In Mormon Country, young Polynesians search for identity — and for escape from a seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence

 

On Oct. 14, 2003, a warm, Indian summer night settled over Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. At Club Suede, a nightclub just outside of the resort town of Park City, a crowd gathered to see reggae musician Lucky Dube. Patrons spilled out onto the club’s outdoor patios. Inside, they hovered shoulder-to-shoulder in the close confines of the club, a glassy, angular second-floor space that jutted out from a strip mall toward the sagebrush-studded meadows of Summit County.

The show was a reunion of sorts for young Pacific Islanders, many of whom had made the trip up from the Salt Lake Valley. Famously large, and often tattooed, the young men and women had roots in Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii and other Pacific Island groups. They crowded in with brothers, sisters and cousins, amping up for Dube’s outspoken lyrics and mellow backbeats.

The good-natured revelry was short-lived.

Just after the band began to play, pushing and shoving broke out in the audience. Someone in the front threw beer onto Dube. Suddenly, a group of men attacked 30-year-old Kautoke Tangitau, also known as “Toke.”

They assaulted him on the dance floor and then dragged him out to the balcony, where they stomped on his body and kicked him in the face. The fighting swiftly escalated into what police described as a riot; dozens of clubgoers traded blows.

Sheriff’s deputies called to the scene ordered Lucky Dube to stop playing and the patrons to evacuate the club. But it was too late for Toke Tangitau: Under the bassy beats of the band, none of the police — and few of the revelers — heard the shot from the .22-caliber handgun that punched into his heart from point-blank range. As fighting erupted over his body, he bled to death in the mountain air.

It didn’t take sheriff’s deputies long to find the signs of gang conflict: As the crowd poured out of the club, they found graffiti scrawled in marker on Club Suede’s walls, and heard shouts — “Glendale will make good on this!”

Detectives later learned that Tangitau was a longtime member of the Tongan Crip Gang, a Polynesian street gang that had started in California and spread to Salt Lake Valley. His attackers were members of the Baby Regulators, another Tongan gang, and one of the Tongan Crips’ most hated rivals.

The violence at Suede was the eruption of tensions that had been building for years between the gangs. But it was also maddeningly ordinary: Islanders shooting other Islanders has become routine in Salt Lake gang life, which, contrary to popular belief, is now worse than ever.

In the Intermountain West, gangs have pervaded cities like Albuquerque, Phoenix and Denver for decades. Now, smaller cities such as Reno and Boise have serious gang problems, too. According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 91 Western cities outside of California have reported gang problems. They include Cheyenne, Wyo., Great Falls, Mont., Twin Falls, Idaho, and Grand Junction, Colo. Gangs are even turning up in towns as small as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Lake Havasu City, Ariz. They’ve arrived in rural Indian Country as well.

The Salt Lake City area, despite its clean-cut reputation, has all the ingredients to create gang culture, according to the National Youth Gang Center: ineffective families and schools; kids with too much free time; limited career opportunities; and segregated, often ghettoized, neighborhoods.

Utah has its share of domestic violence, as well. Last year, 23 people died as a result of violence in the home. And according to a recent report from the governor’s office, the numbers are on the rise.

Salt Lake City’s gang violence, once thought to be under control, has escalated in recent years. From 2001 to 2004, the number of documented gang members in the Salt Lake Valley rose from 3,781 to 4,544. In 2003, the number of serious gang-related crimes was double that of two years earlier. Last year, Salt Lake Valley gangs were responsible for 94 aggravated assaults, 54 robberies, 97 drug offenses and six homicides. There are dozens of Latino gangs claiming allegiance to the California gangs Sureños and Norteños; there are Southeast Asian gangs who rob their fellow immigrants’ stashes of cash, hidden away because of their distrust of banks; there are bands of racist skinheads, and even young Straight Edge gangs who punish those who smoke or drink.

Polynesian kids don’t seem to fit the profile of gang members, however. Most Pacific Islander families are the picture of stability. And most Polynesian families in Utah belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the pillar of family values and respectability. Because of the Mormon Church, in fact, Utah is home to the largest Tongan, Samoan and other Pacific Islander communities in the United States outside of Hawaii and California.

Yet while Islanders make up only about 1 percent of the Salt Lake Valley’s population, they comprise 13 percent of the documented gang members. Detectives say that Polynesian gangs stand out due to their violence. Because of their intimidating physical size, their members often serve as enforcers for other gangs that traffic in drugs. They’re known for their brutal fistfights, and for shooting at their rivals and at law enforcement officials.

Polynesian parents find it hard to believe that their churchgoing children are involved in the American scourge of gang violence. Their communities are supposed to embody everything this valley has stood for: family, faith and a new beginning.

But the “happy valley” in the heart of the Mormon Zion has become a crowded battleground. The Polynesian Saints traveled thousands of miles from one group of islands only to find themselves in another. On the west side of Salt Lake city, ethnic communities are islands unto themselves, surrounded by a sea of white suburbia; from the vantage point of West Valley City, Kearns, Taylorsville and West Jordan, the mountains that edge this valley only increase the sense of isolation.

For young Polynesians, what started as reasonable self-defense against other ghettoized ethnic groups, or else grew out of the centuries-old rivalry between Samoans and Tongans, has become a monster that has disfigured their powerful family allegiances. The church, for the most part, has left Polynesian families to fend for themselves. Now, the resulting cycle of violence is crashing down through the generations.