Where do gangs come from?

Originally posted at curlykidz

Could you answer that question without google? Just off the top of your head, what would you answer, particularly in reference to the LA gangs? Poverty, lack of education, drugs, alcoholism, racism?

Would you have answered that the “gang problem” we have today, generally associated with Blacks, Hispanics, and Southeast Asians, started back in the 1940’s with an anti-segregation white supremacist groups (like the one called the spookhunters – and good luck finding anything on google that isn’t about the paranormal)?

I’m watching Bastards Of The Party. Needless to say, they skipped over this aspect of the Civil Rights Era in my American History class. Here’s an excerpt from the book that inspired this film.


In the following account historian Mike Davis describes the rise of the Los Angeles-based 50,000 member Crips, the nation’s largest street gang with “affiliations” in 32 states and 113 cities. His discussion includes an analysis of the historical circumstances including the “managerial revolution” which gave rise to this “mega-gang.”

In the following account historian Mike Davis describes the rise of the Los Angeles-based 50,000 member Crips, the nation’s largest street gang with “affiliations” in 32 states and 113 cities. His discussion includes an analysis of the historical circumstances including the “managerial revolution” which gave rise to this “mega-gang.”

It is time to meet L.A.’s “Viet Cong.” Although the study of barrio gangs is a vast cottage industry, dating back to Emory Bogardus’s 1926 monograph…The City Boy and His Problems, almost nothing has been written about the history of South central L.A.’s sociologically distinct gang culture. The earliest, repeated references to a “gang problem” in the Black community press, moreover, deal with gangs of white youth who terrorized Black residents along the frontiers of the southward-expanding Central Avenue ghetto…. Indeed, from these newspaper accounts and the recollections of old-timers, it seems probable that the first generation of Black street gangs emerged as a defensive response to white violence in the schools and streets during the late 1940s. The Eagle, for example, records “racial gang wars” at Manual Arts High in 1946, Canoga Park High (in the Valley) in 1947, and John Adams High in 1949, while Blacks at Fremont High were continually assaulted throughout 1946 and 1947. Possibly as a result of their origin in these school integration/transition battles, Black gangs, until the 1970s, tended to be predominantly defined by school-based turfs rather than by the neighborhood territorialities of Chicago gangs.

Aside from defending Black teenagers from racist attacks (which continued through the 1950s under the aegis of such white gangs as the “Spookhunters”), the early South central gangs–the Businessmen, Slausons, Gladiators, Farmers, Parks, Outlaws, Watts, Boot Hill, Rebel Rousers, Roman Twenties, and so forth–were also the architects of social space in new and usually hostile settings. As tens of thousands of 1940s and 1950s Black immigrants crammed into the overcrowded, absentee-landlord-dominated neighborhoods of the ghetto’s Eastside, low-rider gangs offered “cool worlds” of urban socialization for poor young newcomers from rural Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Meanwhile, on the other side of Main Street, more affluent Black youngsters from the Westside bungalow belt created an [imitation] white “car club” subculture of Los Angeles in the 1950s…

While “rumblin” (usually non-lethally) along this East-West socio-economic divide…the Black gangs of the 1950s also had to confront the implacable (often lethal) racism of Chief Parker’s LAPD. In the days when the young Daryl Gates was driver to the great Chief, the policing of the ghetto was becoming simultaneously less corrupt but more militarized and brutal…

