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three years on the turf in gang land

February 19, 1995|jesse katz | Jesse Katz is Houston bureau chief for The Times.

SOME OF MY FEARS CAME from my own evolving perceptions, but some came from the gangs themselves, which, I believe, grew more sinister and conspiratorial with every year that I covered them. I realized how much both of us had changed when, early in 1994, Tony Bogard, a nationally renowned leader of the gang truce in Watts, was shot dead in a gun battle with an alleged drug dealer. The next day, I wrote the story much as I might have when I first started the job: I described him as a celebrated peacemaker cut down before his time. Then the calls started coming, from folks in the community, from cops, even from the mother of one of his own homeboys. "After all these years," she told me, "you should have been able to see the truth." The truth about Bogard, as I wrote several months later, was that even as he called for peace, he packed a pistol. Even as he preached the gospel of economic empowerment, authorities suspected him of taxing his own gang's drug sales. More than any other article I had written, I thought that this one captured the nuances of that paradoxical world, where the line between right and wrong is often blurred by the battle to stay afloat.

The article was also attacked more fiercely than anything I'd ever produced. I received angry calls from people in Watts who wanted to know why everything I wrote about their community was so negative. Letters came in criticizing me for devoting so much time and space to detailing the foibles of one man. Some of his supporters--smart and sophisticated activists--issued a nine-page, paragraph-by-paragraph denunciation of the article, blasting it as an "extreme injustice to the black urban community of Los Angeles."

A week later, Chilton Alphonse invited me to meet with a different group of would-be peacemakers at his respected Crenshaw District anti-gang agency. But when the participants realized that I had written the Bogard story, they turned on me with a vengeance. One of them, a close friend of Bogard, gave me a look of contempt.

"How could you do Tony like that?" he demanded. "How dare you assassinate the character of a black man."

There were Rollin' 60s in the room, Eight-Tray Gangsters, Hoover Crips and Black P. Stones, some of the most notorious gangs anywhere in the nation. But this was nothing like Jim Brown's house; it felt as though it was about to explode. I was ordered to leave. Then somebody got up to lock the office door.

"You got a lot of heart to even show your face around here," snarled a tall, powerfully built ex-gangster from Gardena known as Big Ship.

With Alphonse's help, order was restored and the group grudgingly granted me permission to write about their cease-fire. Afterward, he laughed and said that it had been healthy, for them and for me.

That may have been so, but, like the rest of my three years on the gang beat, the experience robbed me of a certain innocence I wish I could have kept. In the end, I came to see gangs not as an invading army but as our own offspring--the byproduct of a polarized economy, ineffective schools, broken families, exploitative politicians and a history of racial hatred that remains unhealed. Any real solutions have to address the fundamental inequities of our society, giving a generation of have-nots the skills and opportunities to compete for what they need and deserve.

With nearly 150,000 gang members already in Los Angeles County, even the most optimistic community workers know that any effect they can have will be small. The best they can hope for is to save one child at a time. And after three years of such enormous losses, that just wasn't enough hope for me.

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