of gang life.

One gang member, who goes by the street name Brooks, raised his shirt to show a long, nasty scar running from his sternum to his waist.

"I got shot here twice and I couldn't even go to the bathroom," he says.

Gang violence is a growing problem across the country. According to a recent study for the group "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids," a coalition of big-city police chiefs, it's up more than 50 percent since 1991. That's almost as high as during the crack epidemic 15 years ago.

And it's up not just in the big cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, famous for their gangs; it's also surging in smaller cities like Durham.

Welcome to Durham

Brooks is featured in Welcome to Durham, a new film made by three young, black men who run a local hip-hop record label. Their job gave them unique access to the gangs.

Mike Wilson, the executive producer of the film, says he was surprised by what they found — "just the amount of rage that they had for not being able to survive and live comfortable lives."

Wilson says being in a gang is about survival.

"They're trying to put some pork and beans on the table, some rice, or something to drink," he says, "or [to afford] a roof or a clean shirt on their back."

Standing behind Brooks in the film is C.C. He says he's not a gang member, but on the street the distinction is not so clear. Like many gang members, he is the product of a broken home. C.C.'s mother died of AIDS.

"I lost my mom when I was 13; you know what I'm saying?" he asks. "I got a tattoo of her right here on my arm. … I knew my father, but as far as being a father figure in my life he wasn't there for me."

The Rev. Jimmie Lee Hawkins, pastor of Durham's Covenant Presbyterian Church, says C.C. is typical.

"It's amazing how broken up families are today," Hawkins says. "And in poor communities, the kids come home and no one's there. Either the parents are working or just not there, and I see that the support system of the families, [the] traditional support system, has broken apart. … [Gang life] does fill that need. They now have a family, someone who cares about them, a place to belong."

Programs Cut

Experts say there are many reasons kids join gangs — broken homes, protection, money, even to be cool.

James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, studies gangs. In a new report, he says gang violence is up so much because law enforcement and prevention programs have been cut.

"During the 1990s, crime rates plummeted and anti-gang efforts that had been successful were dismantled, thinking that we don't need them anymore," Fox says. "Well, we were wrong."

Durham is 40 percent black, and its gangs are mostly black. But the Latino population is growing, and so is the number of Latin gangs. Also, more national gangs, including the Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings, have moved in to spread their influence and to do business in drugs, guns and prostitution.

Fox says that can have a profound effect on a community.

"Gang killings are usually bad guy against bad guy," he says. "Most of the victims themselves have criminal records and belong to gangs. But it also affects the community. Gunshots [are heard] in the middle of the night. Fear is rampant in the neighborhood. [There are] drive-by shootings where innocent victims get caught in the cross-fire. So we do need to be concerned about the growing problem of gang violence in American cities, large and small."

‘Ignored the Problem for Too Long’

Even so, when gang violence arrives, it can challenge a community. Durham Mayor Bill Bell says they didn't see it coming.

"I think we probably ignored the problem for too long," he says. "That's the bottom line."

Bell says the Durham Police has increased its gang unit from seven to 20 officers — but there is little money for prevention programs, largely because of the war on terrorism.

"A lot of dollars that previously had come into this community are not available," Bell says. "That's having an impact."

That's why Bell has been working with churches and civic groups. Hawkins, whose church is near a housing project, runs camps and after-school programs as alternatives to the gangs.

"For some of the poorer kids that I work with, it's very much a factor," he says. "I think they're more exposed to it. I think it's infiltrated their communities."

Recently, one of Hawkins' teens told him about a friend who was recruited. The boy said the gang members told his friend that if he didn't kill somebody, they'd kill him. According to the story, the boy's friend did what he felt he had to do: He killed somebody.

The group that made Welcome to Durham hopes their film is a wake-up call.

"These things that are going on in these cities, especially here in Durham, they're a cry for help," Wilson says.

They may be cries for help because last year in Durham, there was a record number of homicides — 22. The number so far this year is 21, with two-thirds of them gang-related.

ABC News' Don Dahler contributed to this report. An earlier version was broadcast Aug. 8, 2004, on "World News Tonight.