Since “wild tribes” and gang perils were its golden geese, it is not surprising that Parker’s LAPD looked upon the “rehabilitation” of gang youth in much the same way as the arms industry regarded peace-mongering or disarmament treaties. Vehemently opposed to the extension of constitutional rights to juveniles and loathing “social workers,” Chief Parker, a strict Victorian, launched a concerted attack on the Group Guidance Unit of the Probation Department, a small program that had emerged out of the so-called Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. The original sin of Group Guidance, in the Chief’s opinion, was that they “gave status to gang activity” by treating gang members as socially transformable individuals. The LAPD in the 1950s and early 1960s dichotomized youth offenders into two groups. On one hand, were mere “delinquents” (mainly white youth) susceptible to the shock treatment of juvenile hall; on the other hand, were “juvenile criminals” (mainly Black and Chicano)… destined to spend their lives within the state prison system. Essential to the LAPD worldview was the assertion that ghetto gang youth were composed of… hardcore criminality. Moreover, as Black nationalist groups, like the Muslims, began to appear in the ghetto in the late 1950s, Parker, like [J. Edgar] Hoover, began to see the gang problem and the “militant threat” as forming a single, overarching structure of Black menace…

South central gang youth, coming under the influence of the Muslims and the long-distance charisma of Malcolm X, began to reflect the generational awakening of Black Power. As Obatala describes the “New Breed” of the 1960s, “their perceptions were changing: those who formerly had seen things in terms of East and West were now beginning to see many of the same things in Black and White.” As the gangs began to become politicized, they became ‘al fresco’ churches whose ministers brought the gospel (of Black power) out into the streets.

Veteran civil rights activists can recall one memorable instance, during a protest at a local whites-only drive-in restaurant, when the timely arrival of Black gang members saved them from a mauling by white hot rodders. The gang was the legendary Slausons, based in the Fremont High area, and they became a crucial social base for the rise of the local Black Liberation movement. The turning-point, of course, was the festival of the oppressed in August 1965 that the Black community called a rebellion and the white media a riot. Although the riot commission headed by old-guard Republicans John McCone and Asa Call supported Chief Parker’s so-called “riff-raff theory” that the August events were the work of a small criminal minority, subsequent research, using the McCone Commission’s own data, proved that up to 75,000 people took part in the uprising, mostly from the stolid Black working class. For gang members it was “The Last Great Rumble,” as formerly hostile groups forgot old grudges and cheered each other on against the hated LAPD and the National Guard. Old enemies, like the Slausons and the Gladiators (from the 54th Street area), flash[ed] smiles and high signs as they broke through Parker’s invincible “blue line.”

This ecumenical movement…lasted three or four years. Community workers, and even the LAPD themselves, were astonished by the virtual cessation of gang hostilities as the gang leadership joined the Revolution. Two leading Slausons, Apprentice “Bunchy” Carter (a famous warlord) and Jon Huggins became the local organizers of the Black Panther Party, while a third, Brother Crook (aka Ron Wilkins) created the Community Alert Patrol to monitor police abuse. Meanwhile an old Watts gang hangout near Jordan Downs, the “parking lot,” became a recruiting center for the Sons of Watts who organized and guarded the annual Watts Festival.

It is not really surprising, therefore, that in the late 1960s the doo-ragged, hardcore street brothers and sisters, who for an extraordinary week in 1965 had actually driven the police out of the ghetto, were visualized by Black Power theorists as the strategic reserve of Black Liberation, if not its vanguard. (A similar fantasy of a Warriors-like unification of the gangs was popular amongst sections of the Chicano Left). There was a potent moment in this period, around 1968-9, when the Panthers–their following soaring in the streets and high schools–looked as if they might become the ultimate revolutionary gang. Teenagers, who today flock to hear Eazy-E rap, “It ain’t about color, it’s about the color of money. I love the green” — then filled the Sports Arena to listen to Stokely Carmichael, H.Rap Brown, Bobby Seale and James Forman adumbrate the unity program of SNCC and the Panthers. The Black Congress and the People’s Tribunal (convened to try the LAPD for the murder of Gregory Clark) were other expressions of the same aspiration for unity and militancy.

