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He's a Gangbanger Just Trying to Make It to Tomorrow

Steve Lopez POINTS WEST

September 19, 2003|Steve Lopez

The 16-year-old student sat down at a picnic table outside his classroom, not far from where a classmate was shot the day before. Since he turned 11, every day of his life has been the same, he told me, as he waited for his mother to pick him up.

"I gotta watch my back, everywhere I go. If you live in L.A., you have to. You look to see who's around you, who's at the corner. That's why I always go with friends, because there's someone else to watch your back."

I'd tell you his name, which he was happy to share, but he has enough reasons to look over his shoulder. He was wearing a blue jersey, and I asked if the color meant anything.

"It means I'm a banger," he said matter-of-factly, identifying himself as a Crip, as if it were as common a pursuit as Eagle Scout. "Everybody in my family's a Crip; everybody I grew up with."

It's no accident that this kid ended up at Duke Ellington Continuation High School, 110th Street near Normandie Avenue in South Los Angeles. He told me he'd gotten into all sorts of trouble and been in jail for burglary.

Now, he claimed, he's going to church with his mother and trying to clean himself up. But that can get complicated.

"People always ask, 'Where you from?' " he said. "If you say you're not a banger, you could get shot for that."

So he walks a fine line, as he described it. Half in, half out. One bullet away from a headline.

"You see those cars?" he asked, pointing to 110th Street. "I always walk on the side of the street with the cars, so you can duck behind them if someone's shooting."

Someone was shooting on Tuesday, and a 16-year-old was hit in the leg while waiting for a bus after school. The victim asked The Times not to identify him because he feared retaliation.

One week earlier, three students were shot in a gang-related attack outside Taft High School in Woodland Hills, and we're not even one month into the school year.

"We just must abhor violence across this city," a school board member said Wednesday.

We do, but never so much as when it happens in places where it isn't expected to, like Woodland Hills.

We do, and then a bus goes by with an ad for the next Hollywood blockbuster, with movie stars toting guns the size of bazookas.

We do, yet we complain about taxes even though California's spending per pupil has only recently risen from rock bottom.

We do abhor it, but we create it, and lousy performance by parents is no small factor.

I'm not asking you to give a pass to the 16-year-old I spoke to. Most kids don't get caught up in the gang culture, and this one made his choices.

But it's worth saying that so-called gangbangers range from coldblooded killers to decent kids who go along for the sake of belonging, or maybe survival. Either way, the rule they live by is to never admit their fear.

"My mom's a Christian. She watches out for me," the student told me. "She tells me, don't wear a lot of blue, don't wear red [the color of the rival Bloods]. But Crips kill Crips, too. That happens all the time. If you wore blue pants, white shirt and some regular white shoes, like K-Swiss, that means you're ready."

Ready for what?

"Ready to bang."

He claimed he doesn't want any of that.

"I'm a Christian. Got baptized and all that. I hear shootings every day. Where I live"--not far from the school--"there's helicopters and ambulances every night. You can't even walk nowhere."

I asked the student -- whose father presses shirts at a dry cleaner and whose mother takes care of a blind son and a blind neighbor -- if he talks to anyone about any of this.

"I talk to God and ask him to bless me out," he said. "When I leave home in the morning, I ask him can I make it back to the house safely. I'm not afraid, though."

I don't know how common it is for Crips or Bloods to sit under a tree and talk about God or to be under orders from Mom to wait at school until she picks you up in the SUV.

But this kid seemed perfectly comfortable with both. When his mother arrived, he climbed into the car as if into the safety of a cocoon.

"He's put me through hell," she said, and he still worries her sick.

She thinks -- she hopes -- he's on a safer path now, earning Bs in school and going to church. But she takes no chances. She drives him everywhere and picks him up, or her husband does.

"That's where they usually get shot, is on the way to and from school," she said. "If I can't get him, I pray until he gets home. Did he tell you he's got 10 friends who've been shot in the last year?"

I asked her what she'd do to change things if she were in charge of the city. She looked into the distance for an answer.

She hates all the violent images we throw at kids, she said. On TV, in movies, in popular music. She wishes there were a citywide curfew, and she'd give cops the OK to pull over any car with three or more kids in it, "because you know they've got guns."

With so much blood in the streets, did she ever think her son might be safer if he carried a gun for protection?

"No," she said, "but I'm going to get him a bulletproof vest. I've been shopping for one on the Internet."

*

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.

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