L.A. Gangs: Nine Miles and Spreading
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.
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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.
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.
What this means is that the communities gangs come from are pulling away from mainstream society more than ever, and the gangs that plague them, like storm systems, are growing and feeding on themselves, gathering destructive strength. In Los Angeles, law enforcement officials now warn that they have arrived at the end of their ability to contain gangs to poor minority and immigrant hot zones.
“This is the monster, this is what drives people’s fears,” says LAPD Deputy Chief Charles Beck.
Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest whose Homeboy Industries has helped willing gangbangers in mostly Hispanic East L.A. escape the life, tells me that gang behavior is changing, and the change is chilling. Everywhere he sees signs of the erosion of known and protected codes of conduct, such as methods of assassination that used to protect the innocent, and territorial respect — which he says reflect an accelerating sense of desolation among poor urban youth. Gangs today are less about neighborhoods and rivalries. They’ve become repositories for hopelessness.
“Gangs are the places where kids go when they encounter their life as misery without exception,” says Boyle. “When [gangbangers] go out to commit crimes now, they’re not going out seeking to kill — you can’t reason or rationalize this: These are kids who don’t care. They’re going out hoping to die.”
Last January, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cried uncle, saying that it was time for government and law enforcement to admit they have failed to stop gangs or even understand what they are. He appealed for federal help to make a Marshall Plan–style push to tackle what’s been an intractable problem.
“Los Angeles is the epicenter of the nation’s gang crisis, and an effective assault on gang crime will require increased suppression, intervention and prevention measures,” Villaraigosa said after Rice’s report was released. “Street gangs are responsible for the majority of all the murders in Los Angeles and nearly 70 percent of all the shootings. We must work to address gang violence in a truly comprehensive way.”
The problem is that for the most part traditional (and failed) models of gangs and gang suppression do not apply, because not only are gangs better armed and more ferocious, but they look different. The accelerating current of gang violence is colliding with a growing wave of Hispanic migration from Mexico and Central America into the United States. Hispanic gangs now dominate the hardcore narcotics business nationwide, and they are physically pushing historically entrenched black gangs out of their territories.
Squeezed by a shrinking share of the drug market, desperate for new business, gang members and their families are retreating out of the city, establishing new street gangs where they land. According to the FBI, gangs are showing up and spreading in suburban and rural America, in counties like Westchester and Suffolk in New York, and rural parts of North Carolina and Virginia, places that have no experience with street gangs and organized crime, and police who don’t know how to fight it.
A few years ago, officers responding to a call to Nickerson Gardens found a young Bounty Hunter who had lit a dog on fire. Already on probation for animal cruelty, a juvenile court judge exiled the young gangbanger to San Bernardino, a small city 70 miles east of L.A., where the boy had relatives. Within a few weeks, the boy recruited a few local kids to form a robbery crew and went on a spree of armed home invasions. They made a point of bragging to their victims that they were Bounty Hunters from L.A. They shot their last victim to death. The San Bernardino chapter of the Bounty Hunter Bloods was born.
L.A.’s sprawl has turned gritty former Mormon and railroad settlements such as San Bernardino into bedroom communities, ripe territory for construction and for industrial growth. Pinched by spiking real estate prices and displaced by a surging Hispanic migration, many of South L.A.’s blacks are relocating to the Inland Empire. So are gangs.
In October, I spent an evening with Andre (not his real name), who’d left Nickerson Gardens a few years ago for San Bernardino. With the desert and the craggy San Bernardino mountain range a constant backdrop, we drove from point to point around town as he collected envelopes of cash or checked supply at drug spots. “My family moved trying to get away from the trauma of Watts,” Andre explained.
Other Bounty Hunters he knew fled Nickerson because other gangs or the police were hunting them. They go where relatives are, to New Jersey, or Little Rock. Or here, he said. Wherever they go, they bring their relationships, reputations and skills. For an L.A. gangbanger, that usually means the drug or robbery business.
