Contributor: Gary C Brown
L.A. Gangs: The Truce
To many, Los Angeles epitomises the American Dream: Sun drenched beaches stretching along the edge of the Pacific Ocean, long shadows cast by tall palm trees bending under the gaze of a golden sunset, Beverly Hills; Hollywood; apple pie. Perfection. However, take the wrong exit off the freeway and the likelihood is you?ll quickly awaken from this dream covered in cold sweat. The ?wrong? side of town harbours a different image: Smoke emanating from burning tyres as a low- riding cadillac makes its getaway into the horizon; suspect characters selling suspect packages to kids on street corners; drive- by shootings; gang- bangers; crack. The ghetto.
These are the images of L.A. that prevail in the minds of many of us whose only source of information about urban America is the mainstream media, invariably Hollywood or News at Ten. Stereotypes are served up daily.
But although it is true that the stereotypes are often extreme, the distinction between the two faces of LA is very clear: one part of the city is predominantly prosperous, middle- class and white, and the other, poor and Latino and Black.
The distinctions were not always so pronounced. Los Angeles had an African- American population long before the Emancipation Declaration of 1865 granted freedom to the enslaved. Ex- slaves left the plantations and slave quarters of the South where generations had suffered humiliation, exploitation pain and death, and headed for the West in search of freedom and prosperity. Many actually found it. At one point there was a thriving Black community which had its own businesses, held positions of high office and led a modestly prosperous existence.
The picture now is different. Today, L.A. is regarded as the gangland- capital of America. Places like Long Beach, Compton, and South Central have taken on mythical status, just like Watts and Harlem did 30 years ago. Here young violent Black men and women wage war against society and each other through violent crime. In these places live the Bloods and the Crips.
However, in order to reach a true understanding of the current crisis in the underbelly of urban America, we need to look beyond the cinema screens, the gansta rappers and their messages of despair.
The Crips were not always the gang- bangers they are now known to be. The CRIPs were originally formed in 1969 by Raymond Washington, a high school student, in response to the increasing level of police harassment the Black community was facing. CRIPs stood for Community Resources for Independent People. It was styled on the Black Panther Party that had been started by Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale 3 years earlier, further down the west coast in Oakland. There were many similar organisations springing up around the country, all with the same ideas of protecting and serving the community.
Like with many similar organisations, the CRIPs were never allowed to demonstrate their commitment to these basic values. Individuals marked out by police as leaders, were targeted, arrested on bogus charges and convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. Many organisations were pitted against each other through the work of informants and undercover FBI agents. Others were simply murdered by officers. The ferocity with which police departments went after Black people - particularly young Black men - resulted in, by 1971, 2 million Black people being arrested every year. The fear of the Black community producing any more Huey Newtons or Malcolm Xs, was the main reasons behind such police action and J Edgar Hoover?s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program).
Thus, any spirit of resistance was literally harassed, imprisoned or murdered out of the community. Gangs however remained, serving a different purpose. With large amounts of Black people being railroaded into prison, it is not difficult to imagine the social impact. Thousands of youths were picked up by the police for no given reason, taken to police stations, mug- shotted, finger- printed and then held until their families were notified and came for them. This process meant that at a time of limited employment opportunities, to be young Black and have a police record meant that the chances of finding a job were laughable. This, combined with the steady removal of social provisions, culminated in the marginalisation of entire communities.
In such conditions, children are the most vulnerable. Society?s alienation of these youths has led to a situation where the only place they can find respect, kinship and power is within a gang. The bond between gang members is so strong that many will kill or die for each other, no question. A gang has been described as being ..?your religion, your family, your college, your everything.?
However, the current level of violence cannot be explained through these factors alone. The stigma of Black people being ?naturally aggressive? is over 500 years old but the explanation for violence cannot be linked to genes or biological make up. Violence is learned behaviour. A community that is constantly visited with unjust killings and beatings at the hands of an oppressive police force can learn to settle conflicts through violent means. The internalisation of problems caused by external factors, by then, has taken place.
The steady criminalisation of Black people continues. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has - over the last few years - earned for itself an infamous reputation under the guidance of Chief Daryl Gates. On the streets it is looked upon only as a legalized gang.
On a plaque above the entrance to the LA Police Training Centre are the words ?through these walls walk the world?s finest officers?. By the time Chief Gates finished with them they were some of the world?s most brutal.
Between 1986 and ?91 there were 2611 citizen allegations of excessive force made against LAPD officers. Gates has been quoted as saying: ?I think that people believe that the only strategy that we have is to harass people and make arrests for inconsequential types of things. Well that?s part of our strategy, no doubt about it.? Daryl Hicks, a resident of South Central, recalls when he was 13 or 14 years old that: ?police would roll through the neighbourhood and ask you: ?Have you been to jail?? If you told them you hadn?t, they would take you to jail. They would take you to jail so they could fingerprint you, so they could take your picture, then they let you go. Now all my friends have been fingerprinted and mugshotted for nothing. That?s just the start of the brutality?.
