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L.A. as a Firing Range: How to Stop Gang Warfare

June 05, 1988|J. Stanley Sanders | Attorney J. Stanley Sanders, a member of the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Commission, is a former Rhodes scholar who grew up in Watts.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue describes more than just a June bride's wedding-day attire; it also sums up the current hysteria of gang violence and warfare in South-Central Los Angeles.

The something old we have all seen before. Anybody who knows anything at all about inner-city black communities in this country, regardless of the region, knows that black-on-black violence has been around long before the "gang-banging" on the streets of Los Angeles. It is about rage and self-hatred and is as much a fixture of the community as the racism that produces it.

Those of us familiar with this scene also know about the inexorable linkage between narcotics and ghetto life, and the episodes of drug warfare that can erupt from time to time. Rubbing out the competition with gunfire in the marketplace for crack cocaine is no more unusual than the earlier disciplinings of the heroin bosses--and in other days, PCP suppliers.

There is something more that is old about gang violence today, something especially significant in the black community: All the gang activity is conducted and directed by young people, some very young, and mostly male. Assailants and intended victims alike are the same black youths that in other generations led the black communities into segregated classrooms and lunch counters in the South, and onto Freedom Rides and into backwater counties to register their reluctant seniors to vote. Its young people are the inner-city black community's conductors, whether for better or for worse, in its vice trade as well as in its virtues. Any drug dealer who is black and over 30 is probably watching the current goings-on, like most everybody else in this city, from his living-room television set.

It is the something new that gives gang-banging the high media profile it has received in the past year. What is new about gangs is truly awesome, and one can wonder with good reason whether there will ever be a return to normalcy in the black community.

The first thing that is new is the weaponry, the instruments of gang warfare itself. The arsenal of guns in the hands of gangs is a complex of some of the most sophisticated artillery available anywhere, and include Uzis and Magnums, the likes of which no municipal police force in any major city in this country has had to confront.

Gang members believe, with some justification, that police are intimidated because of the increased firepower of the gangs and a greater willingness on the part of gang-bangers to risk serious injury.

There seems to be almost a parallel between the potency of the narcotic--crack cocaine--and the lethal equipment in the hands of the security force that protects that multibillion-dollar trade. And these guns are in the hands of teen-agers, some of whom are too young to be licensed to drive a car. Not long ago I witnessed a preteen boy showing an Uzi to his friends in a Watts park. Guns are so prevalent, anybody can get one.

It is this Wild West scene in our streets that has given rise to another brand-new ethic among gang members--that it is better to include among one's victims any and all witnesses who might later testify in court than to spare innocent bystanders the agony of senseless murder. The cross fire of this take-no-prisoners attitude catches everybody on the block, including grandmothers, the disabled, house guests. Gang-banging, in its wanton disregard of community, loses all connection with the calculated business assassination so common among drug dealers and becomes one of the surest new signs of social anomie in our times.

The something borrowed is nothing less than the borrowed time on which a whole community held hostage to crack-cocaine trade must operate. Every important concern is secondary to security and safety. And all of the terrible things we have been told about a wasted mind is now writ large against the cityscape of this place, and the arrearage mounts. Where gang-banging seizes a community, education is deferred, development is further constricted and the less likely it becomes that the gap between the social debits and credits will ever be eliminated.

Which leads to something blue. Blue for despair, not for the code word for Crips. We are where we are because gang members have little else to do with their time and youthful energy. The choice they have is between remaining fixed for life in a permanent underclass or in grabbing hold to any part of the American Dream that hangs down far enough for them to snatch. It happens that money, the sure way to realization of the dream, can be made from dealing crack on the city streets, more money than a gang-banger could ever hope to earn from a legitimate job, even if he could find one. Protecting the gang's source of income, and the necessities and luxuries that it buys, is worth risking the little else remaining outside of this pursuit that there is in the ghetto core.

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