That’s how it spreads, Andre said. “A few knuckleheads from around here start wanting to get down with us. But they’re not official. They’re called add-ons. Outside of L.A. there will always be somebody official in the gang; everybody else is an add-on.” Add-ons are like kites on a string, easily cut off if they draw trouble. “It’s like we rent them. There’s no real connection to us. If we have a shootout, they’re not tied to us whatsoever.”
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.
Every yard, doorway, shop and parking lot is the fiefdom of one of Watts’ 65 gangs and their roughly 15,000 hardcore gang members. In that area alone, gang members shoot 500 people a year, and kill 90. Nearly every citizen living there is enjoined by membership or affiliation; those who try to stay out of the life incur their local gang’s wrath, sometimes with fatal consequences. The average American has a 1-in-18,000 chance of being murdered. In this area of Los Angeles, the chances are 1 in 250.
On New Year’s Eve so much automatic weapons fire pours into Watts’ airspace that LAX air traffic control must divert the flight path of incoming planes. The U.S. military sends its medics to train at local trauma hospitals because the conditions in their trauma units so resemble live warfare. At a community meeting I attended in March 2006, LAPD Chief William Bratton declared the Jordan Downs–Nickerson Gardens area “the most violent community in the country. This is now the most dangerous place in America,” he said.
I first visited Nickerson Gardens one night last January, trolling the streets with a Los Angeles Fire Department paramedic captain named Marc Segal. Built in 1955 as temporary housing for military personnel, Nickerson is the largest project west of the Mississippi, with roughly 5,000 residents. Its 1,054 federally subsidized units — which rent for as little as $175 a month — are arranged around parking lots. They are painted institutional white and labeled like cell blocks.
As we neared the project, Segal told me to put on a Kevlar vest. Nickerson Gardens was then in the grips of the lethal gang war that had begun with the Demond Whiting shooting that Christmas Eve.
“The Fire Department used to not get shot at,” he lamented. Now, paramedics are wary of entering the projects without heavy police escort. That means the sick and the wounded sometimes wait a long time for rescue.
“Now tell me if you notice anything strange,” Segal said as we approached Nickerson Gardens. I looked, considered, and then replied, “The fence.”
Nickerson Gardens is partly enclosed by a 7-foot wrought-iron fence topped by sharp spikes, the sort usually meant to keep intruders out. But these spikes stabbed down into the projects; they were there to keep people in. “These people are born in a prison,” Segal said, and then drove quickly with his headlights off.
The street lamps were out, and nearly all the windows were dark. I could make out the silhouettes of people hanging out in doorways, and the glowing cherries of their cigarettes. Later, I learned that most residents of Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs keep their lights off at night to avoid becoming targets in drive-by shootings. Segal was relieved when we got out of there. “I probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said.
It wasn’t always this way.?
Originally, L.A.’s street gangs were social and support organizations for immigrants and packs of neighborhood pals. Mostly their crimes were petty, and scores were settled with fists. Latinos and blacks generally stayed out of each other’s way.
All that changed forever in the late 1980s, when crack cocaine hit Los Angeles and neighborhood affiliation became secondary to what all the gangs now really wanted: a piece of the drug business. By then, Colombian cartels, looking to reduce the risk of American prosecution, had transferred the bulk of the trafficking part of the drug business to Mexican and Hispanic-American gangs. Now in control of the cocaine supply, and suddenly flush, many of them squared up into efficient, vertically integrated, multilevel organizations.
“They quickly understood the benefits of economic diversification, and that the real money is in wholesaling drugs coming over the border to other gangs,” Luis Li, a former assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the Department of Justice’s L.A. organized-crime division, told me.
Mexican gang leaders from Los Angeles jailed in Tracy State Prison banded together to retain control of their narcotics business on the street. The Mexican Mafia — or Eme — was born, and has replaced the Cosa Nostra as the most powerful single criminal entity in the country. “They make a big effort to make a business-friendly environment,” Li says. “They are trying to get people in Los Angeles — middle-, upper-middle- and upper-class people — to drive through and buy drugs.”
