Manatee fights scourge of gang graffiti

MANATEE — oLocal kids, cops and even a congressman turned out Wednesday to use paint to make a statement in the fight against gangs.

Youngsters from the Bradenton Boys and Girls Club traveled around Manatee County to paint over gang graffiti as part of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office graffiti abatement program.

Kids help deputies paint over gang graffiti in neighborhoods across the county twice a month, Sheriff's Lt. Rick Wells said. Many of the kids volunteer, and some are youth offenders on probation or sentenced to community service.

"I don't think people realize how harmful gang graffiti is," Wells said. "Not only does it damage property, but it represents the violence perpetrated by these gangs in our community."

Johnson Middle School student Genae Graham, 12, agreed.

"The gangs write this stuff, and we know it means bad things," she said. "It just makes the neighborhood look better when we do this. I like helping out."

Gang graffiti is a form of intimidation and is also used to claim turf. Graffiti often leads to turf wars and violence, according to Wells.

"You have one gang paint graffiti on a fence, and then another gang paints over it and it causes a conflict that can lead to violence," said Wells.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan painted with kids from the Boys and Girls Club, covering a white fence riddled with gang graffiti at 12th Street West and Fifth Avenue West in Palmetto.

Wells said it is the third time gang graffiti has been painted over on that fence.

"We struggle with a lot of these places. We will paint over a location, and a week later it will be covered with graffiti again," Wells said. "But we are not going to stop. We will keep coming back."

In addition to the Palmetto site, kids painted over graffiti in the 1200 block of 60th Avenue West and the 1100 block of 65th Avenue West.

Boys and Girls Club Director Willie Cooper said local law enforcement has spoken to kids at the club about the dangers of gangs. But programs like the painting project reinforce those warnings.

"We talk to them about gangs quite a bit, and that is important," said Cooper. "But this gives them a hands-on look at the damage gangs cause. It gives the kids a chance to do something for the community, be part of the solution."

Boys and Girls Club member Kevin Gray, 14, said his paint job is about taking a bite out of crime.

"I think it brings the crime rate down. It shows it's a bad thing," he said.

Buchanan looked at his paint job as a stand against gangs.

"When you see these kids doing this, it sends a message that gangs, and the problems they cause are not going to be tolerated in Manatee County," he said.

To report graffiti in your neighborhood, call the sheriff's abatement program at ¬744-3768. To volunteer to help remove graffiti, call 747-3011, ext. 2500.