Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 5
I love these children. Every last one of them. The badder they are, the more I love them. I was one of them.
—Reverend Mike Cummings
Mike Cummings is about six feet tall and, I am sure, easily tips the scales at three hundred pounds. His skin is so black it shimmers violet, and his neck is huge, muscular. I keep glancing over at his neck and arms while I ride shotgun, holding on for dear life in a white Chevy Suburban with We Care Outreach Ministry stenciled in gold calligraphy on either side. Big Mike is at the wheel, and it is safe to say he completely lives up to his gang moniker. Grinning, with a mega-watt smile to match his girth, he pilots this enormous SUV through the streets of South LA while talking, occasionally taking his hands off the wheel to emphasize a point. It’s been two weeks since Khalid took me to meet him, and I’m spending the day in the hood with Big Mike.
“I’m just here tryin’ to save the children, trying to keep them out of the life I lived. We’re using our love and Scripture to do the job.” He resembles an NFL blocker—huge, strong, and running for daylight. “I am at it 24/7, workin’ with these children. Praise the Lord.” Big Mike is part preacher without portfolio, part tow truck driver, and part savvy businessman. “I don’t need much,” he tells me, “just enough to buy gas, and every once in a while I gotta go buy my wife some Louis [Vuitton] or Gucci.” We both laugh—he’s a reformed gangbanger on a first-name basis with several European designers. But even with his grin and bonhomie, I still wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley. I feel both thrilled and reassured to be under his protection.
Back in the day—the late 1980s and early ’90s—Mike Cummings was notorious in Watts. Before both the Lord and three years in county jail saved him, Big Mike was one of the scariest, baddest gangsters in South Los Angeles. On the street he is recognized as the real deal— an OG—Original Gangster. “I’m gonna school you in the neighborhoods,” he tells me. “It’s time for you to understand what’s goin’ on here. Because y’know, things are bad, really, really bad. We got innocent youngsters dyin’ every day.”
I ask him how things have gotten this bad. He doesn’t hesitate before answering, and he is very clear.
“The biggest problem is guns, guns, guns.”
National statistics back him up. A child or teenager is killed by gun- fire almost every three hours—nearly eight times a day. Homicide is the prime cause of death among African American males between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four. On top of this, black males between the ages of fifteen and nineteen are almost four times as likely as their white counterparts to die from a gun-inflicted injury; they are six times as likely to be homicide victims. While I am contemplating the problem of guns and gangs, Big Mike has stopped at a gas station.
“You gotta understand that it’s like the Pentagon out there,” he tells me while he fills the tank. “Only they got more guns than the Pentagon. They got more guns than the military. They kill more people than the military. This is where the war is, in our streets. You got kids, they got guns, pistols, automatic weapons, Uzis—you name it, they got it.” Big Mike doesn’t know how right he is. At the end of this year—2004—
2,825 children and teenagers will die as a result of being shot by fire- arms, more than the number of American combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan that will eventually be recorded through the end of 2006.
There are three men sitting on plastic chairs outside the gas station mini-mart. The smell of marijuana, or bud, is in the air. One of them calls me over and tells me I am standing on hallowed ground.
“You know where you standing—they filmed a scene for that movie starrin’ the brother—whazzit called, whaz dat movie?”
“Yo, Training Day.”
“Training Day, starring my man Denzel.”
“They wanted it to be, what that word, realism . . . is” “No foo’, authentic—”
“Yo muthafucka, aks me, they wanted real, you feel me—”
While the young men with pants slipping down their hips and black do-rags crowning their heads are playing the hood version of 365 Days to a Stronger Vocabulary, a small homie who couldn’t be more than ten years old quietly walks up, a purple bandana covering his face from the eyes down. The color of his makeshift mask indicates that this little boy, who should be at school studying fractions, is associated with the Grape Street Crips. He is carrying an AK-47. The gun looks like it weighs more than he does. Big Mike is immediately on alert. “You gotta put that away, my little homie,” he intones. “We have a lady here.” What my sex or gentility has to do with this automatic weapon escapes me, but I am intrigued. Mike senses my curiosity. He puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Come on, these foo’s playin’ around a little too much for me. You there—take care of this little man,” Mike commands, and the three stoned homies snap to order and take the weapon from the youngster. “Come on, Jorja Leap, you can talk with the homies another day. Let’s go.” Where? I wonder.