“But as the war on drugs went into overdrive, and law enforcement had this fixation on crack, it was really seen as a black thing,” a federal prosecutor told me. “Government officials were obsessing about blacks doing crack, but not Hispanics.”
Hispanic gangs weren’t immune from prosecution, the prosecutor told me, but black gangs were seen as more dangerous, their violence more anarchic and lethal to innocent civilians; their communities were seen as being at greater risk than Latino neighborhoods. It virtually became government policy to isolate black gangs.
“Maybe the federal government saw black gangs as a greater threat,” says Lieutenant John P. Sullivan, an intelligence and counterterrorism expert in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “Or maybe black gangs were just easier to penetrate.”
The effect on black gangs was a virtual decapitation. With most of their leaders in prison, what little organization there was evaporated and black gangbangers turned on each other and themselves. “Whether targeting black gangs was a good idea,” the prosecutor now wondered, “in retrospect I think it probably wasn’t.”
The truth is that gangs are merely reflections of their communities. America’s huge pool of poorly educated urban black men was being pushed farther than ever to the fringes of mainstream society. New studies by experts at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions show how the numbers of young black American men without jobs climbed relentlessly during that period. By 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were jobless — unable to find work, not seeking it or in jail. By 2004, the number had climbed to 72 percent (compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts). Today, 75 percent of Watts’ adult black male population will at some point go to jail or prison.
The children of these men are born to the belief that they have no options. Impotent and hungry for family, these kids often turn to the embrace of a gang. But what the gang really represents, more than neighborhood, is nihilism.
Leaderless black gangs like the Bounty Hunters have divided into competitive cliques; inexperienced young gangbangers are fighting and killing for control. The Bounty Hunters, for instance, have become notorious for killing each other to move up in the gang. “They mistake the fear they create for respect,” says LAPD Detective Victor Ross, a gang unit detective. “Today, a Bounty Hunter gets what he thinks is respect by murdering his own.”
Recently, in Jordan Downs, a Grape Street clique rebuffed by a 14-year-old boy who refused to join gang-raped his 12-year-old sister, taped the attack, and showed the video to the boy. The boy gave in and joined. Older gang members and veteran police say the neighborhoods are codeless and anarchic. “The hood is lost because we ain’t got no guidance right now,” a hardcore Bounty Hunter Blood told me. “It’s just us young gangsters.”
The differences between black and Latino gangs are stark. And the black gang members I spoke with readily admit that the difference is fatal. Damien Hartfield, the former Bounty Hunter, explained, “Blacks do what they want. When Latinos go gangbanging they have a solid plan. Blacks don’t go to war like that. It’s spontaneous. Something just happens. Latinos make a call, make a plan. They have a structure.”
LAPD Chief Bratton admits he is bewildered by how anarchic L.A.’s black gangs have become.
“African-American violence is totally out of proportion to their numbers,” he said. “With Latinos, there is so much more family structure, while it’s not as if blacks rally around the African-American community just because they are black. They associate more with their gang colors than they do with their own color as African-Americans. It’s almost as if they lost identities as African-Americans.”
Watts and neighboring Compton, historically and famously black neighborhoods, are already roughly 70 percent Hispanic. Hispanic gangs know they don’t need to wage war against black gangs. They are happy to wait it out as black gangs sabotage themselves. Gangbangers in Watts tell me they know they can’t keep up. And they know their fate.
“Ten years from now gangs from all other races besides Hispanic are going to be pushed out of everywhere,” Andre says.
Late one night last April, a 17-year-old African-American boy named Devon Perry was jumped in South Los Angeles and shot execution style in the back of the head. Devon had grown up in Nickerson Gardens, less than a mile away from where he was shot. Devon’s family had numerous Bounty Hunter members or associates. Devon’s mother, Theresa, had sent him to live with relatives outside the project and away from the gang.
