Life in the ‘hood. (truce between Los Angeles, California street gangs Crips and Bloods)
Life in the ‘hood. (truce between Los Angeles, California street gangs Crips and Bloods)
Time; 6/15/1992; Monroe, Sylvester
“It feels like heaven,” says Michael Broadnax, 26, of South Central Los Angeles. A former member of the Bloods, Broadnax did not dare venture into neighborhoods dominated by Crips until factions of the rival gangs forged their remarkable truce in the heat of last month’s riots. “I can go to places I’ve never been or even ridden through before,” he says. “It’s like freedom.” Those words are echoed over and over in South Central these days, as residents marvel at the pact that has brought relative peace to an area more accustomed to gunfire and bloodshed than to handshakes.
Despite claims that the truce was an effort to focus gang fury against the police, there has been no evidence of increased attacks on officers and there has not been a single black gang-related homicide in L.A. since the riots. “They are not coming together to organize against law enforcement,” says community gang worker Charles Norman. “They are coming together for mere survival because they have been to too many funerals.”
Others are more cautious. “If the gangs are maintaining the truce because, as some say, they want to be a part of the rebuilding of South Central L.A., that’s a good sign,” says Sergeant Wes McBride, a member of Operation Safe Streets (oss), the gang unit of the L.A. County sheriff’s department. “But if it’s so they don’t have to cover their backs as much and can become major dealers of narcotics, that’s something else.”
Some of the skepticism exists because the truce does not cover all Crips and Bloods factions. Nor does it affect the city’s more violent Latino and Asian gangs. One of the widest and most organized peace efforts involves about 12,000 black gang members in four Bloods and three Crips “sets,” or factions, within a 3.5-sq.-mi. area of South Central. The Monday after the riots, their leaders came to Norman seeking his help in keeping their peace. There were unity meetings between members of at least 100 gang sets in housing projects and other locations. Norman hopes the group that approached him will become a model that spreads. “We know it’s going to be difficult to sustain the peace,” he says. “But it’s the answer to a lot of prayers from mothers and grandmothers and other folks in the community.”
Truce or no truce, no one can deny that gangs are a serious and growing problem. A 235-page report issued in May by the staff of L.A. County district attorney Ira Reiner estimated that the region has about 1,000 gangs with a total membership of 150,000. The study said gang-related homicides in the county increased more than 200% between 1984 and 1991. While drugs and gangs are intertwined, the D.A.’s staff concluded that most gang members are not serious drug dealers. The report’s most striking claim was that half of all black males in L.A. County between 21 and 24 years old are involved in some kind of gang activity.
That contention was sharply criticized by leaders of L.A.’s black community and others, who questioned the accuracy of the computerized police data bases that provided the numbers. Noting that only 8.5% of all Latinos and less than one-half of 1% of young white men in that age group show up in the data bases, critics complained that police authorities single out young black men and stereotype them as gang members simply by the way they dress and where they live. The police deny that they indiscriminately enter names in the data bases and insist that the numbers are an accurate reflection of the severity of the problem. “We don’t have to create gang members,” says McBride. “People are becoming too hung up on exact numbers. Even if the number drops by 10,000, we still have a serious problem.”
Though the gang members have halted their internecine bloodletting for now, police point out that they have hardly become model citizens. According to the Reiner report, gang members commit six times as many crimes as people from similar backgrounds who do not belong to gangs. “Each one is a mini crime wave, and together they are a major crime wave,” says Reiner. Opinions vary on what role gangs played in the riots, but there is no doubt that they were involved. Several gang members have been charged in the near fatal beating of truck driver Reginald Denny. Last week 22 suspected members of a West L.A. gang were arrested on charges of looting an estimated $80,000 worth of high-tech equipment from a Korean-owned stereo store during the upheaval at the end of April. “Were the gangs involved?” says Reiner. “Of course they were, unless they were home with the flu. Were gangs the instigators of the riot? There’s no evidence of that. This was not a gang riot, but it was a riot gangs participated in.”
Gang members admit that they used the riots for their own ends but refuse to take responsibility for them. “Gangs get blamed for everything that happens,” says Randy (“Bird”) Strickland, 21, a leader of a South Central L.A. gang not participating in the truces. “Gangs are bad, true enough. But if everybody stopped gang-banging right now, there’d still be crime.” Strickland says gang members, like many other South Central residents, were outraged over the acquittal of the four L.A.P.D. officers tried for the videotaped beating of Rodney King. “They just kicked us right in the face with the Rodney King verdict,” Strickland says. “And we wanted to voice our opinion in the only way we knew how, and that was to make some noise. It was the only way people would listen to us.”