As if he can hear my question, he explains, “I need to drive you around so you can see what’s goin’ on in the neighborhoods. You been here at night. Now you gotta see what goes on in the daylight.”
I agree with his plan wholeheartedly. One thing that has eluded me so far is the whole geography of black and brown gangs in Los Angeles. Aquil Basheer, the LA City firefighter, community activist, and leader who is a constant in my life, tells me, “Black gangs are based on territory and economics.” This is all too accurate an assessment. Black gangs are rooted in a street-by-street mentality. Along with this, their gang activity occurs where they live, where they deal drugs, where they shoot one another, where they bring up their children. I knew that to truly understand black gangs in LA, it is essential to possess a street-level view. Latino gangs are different.
“The Latino gangs have changed. They used to operate out of the projects. But now they are commuter gangs,” Father Greg Boyle, the beloved Jesuit priest who runs Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and reentry program, has explained. “They live out in Bell or Montebello or Hawaiian Gardens and drive in to commit their crimes.” Not so the black gangs.
We climb back into the We Care Outreach Ministry mobile, with the air-conditioning blasting. It is 1:00 in the afternoon, with a blazing sun and temperatures in Watts approaching 90 degrees. Homies are hanging out on the street, just kicking it. Mike is in his element. He wags his left index finger at every mad-dogging gangster we pass.
“I am gonna take you where you can see just how many guns there are out there. Just how many of our young men are gettin’ ready to die.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re goin’ to the projects,” Big Mike tells me. “Nickerson Gardens. Imperial Courts. Jordan Downs. You know what they say in City Hall. They call them the housing developments. This ain’t no developments, these here are the projects.”
Despite the doublespeak of every city politician and bureaucrat who rarely ventures out of their office, the cops and people who live here know better. “We are from the projects, don’t go changin’ that up,” Saint, who claims the Bounty Hunter Bloods as his “hood,” or gang, has told me. “We all wanna get out, nobody wants to live here. But y’know, we all grew up here. We proud of the projects inna strange way.”
The projects officially fall under the auspices of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles. But for the past two decades, HACLA has barely controlled the hundreds of two-story family “units” with one to five bedrooms sprawling throughout this pocket of South LA. It is the architecture of despair, suburban cellblock—white buildings with black trim, every other window boarded up and no glass replacements. The sides of buildings have numbers instead of names. The “townhouses”— built facing courtyards and strips of grass—appear indistinguishable from one another. However, each of these public-housing projects possesses a personality all its own.
Despite its bucolic name, with its thousand-plus townhouses Nickerson Gardens is about as far from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as you can get. Since the Aliso Village housing projects of East Los Angeles were torn down in 2000, it has the twin distinction of being the largest public housing project west of the Mississippi and the birthplace of the Bounty Hunter Bloods. Opened in 1955, it is a hot spot for the gangs of South Los Angeles, anchored at the corner of Central Avenue and Imperial Highway, then spreading north and east, encompassing Watts and Compton. Only a few blocks away is Imperial Courts. Built in 1944, the Imperial Courts development is older and—with nearly five hundred townhouses—half the size of Nickerson Gardens. It is also headquarters for one of the Bloods’ major enemies—the P Jay Crips. Farther east and off by itself, Jordan Downs is actually the oldest of the three projects. It was originally built in the 1940s as housing for World War II workers, but as these tenants moved on, buying their own homes, residents who were poor and predominantly black replaced them. In 1955 Jordan Downs was officially converted to public housing, and by the 1960s it had become a synonym for violence—big Mike’s territory—the birth- place of the Grape Street Crips. Ironically, the Crips and Bloods ultimately participated in a peace truce that marked the period from 1992 to 2002 as relatively stable. But this was no longer true. There is now an ever-shifting group of sets that change alliances on a weekly basis.
“They been at it again for the past year—bad. We can go through the projects and you can see what happens to the kids,” Mike explained. “Some kids cannot go to after-school programs because they cannot cross gang territory.”
As he drives, Mike points out a house for sale. “I would love to buy that and start an after-school program,” he offers.
We are in the middle of a housing slump and I am curious. “How much do they want for it?” I ask.
“$350, 000,” Mike laughs.
“What??” The house looks like it could be airdropped into post-war
Kosovo and fit right in. It cannot be worth more than $20,000.
“I bet I could take it off the bank’s hands for $200K.” Mike winks. “It’s a fixer-upper, y’know.
