Saturday, August 27, 2005
DVD purports to show gang life in Roanoke
Police say they are seeking the facts behind the video.
An angry-looking man in a white T-shirt holds up a large golden medallion hanging around his neck. It is marked with the letters SW and an image of Jesus Christ.
"Southwest, baby," the man barks at the video camera, surrounded by a lively nighttime crowd at Hurt Park apartments in Roanoke. "LT ... they ain't got nothing on us over here," the man adds, in an apparent reference to the Lincoln Terrace neighborhood.
In a later portion of the video, subtitled "Villa Heights," a group of men threaten "snitches" with violence. One youth, who looks too young to have a driver's license, holds up a handgun. "Stop snitching," he warns.
It's all on a 95-minute DVD titled "Real Talk" that has been sold in Roanoke-area stores and features rap music, gritty street talk and a violent fight.
Roanoke police have released a statement saying that parts of the video "support intelligence information previously collected by the department regarding gang-related activity." And police say they have launched an investigation "focusing on ascertaining the validity and intelligence value of possible criminal activity."
The DVD is replete with references to drugs and violence. It shows men rapping and flashing hand signs and brandishing guns. At one point, a man displays a tattoo on his forearm of a black handgun and the letters "LTP," an apparent reference to Lincoln Terrace Posse, which is identified as a gang in a 2002 report from the National Drug Intelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice.
City police released their brief statement after The Roanoke Times asked about the video. But it is unclear whether the police are saying for the first time that gangs exist in Roanoke. Gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, who started an anti-gang task force as attorney general, has said that they do.
Police spokeswoman Aisha Johnson declined to elaborate on the statement, citing the ongoing investigation. She also said Police Chief Joe Gaskins was unavailable for comment. "He is not going to discuss this issue," she said.
The producer of "Real Talk" identifies himself in the video as "Das." In a brief interview this week, he said almost everything in the film is "scripted." Asked why he made the video, he said, "It's pretty much a positive movie." He then ended the conversation, and future attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.
"Real Talk" starts off with what amounts to a music video and later cuts to the start of a violent, late-night brawl involving several women at a convenience store in Northwest Roanoke. It takes police several minutes to break up the Aug. 7 fight, mostly because the women won't let go of one another's hair. Three women were arrested in the altercation.
In some parts of the video, men and women are outside yelling and holding up infant children. Adults tell children younger than 10 years old to show hand signals representing their neighborhood. One little boy can't do it right, and an older one shows him how.
A portion of "Real Talk" is filmed at Melrose Clothing on Melrose Avenue. Owner Feras Qaza said he agreed to the filming in hopes of free publicity. But he hasn't been able to get a copy for himself. He said he went to a local convenience store to buy one, but a clerk said they had sold out. Johnson, the police spokeswoman, has declined to say what stores have been selling them or when the video came out.
Since Qaza bought the store two months ago, he said, it has been burglarized twice by men with guns. Earlier this week, someone shot a .45-caliber bullet through his store window. On Tuesday, in broad daylight, a sport utility vehicle stopped outside his store and a gunman rose out through the sunroof and sprayed at least 15 rounds at a green house across the street, forcing the people on the front porch, and Qaza, to hit the ground, he said.
On the "Real Talk" DVD, the camera zooms in on the green house briefly.
Johnson, the police spokeswoman, said that police have interviewed the producer of the DVD and are attempting to identify other participants.
Some community members say police should more openly discuss the issue of gangs, a subject that has been open to debate. There are those who are adamant that gangs are very much a part of local street life, and others who mock local thugs as wannabe gangsters who wouldn't stand a chance in places like New York or Los Angeles.
Community activist Jeff Artis said after viewing the video on Friday that "it looks like things are going pretty good for the drug dealers."
"The city has always said, 'If we ignore the gangs that we have, they'll go away,'" Artis said. "Those of us on the streets dealing with this gang problem know that the gangs already have what they want" - money, power, control over their neighborhoods.
Artis and Mindy Grizzard, a board member for the Virginia Gang Investigators Association in Richmond, both said that localities must acknowledge they have gangs in order to receive certain funding to fight them or to prosecute them with tough anti-gang statutes.
They also said that DVDs like "Real Talk" could be used as a recruiting tool for gangs. And Artis pointed out that the men on "Real Talk" who threaten to harm snitches might frighten people who otherwise would go to police.
Daniel Hale, president of the local NAACP, said he was outraged by the vulgarity of the video. But he said he thought people were playing to the cameras in some cases, acting tougher than they normally would.
"Yes, we have gang activity, but I think police are on top of it," Hale said. He added that he didn't think there are "full-fledged" gangs in Roanoke.
What disturbed him most about the video was the sight of children outside late at night.
"The part that really bothers me was the little kids, small children," he said. "That's not saying much for the parents."