When reporters, lawyers and cops need a "gang expert," the person they turn to often has a badge. The result can be a one-sided and myopic depiction of barrio life, says Alex Alonso, a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach.
In Alonso's view, law enforcement often dehumanizes gangsters, making it easier for society to embrace a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach. Yes, there are killers on the streets, and justice awaits them. But Alonso believes that each soul has redeemable qualities.
"We have been manipulated and brainwashed to believe a narrative fed to us by law enforcement: Most gang members are diabolical," he says. "The opposite is the case."
The academic got a close-up view of L.A.'s gangs while growing up in Mid-City and attending John Burroughs Middle School and Los Angeles High. He has documentation even from back then of his fascination with gangs. "I went to all the gang members," he recalls, "and I said, 'Hit up your gang in my yearbook.'"
Alonso's dad is a street-hardened Korean war vet, and his uncle was a shot caller in a New York Puerto Rican gang. By the time he achieved his dream of going to USC to study geography as an undergraduate, Alonso was drawn to gang classes taught by legendary professors Malcolm Klein and James Vigil.
As a student in the mid-1990s, Alonso jumped on a geography class assignment to create a web page that came with university hosting. He created streetgangs.com, a repository of the history and vital stats of L.A. gangs.
Intended as a destination for the local gang-curious, the site grew to become encyclopedic, with histories, rivalries and links to news stories about shootings, beefs and court cases. It has become a magnet for gang members themselves, who often "net bang" by arguing with enemies and making threats in comment threads. Some post a "roll call" of clique members. Others offer rest-in-peace messages.
Alonso's insight is rare. He downplays, for example, a recurring theme in law enforcement and media lore: that Latino gangs are constantly targeting African-Americans solely because of their race. While there allegedly have been hate crimes perpetrated by Latino gangs such as Big Hazard and Canoga Park Alabama, there is almost always a personal beef at their core, Alonso says.
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Part of Alonso's job involves knowing the rules of the streets and interviewing local gang legends with names like OG Beefy and Nutty Blocc. His YouTube videos profiling local gangs have amassed hundreds of thousands of views in total. In one of them, an Inglewood Family Bloods member describes "taking a shot to the head" that temporarily blinded him. In another, an ex–Boyle Heights Primera Flats member describes being a rare African-American member of a Latino gang; he started as part of a Pee-Wee Locos clique of elementary school-age gangsters.
"We were in the park and some black brothers came to the park," the ex-member says, "and one of the guys pulled out a shotgun and blew one of our older homeboys' heads off in broad daylight."
It's a gig that would make some quiver, but Alonso's right at home.
"Once I meet a lot of these guys, they think of me and treat me as one of them," he says. "It goes back to me knowing how to navigate the streets since I was a kid — how to talk, how to walk, how to look, how not to look. My dad was very street-savvy, and this is everything that he taught me. The streets don't change."