“Okay, now we’re gonna go into Grape Street Crips South Side territory,” my three-hundred-pound tour guide intones. Big Mike is the favorite son returning home, merrily waving to everyone he sees. We drive through streets with tiny shotgun houses. He points out one abandoned house. “I grew up there with my grandma.”
We turn into Jordan Downs, which is now completely controlled by the Grape Street Crips. Something is really wrong with this picture. It’s a hot summer day and there is no one out. I turn to Mike in confusion and he starts laughing when I ask, “Where is everyone?”
“I’ll show you where they are—they’re in the cut.” He shows me where to look—at the small grassy areas in between cinder block buildings. Sure enough, there are clusters of young black men—late teens, early twenties, sitting on webbed lawn furniture. There is no one out— only them. They wait.
“They are in the cut, sitting on the grass, hidin’,” he explains. “Out on the front stoop—there’s the lookout. They know everyone who is in the projects. They see my car comin’ in here. They are on their cell phones, using this little device.” He demonstrates while driving, holding the cell phone a few inches from his mouth and speaking into it as if it is a microphone.
“Everyone in Jordan Downs knows everyone who’s comin’ in here. They know who belongs and who doesn’t.”
“So,” I ask, “if I rolled up in my Prius they would know I was here.” He nods. “They would know you was here and where you was at every single minute until you’re outta their territory.”
I am beginning to wonder if this kind of intelligence system might have prevented 9/11. Mike points out two elderly, wizened men.
“They’re on lookout,” he says, and on cue, they look up. He waves and they wave back. He points out parking lots where dope is dealt and where it is possible to find heroin or meth any time of the day or night. It’s strange to see how openly drugs are sold—unimpeded—in the day- light. As long as there is no violence, dealers freely ply their trade. Just another neighborhood business. Trouble starts if a rival dealer tries to interfere with someone’s corner.
“You can’t move in on someone’s drug territory—it’s business. Corners belong to different neighborhoods,” Mike explained. “You can’t move in on a neighborhood’s corner. Then it’s war.”
This is fine with the cops—several officers have told me that the projects are a “self-cleaning oven.” That’s one take on community policing.
“Who is here buying? How on earth do these people afford heroin or cocaine or crack?”
I don’t even bother to hide my surprise.
“Well y’know, some of them comin’ from your community, all the way from the Westside, Pacific Palisades, Hancock Park, Beverly Hills.” Mike winks at me again. “We got lawyers and doctors, they comin’ by at Night, probably on their way home from work. But they’re not the only ones. The people here are good customers, too. They boost stuff all the time. Then they pawn it and buy what they need.”
We leave Jordan Downs, and Mike waves to several young men sit- ting on front stoops. All with nothing to do but hang out and wait for the shots to be called—or to call them. But then, as we cross the border into Nickerson Gardens, Big Mike grows solemn.
“These are the Bloods, we are in Bloods territory—and there are times I am not safe here. Right now it’s okay. See them?” He points out five young men sitting in the cut. “They’re all cool—that’s ’cuz they got an automatic weapon with them—an AK 47.”
There is street after street cutting through this housing project—it is a gated community on crack. There is not one single police car in the entire area. In fact, during this little tour of Mr. Cummings’s Neighborhood, we never see the LAPD. The only police car in sight belongs to the understaffed Los Angeles School Police Department. And the LASPD officer doesn’t get out of his car. The Bloods are everywhere, and they are easy to see. They wear some form of red—nothing blatant.
“Sometimes they got something small—a pen with a little red pen cap.” Mike Cummings is a walking, talking encyclopedia of gang semiotics. He will forget more than I ever know, I think, as he explains the Bloods’ tactics, and all of gang imperialism, to me.
“All the neighborhoods do the same thing. First they settle into the projects. Then they start takin’ over all the houses and the apartment buildings surroundin’ the projects. One by one. They control everything and anything.”
The neighborhoods’ power goes unchallenged. The cops will not come here—there is no one controlling these streets but the gangs and a handful of former gangbangers who are self-labeled street interventionists. I was just learning about the whole religion of the interventionists and their faith in the sanctity of the “license to operate”—the permission gang leaders granted interventionists to work in their territory. I wasn’t sure how effective the interventionists were, but right now I wasn’t asking questions.