Between 1986 and ?90, 1400 officers were investigated under suspicion of using excessive force, less than 1% were prosecuted (LA Times). Officers have nothing to fear if they beat up someone who is Black, Hispanic or poor, despite the city of LA having to pay $19,680,577 in civil liability cases relating to police matters in 1992. The chances of an officer having to pay is virtually nil. In fact, if a police officer is involved in a ?bad shooting incident?, where the necessity to shoot is questionable, the worst that usually happens is they get signed up for further training. The list of people shot or killed by the LA Police and Sheriffs departments reads like the ending credits of a movie. Between 1989 and 1993 217 people were shot and killed by officers in LA alone.
The L.A. uprising of April 1992 - following the Rodney King beating - was a clear sign that people were not willing to put up with the blatant injustice for much longer, however, it didn?t tackle the issue of the self- inflicted genocide that was occurring at the same time. One brother did. On November 29 1991, Henry ?Tiny? Peco was shot and killed by LAPD in Imperial Courts Housing Project, Watts. Peco?s cousin Dewayne Holmes explains: ?My cousin was killed by 2 LAPD officers. The police claim he had an automatic rifle, he fired then they fired back. Yet no gun was found.? There were 6 officers and more than 40 rounds were fired. 5 hit Peco in the back. Following the incident, youths in projects rebelled, shooting out street lights etc..
In early December Dewayne Holmes and his family organized the Henry Peco Justice Committee and hundreds took to the streets. That was one of the events that led to the truce. It (the truce) was planned to put an end to the violence and the false boundaries that they themselves created. It put the focus on police brutality. In Watts, Muslim brothers helped organise a meeting. Meetings were taking place 2 or 3 months before the riots. The truce started 2 weeks before the riots. Members of each gang were present at the talks. The aim was to end brutality and create jobs and work programs. Gang members devised a plan. On April 26 the historic gang truce was signed, giving everyone ?free passage? through Watts.
By October 1992 however, the truce leader had been sentenced to seven years imprisonment for allegedly stealing $10. Dewayne was convicted in a manner that has become common to young Black men in the US Courts: Contradictions, lack of evidence, coercion of witnesses, a hanging judge, an unscrupulous prosecutor, inadequate defense and a prejudiced jury. Dewayne believes he was targeted and framed. His family was active in peaceful but persistent protest against police tactics in South Central. They embarrassed Chief Gates and ruined Deputy Chief Hunt?s chances of promotion.
Despite the absence of positive media attention, news has spread all over the country about the truce and is applauded and supported by large sections of the community. Organisations such as Community in Support of the Truce (CIST) have pledging to support the truce in a number of ways including working for ?the establishment of a grassroots rumour control network to counteract misinformation? and ?a united front against all efforts to divide African- American from Latino and Asian youth, or to deny the human rights of immigrants.?
Other organisations such as CAPA (Coalition Against Police Abuse), spearheaded by former Black Panther Michael Zinzun, work with ex gang members and keep them abreast of issues that are relevant to the successful advancement of the truce. BACDO (Black Awareness Community Development Organisation) targets African American men between 15 and 30, providing support through education and cultural awareness.
On October 21st 1993 the national gang peace summit was held in Chicago. Ex- gang members came from Cleveland, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Los Angeles and many other cities to fight what was perceived as the establishment?s plan to destroy oppressed people, particularly African/Latino Americans.
After years of stagnation the spirit of resistance is returning to the section of Black America with the least to lose and the most to gain. A distinctive factor of the truce is that unlike other ?peace- treaties? it has been a totally grassroots initiative, without the involvement of politicians or Black leaders. By the same measure, the responsibility for its sustenance lies with those people on the streets. It would be complacent to believe that it will be an easy road to travel. The police have already visited truce parties, breaking them up and harassing the attendants, the media?s minimal coverage has been negative and the installing of provocateurs and undercover agents to provoke confrontations and thereby break the truce should be expected.
Possibly the greatest threat however, is Bill Clinton?s newly passed Crime Bill. In LA, new prisons are already being built directly opposite housing projects. Causing most concern is the new ?3 Strikes? rule. This rule exposes large numbers of people with prior serious or violent felony convictions (including violence convictions related to workers? strikes or political demonstrations) to mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years to life. Even if these convictions happened 10, 15 or even 20 years ago, a third felony of any kind can get you life in prison.
Many believe the temptation for police to plant drugs, guns etc. - anything to get a 3 strikes conviction - will be too much to resist. It would be an effective new tool to get rid of anyone they feel represents a threat, just as they have got rid of so many others.
The truce?s biggest strength, however, is the ability of its supporters to grow and influence more people. Juan Longino understands the odds. ?Right mow I?m unemployed. I?ve got to be a strong Black man to keep from going back out there and dealing with the underground economy that I know so well. But the thing that keeps me from going back is my new awareness and my new found family. That I have with the people.?
This story is condensed from a larger article by Gary C Brown