There is little hope that police action alone can contain or eliminate the gang problem. After leaving the problem largely to local authorities for the past two decades, Washington is rejoining the fight. But with 5 of every 6 federal antigang dollars going to police and prosecution, some say the effort is seriously misdirected. This year, for example, the Justice Department will spend most of its nearly $500 million gang budget on law enforcement, while the Department of Health and Human Services has disbursed only $40 million on prevention and early-intervention programs since 1989. And the FBI’s announcement last January that it was reassigning 300 agents from foreign counterintelligence to antigang efforts raised the question of how effectively a handful of ex-cold warriors can function in gang hot spots. In L.A. last February, 22 FBI agents were redeployed to join an existing 12-man gang squad.
Despite the presence of specialized gang units in every L.A. County law-enforcement agency, gang membership has more than tripled since 1985 and gang-related homicides have increased from 271 to 771 last year. Gang members account for an estimated 40% of the 22,000 inmates of the L.A. County jail. According to Reiner, Hispanic gangs have been 60 years in the making and black gangs 30. “The one thing we have to come to grips with,” he said, “is there isn’t a five-point answer that is going to get rid of the gang problem in five years. If it took 30 years for the black gangs to reach this point, it’s going to take the next 15 or 20 or 35 years to really have an impact on the problem. There is no immediate solution to the problem of 150,000 gang members in L.A.”
Yet what works is no great mystery. In its 1992 report, L.A.’s Interagency Gang Task Force recommended greater emphasis on prevention, early intervention, juvenile justice reform and education in schools. “You need a strong law-enforcement component,” says Michael Genelin, who has headed the L.A. County district attorney’s hard-core gang division for seven years. “But you also need a community component to get at the root cause of the problem.”
Though there is now widespread agreement that gangs are a social and economic problem and prevention is as important as punishment, funds for programs to keep kids out of gangs and the criminal-justice system are still hard to find. “You don’t need to spend five of every six dollars on suppression,” says Steve Valdivia, who runs L.A.’s Community Youth Gang Services Project with a budget of $1.8 million. “If you spend two of every six on prevention, the results square themselves over time.” The idea, he says, is to treat gangs like a “social disease” for which there are prevention-oriented, educational and economic cures.
One is to replace the things that are missing in gang-ridden communities. “No more than 10% of any gang are hard-core, shoot-’em-up, hope-to-die criminals,” Valdivia says. “But you won’t find the Boy Scouts in South Central L.A. Most kids join gangs because that’s what there is to join.” And, like diseases, gangs can be contagious. According to University of Southern California gang expert Malcolm W. Klein, in 1961 there were 23 cities with known street gangs nationwide. Today there are 187. Practically every state has some kind of gang problem. Nor is it limited to inner-city areas of major urban centers. Gangs can be found in suburban cities with populations as small as 5,000.
The spread of gang activity to cities across the country is part of the reason the FBI is reinforcing its antigang effort. Bureau officials believe that, in conjunction with local police, they can use federal laws like rico and Continuing Criminal Enterprise statutes to attack drug trafficking and other organized-crime elements of gang activity. “Many of these gangs are very heavily involved in drug distribution, and we have a lot of experience in the drug business and a lot of expertise in organized crime that will transfer very well into this effort,” says Charlie J. Parsons, special agent in charge of the FBI’s L.A. regional office. “The FBI is not going to solve the drug problem, and the FBI is not going to solve the gang problem, but I think we can contribute.”
Skeptics argue that the FBI and other federal agencies have been oversold on the connection between street gangs and organized drug distribution. The Reiner report strongly downplays that link, and most local police authorities agree. “If you could eliminate the narcotics problem tomorrow, you’d still have a significant gang problem,” says Deputy Chief Bernard C. Parks, a former L.A.P.D. gang coordinator, now commander of the department’s central bureau. “And if the next day you eliminated the gang problem, you’d still have a significant crime problem.”
Most members believe that gangs will survive no matter what law enforcement does. Joseph (“Downer”) Cardenas, 16, a member of a South Central Chicano gang, was charged last week with felony assault with a shotgun. (He has denied the charge.) He recently asked his 11-year-old brother whether he wanted to be a gang banger. He was happy to hear the boy say no. Yet the chances are better than even that the youngster will follow in Joseph’s footsteps. Joseph didn’t want to be a gang banger either, but he followed the path paved by another Cardenas brother, Juan, 19, who is serving a seven-year term for attempted murder.
“I wouldn’t have been like my brother, and I don’t want my little brother to be a gang member,” Joseph said after his arraignment. “But I was born and raised in South Central, and gangs are all that I see. That’s the only alternative I’ve got, and I have to take what comes. It’s pitiful,” he says. “A lot of people die, and it keeps going on. But it’s like a ball rolling and rolling. There’s no solution to it. There are just always going to be gangs.”
CAPTION: Hispanic street-gang members demonstrate their hand signs
CAPTION: Crips and Bloods members show their colors at a gang truce rally
CAPTION: Police arrest a Crip for assault with a deadly weapon