Portland gang veteran talks past violence, city’s current struggles

Published: May. 22, 2023 at 12:03 PM PDT
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - Jonathan ‘Demetrius’ Norman’s roots run deep in north Portland. From childhood sports, playing in local parks with friends, to the life-and-death moments that came to define his young adulthood.

Many memories of his youth are tied to the streets and local parks in north and northeast Portland, including Peninsula Park, where FOX 12 recently interviewed him.

“I played baseball at this actual park,” Norman said.

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“I slowly started getting off into the gangs, the gang lifestyle,” Norman added. “From [age] 18 to 25 – it was like, every day, it was either a gun, a gun going off, or I definitely had a gun on me, or a gun was somewhere around.”

A member of the Kerby Blocc Crips, Norman said he was known as “Big Smurf” on the streets.

“I got shot at Humboldt school, which is probably about six blocks away from here,” Norman said. “The first time I got arrested for a shooting, was actually at a corner here.”

Now 51, Norman says he left the gang world decades ago, he’s well-known in some circles by his rap name, Smurf Luchiano.

The musician is a third-generation Portlander, but says he was a first-generation gangster, telling FOX 12 he was raised by his grandmother, after both of his parents got heavily involved in drugs.

Norman said he really never set out to join a gang but he grew up in the 80′s in Portland, as the gang scene was exploding.

“It was new to Portland,” Norman said. “We had transplants from Los Angeles. They were, very influential – either you ride with them or you ride against them.”

Going from a kid to a teenager, Norman said life quickly felt more dangerous.

“Being in this neighborhood, I remember this park, at one time, you came here and there would be 20, 30 Bloods just sitting around at this park, so you couldn’t walk through here peacefully, at one time, if you had blue on, which, like I said, this is the park that I grew up playing baseball at,” he said.

Guns too, went from being a scarcity to an abundance.

“Our whole gang might have been 15 of us at the time, we might have had two guns,” Norman said. “We went from the .22s and the .32s to AK-47s.”

“Once the drugs got really heavily involved and people started participating and setting up crack houses and traveling to other cities - Gresham, Salem and expanding - the guns became more available, people running drugs were bringing all kinds of guns,” Norman said.

These days, Norman said he isn’t surprised that people hear more gunshots, and that more shell casings are recovered at shootings. He said a lot of people involved in gang violence now carry Glock pistols.

“So you have 30 rounds, on the gun, when I started we only had five shots,” Norman said.

From the 80′s into the 90′s, Norman said, as there were more guns available, there were more shootings. He said his loved ones started dying.

“I’m going to say at least 25, 30 (people) I lost,” Norman said. “I lost four people in six months.”

Norman estimates at least 40 of his extended family members have participated in gang life at one point or another.

“I maybe have 20 younger cousins who are involved in gangs, right now,” Norman said. “I would say maybe 10 of them are in jail, for attempted murder, murders, and the list goes on and on.”

Norman’s story is a heartbreaking example of a generational cycle that can be tough to break. He recalled a young neighbor - with whom he shared mutual cousins with – was also pulled into the lifestyle, without much choice.

“One time, I remember him coming home saying, ‘I can’t go to the park no more – because there are Bloods up, there.’ Well okay, you’re not a gang member though, ‘yeah, but you are my cousin and they don’t like you.’”

These reflections, some 30 years later, as increased gang violence and shootings have wounded Portland at breathtaking speed.

The city has broken its shooting record twice-over, and it’s murder record, as well.

“The kids, nowadays, have it a lot harder,” Norman said. “Because there are no police, nobody is chasing them around to stop it – whereas, one time, I got stopped 30 times in one month.”

SEE ALSO: FOX 12 Investigators: 75% of Portland shootings never solved

Norman said it took leaving Oregon, for him to truly leave the lifestyle.

“I got off onto this music thing heavy, and I always liked doing it and that was really one of my outlets,” Norman said.

These days, it’s hard for him to see the city he loves – the people he loves – struggle in the grief and the heartbreaking loss he knows all too well.

“Even with the youth right here, keep them busy, give them something to do, give them a job, keep them working, make sure they can go to work,” Norman said.

The city’s Office of Violence Prevention has resources to help youth and families escape the cycles of gun violence, including grants, mentors and work opportunities. You can find more information here: https://www.portland.gov/community-safety/oyvp