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'Do or Die' : Books: As a white former fashion model, Leon Bing has drawn controversy for writing about L.A.'s black gangs. But she's won praise for her hard-hitting look at life on the streets.


A month or so before the book tour, Bone took a bullet behind the heart.

Bone, a retired member of the Bloods, recovered in time to help author Leon Bing promote "Do or Die," her new book about L.A.'s African-American gangs. Only thing was, the bullet, a hulking .45, came along for the ride, setting off airport security systems.

"He'd been in the park talking to a couple of kids playing baseball. . . . He was ambushed. He has a big reputation as a gangster for the Bloods. And someone looking to make his rep, probably a youngster, shot him."

The person saying these things is no bruiser. Bing is a slender woman, somewhat slight in build. She has wraparound cheekbones and deep-set chestnut eyes that remind you of her earlier incarnation as a model for designer Rudi Gernreich in the Day-Glo '60s. But today, she is wearing not a whit of makeup and her hair is breezily wrapped in a pink towel. For someone who once made a living on appearances, she doesn't give a hoot for them now.

That disdain for mere surfaces is plain in her acclaimed new book about the warfare between the Bloods and the Crips.

The New York Times called it "a poignant, sometimes chilling record of conversations with hard-core gang members."

A Los Angeles Times critic wrote: "What makes 'Do or Die' a fascinating book, and a frightening chronicle of Los Angeles' gang life, is the way the author slowly strips away social and psychological veneers to reach fundamental truths about some aspects of life in America. Those truths are very, very scary."

In these harsh days, when the human detritus of gang activity litters the news, law-abiding Angelenos recoil almost reflexively at the mention of gangs. But Bing, who has interviewed L.A. gang members for four years, has no time for such easy dismissals of a generation of kids.

"You can only be petrified of that which is faceless and nameless like the plague, animals killing each other," she says. "They're not. These are not pit bulls. These are real people. This is real life."

Real life in South-Central. Children dying because of gang violence. Young boys with peach fuzz on their chins packing assault rifles, bats and ice picks. As many as 90,000 kids gangbang in L.A. County, police say, and their numbers appear to be spreading across the country.

"Gangs don't have membership drives," says Bing, who is in her 50s. "Kids drift toward gangs. Organizations like the Crips and the Bloods are the only option. There is no Little League in Watts. There are no programs. Those streets are stultifying. And there's no way for kids to get out their natural aggression.

"In many cases, the gang is a surrogate family. It offers love, a sense of welcome. It offers rules, regulations and ultimately empowerment. These kids are completely disenfranchised and without power."

In her conversations with gang members, Bing found that loyalty is behind some of the most senseless violence--the drive-by shootings, the pay-back murders of the innocent simply because they were standing next to the guilty.

"What the motives are about is fallen comrades," she says. "People just won't give up their grudges, and how are you going to say to someone, 'Forget one of your brothers'? The gang bargain is family."

But if loyalty was something gang members could respond to, then that was a language Bing could speak. Gang lingo trips easily from her tongue. Family photos of Monster Kody, the former gang member who posed for the cover of her book, dot a wall in her Pasadena breakfast nook.

Her work space is littered with scrawled pledges of affection from "Hart" (a pseudonym from the book), languishing at California Youth Authority for selling drugs. "I talk to him about every 10 days," Bing says. "He's allowed to call me collect. He has no one, and I'm going to try to get him placed in some safe haven when he's out."

She produces a photograph of a lanky boy sitting on a lawn, his arms clasped around his knees, while he peers skeptically at the camera. This, Bing says, is Hart, just shy of 16.

"I didn't have a picture before. I sent film. I sent threats. I said, 'Get it done.' Finally, I said, 'No picture, no running shoes and no jeans.' " She laughs. "That's it. That did it."

"Of course, when people first met her they were skeptical because they didn't know if she was the police or what," says Tamu (which means sweet in Swahili), the wife of Monster Kody. "But Leon's very open and upfront and true to what she says. You can trust Leon, and in the community, what you have to have is trust."

"Do or Die," which takes its name from a gang credo, is being publicized as the first book to look at gangs from gang members' perspective. The fact that its author is white has stirred some controversy in their community. Monster Kody, described in some detail in the book, is among Bing's defenders, says Tamu.

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