Anthony Thomas Jr. got everyone’s attention Saturday when he began talking about how he had been a Wichita gang member – and why he left.
The setting: a gathering of community leaders, elected officials and activists at Wichita State University to discuss ways to fight the underlying causes of youth problems, particularly gang involvement. The gathering was organized by Brandon Johnson, executive director of CORE, a nonprofit whose focus includes mentoring and community wellness. The meeting drew about 20 people to WSU’s Marcus Welcome Center.
Johnson told participants that gang members had been invited but didn’t show up because law enforcement officials had been invited. Wichita police Capt. Rusty Leeds, in plain clothes, came to the meeting to join the discussion.
Thomas, 28, began his short talk by telling the participants that he had been a gang member in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“One of the reasons I joined a gang is because my dad wasn’t there,” said Thomas. He said he followed a relative into the gang.
If there had been someone to guide him, Thomas said, “I would have had way better decisions.”
Part of his message now is for young people to “stop killing each other … stop selling drugs to each other.”
People shouldn’t view each other as enemies, he said, because “we’re all human” – eat the same food, go to the same schools.”
“Wow!” someone said after Thomas made his point. Then came scattered applause.
Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams asked the moderators: “Can I ask what changed him?”
“Well,” Thomas replied, “I went to jail,” for drug possession.
But if there is a prime reason he left the gang life, he said: “I have a son, and he’s 1 year old.”
And Thomas didn’t want his son to become part of the same cycle, he said. The boy needs his father 24/7, Thomas said.
Thomas also has developed a relationship with his father. He works two jobs, one as a computer field technician, the other cleaning windows.
Someone asked him what his support system is. He didn’t hesitate. He said it is his father, his mother, his church.
In the earlier discussion, Leeds, the commander of the police Patrol North Bureau, was asked why young people join gangs.
For a number of reasons, he said. They’re not encouraged to learn. They get lost. “They don’t know what being a good man means.” They get caught up in their ego.
Police have been involved in youth programs for years, but it takes family and neighborhood support as well, Leeds said.
The boys who join gangs “don’t value human life because they don’t see hope for the future,” he said. For them, there’s “no meaning to life.”
“They self-destruct, and a lot of times they hurt other people along the way.”
Tommy Benford told of once seeing an 18-month-old girl make gang signs with her hands. He said the mother told him: “I didn’t teach her. It must have been from the father.”
So there are children born into gang life, he said. “We have families that are actually raising gang members.”
Part of the solution, said David Gilkey, an Urban League of Kansas gang prevention coordinator, is as basic as spending time with young people. “These kids are crying out for help.”
Young men need good mentors, Gilkey said.
“You have to be taught to be a man.”
Instead, for some, “They start thinking that going to prison is a rite of passage.”