A few of the middle-class teenagers in baggy shorts and backwards baseball caps smoking cigarettes on the lawn behind Mark Twain Junior High School were quick to claim membership in a street gang.
"Ooh, ooh, I'm in one!" said George Clementi, a 14-year-old in a Looney Tunes T-shirt. Actually, he said, he belongs to two groups, the Crime Related Artists and the United Crime Kings.His crimes? He said he paints graffiti on underpasses and drinks occasionally. Once, he said, he was arrested for trespassing. In the most serious incident he could recall, a group of Irish boys known as the Woodlawn Kidz shot up a friend's pink Geo jeep, just three days off the lot.
Suburban youth gang activity is so different from urban gang warfare that it is considered almost a separate phenomenon by police officers across the region, who say the number of youth gangs is on the rise in New York suburbs, particularly in Westchester County.
Generally, the police said, the activities of suburban gangs fall somewhere between youthful pranks and the drive-by shootings that have left bystanders dead in big cities around the country. There is vandalism, from graffiti to property destruction. And there is violence, though the weapon of choice is less likely to be a gun than a baseball bat and the victims are more likely to end up in the emergency room than the morgue.
"Kids go to the hospital, but nobody dies," said George Clementi's friend, Ernie Ila, 17. "They get hit with golf clubs," he said with a shrug.
In fact, people have died. The police said they were concerned that two fatal shootings, including one drive-by, in Yonkers in the past year could mark the beginning of more serious problems. In any case, the police said, the proliferation of suburban gangs, with members affecting the pose of criminals and aspiring to a rap sheet, is troubling because it indicates a generalized breakdown in values.
In generally affluent Westchester County, where officials said there were 70 gangs with about 1,500 members, the police said they had cracked down on incipient middle-class gangs, including a Yorktown group known as the "Benzi Boyz," who named themselves after the Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments they steal and wear around their necks; a bunch of Peekskill middle school boys who gave themselves gang names and started fighting one another about a year ago; and the Mount Vernon Boyz, a gang of upper middle-class teenagers, including prep school students, who have reportedly been involved in a number of assaults. In each case, the police said they were able to stop or significantly slow the gang's activities within recent months.
"They're rich kids and we contacted their parents," Ken Davis, a Yonkers police officer who sometimes works with the Mount Vernon police, said of the Mount Vernon Boyz.
Indeed, short-lived alliances are one of the hallmarks of suburban gangs, which unlike city gangs do not always revolve around neighborhood groups protecting their home turf and, often, the drug business that goes with it. In the suburban sprawl, gang members are more likely to meet at school than on the block, and when trouble breaks out it is often at malls and movie theaters. Both the police and gang members said most fights in suburbia were not about territory at all but start when a member of one group offends, or "disses," a member of another group.
Revenge is usually less final here: Instead of drive-by shootings, there are drive-by beatings in which a group with baseball bats jumps out of a car and attacks a rival group. When guns are used, it is often for what the police call "walk-bys," in which gang members fire into the air.
As a result, the antagonisms are much more fluid. Because the disputes are often fleeting, suburban gang members are less likely to form long-term allegiances or wear gang colors that identify their affiliation. And suburban gang rosters and even gang names are constantly changing.
"Every couple of days you hear new names crop up," said Walter Young, deputy police chief in Stamford, Conn.
Many groups are gangs in name only, made up of youths who mouth "gangsta" rap lyrics and wear prison-inspired fashions like pants with no belts and boxers showing - a look that began with inmates who are not allowed to wear belts. "There are a million wannabes," said Davis.
Some of the wannabes "emulate themselves into jail," said Lt. Frank Messar of the Yonkers police. At least 40 percent of the 700 arrests of 7- to 16-year-olds in Yonkers last year were gang-related, he said.
Gangs are attracting more teenagers from all backgrounds and socio-economic groups, Davis said. Several female gangs have organized in Yonkers and Mount Vernon in recent years, too, with bad-girl names like "Bitches in Charge."
"There's no common denominator," said Karyn Addison, a detective in the youth division of the Mount Vernon Police Department. "Black, white, Hispanic - they're all having problems. Family life is hard for all of them, and they're trying to find their way." Even teenagers from stable homes see criminal behavior glorified on television, she said, and parents don't seem to exercise the control they once did.
"Some of these parents question what we've done instead of questioning what their kid has done," Addison said. "Instead of, `My God, my son has a gun,' it's `How can you prove he had a gun?' It's, `Why did you pick up my son?' instead of, `What was my 12-year-old doing out at 1 or 2 or 3 a.m.?' Or you try to contact a parent, and you can't find them."
Reports of gang activity in Westchester shocked local residents earlier this summer when County Executive Andrew P. O'Rourke called a news conference to discuss the presence of gangs and to announce gang prevention programs. The Reporter Dispatch in White Plains ran a front-page story that referred to "1,500 members of 70 organized youth gangs roaming the streets of Westchester and involved in assaults, robberies, burglaries and drive-by shootings."
And while some police and school officials have argued that the problem is less serious than advertised, county officials said they did not want to wait for more drive-by shootings before addressing the problems that lead to gang violence. They want federal money for programs that could prevent the situation from growing worse.
"You think of Los Angeles, the South Bronx or Harlem, you don't think about suburbia," said Toni Collarini, executive director of Westchester County's Youth Bureau. But she said the problem had been expanding beyond the city limits over the past five years, creating a need for more youth programs.
In a tour of Yonkers gang hangouts with Davis and another officer, Victor Mendez, gang members said the situation was getting scarier.
Sitting on a stoop outside an apartment building with broken stained-glass windows on Elliott Avenue, a group of teenagers known as the Elliott Troopers said they were just a bunch of guys who hung out together and got into fights with "serious gangs." These fights, they said, are steadily becoming more dangerous.
"It went from punches to razors, bats and bottles and now to guns," said Renaldo Collazo, 17, who was covered in scabs and scars that he said were the result of fights with the Lawrence Street Posse. He had 13 stitches in his head removed earlier last week after the latest run-in, he said.
His friend Damien Frank, 17, walked up then and joined in. "The last time they came over here they were wearing ski masks," he said, shaking his head at the terrorist garb favored by their rivals and lamenting the passing of the old-fashioned fistfight.
"Now it ain't nothing about fighting with their hands," said Anthony Feliciano, 17, whose face bears several prominent souvenirs of gang fights.
All three friends said their families had moved to Westchester from Brooklyn or the Bronx to get away from such urban problems.