The Gangs of Zion

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

  • At the Manhattan Club in downtown Salt Lake City, Pacific Islanders flashed gang symbols and both traditional and gang-related tattoos. The day after this photo was taken, several of the men (not those pictured) attended services at the Mapusaga Ward, a Samoan-speaking congregation of the Mormon Church

    JT Thomas
  • Samoan-Americans Fiailoa and March Malaeulu and their daughter Chessleeann, members of the Mapusaga Ward, mix Mormon culture with Island culture. Thanks in large part to the church, Pacific Islanders are perhaps Utah's fasted growing ethnic group. Mapusaga ward leaders estimate that their congregation grows by half every year

    JT Thomas
  • Young Samoans pray during Sunday school at Mapusaga. Insiders say that gang members use church services and events to network and recruit on the sly. A Web site for Pacific Islanders in Utah recently editorialized, 'Most Tongan gang members in Utah are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We've always known this, yet we don't talk about it..

    JT Thomas
  • Miles Kinikini, who now sells trucks and SUVs at Larry H. Miller Truckland, flashes signs associated with the Tongan Crip Gang. When the police arrested them, says Kinikini, the first question he and his friends would ask was, 'This won't prevent me from going on my mission, will it?' Kinikini says he's settled down in recent years, but there are still temptations: 'There's a bullet hole in my front window. I wanted to avenge that, but I thought better.'

    JT Thomas
  • Members of the Salt Lake City Police Department's Metro Gang Unit keep a close eye on the crowd outside Club Mangattan, where a young gangster was shot earlier this year. In the first six months of 2005, Salt Lake area gangs were responsible for 132 assaults, 20 robberies, 16 drive-by shootings and two homicides

    JT Thomas
  • West Valley City police officer Umu Manatau with his police portrait and family photos. Three of Manatau's five sons have tangled with the law for their involvement in gangs. 'I was not aware at all,' he says. 'The way they did it was secret.'

    JT Thomas
  • Umu Manatau (L) sits with friend and fellow police officer Cliff Chase. Once, when Chase heard a rival gang was targeting Manatau's sons, he sat in his car outside their house, guarding it for three straight nights. Polynesian gang members once shot up Chase's house, just missing his sleeping nephew

    JT Thomas
  • Kuli Pupunu says he has left his gang days behind. Today, he works full time, goes to school at night, and makes music with his friends in a basement studio. The studio is affiliated with Aiga Records, an all-Polynesian indie, hip-hop, hard-core and rap company that tries to put a positive light on Polynesians. 'Some of us are gangsters, some of us were gangsters, but we do this (make music) because it is a better thing to do for all Polys.'

    JT Thomas
  • A sign on Skull Valley Road points to Iosepa, the site of a former settlement of Mormons from the Pacific Islands. The church evacuated the settlement in the early 1900s, after disease and harsh winters took a serious toll on the population. Despite the hard times, many settlers cried on their way out of Iosepa, prompting the name, 'the trail of tears.'

    JT Thomas
 

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At a school multicultural performance one clear evening in early May, Polynesian middle school students run down the auditorium aisle onto the stage as their peers beat on drums and the audience lets out primal whooping. The boys are shirtless and dressed in traditional blue skirts. They perform the lapa lapa, a high-energy Samoan dance usually reserved for weddings, luaus and other celebrations. At no point during the dance does the hormonal screaming die down. After the performance, the sweaty boys change into street clothes and gather in the halls. They say they are not gang members — yet.

“We back each other up,” says Makoni Pole, a 14-year-old from New Zealand. “If you walk into the lunch room and you’re by yourself, you wait for other Polynesians.”

In the front hall outside the auditorium, older boys lean against the school trophy case, wearing powder blue Denver Nuggets basketball jerseys, navy hoodies and blue sneakers. Their hair is moussed or frizzed out in curls and their eyes are watchful.

