Loose Cannons: the changing face of gangs in Rockford - WREX.com – Rockford’s News Leader

Loose Cannons: the changing face of gangs in Rockford

Greg Armstrong, former gang member. Greg Armstrong, former gang member.
Theresa Davenport (left) and Glenda Fricks (right) talk about Ceasefire. Theresa Davenport (left) and Glenda Fricks (right) talk about Ceasefire.
Police say a shooting death at Belvidere gas station was gang related (April 22, 2012) Police say a shooting death at Belvidere gas station was gang related (April 22, 2012)
Car crash after shooting outside San Jose nightclub in Rockford, police say gang related. (Nov. 2012) Car crash after shooting outside San Jose nightclub in Rockford, police say gang related. (Nov. 2012)

Shootings, stabbings and beatings were just another day at work for a onetime Rockford gang member. Greg Armstrong says that life is gone and so is the leadership he once followed. But this former gang member believes the chaos that's left behind could leave you in the crossfire.

"I have been skinned, you know what I mean. I've been stabbed. I've been jumped on. I got hit with a gun. Got hit by a car while shooting a gun. I bought a bullet proof vest and got shot with the vest on," says Armstrong.
"How many times were you shot in your bullet proof vest?" asks Rebecca Klopf.
"Six and that just escalated the thought that I had that I'm like superman," says Armstrong.

Armstrong is a 33-year-old ex-gang member. The former Black Disciple has had two turns in prison. First, for attempted murder when he was just 18. The most recent for selling drugs.  After spending five years behind bars  he says the gang-life he left is far different than what it looks like now.

"On the street you make it a little more violent cause you have no guidance," says Armstrong.

Law enforcement has had a lot to do with that. Rockford Police joined with a number of local, state and federal agencies Including the FBI and the DEA, to bring major cases against the gangs operating in the city.

"We've conducted several large gang investigations in which large numbers of the gang members including the leaders have been taken off and sent to prison," says Lt. Marc Welsh, Rockford Police Department.

Armstrong thinks those arrests have left a void. In the past he says he could understand why someone would get shot or beat up.

"For any gang there is no structure. There's nobody to enforce the rules and regulations. Cause believe it or not there are strict rules and regulations that go with being in a mob or a gang," says Armstrong.

"It seems to be like it's out of control, more chaotic. Because each individual is about their own self," says Theresa Davenport.

She heads up Ceasefire Rockford the anti-violence group works with parolees, gang members or anyone who could be at risk for causing harm in the community. It even has former gang leaders like Glenda Fricks, the onetime head of the female Gangster Disciples in Rockford working as a violence interrupter. Fricks faced a murder indictment before turning her life around. She now goes into the most dangerous sections of the city to try to diffuse the violence.  It is not usually gangs they are looking for but smaller groups called cliques.

"They are more like renegades. You have certain ones that claim to be something," says Fricks.

"Currently in Rockford you have spin-offs of larger gangs so instead of having larger gangs you have several smaller gangs that are related in the fact that they come from the bigger gang," says Lt. Welsh.

Armstrong say the cliques are usually a tight group of friends that can include non-gang members. 

"Now it comes to the point where I'm shooting at people that's in my gang. I'm fighting the people that's in my gang it's split," says Armstrong.

Armstrong cannot say if it's led to some of the most recent gang violence including the gang-involved shooting at a Belvidere gas station on April 22, 2012 that left a man dead or the fight outside the former San Jose nightclub in Rockford in November 2012. It led to people shooting at each other as they drove through the nearby neighborhoods and ended with two men dead and multiple people hurt. Armstrong expects that type of violence will only get worse.

"A lot of the wars we were fighting we didn't even know why we was fighting. It's just they were shooting at us, we were shooting at them." says Armstrong.

But Armstrong and members of Ceasefire warn you can't lay all the city's violence problems on gangs or cliques.

"Between the drugs and the money people are going to kill for that. That's not necessarily being in a gang. It's hard out here," says Armstrong.

"It's just the younger kids are deciding to do whatever they want to do," says Fricks.

For Fricks the most powerful weapon against violence in any community is a voice. Neighbors stepping up to say this is not acceptable. She says people cannot be silent and look the other way when they see things going wrong.

"When we see a group of people hanging out together and maybe we aren't feeling so comfortable with that we need to share that with our neighbors. And until we come together as one we are going to continue to deal with what we are dealing with right now in Rockford," says Fricks.

Armstrong is currently on parole after spending five years in prison for selling drugs. He says he is finished with gang life and is focusing on being a father. Rockford Police say they will continue to target the violent gangs in the community and arrest their members.

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