Guns, Emojis A Volatile Mix As Gangs Embrace Social Media
Lamanta Reese lived much of his gang life in virtual reality, posting videos on YouTube of him and others taunting rivals. He died at age 19 in the real world, bleeding from his head onto a porch on Chicago's South Side after one of those gang rivals, prosecutors say, shot him 11 times. Another possible factor in his slaying: A smiley-face emoji Reese posted that the suspected gunman may have interpreted as a slight about his mom.
Gangs' embrace of social media to goad foes or conceal drug dealing in emoji-laden text is the biggest change in how gangs operate compared with 10 years ago, according to new law enforcement data provided exclusively to The Associated Press ahead of its release Tuesday by the Chicago Crime Commission. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites have radically altered gang culture in Chicago. They are having a similar influence on gangs nationwide.
These days, there's nearly always a link between an outbreak of gang violence and something online, said Rodney Phillips, a gang-conflict mediator working in the low-income Englewood neighborhood where Reese lived and died. When he learns simmering tensions have spilled into violence, he no longer goes first to the streets.
"I Google it," Phillips said. "I look on YouTube and Facebook. Today, that's how you follow the trail of a conflict."
Asked what led to his son's death, Reese's father, William Reese, answered promptly: "Something on the internet." He said his son and Quinton "ManMan" Gates, later charged with first-degree murder in the killing, had been trading barbs on Facebook.
Updated gang maps also being released in a Chicago Crime Commission Gang Book chart the turf of 59 gangs, from Reese's Black Disciples to the lesser-known Krazy Get Down Boys. They illustrate how gangs have splintered into smaller, less disciplined factions quicker to resort to violence. The last Gang Book — used as a guide by regional police — was published in 2012.
Gangs put a premium on retaliation for perceived disrespect. In the past, insults rarely spread beyond the block. Now, they're broadcast via social media to thousands in an instant.
"If you're disrespected on that level, you feel you have to act," said Phillips, employed with Target Area, a nonprofit group that seeks to defuse gang conflicts.
Reese, whose nickname was Taedoe, was prolific on Twitter, posting 28,000 tweets under the handle @taedoeDaShoota. He displayed bravado but was also introspective, tweeting about his odds of dying a violent death. One of his last tweets read: "Death Gotta Be Easy Because Life is Hard." It included a sad-face emoji.
Police say there was a gang connection to most of the 650 homicides in Chicago recorded in 2017 — more than in Los Angeles and New York City combined. Homicides so far in 2018 are down around 20 percent. Police partly credit better intelligence and the deployment of officers to neighborhoods on the anniversaries of gang killings.
So integral is social media to gang dynamics that when Englewood-area pastor Corey Brooks brokered a truce between factions of the Black Disciples and Gangster Disciples in 2016, he insisted they agree to refrain from posting taunts. The gang truce lasted longer than most — 18 months.
Some gangs provoke enemy gangs by streaming live video showing them walking through rival turf. Others face off using a split-screen function on Facebook Live and hurl abuse at each other.
Chicago gangs maximize attention with videos of themselves performing an aggressive hip-hop called drill rap. Reese was among his gang's rappers. In a video posted before he died, he and his gang brandish guns, flash gang signs and curse, singing, "They want war? We're gonna give 'em war."
The Black Disciples' historic enemies include the Gangster Disciples and Micky Cobras. But authorities say 19-year-old Gates was a fellow Black Disciple but from a different faction. Gates' Mac Block is across Halsted Street from Reese's faction, called LoweLife. Each controls four square blocks.
The Chicago Crime Commission materials list more than 2,000 gang factions. Successful prosecutions in the 1990s of gang bosses, who kept street soldiers in check, left power vacuums filled by small cliques led by younger people eager to break away.
Another Target Area mediator, Michael Nash, who speaks regularly with the Mac and LoweLife factions, said Reese and Gates were once friends. He said both were likable.
William Reese says his son always urged his gang not to resort to violence. He said his son acted lovingly toward his siblings. And, he added, "He had a beautiful smile."
It's not entirely clear why there was a falling out, Nash said. But Gates felt disrespected by one Reese posting on Facebook before the shooting. Another person made an off-color comment about Gates' mother. Reese's response? A smiley-face emoji.
"Without social media, maybe Taedoe goes, 'Ha, ha,' and that's as far as it goes," Phillips said. "With social media, everyone sees it. Social media is gasoline that fuels violence."
Authorities say that as Reese sat on a porch with his cousins at dusk in May 2017, Gates crept up, cursed LoweLife and fired, hitting Reese's in the head, abdomen and groin. One cousin cradled Reese as he died. Messages for Gates' lawyer weren't returned.
Now social media helps keep memories of Reese alive. A memorial Facebook page for him includes an edited photo of Reese with angels' wings. His dad posted a message with 14 crying-face emojis, adding: "I miss my son."