One of them, who identifies himself as “Matt,” says they are members of Tongan Crip Gang, and he comments on the splashes of red going by in other teens’ clothing. “When it’s not our race, we let it slide,” he says. “And we don’t let the little kids do it.” Matt says he claimed his gang in seventh grade. Joseph Fangalua, a youth advocate at Glendale, says the two greatest influences on Polynesian kids are church and gangs. Even students who are not involved in gangs, he says, call each other “cuz,” the standard Crip greeting. “It’s a lot more relevant than it was 10 years ago,” he says.

But Fangalua, who is Tongan, is trying to drive a wedge between gangs and Polynesian culture. He is trying to foster a sense of individuality in his Polynesian students, something most of them are not taught at home. When you grow up Polynesian in the mainland United States, he explains, one of the worst names you can be called is fiepalangi, which means “wannabe white.” As a result, most kids grope toward what they figure it means to be Polynesian.

“They’re trying to figure out what exactly they should be proud of,” says Fangalua. “But just because you’re Polynesian doesn’t mean you have to join a gang. You don’t have to be on the football team.”

Fangalua has taken some of his students snowboarding, to show them there is a world outside the city streets, that the mountains aren’t just brackets on their dangerous neighborhoods. In this way, the landscape that has offered little but isolation might also help with some healing.

And Polynesian kids have new role models: In the last two years, Polynesians have mounted candidacies for mayor and state senator. A growing number of Polynesian twenty- and thirty-somethings are making music.

Polynesian families and Mormon church lay leaders are beginning to at least acknowledge the problem. Vini Purcell, Mapusaga Ward’s bishop, says he goes out to the state prison at Point of the Mountain once or twice a month to visit with incarcerated ward members. Gang members convicted of heinous crimes are not excommunicated, but instead urged to get their lives back in order. Some do.

“These kids come from good families,” Purcell says.

Earlier this year, the State Office of Pacific Islander Affairs organized a conference to look at the Polynesian gang problem. A followup meeting, at Mapusaga on a Saturday in May, attracted about 30 people.

Yet the Polynesian and law enforcement communities have had to work to get the church brass to listen. At one point in the mid-1990s, Isi Tausinga bluntly laid out the issue for members of the church First Presidency and General Authority. The church now has a representative on a local gang project committee, and has donated money to the Gang Unit’s annual conferences, but 20 years into the gang problem, top church officials don’t necessarily see themselves as having a role in solving it. Church spokeswoman Kim Farah says the Church prefers that local leaders like Purcell address the issues within their wards.

That is not enough for Dorothy Fa’asou, who works on intercultural communication issues with Laie Association Utah. “The church has got to face up to these gang issues. It is too big for the community alone,” she says. “We came here for the church, and the problems happened here, in Utah, in the church. For too long, they have ignored it.”

But Finau Manatau says it matters little what the bishops, prophets or parents say — the decision rests within the minds of the kids.

“The kids ain’t going to listen,” says Finau, who has moved to Reno, Nev., with his wife and two sons. He’s attending the University of Nevada, and wants to be a juvenile probation officer. “The way I see it, you give them an opportunity, something in another environment. Back in West Valley, when I go to a gas station, I’m thinking someone’s going to say something and something’s going to pop and pretty soon someone’ll be shooting. But here, I go into a gas station and I don’t have that stress. I can be happy.”

Finau’s father, Umu Manatau, is heartbroken, but he still hangs on to his pride in his kids. He could list the crimes they have committed, but he would rather list the universities they are attending. Only one of Manatau’s sons has served a mission, but it’s a consolation that six of his children are in college all over the West, getting the education that lured him to Utah in the first place.

Even Rocky is out of prison and working, and he is planning to go to college. He is married to Miles Kinikini’s niece. Kinikini says that doesn’t bother him, despite the long-running and often bloody rivalry between the two men’s gangs.

“What you do is, you squash it,” Kinikini says. “If it’s family, you squash the beast.”
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