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
Almost anywhere in America a migrating gangbanger lands, he is fairly sure to find a receptive supply of recruits.
“Trying out gangs is becoming more and more popular,” says Dr. Malcolm Klein, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who has been studying gangs since 1962. “Kids are shown how to ape gang behavior by MTV and the Gap.” Today, rap is a multibillion-dollar industry that dresses up violence with bling and sex. Eventually, real street gangsters picked up on the fantasy and took on the fetishes of gang life as told back to them by millionaire musicians who had either left the streets or were never part of it.
“Now gangs are fads, it’s cool to be a Crip and Blood,” says Detective Sergeant Ronald Hampton of the New Jersey State Police’s gang unit.
New Jersey’s hardcore — mostly urban — gang population has almost doubled since 2001, from 9,000 to 17,000. But in the last few years, even nontraditional gang areas in the Northeast like Westchester County, Long Island and Princeton, New Jersey, have started having gang problems. There are tens of thousands of wannabe gangsters in New Jersey alone, Hampton says. Police call them “wangsters.” Mostly, they traffic in what they think is cool about gangs, the sort of young white men of means and options who go to upscale Manhattan private schools and wear baggy pants and talk ghetto.
The bigger and more dangerous portion of the country’s 800,000-odd gang members are disaffected and marginalized youths looking to identify with something. Of New Jersey’s 38 hardcore Blood sets, 13 are transplanted L.A. gangs, including the Bounty Hunter Bloods from Nickerson Gardens. The Grape Street Crips are the largest Crip set on the East Coast. State and federal agencies track money transfers from East Coast gang members back to the accounts of gang members in L.A. Search warrants and wiretaps on the East Coast often lead them back to L.A.
“Most of what we’re seeing in the east are L.A. street gangs,” says Special Agent Alec J. Turner, the director of the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center, a joint effort with the U.S. Marshals, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “We are seeing influence from MS-13 [Mara Salvatrucha] cliques getting some direction from higher-level MS-13 people in L.A.”
The migration of gang members out of L.A. is an even spray pattern, the FBI says. Gangs have coalesced most heavily in the Northeast, the country’s most lucrative narcotics market, but they are also moving to the Northwest (San Francisco and Seattle) and across the Midwest and South (Little Rock and Charlotte). “And it’s not just national migration,” Turner says, “but also from urban settings to rural settings, based on gangs’ knowledge that law enforcement in rural and suburban areas has less scrutiny. The police are softer.”
Once migrant gang members claim virgin drug territory for themselves, L.A.-style gang chaos and murder is inevitable. “It’s a power struggle between new gangs,” Andre told me. “Who’s running what? Who has more money? Who’s got more squad? That’s what it all comes down to, whose squad is willing to kill. And that is when the young kids come in, because they don’t give a fuck. They come in, and they kill other kids.”
The cycle is hard-wired into the gang dynamic. And because it’s not geography specific, and is spreading through an expanding population of potential recruits, the federal government is making a paradigm shift toward thinking of street gangs under the rubric of domestic terrorism. “There’s an analogy to modern terror organizations,” says the Rand Corporation’s Jack Riley. “The members are not persuadable in any regular sense.”?
The modern American gang was born here. The enormous spread of the city and the lack of public transportation turned its vast freeway and street system into a network of boundaries that cuts the city into hundreds of isolated pieces. Watts, for instance, is boxed in by the 105 freeway to the south, the 110 freeway to the west, the Compton railway to the east and Century Boulevard to the north. Watts is bisected by 103rd Street, roughly the halfway point between the Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs projects, and the recognized DMZ between the Bounty Hunter Bloods and Grape Street Crips.
As in meiosis, L.A.’s bigger neighborhoods and their gangs will usually divide into subgangs, or cliques, focusing on cul-de-sacs and parking lots that are claimed as sovereign territory. Nickerson’s Bounty Hunter Bloods street gang is split into at least a half dozen cliques around the numbered streets that cross the project (the Five-Line Bounty Hunters hang out on 115th Street, the Four-Lines on 114th Street, etc.). It doesn’t matter that the demarcations separate people identical in race, class and marginality. The people identify with their shared piece of pavement.
Some Los Angeles gangs are strictly robbery crews, others jack cars, Vietnamese gangs specialize in identity theft, Russian and Armenian gangs do mostly extortion and human trafficking. At last count, Los Angeles County had more than 714 gangs and 80,000 gang members. That makes one of every hundred county residents either a hardcore soldier in a gang or an “associate” — the getaway drivers, lookouts, “cookers” (people who know how to turn cocaine into crack) and “hooks” (people who direct customers to drug houses) — or an “affiliate,” a gang member with no specific duties. But no section of L.A. is more defined by gangs than the nine square miles of Watts terrorized by the Bounty Hunter Bloods and Grape Street Crips: the Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs housing projects, along with Imperial Courts and Gonzaque Village, and the streets that connect them.
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