Last year, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department decided it was going to find a way, once and for all, to dismantle a violent street gang that had wreaked havoc around several neighborhoods for over a decade.
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The gang, the only ethnically Kurdish street gang in the country, was a small but intimidating group of immigrants and first-generation Americans hailing mostly from northern Iraq and southern Turkey. The Kurdish Pride Gang took its cues from the American street gang playbook: They dealt drugs, burglarized homes and flashed gang signs; they intimidated citizens and made city parks and school playgrounds unsafe. They were involved with illegal guns, assault and, eventually, attempted murder.
So law enforcement and city officials came up with a plan to rid south Nashville of the Kurdish Pride Gang: They went to court with a list of the names of alleged members and sued them.
It was the first time Nashville, which has struggled with gang violence from more notorious syndicates, like the Crips and Bloods, sought an injunction targeting gang members, effectively prohibiting them from meeting or socializing together in public.
So far, it has worked, and the Kurdish gang is in tatters.
Nashville borrowed the tactic from California, where law enforcement has long used injunctions to fight gangs in San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, the gang capital of the country. Other cities are also trying it now, including Charlotte, North Carolina, Orlando, Florida, and Columbia, South Carolina, and across the pond in London.
A gang injunction is a civil suit filed by law enforcement asking for a set of prohibitions on an entire gang or specific members. The injunctions can target private homeowners and businesses with criminal prosecution should a crime take place on their property—even if they weren’t there at the time. The injunctions can also designate large swaths of a city or neighborhood, including parks and playgrounds, off limits to certain individuals. In some cases, they can bar an individual from having a cell phone.
They can also lead to the arrest of a person for doing a mundane task, like picking up groceries, which is what has raised the ire of human rights groups. Such was the case with Manny Ortega, an alleged gang member in East Los Angeles who stopped by a local market for groceries in March and ran into another alleged gang member. The pair were arrested while talking outside the store. Ortega said he lost his job at a local car repair shop because he missed two days of work while in jail. Others arrested under the injunction say they or their family have lost Section 8 housing over an injunction violation, according to the advocacy group Youth4Justice.org.
In Nashville, membership in the Kurdish Pride Gang has dropped from a couple hundred people in its heyday to single digits today, with several former leaders now in jail. That includes two brothers, Ako and Aso Nejad, who are serving long prison sentences for the attempted murder of a police officer.
The Kurdish Pride Gang, or KPG, formed around 2000 and grew out of the same need for a shared sense of identity that fueled the rise of other ethnic gangs, like the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the violent Salvadoran gang that got its start in Los Angeles.
Members were “jumped in” (beaten up) to prove their mettle before joining, and then gained status “based upon their age, seniority of membership and the types of crimes they have committed,” Nashville police said.
They have gang hand signals, handshakes and a gang color, yellow. Members don’t generally have tattoos for religious reasons (Islam forbids it) but some have inked their arms or shoulders with “KP for Life” or “thug life” or a Kurdish flag. Members have been known to carry yellow bandanas, wear yellow belts or yellow baseball caps.
But gangs that hail from war-torn places, like Kurdistan (which back in the mid-1990s was beset by civil war and under relentless attack by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein) present a unique problem.
“These kids were raised in a culture in which war is the norm. Some of them lived it first hand,” says Dr. Carter F. Smith, a gang expert and an assistant professor of Criminal Justice/Homeland Security at Austin Peay State University. ”So there’s this propensity to dismiss authority. They can be desensitized to violence that occurs in war and can occur on the streets.”
For years, authorities in Nashville fought the KPG the same way as other gangs, like the Bloods or MS-13. Members were arrested for low-level crimes, like smoking weed or loitering. Much of the nefarious activity was happening on street corners and in one specific park, Paragon Mills Park, where members could convene, plan and commit crimes, police said. So taking a cue from Los Angeles, law enforcement began the process of making those areas off-limits to key gang members.
The injunction targeted the entire gang and 24 individual members, making a nearly 1.5-mile section of the city off-limits. With no place to meet, hang out or conduct business, the gang has become a “dead issue,” according to police and a local activist.
But as with “stop and frisk” in New York, the police tactic that was a big topic of conversation in the recent mayoral election, the injunctions have plenty of detractors. Rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say they violate the First Amendment right of freedom of association and due process rights under the Fifth and 14th Amendments.
“It’s common practice in gang injunction cases for prosecutors to name only a gang as a defendant, obtain an injunction by default when no one shows up on behalf of the gang to contest the case and then to apply the injunction to anyone police or prosecutors think may be a gang member, without court approval or a chance for the supposed gang member to be heard,” said ACLU of Southern California Senior Staff Attorney Peter Bibring after a milestone federal appeals court ruling found that injunctions can violate due process.
The tactic has failed to catch on in some other big cities, like Chicago and New York City. New York authorities in 2000 brought an injunction on prostitutes and gang members in an area of Queens, but the State Supreme Court knocked down the ban, saying it improperly restricted the gang members’ civil liberties.
Los Angeles currently has 44 permanent injunctions, some of them encompassing entire neighborhoods. In certain areas, the injunctions remain in place even though gang crime has largely diminished.
That’s the case in Echo Park, just west of downtown L.A. Residents and rights groups are headed to court to try to overturn the neighborhood’s injunction, saying it has been ineffective and unfairly executed. Opponents have also staged protests, including a memorable flash mob last month that took to the streets in zombie makeup.