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L. A. GANGS : Our City, Their Turf

This is the first of two articles on youth gangs in Los Angeles. The second, to appear in April, will focus on drug dealing among gang members. Next: Gangs and Drugs

March 22, 1987|Robert Conot | Robert Conot is an author and editor who has written extensively on urban problems and violence.

The area around Harvard Playground, south of Slauson between Normandie and Western avenues, is a typical South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood--small, weathered, wood-and-stucco bungalows on constricted lots--a throwback to Raymond Chandler and the Southern California of the 1930s. The residents are primarily black, with an infusion of Latinos. The high school dropout rate is about 50% and youth unemployment is almost as high. Small groups of young people frequently congregate on the streets.

Just such a group was standing in front of 1428 W. 60th St. at noon, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 1985, when a late-model Cadillac cruised down the street. Some of the young men were wearing red--a cap or shirt--that identified them as members of the Six-Deuce (62nd Street) Blood gang. Among them was 19-year-old Daryl Lamont Clay; his sweat shirt was red.

As the Cadillac drew alongside the group, the barrel of a .30 caliber semiautomatic rifle was poked through the passenger-side window. Bullets sprayed out. Clay, diving away, was hit in the lower back. The bullet coursed all the way through his body into his brain. He died on the spot.

The incident was typical of gang-related killings; and Los Angeles County, where the Sheriff's Department has identified 557 gangs and is still counting, has become the gang capital of the nation. While Latino street gangs date back to the turn of the century and a number of black gangs were active in the '50s and '60s, during the last 15 years the problem has swelled to new proportions.

Gangs have little resemblance to the romantic fiction of "West Side Story," nor are they miniature replicas of an organized, disciplined Mafia. Quite the contrary. Gangs by and large are composed of the chaff of society. They exist because of the failure of family, of schools, of churches and of social agencies. Kids who are rootless and unwanted, whose homes and schools are places of conflict and negative experience, who cannot picture themselves part of traditional American society, find acceptance, camaraderie and, especially, identity as members of a gang.

The onset of puberty, between 13 and 15, is the usual age a youth is "jumped in" to a gang. In the power derived from the group and the approbation of older peers he obtains a sense of belonging and strength, while elsewhere he meets only with frustration.

The gang becomes his clan. He learns its language, a slight variation of the street argot, its hand signals, used for identification, and its graffiti--pictographs used to send messages, delineate territory and warn away intruders. Turf is a gang's prized possession, a symbol of ego, manhood, strength and existence. It represents a primitive, animalistic instinct; much of the violence associated with gangs stems from the territorial imperative.

The gang is neither a monolith nor a well-ordered entity. If anything, it is the antithesis of anthill, corporation or military formation. Individuals clump together in a small group and the group interacts with other groups in changing patterns, but seldom do all members of a gang cohere to engage in joint action. Had they the intelligence, sophistication, discipline and leadership to plan and organize, they would not have been drawn into membership. The run-of-the-mill "gang-bang"--rumble or delinquent action--involves no more than a handful of people, more often than not characterized by its spur-of-the-moment, disorganized and senseless nature.

What, in fact, makes the gang so dangerous and antisocial is its dynamic: Within a group, individuals tend to descend to the lowest common denominator of intelligence while at the same time encouraging each other to the highest numerator of violence. Actions they might hesitate to take as individuals become routine in the group anonymity.

What makes Los Angeles so conducive to gang formation is its sprawl, a horizontal city where even disadvantaged areas contain a high percentage of single-family dwellings. Many kids remain in the same neighborhood; borders are easy to establish, and, with population density relatively low, there is plenty of turf available.

At the same time, the last quarter-century has seen a continuous and massive expansion of the youth pool from which gang members are drawn. In the Los Angeles School District, black and Latino junior and senior high school enrollment, representing in large part the population "at risk," rose from 93,000 in 1966 to 145,000 in 1977 before temporarily leveling off, but has now hit an all-time high of 171,000 and will probably reach 200,000 by 1990.

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