About a thousand people jammed into Devon’s funeral at a small neighborhood church in South L.A., including gangbangers from various sets of Crips and Bloods. The Perry family claimed Devon wasn’t a gang member, but many of the mourners wore T-shirts silk-screened with a photo of Devon smiling and contorting his hands in gang signs. Some in attendance wore red or blue — Blood and Crip colors — T-shirts under their clothes. A few young women had dyed their hair red.
As the crowd filed by the open coffin, Theresa Perry wept uncontrollably, screaming, “My beautiful boy! My beautiful boy!” Her friends screamed back “Jesus!” into her face. Devon’s cousins sat in the front row in pallbearers’ uniforms — bright cream suits and white gloves. The oldest, a short and muscular young man named De’Andre Perry, a hardcore Bounty Hunter, was awash in tears. Just before the mourners filed out, the pastor warned that they were in dangerous gang territory. “Go straight to your cars,” he pleaded. “Watch your backs.”
It was a wonderfully bright day. The convoy to the cemetery was more pep rally than mourners’ column. Crip and Blood gang members, festooned with red and blue hats and scarves, hung out car windows, throwing gang signs with their fingers and taunting each other. Many of the cars shuddered with gangsta rap.
Improbably, the procession swept into the gaudy Hollywood Forever Cemetery, “The Resting Place of Hollywood’s Immortals.” The cemetery shares a wall with Paramount Studios and is home to the obelisks and tombs of movie royalty like Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield and Cecil B. DeMille.
Doves meant to symbolize Devon’s soul were released to applause from the crowd. Then De’Andre and the other pallbearers wheeled Devon’s white coffin to a fortresslike mausoleum. The mausoleum was long and narrow; crypts were stacked seven high. The crowd gathered behind a white teddy bear perched to look up to a crypt two from the top.
Two Mexican gravediggers slid the coffin onto a hydraulic lift. The men were visibly nervous. No doubt, they knew this was a gang funeral, and that among the big, emotional crowd were a number of hardcore gangbangers.
As the coffin rose above the crowd, the jittery gravediggers made a fateful mistake. As they pushed the front of the coffin into the crypt, they fumbled the lift’s controls. The rear of the coffin kept rising, until it teetered, tilting sharply down, wedging hard against the marble. There was the terrible sound of groaning wood, then a loud crack. The crowd gasped, confused. Quickly, the gravediggers leveled the coffin and shoved it the rest of the way in. But Theresa Perry exploded in grief. Someone in the crowd called out in anger. The funeral director stepped forward with her clipboard, promising Theresa that all was well with her son. To prove it, she offered to bring the coffin back down. The gravediggers hesitated, exchanged frightened looks, and then did as they were told. But when the coffin arrived, all was not well. The top of the coffin had partially collapsed. The flowers had been stripped off. It was a mess.
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.”
Two years ago, Sherills’ 18-year old son, home on winter break from college, was murdered by gangbangers, shot five times in the back of the head. Through the grapevine, he learned the name of the shooters. His friends offered to kill them. Sherills said no. “I wanted to meet this young man because he is not only the perpetrator of taking my son’s life, he is a victim as well. We kill out of fear. What happened to him? Where did he lose his humanity?”
Sherills told me he became a gangbanger because he was sexually molested. “But that’s taboo,” he said. “You don’t say that. Feeling worthless, like you are an object. In this neighborhood 90 percent of young men have been sexually abused. I will say 99 percent of ladies. Everybody is operating within the cloud. It’s the elephant that is sitting in the room that no one speaks of.”
Gang cops spend their sympathies elsewhere. Their sole purpose is to throw a lifeline to the neighborhood’s innocents, says Sergeant Sean Colomey, head of the LAPD’s Southeast Division gang unit, which patrols Watts, where 47 percent of the children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Gangbangers call the innocents among them “mushrooms” because they pop up in the way of their bullets.
