By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I asked him why he thought Whiting had been shot in the first place. He shrugged and then looked at me like it didn’t matter. This was all part of a continuum that stretched beyond his memory and over which he had no control. The thing that seemed to bother him most was that he probably knew who the shooter was. “Everybody knows each other in these projects — everybody,” he said bitterly. “A lot of people are related. Brothers and fathers — brothers and sisters on different sides.” Which only amps up the hate required to shoot someone in cold blood, he said. “When somebody closer to home violates you, it’s harder to accept.”
The next day, at Jordan Downs, I put a similar question to a Grape Street Crip named Ronny Pugh. Pugh, 23, was wiry, and wore a necklace of purple beads — Grape Street colors. When I asked what his beef against Nickerson Gardens was, he didn’t seem to know. “I wish I could just take a big-ass can of roach spray and spray it all over the whole place and kill everybody. Mamas, children and all,” he said. “Fuck them and anything that can grow from there.”
We were talking against the side of a building in the projects. I could see faces in the windows above us. Jordan Downs feels more menacing than Nickerson Gardens. Its 103 two-story buildings are laid out in a strict grid; the windows are barred. There are almost no trees, so the few patches of grass are sun-baked. As a deterrent to crime, the city has installed closed-circuit cameras high on the light poles behind slabs of military-grade ballistic Plexiglas designed to survive .50-caliber bullets.
As Pugh and I spoke, half a dozen or so young men gathered loosely around us. Two of them walked up behind and pressed against me, asking what was going on. Pugh waved them down and said I was cool, and they moved on.
I asked Pugh if he’d taken part in the string of drive-by murders in Nickerson Garden that started over Christmas. “I’m a part of everything and anything, put it like that,” he said, almost eagerly. “If I’m out here, you do it.” He stopped, looked around and said, “I love this right here. I love this life. I can’t even see myself abandoning this. I don’t care if I got money, or work Monday through Friday. I just go shoot a motherfucker on the weekends. If that’s what need to be done to keep my hood and my young ones around here safe, then that’s what to get done.”
Street gangs, like all closed societies, hold sacred certain articles of faith that are central to their identity. One of them appears to be that the violence has to continue no matter what. After all, the members of the Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunter Bloods are all young black men from the same part of the same city, most of them jobless and without education. Most of their families are Christian. A good number of them are related. There seems no real reason for the feud, except the feud itself. One wonders if the gangs would even exist without the violence between them.
Two hours after I left Pugh, my cell phone rang. I knew the caller, and he told me my conversation with Pugh had been overheard. He’d been told to tell me I’d been “green lit” in Jordan Downs — if I went back there, I’d be killed.
The Bounty Hunter–Grape Street murders over that Christmas season were among the 273 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles last year. Gang-related killings have dropped to 187 so far this year. While it’s easy to see the ebb and flow in killings as just chapters in L.A.’s infamous gang wars, gang experts, police and even gang members themselves say that the truth is that something ominous is happening. Gang crime in South Los Angeles spiked 24 percent in 2006, 14 percent in the city overall and more than 60 percent in the San Fernando Valley.
Nationwide, juvenile gang homicides have spiked 23 percent since 2000. There are six times as many gangs in L.A. as there were a quarter century ago, and twice as many gang members. But as important as the gang activity itself is what’s different about the violence. In America’s urban ganglands, and in L.A. in particular, the ferocity of the thuggery has surged; gang members, their victims and police long on the gang beat tell me the fighting has become more codeless, more arbitrary and more brutal than ever.
And it is everywhere. According to the Department of Justice, today America has at least 30,000 gangs, with 800,000 members, in 2,500 communities across the United States. (Gang experts at the University of Southern California claim the number of American jurisdictions with gang problems has reached 4,000.) Federal, state and local law enforcement across the country agree that street gangs connected to or mimicking the L.A. model have become a national epidemic.
Last January, a report on gang violence commissioned by the Los Angeles City Council found that the gang epidemic is largely immune to general declines in crime nationwide. In other words, gang crime is surging just as other violent crime is decreasing. And unlike other categories of crime, gangs and gang-related crime are spreading to formerly safe middle-class communities, or, “to a neighborhood near you,” says the report’s author, civil rights attorney Constance Rice.
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