Antonio, 17, is dead serious. He leans forward in the plastic chair, his hands clasped. Today he is wearing a blue jumpsuit, indicating he's been on good behavior in the detention center since his arrest on a burglary charge.
"I been doing good," he smiles, clearly proud of himself.
Luis, 16, dressed in an orange jumpsuit (two notches down from blue) nods his head respectfully. He's in detention on an assault charge. Luis and Antonio are "homies," members of the largest gang in Walla Walla.
"If you put all the other gangs together," Antonio says with obvious pride, "we'd still be bigger."
The third member of the group is David, 16, who belongs to a much smaller gang in Walla Walla. David was arrested for possession of drugs with intent to deliver. He doesn't say much but he listens carefully, often nodding his head in agreement.
I ask if the boys, who are sworn enemies "on the outs," get along in the detention center.
"Oh yeah," Antonio says, "we're cool in here."
Antonio is by far the most talkative member of the group. "Our gang has rules," he says. "We're not allowed to use meth, coke, crack, heroin. We don't want homies to get addicted because then they're not reliable, they tweak out, get messed up, do stupid stuff."
I must have a skeptical look on my face. Over the years I've heard lots of gang members talk about using and dealing cocaine, crack, and meth, but Antonio raises his hand in a "Boy Scout honest" salute.
"Serious, man," he says. "We get mad at homies who use hard drugs. We have rules. If you mess up once, you get a chin check, boom, a hard hit right on the chin. Mess up a second time, you get jumped by three homies. Bang bang bang."
"And the third time?" I ask.
"Well, the older homies have the power, they tell us what to do. But let's say you have a big fool, then you get maybe five homies hitting on him for, say, a minute. If it's just a little homie messing up, you know, like me," Antonio smiles, not at all dismayed by his small frame, "then maybe you get three guys jumping him for a minute or so."
"Yeah, we rough 'em up, give 'em a lesson," Luis says. Suddenly a playful smile spreads across his face. "It ain't gonna be like, 'Hey, homie, you're grounded!'"
David, Antonio and Luis share a big laugh before the conversation gets serious again.
"Do gangs sell hard drugs?" I ask.
"Some gang members slang (sell)," Antonio says. "But you gotta remember, Walla Walla is small. Too small. In our gang, we don't want our homies to get locked up. If somebody wants to slang, we don't stop 'em but you gotta be smart how you do it. If you slang, you only sell to homies or to people you know. You gotta know somebody's background. We ain't gonna sell to no snitch."
"Yeah, and you can't get cocky," Luis says.
"That's right," says Antonio. "If you get cocky and just want to make lots of money, you're gonna get caught. Some homies 'flip it' -- they sell the drugs, get more drugs, sell more drugs, make more money. But most homies are smart, they just go for a small amount, enough to buy some food, beer, CDs, you know, the little things that make life more pleasurable."
Antonio's comment fits with research studies showing that most youth gangs -- especially smaller, loosely organized, rural gangs -- lack the organizational structure required to manage sophisticated drug trafficking operations.
I ask where the drugs come from. "From other homies or sometimes from people outside the gangs who we trust," Antonio says.
"Are there big drug dealers in town?" I ask.
I get three blank stares. "I don't know anything about them," Antonio says, shifting uncomfortably in his chair and stealing a sideways look at Luis.
"We don't ask questions," Luis says.
"Yeah, you get what you want and get out of there," David adds.
I switch gears. "So what drugs do you use regularly?" I ask.
"Alcohol and marijuana," they say, almost in unison.
"Why those drugs?" I ask. "Are they cheaper? Easier to get? Less likely to attract police attention?"
"Yeah, all that," Antonio says. "And they don't mess you up like hard drugs."
"They're fun," David says.
"They make you feel good," Luis adds. "Like when you listen to music and you've had a few beers, you feel like you can do anything you want, you know, relax, chill, kick back, stop thinking about things."
"Beer is like pop," Antonio says. "It's the cheapest thing we can do. We can't afford Corona, though. We like Busch. Keystone. Natural Ice. We're cheap."
The three boys laugh and Antonio, looking pleased with himself, repeats the word "cheap."
"Sometimes if there's a lot of us together, we'll get some hard A but, man, 20 bucks for a bottle of tequila is a waste of money," Luis says.
"We like hard A in our gang," David says. "But we like beer, too. And marijuana."
"Oh yeah, Mary Jane," Antonio smiles, his tone revealing his fondness for the drug. "Ganga. It calms you down, makes you laugh, chill, forget your problems."
I read a quote to them. "Gangs are like drugs," Marc, 15, said several years ago in a similar group in detention. "Drugs are an addiction. Gangs are part of that. It's a rush -- it's all a rush. And that's what we're looking for. Something to take us away, to make us forget, for a little while, what we don't have or what we're running away from."
"Yeah, that's right, it's all a rush," says David. "Gangs and drugs, it's like no one can stop you. We like to feel like no one can stop us."
"We like the control," Antonio says. "We like to have all the power. Gangs are all about making people scared of you."
The look on my face makes him laugh. "No, it's not like we go down the street trying to scare people," he says in a reassuring tone. "It's about the hood, making our own hood the top of everything."
They look at me to see if I understand. And I think I do, at least as much as a middle-aged woman who grew up in a three-story house in suburban New Jersey can understand. I felt safe in my neighborhood, protected by my family and friends, unafraid to hang out in the streets after dark playing kick the can and capture the flag, running through our neighbors' yards without fear.
Except for that time a group of older kids -- "hoods" we called them back then -- tossed cherry bombs at us one hot summer day. (Cherry bombs -- explosive devices sold as firecrackers -- were banned in 1966 by the federal child protection laws.)
Our parents handled the situation but I'll never forget that feeling of being invaded and threatened by outsiders. That was our street, after all. We believed we "owned" it and we were willing to fight anybody who said otherwise.
More than three decades ago, gang researcher Walter Miller observed that nations engage in wars for virtually the same reasons that gangs engage in violent crime -- personal honor, prestige and defense against perceived threats to one's homeland. When we find a solution to war, Miller concluded, we'll be able to solve the problem of gang violence.
I have one last question. If all the gangs in Walla Walla were suddenly to disappear, would all the drugs disappear, too?
They all agree on this answer, too.
"Maybe it would cut down on the drugs," Antonio says thoughtfully, "but taking out the gangs ain't gonna get rid of drugs."
"There's a bunch of people in this town who aren't in gangs who sell drugs," David says.
"Yeah," Luis adds. "Drugs are everywhere. No matter what you do, there's always gonna be drugs."
Kathy Ketcham is the coauthor of 14 books, nine on the subject of addiction and recovery. For the last 10 years she's volunteered at the Juvenile Justice Center, leading educational groups for youths in detention. Trilogy Recovery Community, a grassroots group she helped found in 2004, is dedicated to providing community-based recovery support services for youths and family members in Walla Walla.