I'm 47. I have been in prison for 28 years. I'm a former gang member from Los Angeles, and I'm in prison for a gang-related murder that happened in 1988.
I brought a lot of people undeserving pain and sorrow and it took me many years to come to terms with that fact.
I spent years judging people based on the gang they belong to, and if they weren't on my side, they was in my way, and therefore an enemy on every level. That stupid, childish, immature way of thinking caused me to be kicked out of society.
However today, I'm no longer the same person. I can't ignore what I did or where I came from, but instead I want to shine light on this crisis that demands our immediate attention.
First, I want to say that I take full responsibility for murdering Ms. Washington and wounding Donald Sheppard. In no way am I attempting to minimize what happened. I feel it's important I share my story with you so it can help someone not to make the mistake that I made. Again I take full responsibility for what I did and I am really sorry!
My mother was a single parent, and we lived in Watts. I was the last of four children. Even though my mother did the best she could to make sure we had what we needed, she let me go live with my father because of how dangerous the neighborhood was.
My father was 58 years old, self-employed, married and wasn't no disciplinarian. What should have been a normal transitional period for me did not go very well. I had a strong attachment to my mother and I craved the love, affection and attention she gave me.
From day one it felt different. My stepsiblings who were four older sisters, and my father's wife did not treat me as if they wanted me there. I felt no attachment with them, and the only communication we had was the verbal abuse and put-downs.
My father's wife would get drunk every Friday and walk around the house for hours berating him for being the bearer of me and she would curse obscene gestures at me. My stepsiblings would say things to me like I should have never been born, they wished I'd go back and live with my mother, and I wasn't going to grow up to be anything. I felt sad, hurt and unloved. I was confused and I couldn't understand why they didn't like me.
Over time I developed low self-esteem, and low self-worth issues that manifested itself in all areas of my life. I began to lose interest in school and my stubbornness and hard-headedness contributed to me being rebellious and doing things for attention and not weighing the consequences of my actions.
I began to be friends with two neighbors that happened to be gang members and already had juvenile records. I would hang out with them at the dairy/arcade and play video games at their expense. Soon I became like a monkey; whatever I saw them do, I did. I broke in our neighbors' houses and stole cars with them. It was all about trying to fit in with the gang and it became exciting and fun.
Soon I began smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol and my thinking was getting worse and worse. It wasn't long before I started building ties with some of the members in my neighbors' gang and I found myself more and more going up to the dairy/arcade to hang out. I felt comfortable around them, people respected them and they wasn't putting me down or treating me bad like how my stepsiblings and father's wife was doing.
My father ended up getting sick and passing away. Although my father never showed me compassion, he was my hero and I loved him dearly and his death devastated me and was the hardest thing I ever faced in my adolescence. My family blamed me for his passing. They kicked me out the house and wouldn't let me attend his funeral.
I began to really have an "I don't care" attitude. I drank alcohol and smoked marijuana every day to numb the pain, and hurt that I was feeling inside. My bad choice and immaturity was getting me into a lot of trouble and I was slowly creating a reputation that my neighbors and of course the gang liked.
I went back to live with my mother but by this time it was too late. I was out of control and consumed by the gang life. They accepted me and treated me like I was a part of their family. I felt loved and respect but being around them corrupted my thinking and beliefs. I turned into a callous, compassionless, uncaring person. Anger and substance abuse played a big part in it too. I got kicked out of school, arrested three times and my life was spiraling out of control.
I begin selling drugs and eventually I went to jail for a year. When I got released the root of my insanity had become deeper. My way of communication was through violence and I began to get into a lot of fights. My mentality was if you wasn't on my side you was in my way and an enemy on every level. I ended up robbing somebody, and I even bought a gun because I seen the power in having one and I wanted to be feared too. By this time I had no respect for myself or anyone else for that matter.
On Feb. 7, 1988 in the latter part of the evening while I was driving my car, I seen a rival gang member. I attempted to run him over. When I returned back to my neighborhood there was three or four guys in my former gang shooting dice in back of the apartment building which I lived in. I told them what I did and we laughed about it, then I went inside the house.
What happened next I never expected. Later that night they killed a member in my former gang, which was my best friend. The next morning my girlfriend went to the market and when she returned she told me some members in my former gang was talking about what happened. She heard them say it was my fault. I felt guilty and didn't want to lose the love and respect they had for me. So I decided to get even by retaliating.
I got in my car and drove over to my rival neighborhood. I got there in about five minutes. I saw two guys standing in front of a house with gang apparel on and as I drove past them, all in one motion, I raised up from the driver’s seat of my car firing my weapon. A stray bullet ended up hitting and killing Ms. Washington, an innocent person that didn't have anything to do with what I had going on.
God only knows how much I regret turning into that type of person who could be so ruthless to hurt another human being, no matter what the circumstances were. There is not a day that goes by I don't think about what I did, and there is absolutely no excuse to justify my actions that day when I did this senseless crime and caused Ms. Washington's family, Sheppard's family and the Woods' family so much pain and grief.
When I came to prison I brought my criminal lifestyle and drug addiction with me. I never was comfortable and content with who I was. I had no confidence in myself. I felt hopeless. I was taking shortcuts by getting high to numb the pain, anger, fear, shame and guilt I was feeling and I was avoiding dealing with my problems, which was one of my biggest weakness. I also was still looking for acceptance, and I was spiritually empty.
I got into a lot of trouble, and substance abuse played a vital part into my reckless behavior. For 33 years I dedicated and committed my life to my former gang. And in turn it got me a life sentence and feeling a lot of resentment, regret and pain. I dropped out of my former gang and I cut all ties with people who was lifelong bad influences on me.
I'm dealing with this stress-filled environment but I'm determined to continue working on myself so I can be a better person.
I know a lot of youths out there is in the same crisis that I once was. We are all roses that grew from the concrete, and you are wrestling with the elements of gangs, drugs and violence that has you not fearing the consequences from your anti-social behavior.
I say we, because I was once you!! I hope this inspires you to make a change in your life while you have the chance to do it, because it only take one foolish mistake to ruin your life behind some bullshhh.
Don't drag yourself through this judicial system. Be a part of the solution and not the problem because the gang is not going to look out for you when you get on this side. Don't be like me, make a change!!!
Darnell McGregger, 47, writes from the California Men’s State Prison in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He has been incarcerated since age 19 for a gang-related murder.
This column appeared in The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth. David Inocencio founded The Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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