Violent Gangs Growing In Portland -- Police Estimate More Than 2, 500 Involved In 600 Groups Around City

PORTLAND - Frederick Lincoln, pumped up from watching a killing at a gang party, fled the scene on a bus and saw red.

The red was Johnny Simmons' T-shirt, the "colors" of a rival gang. Lincoln shot Simmons several times in the head, thinking Simmons had robbed him earlier.

It was mistaken identity. Simmons was the wrong kid and had no known gang ties.

In the past decade, 100 people have died in gang-related violence in Portland, a city better known for roses, fresh air and good living.

Gangs are expanding throughout the city and into the suburbs, new ones are emerging and efforts to blunt the trend are falling short.

"We are not winning now," said Halim Rashaan, who heads Youth Outreach, the city's youth-gangs program. "There is a lack of resources, programs and after-school activities."

While drug sales hold many gangs together, others indulge in extortion, burglaries, car theft, racial attacks and wars of respect.

igration from California

"It was in 1987 or 1988 that we first saw the big emergence of gangs in the Portland area," said police Cmdr. Derrick Foxworth, who heads the city's anti-gang efforts. "Members came from California to sell crack cocaine. We saw a lot of violence. . . . We saw the beginning of recruitment of Portland kids to sell drugs."

The California influence eventually diminished, Foxworth said, and "now it's mostly kids from the Portland neighborhoods, who used to play together, who went to school and church together."

Police estimate there are more than 2,500 people in up to 600 gangs around the city, with another 1,000 gangs scattered throughout the state. That's an explosion of growth from an estimated 250 gangs statewide just six years ago.

Rashaan said he warned the city in 1985 that Los Angeles gangs were organizing in the schools, "and that it would become a major problem if we didn't get in front of it."

"People saw it as a racial thing," Rashaan said, referring to the fact that only 3 percent of the 1.3 million people in the greater Portland area are black. "It was not looked upon as a crisis.

"By the time you realize you have a problem," he said, "they have a foothold."

et out or die

Among those who joined in that first wave was Selmene Rodriquez, 26, who was a gang member for about four years ending in 1990.

"You feel you belong. There is a sense of family, There is no prejudice," she said. "It's like an addiction, like an adrenaline high. It's hard to shake it - it's in you."

She said she was involved in drug sales but got out as gang violence rose.

"It's harder to get out now than it was then," she said. "But I took an oath, I knew, that I'd either die trying or die not trying."

Portland State University sociologist Randy Blazak, an urban-gang specialist, sees the problem as partly a migratory one.

"People move from high-crime areas such as Los Angeles to Portland and they take their traditions with them," he said.

While drugs drive black-gang activity, Asian gangs tend to be fueled by auto thefts and burglaries, and they have become the fastest-growing segment of gang activity.

Preston Wong, a Portland police officer who concentrates on Asian gangs, characterized them as the most violent of the street gangs, engaging in brazen drive-by shootings on an average of one or more a week.

"It used to be that in a drive-by shooting, they would fire a few shots at a house from a moving car," he said. "Now they will get out and shoot 30 or 40 shots into a house. That's how blatant they have become."

Wong said the gangs tend to form because the members don't feel they belong in mostly white schools.

At any given time, there are up to 40 Asian gangs operating in the city, broken down ethnically by language. Less "skinhead" growth

But not all gangs are mushrooming. A strong local economy has made it harder for the white-supremacist or "skinhead" gangs to blame minorities for unemployment and to use that pitch to recruit new members.

"They tend to compensate by taking more aggressive actions," Blazak said. "They can make a lot of noise, and the danger lies in when nobody listens to them."

As the tentacles of gang activity reach into the suburbs, small towns and the middle class, race is becoming less of a factor. "There are Crips and Bloods in southern Oregon who are white," Rashaan said.

Hispanic street gangs in Oregon tend not to deal in drugs but lean more toward organized crime, said Rafael Cancio, who tracks gangs for the Portland police.

Part of their danger, he said, involves harm to bystanders.