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Díaz and Kwok: Should the 'Gilbert Goons' be prosecuted as a criminal gang?

Gilbert police have been under the gun when it comes to the way they've handled the so-called "Gilbert Goons" for months, since Arizona Republic reporters broke the story of the group of teenagers who had been part of a year plus long string of attacks throughout the East Valley suburb.

Now, they are making arrests in some of those cases and have brought charges against seven people related to the beating death of 16-year-old Preston Lord last year. It has been connected to the Gilbert Goons.

In January, Gilbert police raised the stakes in those cases, announcing that they were exploring the option of classifying the Goons as a criminal street gang in its investigations. But Arizona Republic columnist Abe Kwok said that move doesn't guarantee just punishment. Kwok joined Republic editorial page editor Elvia Díaz to talk more about it.

Full interview

LAUREN GILGER: All right. So Abe, I want to start with you and your argument you're making here in this column about this idea of classifying the Gilbert Goons as a criminal street gang. You say there's a lot we still don't know, right?

ABE KWOK: That's correct. I, I think that we, from our reporting and elsewhere establish, that there is a gang that goes out and beat up people. In some instances, they post a video that they tape. But beyond that, we don't know what links them all together. They come from different schools. So that is not, they were not un unified by a united, by a, a school. They were not united by a neighborhood, and they're not united by a, an interest. Nor do we even know how they communicate. There's just a, a good deal that we aren't clear about regarding how they operate.

GILGER: So there's this question of, of who is in the gang, what classifies as a gang under Arizona state statute as well, right?

KWOK: Correct. I, I think that traditionally the law has been applied to your classic gangs that emerge out of the '80s and '90s that were more territorial They were involved in drugs. They were involved in other crimes, including assault on each other. And so state law actually mentioned some of their unique traits. You know, many of them adopted colors. They have gang signs, they have tattoos, all of the things that we associate with street gangs from the '80s and '90s. Here is a different animal. We, we don't know how, aside from some of them calling themselves in Gilbert Goons or Goonies, we don't know what other traits to unite them.

GILGER: So Elvia, tell us your take here. Do you think that classifying this group as a criminal street gang would be a better path to justice? Which I guess is the main question, right?

ELVIA DÍAZ: I think we don't know that, Lauren, whether it will be a path to justice, you know. Clearly one person is dead, and seven have been arrested in relation to that. Of very young men, two of them underage. I do wonder though why we don't know any of this classification that Abe was talking about that, right? That we need to classify them as gangs. So clearly, these seven are charged with the beating death of a teenager. So that's, that's that.

So it, it didn't happen right now. They have had plenty of time to investigate that and that has been the problem since the beginning that Gilbert police did not investigate any of this until media reports did it. And also, I also wonder, you know, the state law that Abe was talking about, you know, clearly indicates that kind of stuff that authorities look at when classifying groups of people as criminals, street gangs. And that includes, you know, self-proclamation, written or electronic correspondence, tattoos, clothing and what have you. However, in the past, and we're not talking about the '80s or the '90s, you know, even the recent past, you know, authorities are very quick to classify people of color as criminal gangs. So I, I wonder if this, if this teens were people of color, if we would even be talking about this, if authorities would have been quick to classify them as gangs?

GILGER: That's an interesting point to raise. Abe, you ask in this column, the big question here, right? Like also that, is this the best path to justice and rehabilitation for these, these people who were involved in this, who were by and large, mostly high schoolers involved in these beatings.

KWOK: Yeah. And, and it goes beyond that. First of all, the most serious incidents, we know of two of them in which a person was beaten with a brass knuckle and had to have staples in his head and the other was beaten unconscious. And Gilbert police did arrest the attacker, and he was adjudicated in the juvenile court system. And then the aside from the Preston Lord murder, one other case involved a bloody attack and six people, my understanding, half of them juveniles, have already been charged principally with aggravated assault and aggravated robbery. And, and those are high-level felonies. We're talking about years in prison just on those charges alone.

And so the idea of going after the rest of these Goons for fighting, beatdowns and to charge them using criminal gang statutes for assisting and furthering a, a street gang seems unnecessary really. There are other ways to go about prosecuting them. And yes, these are mostly young men. Many of them are not even 18 and so to brand them and, and to add to them three more years to their sentences in prison, I personally don't believe is the right course of action to take. It doesn't go toward the idea of rehabilitation and redemption.

DÍAZ: Lauren, one thing that we are not mentioning here and that is pretty obvious is the fact that these teens are white, they are from the suburbs and incredibly wealthy suburb here in the Valley. So again, if this had been in south Phoenix, where I live, where I'm standing right now, or any other heavily minority neighborhood, believe me, I'm, I'm almost certain, obviously, there's never a certainty, but I'm not almost certain people would be talking about gangsters and criminality and what have you.

So it strikes me as interesting that we're even considering and going at length to even talking about whether they should be classified as such, you know, given that they are, you know, all white from rich neighborhoods and minorities again, where I live in south Phoenix are not usually afforded this kind of, even a discussion about it.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.