Late Christmas Eve 2005, Demond Whiting and a friend left the recreation center at Nickerson Gardens and turned right down Compton Avenue. Whiting was 32 and an original gangster in the Bounty Hunter Bloods. The Bounty Hunters control and terrorize Nickerson Gardens, the sprawling housing development in Watts, and use it as a base for a nationwide drug-trafficking network. Whiting, who was fresh from a long stretch in prison for armed robbery, was chatting about his new life as a civilian, when someone stuck an AK-47 out the window of a passing car and fired two rounds. One hit Whiting in the back, severing his spine and paralyzing him.
Early the next morning — Christmas morning — a Bounty Hunter named Antoine Staffer, a.k.a. Pig, left Nickerson Gardens, walked about a half mile to the edge of the dusty, treeless Jordan Downs housing project, strolled up to a car and shot the driver in the face. The victim was Brandon “B.L.” Bullard, a key player in the Grape Street Crips, the gang that controls Jordan Downs. Ten minutes later, a Bounty Hunter heading into Jordan Downs for a Christmas visit with cousins was ambushed and shot seven times. Two more Bounty Hunters were murdered in quick succession. The cycle of retribution — in the form of drive-bys with AK-47s, Uzis, MAC-10s and 9mm semiautomatic handguns — lasted six weeks, left 26 people wounded, nine dead, the local schools largely empty of students, and a large swath of Watts under siege.
What triggered all this depends on whom you talk to. Some say it was an argument at a mall over a young woman, others say it was a yanked necklace. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t have taken much. This was just the latest spasm in a long-running vendetta between the Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunter Bloods, just one of hundreds of hair-trigger blood feuds that disrupt or terrorize neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles, the most gang-saturated city in the world. No one I spoke to could explain why the Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunter Bloods revile each other so; they only know that they do.
Even the gang members were feeling trapped. “I remember us thinking, how long is this going to go, how much is this going to trigger, how bad is this going to get, how many people are going to die?” a former Bounty Hunter named Damien Hartfield told me during the height of the conflict.
In March, I visited Demond Whiting at a rehabilitation hospital outside Watts. I drove with James (not his real name), a serious, powerfully built 30-something O.G. Bounty Hunter from Nickerson Gardens. James didn’t say much, only that he’d spent his 20s in prison for a variety of things, including armed robbery and involuntary manslaughter, and now was struggling to keep his gangbanging behind him.
We found Whiting, a lean man with a wisp of a beard and prominent cheekbones, lying in a darkened room, his legs already heavily atrophied beneath the blankets. He was eager for visitors, and was strangely sanguine about his plight. “The only sense of direction [in the neighborhood] is to follow the negative,” he said with a shrug. “I never knew the walk of being a good guy.”
Now, of course, he’ll never walk again. But there was little sense of catastrophe about him; his paralysis was merely a possible consequence of the life he’d led. I asked him how he felt about the Christmas Day retaliation against the Grape Street Crips, and the war it set off, and he said, simply, “They knew they had to do that.”
James and I drove back to Nickerson Gardens and parked outside the recreation center. He didn’t move to get out, and we sat in silence for a time. It began to rain, lightly at first, then heavily. We faced the long front wall of the recreation center that had been turned into a memorial for Nickerson Gardens residents killed in gang violence. The names were listed in neat columns. There were 300 of them.
Eventually, James started talking. He told me he’d started gangbanging when he was 12. “I got shot when I was 15, and that’s when it got bad,” he said softly. “I got extreme after I got shot.” James started teaching youngsters from Nickerson how to gangbang. Using rival gangbangers for practice, he taught his students how to hunt and kill. “You teach a person how not to take losses, how to be gladiators, run them down, gun them down,” he explained.
James wasn’t remorseful, but he was far from proud. In truth, he seemed numb; his life of crime and death hung about him in a static haze. There is a personal demilitarized zone in the advanced lives of former hardcore gang members, should they survive their 20s, where they live as neither soldier nor citizen. James said he struggles to keep a gun out of his own hands every day, but that in January he was tempted to join the battle with the Grape Street Crips after a young Bounty Hunter he knew was killed.