THE crime rate in Los Angeles and the nation as a whole continues to creep downward, but alarm about gang-related crime is on the rise again: During L.A.'s spring mayoral campaign, accusations flew about which candidate would be "soft" on gangs. In recent months, publications such as Newsweek magazine and the Washington Post have run articles warning of "blood-spattered urban streets" and a "new wave of gang brutality." In May, a so-called gangbusters bill that would allow prosecutors to transfer 16- and 17-year-old gang members to adult court for a wide range of charges without judicial review and would impose a list of new, harsh mandatory minimum sentences was fast-tracked through the U.S. House. It will likely hit the Senate floor this fall -- if a competing bill cosponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) doesn't get there first.
Certainly, it's essential to more effectively address the gang violence that continues to cause unbearable sorrow in communities all over America. Yet good, functional solutions rarely emerge from headline-driven public emotion. It also might help to remember that although there were 463 gang murders last year in Los Angeles County, the number is significantly lower than during the so-called decade of death of the late 1980s to mid-1990s when, in 1992 alone, 803 such killings turned certain streets into free-fire zones.
In the hardest-hit neighborhoods, funerals became so frequent that the local mortician's face was as weirdly familiar as that of a favorite uncle.
The trauma of those deadly years produced a number of books by academics and journalists trying to understand what caused the violence and what might best be done in terms of public policy to lessen it. But what was always missing from the analytical mix was an insightful narrative written from the inside.
Although no major books have yet come out of East L.A.'s Latino street gangs active during that period, the African American gangs of South L.A. have produced two books of significance. "Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member," by Sanyika Shakur, a.k.a. Monster Kody Scott, in 1993 and now "Inside the Crips: Life Inside L.A.'s Most Notorious Gang," by 39-year-old Colton Simpson.
Shakur used prose of diamond-hard precision to blast open the doors to the most brutal aspects of gang life, daring the reader to look inside. Yet the narrative was short on self-reflection, thus reinforcing the very stereotypes it wanted to dispatch. Simpson also documents urban warfare with unflinching intensity, but the reader must provide much of the analysis. Nevertheless, "Inside the Crips" has several important strengths that "Monster" lacks. For one thing, Simpson shows us exactly how and why a bright, personable kid comes to join a gang and why that same kid would choose to stay despite the lethal risks, the constant soul-battering violence and the inevitable incarcerations.
The story begins as Simpson's father, a pro baseball player for the old Los Angeles Angels, effectively abandons young Colton and his two brothers to their unbalanced mother, a nurse, who beats the boys with a plastic baseball bat and anything else that comes to hand during her frequent drunken rages. When Colton is 8, his mother rousts him and his year-older brother, Damon, out of bed and -- leaving their baby brother behind -- drives the two pajama-clad kids to another part of the city where, incredibly, she leaves them, blindfolded, by the side of the road. The boys are taken in by their kindly maternal grandmother who, while caring, seems able to do little more than pray, plead and ultimately turn a blind eye when her traumatized grandson takes to the street. At age 9, Simpson meets "Smiley," a muscular and charismatic 14-year-old homeboy who will eventually initiate him into gang life. Simpson's description of the encounter is so drenched with loneliness and father-longing that it suggests a religious conversion: "... and then he smiles and it's as if the light, the sun behind him, fills me, fills each and every one of us standing there before him.... 'Don't worry. I'ma toughen you up, though. Make you hardcore.' " From then on, Smiley becomes the yearned-for big brother-dad figure charged with bringing order and warmth to the younger boy's chaotic world.
One of the most harrowing scenes takes place a year later, when Simpson officially joins the Rollin' 30s Harlem Crips. During the day, Simpson is a child, thrilled to have hit a home run in a Little League game. Late that night, however, the skinny boy sneaks out to be "courted in" to the Crip set by Smiley and other teenage gangsters. The initiation consists of a storm of punches and kicks administered by the older kids. But once he has withstood enough bruising to prove himself, the gang members each hug Simpson tenderly. "You in, cuz," they tell him. "One of us, Li'l Cee."