Field Notes

Former gang member: "There's nothing you can do to change what you've done"

Former gang member: "There's nothing you can do to change what you've done"
Robert Rean

"I was dealing drugs - crack - before I was a teenager," says Robert Rean, reflecting on how he got to where he is.

"I was a bad a man. Lots of people on the street knew who I was, what I was capable of and to be afraid of me."

Rean, who has been out of jail for almost a year, says that is no longer the case.

"People still know me - especially the cops and people from ATF and the DEA and stuff," he says. "And the people on the street still know me. But I'm no longer that person. Can't afford to be.
"The new laws took care of that. I'm a career defendant. If I ever go back to jail, it would be for a long, long time. That's why it's not going to happen. I am on the straight and narrow."
It's been a long journey for Rean from the small town in Minnesota that his mother fled after being abused by her husband to a neighborhood by Mt. Tabor where he is a single dad trying to raise kids while going back to school.
"We arrived in pre-gentrified Northeast Portland and my mom found love with someone from that you would say was from the wrong side of the tracks," he says. "And that's how I was raised - a ward of the courts and a ward of the streets."
Rean says he quickly realized to survive on the streets there were rules he would have to follow that included carrying a weapon, dealing drugs and "if someone hurts you, you hurt them. It's how I was brought up.
"I'm not proud of everything I did but the fact is that everything I have been through has helped make me who I am today. The people who looked out for me, I look out for them. They will always be my family."
Over the summer, Rean says that he was the passenger in a car that was stopped by police. The officers recognized him.
"They had all sorts of questions and I was straight with them," he says. "I told them I am who I am but I am retired from that stuff now."
A law enforcement official was able to confirm Rean's version of events and added that he hoped it's true because Rean would be a good role model for people looking to get out of the gang life.
Rean says he understands that.
"Since I got out, I haven't had so much as a parking ticket," he says. "I'm going to school to study computer sciences, computer programming, I'm raising my kids. My life is about cooking, cleaning and computers."
Rean says the turnaround for him came during his most recent stint in jail - five years for unlawful possession of a weapon.
"A lot of people, they go to jail and see it as a punishment but don't learn anything from the experience," he says. "I chose a different path. I saw my stint as an opportunity."
He says he took correspondence classes, spent as much time with books as possible.
"I was determined to be able to come out and have a different life ahead of me," he says. "I even timed my financial aid package so I would be ready to go to school when I got out.
"More people should look at that time as a reward, something to be taken advantage of, and things might start getting better."
It's a timely message.
As of October 15, there had been 79 gang-related shootings in Portland this year. And while that is down from the 94 shootings through the same period last year, law enforcement officials are fairly sure the number should start rising.
In the last week, there have been two separate shootings with two victims in each.
Both were gang-related.
Rean says while he understands how easy it is too fall into that life, people need to understand there are consequences that they can't even imagine.
"Day to day stuff that you don't even dream about when you're selling crack, carrying a gun, that stuff eventually comes real and there's nothing you can do to change what you've done," he says.
"I'm working real hard to be a good father. I email with the teachers every day. But I would also love to volunteer at the school but because of what I've done previously, that can't happen."
Rean says he tries to make up for what he can't do by excelling at what he can, particularly teaching his kids not to make his mistakes.
"Crime does not pay," he says. "Oh, sure, it will seem that it does. And you might make $100,000 in a year selling drugs. But it will go away before you know it. And you will end up getting out of jail years later with nothing.
"You're better off flipping burgers than selling drugs. You're pretty much better doing anything."