WALLA WALLA -- Gangs have been menacing civilizations for hundreds of years, since at least biblical times, experts say.
Roots of the secretive, antisocial and criminal behavior especially run deep into America's past and culture, according to Jared Lewis, a former California police officer and founder of Know Gangs, which offers seminars and expertise on gangs and gang culture.
But gangs "have never touched a greater segment of society as they do now," he writes on the Jefferson, Wis.-based organization's Web site.
In a report on the history of gangs, Lewis points to poverty that plagued migrating Europeans during the dawn of this country. Many children were orphaned or abandoned to fend for themselves. Despite apprenticeship programs created as forerunners of foster care, juvenile delinquency became a major concern.
The 1800s brought organized gangs to major East Coast cities. "Gangs were generally comprised of members of the same race and ethnic background, who banded together for protection, recreation and financial gain" and wielded powerful control over their neighborhoods, according to Lewis.
The Old West -- including Walla Walla -- also had its share of lawlessness. After gold was discovered at Orofino on the Clearwater River in 1860, it took only about three years for Walla Walla to start booming. The population soared to 3,500 in 1861, making it the largest community in the territory, attracting, of course, highwaymen and other thieves.
Early on, authorities handled criminals with kid gloves, which didn't sit well with the "good citizens of Walla Walla," Bob Bennett wrote in his book, "Walla Walla: A Town Built to Be a City."
"(They) were so incensed by these unlawful antics that extreme measures were taken to deal out justice to some of the worst men of the time without the process of law."
Apparently enough desperados were shot or hanged by vigilantes to assure relative safety for the community for decades to come. But wayward youths still roamed the streets and citizens recognized the need for proactive programs.
The Young Men's Christian Association was organized here in 1886, with a reading and assembly hall on the third floor of the Paine Building, which still stands at the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Main Street. After the turn of the century, "Sound body, sound mind" was the slogan of the day, and a fund was initiated to construct a YMCA building at 28 S. Spokane St., according to Bennett's book.
The building was completed in 1907 and featured a gym, handball courts, tennis court, swimming pool, reading and meeting rooms, in addition to a restaurant and barber shop. The Up-To-The-Times magazine wrote it would "stand as a monument to the morality and good citizenship of the young men of the community."
With an emphasis on commerce, agriculture and building a small city based on educational and cultural principles, Walla Walla was introduced to the Golden Era of gangs -- the Roaring Twenties -- mainly in magazines, books and movies. And by mid-century, although there were groups of bullies and delinquents, organized youth crime here was as tame as the old "Our Gang" comedies.
But not so in large cities across the nation. Hispanic gangs first were recognized in the 1940s and '50s, with African-American gangs forming in the '60s.
Lewis writes, "At the beginning of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, gang-related violence continued to increase to unprecedented levels." It has continued to grow and evolve, permeating every level of society and every size of community.
Walla Walla police officers noticed the first signs of gang infiltration here in the form of graffiti-tagging in 1989. By late 1992, officials had identified three burgeoning gangs, composed of 60-70 members who were mostly young Latinos between the ages of 11 and early 20s. About 50 crimes including vandalisms, intimidations and fights were linked to gang activity that year.
The gangs were -- and remain -- Sureno-based, meaning they emulate Southern California Hispanic-style gangs, according to police.
Thefts and other property crimes continued to rise and police announced a public education program. But many residents remained skeptical that organized thugs could disturb the serenity of our quiet, peaceful Valley.
Until early on the morning of Feb. 20, 1993. When bullets started piercing walls of homes.
Seven rounds were fired into a house in the 200 block of West Cherry Street. Six children -- including two gang members -- and their mother were inside, but no one was hurt. Police called it the first residential drive-by shooting in the city resulting from gang rivalry.
By the end of the year, four drive-by shootings were reported in the city and gang-related assaults totaled 23.
No one had been injured by the gunfire, but shooters' aims quickly got sharper. The following February, a 16-year-old gang member shot at two people in a parked car, wounding one of the victims in the leg.
Shootings became relatively commonplace and spread from the west end of town. By the following year, more than 20 gang members had been sent to prison or state juvenile institutions, but violence involving guns and bats continued to escalate and spread to Milton-Freewater and other surrounding communities. Meetings were held as neighbors sought protection from gangsters who displayed increasing sophistication and bravado.
By the end of 1994, Walla Walla County had posted the second highest rate of youth violence in the state. Four people had been shot in the city of Walla Walla that year and 43 youths were arrested for committing violent crimes. Superior Court Judge Donald W. Schacht told the Union-Bulletin he was appalled that the community, as a whole, wasn't outraged. "I'm perplexed and I'm frustrated," he said. "I don't understand why the public doesn't show more emotion."
But juvenile crime would rise another 20 percent in 1995, when violence finally peaked and afterward began to wane. In 1996, the number of major crimes dropped 9.9 percent, according to an annual report. Officials said many of the "major players" in the gangs had been locked up and prevention programs were starting to have an impact.
The shootings wouldn't stop anytime soon, however. On Aug. 9, 1998, a drive-by at Orchard Homes in Milton-Freewater left an 18-year-old man with several wounds to his lower abdomen and head. What police called a "near riot" broke out there later in the month.
Little overt gang activity was reported in 1999. Why the sharp decline?
"I think it's cyclical," said Walla Walla County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Joe Golden in a recent interview. "Over the years, it goes up and down. We put them away and then the older ones start coming back and the younger ones grow up a little."
Sure enough, shootings and stabbings resumed after the turn of the century as a new crop of gangsters started to sprout. Violence was less frequent, though, as gang affiliation in the most formidable group had dwindled to an estimated 10-15 active members.
By 2006, gangs had regrouped. A man was stabbed at least 15 times in a severe attack on Ninth Avenue. Then the following year, a series of shootings -- some random -- was carried out by members or friends of a local gang.
Particularly hard hit was Milton-Freewater, where a fight among about 25 gang members wielding bricks and clubs broke out in June 2008. A town hall meeting was held the following month at which attendees were told gangs were "thick" throughout rural Eastern Oregon.
Since then, two people were stabbed at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds during the 2009 Balloon Stampede's Nite Glow activities. A melee broke out in June 2009 outside St. Patrick Catholic Church. Up to a dozen shots were fired near Second and Eagan avenues in a gang-related shootout following a fight at the National Guard Armory last September.
And this March, four men not affiliated with a gang were stabbed and two of them also shot, allegedly by two gang members at a birthday party on Center Street. It could be considered the worst occurrence of gang-related violence in the last two decades.
Police currently estimate gang membership in the Valley at 300-500 and predict the worst may be yet to come.
Few areas of the nation have been able to escape the rising toll. As Lewis put it in his essay on the history of gang violence:
"The social and economical burden that gang members inflict upon society is not a new problem. ... Although they may have ridden horses instead (of) cars, wore hats instead of bandannas and carried knives instead of automatic weapons, gangs are not a new tribulation facing the citizenry of this country.
"Since the beginning of civilization, gangs in one degree or another have always contributed to the decay of society and although the United States is the most technological(ly) advanced nation in the world, the gang problem (continues) to grow faster than any virus or disease."
Terry McConn can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8319.