What Now, Gang Island?

Here's the Thing - Commentary by Jaci Clement, Fair Media Council

Catapulted into the national spotlight during Tuesday night’s speech, Long Island now has a new challenge at its doorstep: Eliminating the image of ‘Gang Island’ conjured up during the President’s State of the Union speech, as nearly 46 million Americans learned of the extent to which gang violence is happening inside the place formerly doing business as the birthplace of suburbia.

Unfortunately, POTUS gave a very real and accurate description of what’s happening in some communities here. Even more unfortunate is how those unfamiliar with this particular sandbar regard Long Island as one entity, instead of what it is: about 110 varied miles of counties, cities, towns, villages, and hamlets nestling eastward from New York City to Montauk’s silky shoreline. In the image of Long Island, there’s no demarcation line between the small pockets of bad, which are actually surrounded by larger tracts of good. No, there’s simply no app for that.

This is no longer a burgeoning image crisis. It’s now a full-on crisis.

The first thought, of course, is this is bad for tourism, which just happens to be Long Island’s biggest industry, topping out at about $6 billion a year. Like most things, tourism comes in many flavors, including educational tourism, where the question to be asked now is this: Who wants to send their kids here to go to college?

In one speech, there were many implications.

The trickle-down effect of gang violence is that it impacts every part of a community: Property values decline, insurance rates go up. Small businesses in communities where gangs have a presence experience decreased sales. Violent crimes strain public safety resources, as well as those of healthcare. Drugs and addiction often play a role. Immigration plays a role and illegal immigration is often cited as a root cause, but not all gang members are illegals. In fact, some are American born. More to the point: MS-13 is American made.

Expert sources like the National Gang Center and youth.gov provide details on the adverse effects of gangs on communities. In a nutshell, the character of a community changes. The consequences of that impact everyone.

The questions before us, right now: How will Long Island react to its time in the spotlight, and how quickly? The longer this image lingers in peoples’ minds, the harder it is to erase. Think L.A., and the picture is clear.

Yet, in an odd way, we should be grateful for the spotlight. There are few absolute rules in life, aside from the laws of nature, but this is one: Problems don’t get solved until we recognize there is a problem.

The problems that get the most attention? Those that create an adverse financial impact.

Of course, Long Island is not alone in this problem, but it certainly seems the case in this New York minute. The Cowboys were the original American gang, but over time the Italian Mafia took hold. Today’s marketplace sees the days of ‘The Godfather’ over: Crain’s New York took a look at the New York metro area in its Jan. 15, 2018 edition, and provided this cheat sheet to today’s local gangs:

“As the city’s Italian population has aged and moved away, so has the influence of the Sicilian-style Mafia. But new ethnic groups and criminal cartels have arisen: Albanian organizations in the Bronx, Westchester, Staten Island and Queens; Russian outfits in Brooklyn and New Jersey; and Central American maras on Long Island. More violent and less racially and structurally monolithic than their Italian counterparts, they tend to deal in the underground economy: heroin, high-stakes poker, hacking, identity theft and stolen goods…”

The problem we’re presented with ushers in the need for a new level of cooperation, across all boundaries, geographic and otherwise. What’s at stake is not only the future but today, as well. Change is only half the battle. The other half? Communicating the victories.

–Jaci Clement

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