Problems At The Tacoma Mall -- Being Young And Black Isn't Easy -- Influence Of Gangs Is Felt Far Beyond The Turf Wars

TACOMA - Marcus Williams says he shoots baskets, not drugs, and that he doesn't deal or run with a gang, either.

But when the 15-year-old Lincoln High School student wore a bright-blue jacket to the Tacoma Mall, the same color favored by an area gang, he said security guards grabbed his arm and told him to leave, then handcuffed him and banned him from the mall for two years.

Paul Roggenkamp, Tacoma Mall general manager, said Marcus and his friend had been ``talking about gangs'' and cursing when they were asked to leave.

Marcus says he did nothing wrong. He believes, as do several other young men who have complained to community groups about incidents at the mall in recent months, that he was kicked out for nothing more than being young and black and wearing colors associated with gangs.

That incident two months ago and other more recent cases point out a disturbing trend, community leaders say: The war on drug-dealing street gangs has made it difficult to be young, black and male in Tacoma.

Besides the complaints about the mall, the city's Human Rights Commission is hearing from residents of the drug-plagued Hilltop neighborhood that police are stopping innocent people, based on race, in overzealous drug searches - even though the residents acknowledge Police Chief Ray Fjetland has tried to work with them to fight drugs.

Low-income housing advocates say it is tougher than ever to find apartments for black single parents with teen-age sons. They haven't collected statistics but believe that at least in some cases landlords are afraid such families will open crack-cocaine operations on their property.

``I say just because all of us are black, all of us are not selling dope,'' said Abdullah Ali, a Hilltop neighborhood activist who said he has been stopped five times by police in the past few months for minor traffic violations.

The Tacoma Mall, southwest of downtown Tacoma in an area near both white and black neighborhoods, has become a stage where the race-relations dilemma is played out daily, shoppers say.

In the mall - which has seen its share of gang-related fights and confrontations - officials say they must weigh the intimidation shoppers feel when they see a group of youths congregating against the right of the youths to be there.

But Lyle Quasim, director of the crime-fighting organization Safe Streets, said his organization has investigated six or seven cases in the past few months in which it believes young black people were ejected from the mall unjustifiably. Several, like Marcus, remain banned for two years, he said. Gerald Burke, president of the Tacoma chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said mall incidents involved black youths being asked to remove caps or jackets that happened to have colors or insignia favored by gangs. He said some youths, who said they were not gang members, complained they were asked to leave the mall for no apparent reason.

Safe Streets, the NAACP and the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of local religious leaders, are seeking a meeting with mall officials to iron out the problem. Black youths, meanwhile, say they still are being unfairly singled out.

``My only concern is the safety and welfare of customers who are legitimate customers,'' Roggenkamp said. ``We have a lot of family people, a lot of older people who shop here. I would much rather have them happy and feel safe than worry about some kid who got kicked out feeling he'd been wronged.''

Roggenkamp won't otherwise comment on the incidents, provide security reports or talk about the mall's policies except to say youths of any race are asked to leave if they're disturbing people.

Glenn Stephenson, western regional manager for the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. in Youngstown, Ohio, which owns the Tacoma, Northgate and Alderwood malls, said security officers are aware of gang apparel and activities but base their actions solely on a person's behavior. Stephenson said the three malls have no uniform rule on how long they ban people from their premises.

Quasim said he has met with Tacoma Mall managers and found the profile being used by security to identify gangs is based on appearance, not behavior. He said managers have admitted they made mistakes and would welcome training by Safe Streets to better recognize gang behavior such as hand gestures signifying gang affiliation.

Spokesmen for several other Puget Sound malls said they ban people for no more than one year and usually only after an actual crime or pattern of loitering and disturbances has occurred.

Tacoma police Detective Jack Skaanes, the department's gang specialist, said most of the mall incidents reported to police - about two a month recently, he estimates - do involve known gang members or their associates. But Marcus isn't one of them.

Whether the security guards' actions are justified, parents feel they can't find out why the youths are being ejected.

Ethel Alexander, a single parent, was arrested and charged with simple assault in February when she tried to intervene after a Tacoma Mall guard said her sons had threatened a customer. The guard said she hit his chest with her elbow. She said she was trying to find out what her boys did.

``I feel like I'm being left out,'' she said. ``They say parents don't care, but when you do get a concerned parent you can't do anything.''

Stephenson said sometimes security officers are responding to customer complaints that may or may not be justified. But keeping the customers happy is the mall's first concern, he said.

``When the black kids group up (in the mall), it intimidates the customers, even if they're not doing anything,'' detective Skaanes said. But just because a kid is black and wearing a red jacket, he added, doesn't mean he's a gang member.

The mall serves one of the most diverse populations in the DeBartolo chain, Stephenson said.

Senior citizens, young families and military personnel strolled through the mall on a recent evening.

Two black cousins, Clarence Allen, 20, and Keani Brim, 17, wore matching black-and-white checkered pants and pink striped shirts with iron-on slogans that referred to the rap group they dance in.

Brim, a Lincoln High School student, said he understands why people stare at him and his eye-catching dress in the mall even though he doesn't like it. ``They're scared because of hearsay'' about gangs, he said. Brim said he doesn't like gangs any more than the next person.

Across the mall, a 70-year-old white woman who lives nearby acknowledged that young men like Brim and Allen make her apprehensive even though she has never been bothered by them.

``I walk to the other side of the mall when I see them together,'' she said. ``I'm an old lady. I'm scared of these guys.''

Ironically, Quasim pointed out, accessories that gang members wear, such as black L.A. Raiders football and L.A. Kings hockey T-shirts and hats, are sold in the mall. Stephenson said the mall can't tell its retailers - many of which are national chains - not to sell merchandise just because gang members like to wear it.

Skaanes said police look for more specific details in ferreting out gangs, such as telltale initials on clothing, hand signs and hairstyles. Still, Tacoma police end up stopping innocent people, too.

The department's new ``special-emphasis teams'' make as many stops as they can in a given area - for traffic, loitering, anything that gives them a chance to search for drugs, said police spokesman Mark Mann.

Many of the team missions have concentrated on Hilltop because residents have asked for stepped-up enforcement. But because of Hilltop's high concentration of minorities, the intensive sweeps mean more minorities - like Ali, the neighborhood activist - will be stopped, he said.

Police said they recently apologized to a 12-year-old boy who was stopped in Hilltop, made to lie on the ground and searched as he walked home from a grocery store where a robbery had been reported. The boy's father complained that his son, who was subsequently released, had been treated roughly.

Tacoma police Lt. Phil Gainey, the officer who handled the complaint, said an internal investigation determined police had followed proper procedures in stopping the boy, but that perhaps they could have handled the situation more sensitively. The boy matched a description of the robbery suspect, according to Mann.

The morning of Marcus' confrontation at the mall, he was stopped by police in his brother's car and searched for drugs. None were found.

Marcus stayed home last week when his sister and brother went to the mall to shop for an anniversary present for his parents.

His father, a telephone repairman, has forbidden him to wear the blue jacket. Marcus now wears mostly black and white - togs he and other youths know mean ``peace'' in Tacoma's gang vernacular.

Marcus says he's angry about the incidents - but not so much at the guards or police.

``I don't think bad about them,'' he said. ``I just think the gangs have a bad image for black people. They shouldn't be in this stuff. It ruins your life.''