April 17, 2014

The Gangs of Los Angeles

Part 6: Working to Make a Difference

When Special Agent Robert Clark speaks to an inner city school group or residents who live in Los Angeles neighborhoods overrun by gangs, he doesn’t think of himself as an outsider.

“I don’t see myself as separate from a lot of the people that I meet in the community,” said Clark, an assistant special agent in charge in our Los Angeles Division who supervises the Bureau’s gang operations there. “I see myself as one of them, because I used to be one of them. I grew up in the inner city. I grew up in foster care. I grew up in places where violence was commonplace, and gangs, graffiti, and drugs were everywhere.”

For that reason, Clark is committed to dismantling violent gangs through rigorous law enforcement efforts. He is equally committed to helping young people avoid the gang life and empowering residents to take back their neighborhoods. Since coming to Los Angeles seven years ago, he has spearheaded several gang initiatives with community, civic, and law enforcement partners that go beyond merely arresting gang members and sending them to jail.

“I can relate so much to what these kids go through and the violence that they see,” Clark explained. “I was involved in some of that as a youngster, but I realized very early that it was not for me. Thankfully, I had some teachers that believed in me and made sure I stayed on the straight and narrow. They made sure that my life mattered.”

Growing up in a gritty section of Youngstown, Ohio, known then for its connections to organized crime, Clark’s life could have gone either way. “My father was a nightclub owner,” he said. “He worked for the mob and ran nightclubs for the mob—girls, numbers, drugs, that whole life. That’s what my father did. He was murdered when I was 12 years old. I was the last one to see him alive.”

A college scholarship to play football got Clark out of Youngstown; after college, he became a police officer and eventually joined the FBI. “I knew that my life had to count,” he said. “The impact my childhood had on me—how I grew up and the things that I was able to escape from—made me want to give something back.”

He is now in a unique position to do just that.

“I recognize that I can influence young people in gang neighborhoods,” Clark noted. “Most of these kids have never seen an FBI agent, much less an African-American FBI agent. When they see me, I want to stand as an example and tell them, 'You, too, can come from this environment and still succeed if you go to school and work hard. It doesn’t matter what your situation is at home. It doesn’t matter if mom or dad is not there, or dad’s in prison, or whatever the case may be. You can achieve something.’”

“Robert takes great pride in his work and helping communities to heal and become whole,” said Cheryl Nalls, a Los Angeles Police Department detective who has worked closely with Clark in some of the worst gang neighborhoods in South Central L.A. “He is a passionate advocate,” she added, “and it’s important for people in these communities to see someone like that.”

“I come to work every day to make a difference,” Clark said.