Big Mike had long belonged to this loosely organized group of former gang members who practice “gang intervention” or “street peace Outreach.” Just what the definition of “gang intervention” was depended on who you were talking to. Everyone from Father Greg Boyle to Mike Cummings was involved in gang intervention, with varying degrees of credibility and success.
The former gang members who worked in the streets trying to stop retaliation and control rumors insisted that they practiced the “hard- core gang intervention.” Then there were those individuals—like Greg Boyle—who believed gang intervention began when an individual decided he—or she—was finished with the gang.
Big Mike positioned himself somewhere in the middle of street out- reach and long-term intervention. I begin to ask him about this when his cell phone rings.
“I gotta go tow someone. I gotta make some money. Come back,” he tells me by way of good-bye. “We gonna talk some more.”
I lean over and kiss Big Mike. “I will.” “Promise?”
Two weeks later I make good on my word. I am driving to see Big Mike, who has promised to introduce me to more people working on intervention and “street peace.” It is a Chamber of Commerce morning— bright and sun-washed; tall palm trees loom glossy and green against an azure sky. The street I am driving on is quiet. But the night before it had been the scene of three shootings and one death. I am deep into gang territory; the Watts Towers spindle up a few blocks away. I think of how beautiful South Los Angeles is—and at the same time unfair. The people here who work hard and believe in “family values” are forced to deal with violence on a daily basis.
My reverie is interrupted by the sight of Big Mike standing on the curb, the ever-present grin plastered on his face while he guards a parking space in front of the agency where he rents space and computer access.
“So, so glad you are here,” Mike says as he ushers me back into a classroom where, smiling just as broadly, sits an African American man immaculately groomed in a polo shirt and crisply pressed khakis: Luther Keith. Luther runs group homes for youth just released from probation halls and camps. The word “camp” is far too innocent, suggesting a holiday away from home, a brief sojourn to help a child in their struggles.
In reality, some of the Los Angeles County Department of Probation camps function more as a holding facility for kids who just don’t fit in anywhere and whose primary task seems to be developing a permanent criminal record. Once inside the worst of these camps, there is a prison- like atmosphere and underground certification in gangbanging.
“They call them camp-bangers,” Carol Biondi, a tireless advocate for children and youth in the system, had told me. “They come into the camps maybe slightly involved with gangs and come out full-fledged gangbangers.” I know the rest. At some point many will wind up in graduate school—the California prison system. Here, in overcrowded and racially tense quarters, these young gangbangers will all learn new and better techniques for committing crimes and intimidating others. But while they are locked up—our streets will be safe.
“We gotta save these children comin’ out of these camps,” Luther tells me. “We gotta keep them from joining gangs. These children are our future.”
Luther has never been in a gang. “I was saved by sports,” he tells me, but as I start talking with him I also learn that Luther comes from an intact family. I ask Luther what he does and he tells me, “I patrol around the whole city.” He also works at Washington High School, and as he elaborates, the names of the gangs come thick and fast.
As usual I am thinking five things at once. I am trying to keep track of the sets he is listing. I am trying to figure out if they are Crips or Bloods. I am also wondering, Where the fuck do they get these names? Luther tells me he is trying to put peace treaties into place. He is earnest and wholesome and represents one extreme of African American gang intervention in South Los Angeles.
The other extreme, which arrives about fifteen minutes later, is Marlon “Bow Wow” Jones. Marlo looks rough around the edges and I can barely understand what he is saying. His words are mumbled as though he is speaking with a mouth full of oatmeal. He starts talking about the gangs he is working with and I am even more confused. There are sets he is naming that I have never heard of, but I sit quietly. Something tells me I should not ask questions.
Mike ends the session at noon and says, “We all gotta go watch over the kids while they get Outta School.” This is the centerpiece of Big Mike’s work in the community.
His Safe Passages gang-intervention program is designed to work as advertised: former gang members function as bodyguards to make sure kids get safely home from school with- out being robbed, beaten, or raped.
We drive over and park in front of David Starr Jordan High School, positioned right next door to the Jordan Downs housing project. Jordan High is one of the ten-lowest-performing schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District—earning a 1 out of 10 on the Academic Performance Index. It’s a favored recruiting ground for both the Bloods and the Crips.
