To some, the threat of gangs in Atlanta emerged one winter morning in early 2009, when a young bartender was shot and killed during a robbery at Grant Park's Standard Food and Spirits. The Standard shooting, as it came to be known, represented a shift in the public's awareness of gang violence. Suddenly, it seemed, gangs were the entire city's problem.
But the story of Atlanta street gangs goes back much further. They emerged in the '80s as drug-driven organizations that operated from, and mostly within, the city's two dozen housing projects. As those projects were razed and their residents dispersed throughout the city, gangs were robbed of the territories and neighborhood ties that gave them staying power. Since the disbandment of the projects, two street gangs in particular — the International Robbing Crew, one of the more violent in Atlanta's history, and 30 Deep, currently one of the city's most criminally prolific — have come to prove that Atlanta gangs are now different creatures: Loosely organized factions of criminals claiming no specific turf, with a penchant for robbery and a propensity toward occasional — and extreme — violence.
At its most active, IRC embarked on a killing spree that Atlanta police attribute to a 20 percent spike in the city's homicide rate in 2007 — a crime spree that included a high-profile (and failed) hit allegedly arranged by NFL star Adam "Pacman" Jones. More recently, in January 2009, 27-year-old bartender John Henderson was gunned down at the Standard during a burglary that police believe was carried out by members of 30 Deep — a crime that, more so than IRC's string of homicides, changed the way Atlantans looked at gangs. It also incited residents to demand that police do more to target organized crime.
As those and other cases moved through the courts, a clearer picture of the two gangs — and the wider landscape of gang life in Atlanta — has come into focus. Court records filed in those cases, along with interviews CL conducted with longtime law enforcement agents, shed light on how 30 Deep and IRC operate, as well as how gangs have changed over the past 25 years. The following is an unfiltered look at the shifting mentality of Atlanta gangs, as told by investigators, prosecutors and gang members themselves.
The drug era: Miami Boys and the Black Mafia Family
Current Atlanta Police Homicide Commander Danny Agan joined the force in 1974 and witnessed the city's gangs in their infancy.
Agan: "The earliest gangs I can recall would be the motorcycle gangs. These were typically white guys. Hispanic gangs? No. Black gangs? Not that well-defined. Something happened to change that."
Police officers began hearing in the '80s that gangs — with names such as the Miami Boys, Down By Law and Black Gangster Disciples — were linked to crimes ranging from drug trafficking to robbery to murder.
Agan: "Back in the day, the gang boys were called Miami Boys, which was an offshoot from an organized gang in south Florida that was moving into Atlanta. And the nature of homicides changed. Back in the mid-'70s, the murders had a lot to do with domestic-type situations. And then the motives changed. A lot of times it turned out to involve some kind of payback, some kind of vendetta — some kind of turf control of who was going to sell dope on the corner."
Former APD Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli recalls a time when the city failed to take the gang problem seriously.
Arcangeli: "The Atlanta Police Department command staff and mayor's office had a track record of denying the existence of street-level gangs. And while Atlanta didn't have the territorial, ethnic or neighborhood gangs, such as the Crips or Bloods, there were a lot of homegrown gangs that sprung up as a result of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the late 1980s. The sale of crack requires a team effort because it's high-volume, very dangerous, and involves guns and money, lookouts and transport. Naturally, it led itself to the creation of criminal-enterprise gangs. But our mayor at the time, Bill Campbell, chose to call them 'loosely organized social groups.' [That] made the job of our street police officers more difficult. They were discouraged from really pursuing the gang members. To arrest them would be to acknowledge their existence."
Eventually, city officials were forced to recognize the reach and scope of gangs, and in 1994 the APD established its Gang Unit. Current Interim Police Chief George Turner was named sergeant of that unit.
Turner: "We started that unit because of perceptions around the Crips and Bloods and the traditional black gangs. Back during those days, housing projects were really challenging [because of] the drug trade. Guys in the projects weren't allowing Crips or Bloods or anybody in their territory."