Shooter: “It’s Either Them or Me”

John Clark, 17, first contemplated shooting a man when he was just 15 years old after he and two friends broke into an apartment in Atlanta. The owner unexpectedly returned. “ I was scared and I would have shot him,” said Clark (not his real name). Fortunately for the owner, the young boys escaped unchallenged.

stoptheviolenceClark, a member of the CRIPS, a gang in Queens, finally pulled the trigger in November. The bullet hit a member of a rival gang in the leg, but did not kill him. In an interview arranged by Life Camp, an organization that sponsors a range of programs in South Jamaica and across the city aimed at thwarting gun violence, the young man, whose name has been changed to secure his anonymity, said that the rival gang member had beaten up his friend, using the ‘hopping method,’ a term gangs use to describe when one person is severely beaten by several others.

“My friend had a black and blue eye, all puffed up,” he said, adding that he felt the beating was a personal attack on his credibility and street reputation. “ I was like…nah man… they don’t know who they’re messing with.”

“I had to get revenge,” he said, shaking his head, remembering the encounter. “I don’t feel bad.”

Clark grew up on the streets in Queens, where he became acquainted with the older gang members. His mother passed away when he was 8 years old from kidney failure. His father raised him and his two sisters. “I got into the gang because I was chilling with the older people – them understand me – they were feeling me, getting to know me, who I was and if I could be trusted,” he said. “The gang culture is all about survival on the streets of Queens.”

“People don’t understand how much we struggle,” said Clark, “just to have money in our pockets to live. It makes me sad.”

Clark is trying to change his ways. He attends the High School for Law Enforcement and Public Safety on Guy R Brewer Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens, as well as a Life Camp group on Sutphin Blvd in Jamaica where a team of counselors works with young offenders to teach them social skills and help with rehabilitation with jobs. He started attending the group in December after his last shooting at the insistence of his girlfriend. She was afraid he would either be killed or taken to prison. “I come here because I know I am not judged and the group will support me,” he said.

Clark has aspirations of graduation and one day being a father. “I don’t want my son to struggle the way I have,” he said. He realized the only way to make a change is to have the right tools and the right support network.

Clark still owns a gun though. He says it’s for protection and notes that he doesn’t always carry it with him. He worries police may stop him. He insists he only uses the gun when he is antagonized or when he has to protect himself. “It’s either me or them,” he said.

He says he feels calmer now. But he anticipates a summer of shootings. “This summer is going to be a crazy summer,” he said. “I just hope it doesn’t involve anyone that I love.”


Muna Habib