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View From the Inside: How Gang Members Use Secret Codes

Everyone knows Thomas Angel Porter as AROCKS, a name he was given while growing up in Harlem during the 1990s. While playing basketball with his crew of friends, they would constantly yell at him to pass the ball, or “rock.” Within the next year his crew of friends were recruited—along with thousands of black youths across the city—by the Bloods, a big, national gang with a new chapter that had been incubating in New York City’s main jail complex, Riker’s Island. This new group developed behind bars, and the members were getting out of jail and sent back to their homes across the city. The Bloods gang began to spill onto the streets and recruited many people across the city, including AROCKS and his crew. The boys found themselves swept away from playing basketball to patrolling their project building on East 127th Street for rapists and robbers, a vigilante role they took on, says AROCKS. He began to read about Malcolm X and George Axton. He also started to learn a new language that the Bloods used to hide their communications from cops and other gangs, like the archrival Crips.

“They gave me all of this material”—usually in the form of notebooks filled with notes on the gang as well as the gang’s language—“on the different words and codes I had to learn. That took me months,” AROCKS told me one recent afternoon. He explained that before the Bloods came to the streets, rival crews like his old one were abundant. He cited the Bloods’ language—its unique set of words, handshakes, gestures, tattoos, sounds, and graffiti as a main reason the gang was able to bring together so many different people under one group.

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Many major gangs can trace their roots back to the boom in prison populations starting in the 1960s. Under constant supervision, imprisoned gang members started creating their own languages that were not understood by correction officers. With the rise of gangs and their secret languages, prison wardens started creating gang units, their sole duty to break the codes, according to gang members and experts I spoke with. (See the related Facts So Romantic post, “The Prison Guard With a Gift for Cracking Gang Codes.”)

AROCKS himself spent time in prison, receiving a sentence of 10 years at the age of 21, after being found guilty of assault and attempted murder. In New York’s correctional facility in Otisville, where he served the majority of his sentence, he witnessed the ongoing development of the Bloods’ language. He learned the complicated written codes, including various non-letter symbols and words with hidden meanings, and also the non-written language, consisting mostly verbal calls, slang words, and hand gestures. It was a long process he completed behind the authorities’ backs, hidden away in moments between the rote tasks of prison life.

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Once he learned everything, AROCKS used it for all kinds of communication. “It was cool to speak a language that no one else know,” he said.  Sometimes gang leaders used the language to send out important messages and instructions to their respective gang on the streets. But most often, AROCKS said, gangs would use their secret language for common things: writing letters to their girlfriends back home, using it for small talk from one gang member to another.

AROCKS still identifies himself as a Blood but he says his reasons have changed. Since being released, he’s tried to go back to some of the original community-oriented goals from when he was first recruited into the gang. He works at the Harlem Commonwealth Council as a mediator between rival youth groups and serves as a liaison between the Bloods and the community.

“I don’t think I would ever leave the gang because I think of the kids in my neighborhood and I just feel like I would be abandoning them if I left,” AROCKS said. “The way it is now, I’m credible. But if I leave the gang, that may not be the case anymore.”

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Eric Jankiewicz is a student of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He often covers the intersection of crime and science.

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