Erik Bringswhite grew up living with his grandmother in north Rapid City. He witnessed the gang lifestyle early on and embraced it. He later wound up doing federal time for gun charges - not once but twice.
Bringswhite served nearly seven years in federal prison and was released in 2006. He is now using his experiences to help at-risk youth.
SDPB’s Amy Varland has the story of a young man’s journey from street-gang-member to messenger of hope. This is a story of Erik Bringswhite then and now.
As a young boy Erik Bringswhite watched gangs hang out and occupy the playground near his childhood home. He remembers gun fights happening right in front of him and his friends.
“Mid 80’s man these guys were already full-fledged shoot-out, full-fledged gang members, you know, try their hardest to, I perceived, to kill each other,” says Bringswhite.
Bringswhite’s earliest recorded run-in with law enforcement was when he was just ten. By his teens he was a full-fledged gang-member. One fight with a rival gang stands out in his mind. It was Christmas night and he shot rounds into a rival gang territory. He drove away in a stolen car but didn’t get too far because the police were already responding to a shots-fired call.
“I looked and there was a car coming really fast behind us and so I said , “Here they come,” and I’m hurrying up trying to get these bullets in there, and this girl in the backseat she was like, “No, don’t do it, don’t do it!” And just as I turned around to do it she grabbed the gun and pulled it in the back seat,” says Bringswhite.
He says he didn’t realize it was actually the police behind them.
“That was the beginning of my incarceration career,” says Bringswhite.
Bringswhite says his grandmother tried to be the voice of reason.
“She was always telling me right from wrong, but there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t hear, and that’s what she would call me too. She would call all my friends and I this “nuge waneca” - the “nuge waneca” gang. That in Lakota means ‘no ears’,” says Bringswhite.
He says he was true to her nickname and didn’t listen to his Grandma’s advice. Instead, he says he continued to get in trouble. He served nearly two years in federal prison but that didn't change him and once he was out law enforcement knew him too well.
“Ended up having a few run-ins here and there, bad, getting bad, you know; law enforcements pulling me over at every opportunity. As soon as they see me they pull me over, search me, and all the while I’m saying, “What you basing your stuff on?” says Bringswhite.
They would say, “Oh, we just want to see who you’re with." “ They’d be walking up on me, several of them, unbuttoning their guns. I guess they seen the threat when I couldn’t,” says Bringswhite.
He returned to prison where he saw even more violence and he took his anger out on fellow inmates.
“Anyways I ended up getting arrested for that and sat in the hole for like ninety days. And in this hole I thought, “Man, this is what life’s all about, this is what I tried so hard for?” says Bringswhite.
This revelation rattles him to the core and he changes his life.
“I say a silent prayer in my head, I ask God for the knowledge, the wisdom, the understanding, and the strength to leave all the bad things that I’ve ever learned, that I’ve ever done to another person there, because that’s where it belongs. They say when you’re driving away not to look back because it brings bad luck on yourself,” says Bringswhite.
Bringswhite didn’t look back. Instead he embraced his future and his new mission in life – to share his experiences to help youngsters.
“So who better to tell and address the situation than a person who’s experienced it? My knowledge doesn’t come from a classroom, it doesn’t come from any book or a computer. I lived it. I lived it for twenty years of my life,” says Bringswhite.
Today Bringswhite has a Bachelor of Social Work degree. Some say he beat the odds. But he says he feels now that the odds are in his favor. He believes he has a message of hope. And law enforcement is taking note.
Steve Allender is the Chief of Police in Rapid City. He says Bringswhite is a valuable tool.
“Is there a need for a guy like Erik Bringswhite? There certainly is a need for a guy like him because no matter how educated on the issues people like me become I can never have the credibility with at-risk teenagers or young adults that someone who has been there would have,” says Allender.
Allender adds that it is not typical for long-time criminals to make these changes.
Bringswhite says he is now interested in bettering the community he once raged against. He is a foster-friend and mentor for local at-risk youth that are already getting in trouble with the law.
Joe Guttierez is the Commander of the Juvenile Services Center in Rapid City. He says Bringswhite has had a profound effect on the kids that he mentors.
“I think kids could relate to Erik because he you know he was a pretty big guy, pretty tattooed up, and you know they had something in common I think, which was he was in trouble when he was younger and so were they at this time,” says Guttierez.
Guttierez says Bringswhite’s experiences are similar to those that young people are facing today.
Bringswhite has built quite a resume speaking to youth at locations across the nation. He says he plans to continue to reach out.
“I had these goals you know, these dreams, of being the best gang-member in the world. Later in life I’ve come to realize that’s where gang members go – especially the good ones - two places: prison and the cemetery. That’s the rewards of gang membership,” says Bringswhite.
He says that it’s critical not to give up on our youth because they can change like he did.