Imagine SpongeBob SquarePants as a gangbanger.
Devon Harris can.
So pervasive is street gang culture in American society that elements have seeped into the popular children’s cartoon, said the Augusta-based gang intervention specialist who delivered a lecture on gangs during a March 14 forum at Grovetown Middle School.
Harris, who founded a Christian youth ministry focused on gangs called Full Circle Refuge, claims that symbolism in SpongeBob denotes gang affiliations. For example, he said the “krabby” patties cooked by the animated chef refer to “crabs,” which rival gangs use as a slur to describe members of the Crips.
Harris cited examples of what he says are gang influences throughout popular culture.
“Studio gangsters” like Snoop Dogg make millions of dollars glamorizing gang culture. Grand Theft Auto variations are the best-selling video games in the world and all glorify the gang lifestyle.
Even something as innocuous as the New York Yankees logo can be used as a substitute sign for the Folk Nation gang, Harris said.
“It’s the heroism of the day,” he said.
And the proliferation of gangs isn’t limited to popular culture.
More and more, Harris said, gangs are migrating from large cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles to smaller communities like Augusta and even Grovetown, where law enforcement might not be as savvy to such drug-trafficking activities.
Harris said he has seen gang symbols in Columbia County schools and graffiti in Grovetown, where he lives.
Three years ago, Harris said he was approached by a Lakeside High School student seeking advice on how to leave his gang. The gang had extorted $1,800 from him for permission to leave the area and pursue a football scholarship.
“The gang problem today is the most serious problem in history,” Harris said.
A study conducted by the National Drug Intelligence Center in 2008 showed that there are more than a million gang members in the U.S. in about 7,400 gangs across at least 43 states.
“It’s not about red or blue anymore,” Harris said, referring to the gang colors worn by the Bloods and Crips, respectively. “It’s (often) about one color: green.”
But money isn’t the sole attractor for gang recruitment. Harris said children often choose to join gangs for the sense of power and belonging they offer.
“It’s walking down the hallway at school and watching people fear you,” he said.
Many even endure brutal initiations to join, he said.
Boys often are mercilessly beaten by those they wish to join or have to shoot someone wearing a uniform.
For girls, they often must roll dice. Whatever number the dice land on is how many gangbangers the girls must have sex with to join. Some gangs, Harris said, offer girls the opportunity to eschew that initiation rite if they beat up their mothers.
Once in, new recruits often are brainwashed just like in a cult.
Harris encouraged parents to learn about gang culture, colors and language to protect their children.
“You have the right to save your child from things like this,” Harris told parents at the forum while their children heard a separate lecture from a former gangbanger. “You’ve got them for 18 years. Be proactive.”