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There was a beat of shocked silence. The gravediggers began backing away .?.?. then, bedlam.
Theresa let out a shriek and took a swing at the funeral director, striking her in the face. The director collapsed; I lost sight of her as Theresa kept pummeling. De’Andre Perry and two or three of the other pallbearers pounced on the gravediggers, punching wildly. At one point, the gravediggers managed to scramble to their feet, but they were easily caught and trapped against the marble crypts. They disappeared from view in a hail of fists and feet.
The mausoleum filled with screams. This crowd was all too familiar with the physics of violence and its accelerants. In their world, fistfights often become gunfights. Many, I’m sure, thought that there were probably plenty of weapons on hand, and knew that gunfire in that narrow marble space would create a lethal ricochet. The crowd stampeded. Chairs flipped. Women and children went down. The last I saw of the gravediggers, they were awash in blood, being mercilessly beaten.
The melee poured outside. Scuffles broke out among the men, some of the fights dissolving into emotional embraces. Women, dressed in their Sunday best, were running for cars in the bright sunshine.
A few minutes later, De’Andre and the other pallbearers emerged, their clothes disheveled. Theresa charged at them. “You killed my baby!” she screamed, railing at the pointless nihilism of gang life. “You killed him!”
The young men stumbled back, retreating from their aunt’s wrath. The air began to pulse. Everyone looked up. An LAPD helicopter had swooped in and was hovering overhead. Toward the cemetery entrance, LAPD officers were massing, snapping on riot helmets and checking shotguns. They opened the gates, formed a phalanx six across, and started walking calmly and steadily toward the mourners.
The young men in the crowd fled on foot through and over the tombstones, abandoning cars and women and sprinting for the walls. With military precision, the police cleared every crypt and every conceivable hiding space. By the time they reached the mausoleum there was no one left to arrest, and not much to do except stand around bewildered at this strange scene.
Then the damaged coffin came out on a gurney. The pastor and a limousine driver wheeled it back to the hearse. The police lowered their weapons; some took off their helmets, sweating heavily in the heat. Theresa turned to them; her face was a mask of rage and despair. She seemed about to scream again and then just dropped her head. The pastor whispered something into her ear, and gently coaxed her into the limousine. Then he put Devon’s coffin back in the hearse and drove the body away.?
A few weeks before his cousin’s funeral, I had met up with De’Andre Perry, known as Little D among his fellow Bounty Hunters. We stood in the entrance to the recreation center in front of the infamous memorial listing those killed in gang violence over the past few years. I asked Perry for the same thing I’d asked other gangbangers caught up in this deadly vendetta — an explanation.
Eventually, like all gangbangers I spoke with, he circled back to gang lore, which defines the gang as a family defending neighborhood pride. “I was born into it,” Perry said. “Doing drug dealing or gangbanging, I was always that in my eyes. The Bounty Hunters are a powerful community wherever we go. Wherever we move you see our prints. Everywhere you go if you ask anybody about Bounty Hunters they have something strong to say.”
I said that’s not the case outside Watts, in, say, wealthy white Santa Monica, where most people have never heard of the Bounty Hunters and would think of them not with respect but disgust.
Perry paused. His eyes moist, he leaned forward and gesticulated with his hands. “If I walk down the street and I see a white dude and he sees the way I look, tattoos and all that, he thinks I am automatic trouble. In a way, that makes me feel good .?.?.” He trailed off. Even he wasn’t buying what he was saying. Suddenly, his Bounty Hunter identity dissolved: “I am this way, but not just because I am this way. I am this way because something happened.”
“People walking through are experiencing this violence over and over again,” says Aquila Sherills, a former Grape Street Crip. “So how do we deal with it? We don’t. Alcohol, sex, marijuana. People are totally numb.”