But the combined efforts of the FBI’S notorious COINTELPRO program and the LAPD’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division (a super-Red Squad that until 1982 maintained surveillance on every suspicious group from the Panthers to the National Council of Churches) were concentrated upon destroying Los Angeles’s Black power vanguards. The February 1969 murders of Panther leaders Carter and Huggins on the UCLA campus by members of a rival nationalist group (which Panther veterans still insist was actually police-instigated) was followed a year later by the debut of LAPD’s SWAT team in a day-long siege of the Panthers’ South central headquarters. Although a general massacre of the Panthers cadre was narrowly averted by an angry community outpouring into the streets, the Party was effectively destroyed. As even the [Los Angeles] Times recognized, the decemination of the Panthers led directly to a recrudescence of gangs in the early 1970s. “Crippin,’” the most extraordinary new gang phenomenon, was a bastard offspring of the Panthers’ former charisma… There are various legends about the original Crips, but they agree on certain particulars. As Donald Bakeer, a teacher at Manual Arts High, explains in his self-published novel about the Crips, the first “set” was incubated in the social wasteland created by the clearances for the Century Freeway–a traumatic removal of housing and destruction of neighborhood ties that was the equivalent of a natural disaster. His protagonist, a second-generation Crip, boasts to his “homeboys”: “My daddy was a member of the original 107 Hoover Crip Gang, the original Crips in Los Angeles, O.G. (original gangster) to the max.” Secondly, as journalist Bob Baker has determined, the real “O.G.” number one of the 107 (who split away from an older gang called the Avenues) was a young man powerfully influenced by the Panthers in their late sixties heyday:

He was Raymond Washington, a Fremont High School student who had been too young to be a Black Panther but had soaked up some of the Panther rhetoric about community control of neighborhoods. After Washington was kicked out of Fremont, he wound up at Washington High, and something began to jell in the neighborhood where he lived, around 107th and Hoover streets. Although it is usually surmised that the name Crip is derived from the 107 Hoovers’ “crippled” style of walking, Bakeer was told by one O.G. that it originally stood for “Continuous Revolution in Progress.” However apocryphal this translation may be, it best describes the phenomenal spread of Crip sets across the ghetto between 1970 and 1972. A 1972 gang map, released by the LAPD’s 77th Street Division, shows a quiltwork of blue-ragged Crips, both Eastside and Westside, as well as miscellany of other gangs, some descended from the pre-Watts generation. Under incessant Crip pressure, these independent gangs–the Brims, Bounty Hunters, Denver Lanes, Athens Park Gang, the Bishops, and, especially, the powerful Pirus–federated as the red-handkerchiefed Bloods. Particularly strong in Black communities peripheral to the South central core, like Compton, Pacoima, Pasadena and Pomona, the Bloods have been primarily a defensive reaction-formation to the aggressive emergence of the Crips.

It needs to be emphasized that this was not merely a gang revival, but a radical permutation of Black gang culture. The Crips, however perversely, inherited the Panther aura of fearlessness and transmitted the ideology of armed vanguardism (shorn of its program). In some instances, Crip insignia continued to denote Black Power, as during the Monrovia riots in 1972 or the L.A. Schools bussing crisis of 1977-9. But too often Crippin’ came to represent an escalation of intra-ghetto violence to Clockwork Orange levels (murder as a status symbol, and so on) that was unknown in the days of the Slausons and anathema to everything that the Panthers had stood for. Moreover the Crips blended a penchant for ultra-violence with an overweening ambition to dominate the entire ghetto. Although, as Bakeer subtly sketches in his novel, Eastside versus Westside tensions persist, the Crips, as the Panthers before them, attempted to hegemonize as an entire generation. In this regard, they achieved, like the contemporary Black P-Stone Nation in Chicago, a managerial revolution in gang organization. If they began as a teenage substitute for the fallen Panthers, they evolved through the 1970s into a hybrid of teen cult and proto-Mafia. At a time when economic opportunity was draining away from South central Los Angeles, the Crips were becoming the power resource of last resort for thousands of abandoned youth…


Source: Mike Davis, City of Quartz, (New York, 1990), pp. 293-300. 


2 responses to “Where do gangs come from?

  1. Pingback: Where do gangs come from? « curlykidz

  2. Pingback: don’t call me out of name « curlykidz

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