The Gangfighters Network is an organization designed to bridge the gap between academia and the criminal justice professions. For more information, visit and The focus is on gangs, initially adult gangs as it appears they have been ignored or absorbed into the mainstream society. There's a special focus on gang members in the military.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The fuss over alleged gang signs – on Page 1!

By Dave Mazzarella, Stars and Stripes ombudsman
Pacific edition, Friday, December 14, 2007
This photo — which shows a soldier from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division dancing with a Washington Redskins cheerleader at Patrol Base Dragon, Iraq, during a Nov. 27 appearance by the squad — appeared on the front page of Stars and Stripes’ Nov. 29 Mideast edition and inspired several letters to the editor from readers.

Once again, folks are talking about gangs in the military. In February, Stars and Stripes published thousands of words over four days on the subject. I have a feeling people took note, judging from the way it has surfaced now.

Two front-page photographs provided by The Associated Press and published last month in Stars and Stripes started the more recent buzz about gangs, more specifically about the signs gang members make to identify their allegiances. One photo appeared Nov. 14 in the Italy edition and Nov. 15 in the Okinawa and Japan editions and showed a group of soldiers being sworn in as U.S. citizens in Iraq. The second appeared Nov. 29 in the Mideast edition and showed soldiers dancing with Redskins cheerleaders. The event also took place in Iraq.

There were quick objections to both photos, expressed in letters to the editor. It was alleged that two soldiers in the first photo — the one with a group becoming citizens — were flashing gang signs. (The two were pictured close to the center of the photograph.) Matthew Fritch, writing from Iraq, said he understood the Army was cracking down on gangs, and asked why Stripes would show such an image. The matter “should be forwarded to the Criminal Investigation Command for immediate investigation,” he wrote.

In the second photo the soldier dancing with the cheerleader supposedly was flashing a gang sign with his hands in the air. Or so thought several letter writers. "This is unacceptable and your editors must do a better job of quality control," wrote Sgt. Brian Sladky from Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Capt. Joe Smith, writing from Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, said: “This (showing gang signs) is a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, if I am not mistaken. Are you telling me that this is the best picture your staff could find, out of the many I am sure were taken there, to put on the front page?” (Smith also berated Stripes for depicting soldiers getting “up close and personal” with the scantily clad cheerleaders. And another writer, Sgt. Marsha J. Vega from Iraq, complained about what she called the authorities’ propensity to repeatedly bring in “hot females dressed in tiny outfits.” She didn’t mention Stripes. This is a debate, in any case, for another day.)

Yet another writer, Sgt. Matthew Merchant, from Camp Speicher, Iraq, questioned whether Stripes intentionally displayed the ostensible gang signs: “[I]f the intent is to point out that the [gang] problem still exists, I applaud you.”

As to the two photographs of soldiers allegedly making gang signs, it turns out that Stripes editors, when examining both photos prior to publication, raised the possibility that the soldiers were in fact doing so.

Regarding the first photo, showing the citizenship ceremony, Leo Shane III, one of the reporters for the February gangs series, and copy editor Kate Moloney, scrutinized the image. They decided it was not possible to determine if the gestures were gang-related. The photo then was published.

Shane and Moloney apparently were correct. Chris Grey, chief of public affairs for the Criminal Investigation Command (CID) at Fort Belvoir, Va., told me: “It’s hard to say with any certainty that these allegations have merit. The hand sign displayed by the soldier in the rear of the picture is very similar to the hand gesture commonly found in the Hawaiian Islands and is not associated with gang activity, and the hand gesture made by the soldier in the front is not readily recognized as a common gang sign.”

The photo of the soldier dancing with the cheerleader was also studied by the editors. Executive Editor Robb Grindstaff said: “None of us recognized it from the chart [of gang signs] we had previously published with the gang package.” My check of law enforcement sources revealed a slightly more confident yet not definitive judgment. The hand gestures “closely resembled” those of a Harlem gang, said one source, who asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the subject. Another expert, Richard Valdemar, a gang expert formerly with the Los Angeles Police Department, said one hand looked to him as if it were giving a sign, but not the equally contorted other hand.

Still, as Grey of the CID noted, “displaying hand gestures is not a criminal act” and showing signs is not proof that the person belongs to a gang. Signals could be considered criminal if they threatened violence or menace — certainly not evident in the two photos Stripes published. And both Grindstaff and Grey pointed out that in modern times, rap artists and ordinary “cool” individuals often display gang signs even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with gangs.

As to the two soldiers pictured, only they know what they were doing. The captions on the photos did not include their names. For the record, I tried to identify them in order to make contact and ask, but I failed.

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. Here are four: Let’s just cool it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Clearly you are not good at research! It would have been easy for you to discover that this is not a gang sign, but a greek fraternity hand sign--how u categorize greek hand signs is your choice--idiots!