“Second-graders pissing themselves in school without realizing it,” says Mychelle Charters, a social worker in the elementary school that serves Jordan Downs. “They doodle ‘RIP’ but don’t know what it stands for. Just a kid running by is enough for another kid to stick a foot out or throw a punch. Someone running is a threat — that’s all they’re suppose to know.” When children go home their doors are locked and their lights are off, she says. “Playing with your neighbors doesn’t happen. The idea of a family is not even a concept.”
A young woman named Daisy who grew up in Watts told me, “I don’t have words to describe what it’s like to live among the gangs. There was automatic gunfire every day. We never went out. I left for school no later than 6:40 so I didn’t interact with or see anyone. Even the high school kids were gangbangers. After school you came home and locked your doors and locked your windows and entertained yourself inside the house. I spent my childhood washing clothes, cleaning and doing homework.”
Families like Daisy’s have nowhere to turn. Though the projects are federal property, the Bounty Hunter Bloods and Grape Street Crips don’t just live there, they also run them.
“If you want to live in Jordan Downs you do not ask the housing authority or the city for permission, you ask the Grape Street gang,” says civil rights attorney Connie Rice. “When Latino families call the housing authorities to complain, the staff, the housing authorities call the Grape Street Crips.”
Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunters pay residents $1,000 a month plus rent and moving expenses to use their apartments as crack kitchens and dope shops. “The gangs have control of public property for god’s sake!” says Rice. “And they terrorize everybody in there, family after family after family!”
But Colomey’s unit has only 16 officers on duty at any given time. (One evening last year, three of his officers found themselves in a running gun battle with more than 300 armed gangbangers who had collected in a park.) When I spoke with Chief Bratton, he admitted he had little idea what he was getting into when he took this job. The entire LAPD force has roughly 9,000 officers serving about 3.8 million residents, while New York City has about 38,000 policemen serving a city of 8 million: roughly one cop for every 42,000 Angelenos vs. one for every 210 New Yorkers. And astonishingly, much of the time the number of LAPD officers on duty, in patrol cars and prepared to respond to all the city’s problems large and small, is mind-numbingly low — under 450 and often as low as 300. You might find that many police officers in southern Manhattan alone.
Partly for that reason, Colomey’s LAPD gang unit doesn’t see hope in change; they see escape or death. Every year, John Coughlin, one of Colomey’s senior officers, organizes a fund-raiser among the squad. Usually it’s a golf game. The average salary in the unit is $75,000, but Coughlin usually manages to cobble together $100,000 or so. Then he chooses kids from Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs who want an education and want to live, and gets them the hell out of Dodge, sending as many of them to private school or college as the money will allow.
Lieutenant Sullivan, the intelligence analyst for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, has started to track a demoralizing parallel between the way street gangs are changing in the United States and the inception of home-grown terror cells in Pakistan and the United Kingdom, as well as child soldiers in Africa. “There is debate as to whether gang members are child soldiers because they are not in a declared war. But I think functionally it is the same thing. Whether you declare war or not, we are in a societal conflict.”
Father Boyle, who has watched L.A.’s gangs from the street for 25 years, insists that legal solutions for the “gang problem” miss the point. The key to understanding what we’re really facing, he says, is to be honest about the depth of despair in L.A.’s neighborhoods. “Tough laws are not going to work for kids that don’t believe they have a future. You cannot terrorize a kid into caring. It’s bad math. It won’t work; it has never worked. And when his day is the bleakest, a gangbanger is going to get a gun and go look for his enemy and hope to die.”
I asked De’Andre Perry what he’d do if someone gave him a one-way ticket out of Watts and enough money to start a new life. He paused and looked around at the desolate buildings. “I am not going to die for these bricks,” he said. But the gang was more state-of-mind than geography. “Wherever you put me I am still going to be me. I am still going to have Bounty Hunters on my arm, embedded in my brain. Wherever you put me I am going to be hood. Wherever I am at, I am going to make it my hood.”
I asked Andre the same thing.
“You can remove your tattoos, disassociate yourself,” he replied. “But the only thing that everybody knows about you is you are from Bounty Hunters. And the only way out of it is just death.”
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