I trot along beside Big Mike, and my heart is thumping while I think, He will protect me, he will protect me. It is the mantra I am using against my rising anxiety, which notches up when I see a knot of homies standing on Grape Street, throwing gang signs to three boys inside a car driving by with the windows rolled down and rap music playing. I feel naked, out in the open, and I stand as close as I can to Big Mike. The sun is beating down on us, and it seems like all of Watts is on the street. I am approached by an emaciated black woman who announces, “I know you—you were on TV the other night, I just loooooooove you!” I freeze, but Big Mike starts laughing and pushes her away saying, “Move on, mama.”
“She did too much PCP in the ’80s and she never been the same since,” he explains. I decide I won’t tell him that I had been on TV, two days earlier.
“You know what PCP did to this neighborhood, in these projects, in the 1980s?” Mike asks. I explain that I worked then at the emergency room of Martin Luther King General Hospital, which filled nightly with people who’d OD’d on PCP. “One guy was so high he threw me up against the wall,” I say.
“I feel that. I used to take it. PCP could give you the strength of a monster, a real monster,” Mike adds. “But the worst was crack.”
I nod. The PCP epidemic was bad, but it was nothing compared to the devastation that was to come with crack. While we talk, we walk toward the entrance to Jordan Downs. Mike points to the cluster of gang members I have already noticed.
“They just waitin’ to go through the pockets of the children who are goin’ into their houses. They’re takin’ anything they want out of those children’s backpacks. We gotta stop them.”
Big Mike whispers directions into his walkie-talkie. He and another interventionist are watching two boys on bicycles in front of the housing project.
“If another kid on a bike shows up there are gonna be shots fired. Get ready to duck.”
Mike scans the area and I hear what sounds like a car backfiring. I know what this is and I carefully drop down behind Big Mike. Someone is out there shooting; someone is trying to kill someone.
“It’s okay, it’s okay, nothin’ is gonna happen to you,” Big Mike says reassuringly.
“They are gonna have to get through me to get to you.” He has a death grip on my arm. The air is vibrating.
“Come on, kids, getta move on,” Mike says calmly to a group of girls giggling and walking by him. A woman weaves in front of him and Mike gives her two dollars and tells her to get out of the way. She takes the money, asks him for more, and he rebuffs her, good-naturedly. She crosses the street and without looking at its destination, gets on a waiting bus. An LASPD patrol car drives by. We are still waiting for one more bicycle rider. A fight has broken out on the school campus.
“Looka that.” Mike laughs while pointing at several kids who are fighting. “I know those two boys—they are gay, tryin’ to beat up three little girls.” It looks like the girls are fighting back. The walkie-talkies crackle.
But I am not paying attention. I hear someone calling my name. “Hey, Jorja, Jorja, Jorja.”
“Hey Bo!” Big Mike cries out.
Bo Taylor parks his minivan and walks over to Big Mike and me.
“So what’s goin’ on here this fine mornin’?” Bo asks. Bo and Mike
Are laughing while I stand between them, slightly dazed. A former Crip and US Navy veteran, Bo Taylor also works on the front lines of gang intervention and heads up the Unity One gang-intervention agency.
I am not exactly sure what Bo does—everyone has a slightly different story. Bo negotiates peace treaties; Bo stops retaliation; Bo has the ultimate license to operate—he can talk to the OGs and the shot callers and get them to stop shooting. He has served as an unofficial bodyguard for University of Southern California football coach Pete Carroll and dignitaries from City Hall and Sacramento. Bo has the letters of transit into the community. He is the one who can get you in and out of Casablanca.
Despite the intermittent shots being fired, I also know that Mark shouldn’t worry—I am never going to be as safe as I am right now, standing between Bo and Big Mike. Bo indiscriminately passes out cash to the children walking by. I know that he can travel into any housing project at any time of the day or night and people will talk with him, sit down with him—offer him something to drink, something to eat. He talks to young people, he urges them to stay in school, and he tries to organize games, activities, tours, and trips to Disneyland. But he does not want to file the necessary papers to obtain the necessary grants; he just wants to believe the money will come.
And it does. But what does Bo really do?
What Bo and Big Mike and Aquil Basheer, among others, are trying to do is raise all the fatherless, motherless children in the neighborhoods. Solving the gang problem is not about peace treaties and mid- night call-outs. This is what no one seems to be getting—not the police, not the Mayor’s Office, not the researchers drilling down into results. Someone needs to love these unlovable children.
“They need fathers,” Big Mike offers.
And Bo quietly says, “All they see is prison or death. They need family.”