Just as the mythical Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man" rolled into turn-of-the-century Iowa to warn mothers that their sons were wearing their knickers too low and using words like "swell," Carl McGill and Victor Vinson warn today's parents about the deadly consequences of sagging pants, initialed clothing and peculiar hand signs.
McGill and Vinson, two young Los Angeles law enforcement officers, are convinced that fewer young men would die over fashion fads if parents recognized that their sons are either gang members or are trying to look like them for the sake of status or protection.
"Kids today are dressing for death," said Vinson, 26, a Los Angeles school district police officer who works at Crenshaw High School, where he estimates that nine gangs claim members among the student body.
"We want to try to convince parents to get more into their child before somebody raps on their door and says he's been shot," said McGill, 29, an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th Division who spent his teen-age years as a friend of many street gang members in South Los Angeles and Inglewood after moving here from Connecticut.
The two men met in January, shared their concerns and decided to begin holding free parent workshops during their off-duty hours. About that time, McGill befriended a gang member who had recently been released from the California Youth Authority and was determined to straighten out his life.
While concern about gangs has led to the creation of several preventive programs aimed at educating children in elementary and junior high schools, there are few programs aimed at the relationship between parents and children who are lured to gangs.
Working independently of their agencies, McGill and Vinson are able to inject the concern they feel as men who grew up exposed to gangs.
For example, when they visited a Crenshaw High School Block Club meeting two months ago, Vinson surveyed the audience of two-dozen people--consisting almost entirely of middle-age women and only one man--and asked bluntly: "Are there any men who live in these homes? Shouldn't they be concerned as well?" He was hitting a nerve, the absence of fathers in many inner-city homes and the increasing diminution of male role models in poor black neighborhoods.
Vinson and McGill provide parents with detailed translations of gang culture. They use slide shows to tell parents how to interpret the myriad of gang names scrawled on walls to foresee possible conflict and throw in tips like, "That 187 you see written next to the gang's name refers to the state penal code section for murder."
They dissect more subtle aspects of gang wardrobe, explaining why fashionable British Knights sneakers can be hazardous to the health of someone who wears them in a neighborhood of a Bloods gang: In the slang of the rival Crips gangs, the initials "BK" are popular shorthand for "Blood killers."
The officers urge parents to be wary of a child who insists he is not a member of a gang but still hangs out with gang members. Such children, out of loyalty to their friends, will pass along information to gang members or serve as lookouts during drug transactions and often risk being caught in gunfire if a rival gang decides to invade their neighborhood, the officers say.
While many hard-core gang members still wear clothes that flaunt either the Crips' blue or the Bloods' red, many others have opted for more subtle wardrobes in recent years. An outfit as simple as a white T-shirt, black khakis and white sneakers is used by many gang members--and younger admirers.
As a result, Vinson told his Crenshaw audience, "You hear things from parents like, 'Oh, everyone dresses that way.' Eighty percent of the parents I talk to will not allow their child to dress that way any more. Twenty percent will until he gets into trouble, then they'll cry 'harassment' and everything else."
A woman in the audience took issue when Vinson talked about the involvement of gang members in drug trafficking.
"A lot of people selling drugs in the neighborhood are not gang members," she said.
"That's a misconception," Vinson said. "A lot of them start off with gang affiliations, and are then lured away by the drug business. But they couldn't operate in the neighborhood unless they had the gangs' OK."
Vinson and McGill are trying to expand their off-duty activities, which they call the Southern California Gang Awareness Program. In February, McGill solicited $1,000 in contributions from several South Los Angeles businessmen to offer a reward for information leading to the arrest of a gang member who opened fire on a Southern California Rapid Transit District bus, wounding several people. The money was recently presented to a woman who tipped police without knowledge of the reward.