School was out and the DSA gang was roaming about its turf near Police Plaza in lower Manhattan. J.A., otherwise known as Reptile, had just stuffed a hot dog into his lanky 15-year-old frame. More of the crew began to appear, bookbags dragging off oversize T-shirts and baggy jeans scraping the sidewalk.
Joker - like other gang members, he identified himself only by street name or initials - lurched forward, a neck full of red and yellow beads dangling onto a cross on his chest. Suddenly, there was a flurry of hand gestures, and the talk turned to the latest perceived threat: gang members who called themselves Bloods.The DSA gang - what the initials stand for is a gang secret, members said - did not exist last year. It is one of a new crop of youth gangs, or crews, that have popped up in schools and on streets across New York City as a defensive answer to the real and imagined dangers of the streets.
Reports in past weeks of a series of random slashings have heightened the specter of a gang menace to the point where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and other officials this week pledged all-out war on gangs.
But gang specialists in the police department, school officials and their statistics suggest that despite increased concern about gang mayhem, there is little evidence to indicate gang-related violence is on the rise. Nor is there evidence of a New York recruitment drive by the feared Los Angeles-based Bloods gang, police said, although there are recognized gangs that use the name and others with no affiliation to established gangs who are acting out what they have gleaned from popular cul-ture.
Echoing the feeling of many school officials and investigators, Gerard Beirne, the principal at John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Queens, said gang activity around his school has remained relatively constant during the six years he has been there.
"It has always been that way," he said. "Kids reach out to each other and form crews, sometimes for a sense of family or structure and sometimes just to be with each other. This is not going to stop. What we have to watch out for is when these groups reach the stage where people begin to get hurt."
Some parents and their children are even complaining of what they call a climate of hysteria that may only be helping to encourage students to affiliate with gangs for self-defense.
Officials at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in midtown Manhattan warned the student body over a public address system last week that there had been "rumors of gang violence." They urged students to travel in groups and to go home immediately after school.
Though defending the announcement as a safeguard for an increasingly dangerous time, one official said there had never been a gang-related incident in the school.
A parent, Mike Judd, whose 17-year-old daughter Erin goes to LaGuardia, got a frantic long-distance call from his daughter who was so upset she called him in St. Louis. "It just seems ludicrous to tell kids things like that, then send them on their way," he said in a telephone interview. "She's calling me and saying that they think there's going to be a gang war. What's a 17-year-old girl supposed to do with that information?"