I became the Los Angeles Times' gang reporter on a September evening in 1991 when I stepped into a roomful of Bloods and Crips at the home of former NFL star Jim Brown in the Hollywood Hills.
The week before, I had covered a devastating arson fire in Watts that killed five members of a Latino family in a mostly African American housing project. Outside the charred apartment, I met an ex-gangbanger named Chopper, a chiseled man in his mid-20s. There's nothing you can learn, Chopper told me, by coming here only when the community erupts. If you really want answers, he said, you'll have to write about the conditions that keep it simmering every day. I asked Chopper to teach me. He invited me up to Brown's.
Winding my way up Sunset Plaza Drive a few days later, I didn't know what to expect. One of the greatest running backs of all time was playing host to some of Los Angeles' most notorious gangsters--and there I was, a modestly built white guy in glasses, who'd never even been in a fistfight. I wanted to appear amiable and self-assured, but when I reached the front door, I felt my muscles tighten. All around me were young, hard-looking black men in baggy jeans, bulky parkas, braided hair, teardrop tattoos. Someone took my hand and shook it, guiding me through the fluid, grip-shifting salutation of the 'hood. There was no overt hostility. I was welcome, so long as it was clear that I was a student and this was their school.
For the next three hours, I absorbed the gospel of Amer-I-Can, a kind of self-help program for the recovering felon. Jim Brown was articulate and commanding. Standing in black shorts and a warm-up jacket at one end of his mirror-paneled living room, he preached the virtues of good communication, goal-setting and positive thought. Surrounding him were dozens of big-time shot-callers from Watts and Compton and Willowbrook who spoke starkly of their struggles to survive on society's fringe. "Stay strong, brother, stay strong," urged one who wore a carving of a clenched fist around his neck. I sat on a stool in the middle, at times shifting uncomfortably, worried that my own speech would sound too refined if they asked me to talk.
"Some nights you will come up here and you will see the baddest cats in the city . . . the brothers society says you cannot do anything with," said Brown, addressing me in front of the group. "Yet we know that these young men with their negative power, if turned positive, can change our communities. This is the source . . . the hope for America."
The whole thing might have been a hustle--other journalists have since suggested as much--but I found myself drawn to the energy in that room, to the visceral sensation of rubbing shoulders with men who thrive on intimidation. I wanted to believe they were no different from me, and that I was no different from them, that their gangsterism was not some inherently criminal trait but a desperate reaction to years of racial prejudice and economic deprivation. That is what I had been taught to believe, at any rate, from the time I was a little boy--as young as 6--helping my mother, now the mayor of Portland, Ore., picket a Safeway store accused of selling non-union grapes. If I had been raised in an environment of abuse and neglect, without the privileges that come with my skin color and a tradition of success, perhaps I, too, might have sought my identity as an outlaw--especially if the alternative was to be a victim. Chopper, who ended up becoming both my good friend and an upstanding, taxpaying member of his community, later put it this way: "My mission is to obey the laws of a free society. But down here, the abnormal is accepted as normal and the normal is unspoken of--it's all backward."
The story I wrote--"Jim Brown Taps Potential of 'Baddest Cats' in City"--was the beginning of a three-year journey during which I functioned as sort of a foreign correspondent in a community forsaken by the city. My editor, Joel Sappell, had been looking for someone to explore gang culture from the inside instead of condemning it from the outside. He wanted me to put gang violence in a broader social context, rather than merely tallying the bodies as they piled up. I imagine now that some of my colleagues must have questioned whether a white reporter could succeed in that role, but I was convinced that, with enough earnestness, I'd be able to get at the truth. Besides, this first story had started me off on solid footing, especially out on the streets, where it was viewed as a rare example of "positive" journalism in a sea of sensational, exploitative coverage. I was proud, in so short a time, to be considered among the few outsiders who could be trusted to get it right.