Gang interventionist Michael Cummings, a former Grape Street Crip, talks… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)
Big Mike hitches up in front of Jordan High School in Watts like a bull snuffling for trouble.
He scans the stoops down Juniper Street. He peers in the windows of passing cars. And he keeps a firm eye on the three chain-link gates of the Jordan Downs housing project down the block.
As a gang interventionist, Michael Cummings trolls the streets here every day making sure students get to and from school safely -- and that gangbangers mind their manners.
Cummings is a tow-truck driver, Pentecostal pastor and former Grape Street Crip. He is as imposing as a defensive tackle and wields absolute respect in the neighborhood where he grew up. Parents adore him. Gangbangers listen to him.
No one messes with Big Mike.
"He can get between people," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Curtis Woodle. "He's able to actually talk gang members down. . . . And that's critical."
On this morning, five teenage boys cruise out of the project toward the school.
"What's up, soldiers?" Cummings asks.
"Hey, Big Mike," one mutters.
Nothing about their appearance suggests whether they're gang members or not; hip-hop long ago standardized the look in this part of town. But Cummings knows the players.
He smoothly peels one of them away as they pass the school gate.
"Today's the test, right?" he says. "You taking the test?"
His voice rumbles like dredging gravel. The kid hesitates, then says he forgot his uniform.
"Just tell them you're here for tests and you forgot your shirt," Cummings says. His tree-trunk girth closes in on the young man, shunting him through the gate.
The boy looks helplessly at his friends and then slouches inside the old Art Deco building. His homies continue along the sidewalk.
"See, if they send him home" for not having his white shirt, "he's not going home," Cummings says. "He's going with them. They're my troublemakers."
They are members of the Southside Grape Varrio Watts, he says. The boy is not -- at least not yet.
Cummings, 45, can read the subterranean forces in his neighborhood the way a seismologist sees the stress points in shifting earth. For years, the warfare in Watts was mostly triangular, waged by three fiefdoms rooted in the big public housing projects: the Grape Street Crips in Jordan Downs, the Bounty Hunter Bloods in Nickerson Gardens and the P Jay Crips in Imperial Courts.
Now it is scattered and harder to decipher. Jordan High School alone brings together an explosive mix of loyalties to the Grape Street Crips, the Southside Grapes, the Wiegand Colonial Watts, the Baby Locs, the Fudgetown Mafia Crips, the Ten Line Gangsta Crips, the Peach Gates and the 99 Mafia.
Cummings tries to spot emerging conflicts between any of these and squelch them before they explode. He scans for hard stares and gang signs -- anyone "throwing their set-up."
There are dozens of so-called gang interventionists in the city. They have many strategies and programs and run the gamut in terms of effectiveness and credibility.
Only a handful step into the crucible every day -- walking through the projects, listening, talking hotheads down, breaking up fights.
"There's a lot of things I see Mike do that I don't see him getting anything back for," said LAPD Capt. Phillip Tingirides, who commands the department's Southeast Division, "except making things better and stopping people from dying."
He says the worst gang violence often happens because of poor communication. A shooting in one area is immediately blamed on a rival gang, whether it is correct or not. Rumors spin out of control and fuel more killing.
Police often don't know what's driving the violence. Now, after years of mutual mistrust, officers are turning more to gang interventionists to get a handle on retaliatory killings, dispel false rumors and act as peace brokers.
Cummings did this work without pay for seven years. Now, he says, he takes home about $17,000 a year. He would make more if he spent the time driving his tow truck. He is always on call, going to crime scenes, police meetings and midnight basketball games.
He says he is a man driven by faith and shame. He hopes he can redeem himself with a community he once betrayed.
Cummings grew up in a blue shotgun shack on Wiegand Street that his grandfather built. His grandmother always told him to be proud of his tight neighborhood. "Watts may be at the bottom," she would say. "But what's on the bottom holds the top up."
His father was never much a part of his life. His mother, a beautician, worked multiple jobs to get Michael and his sister Lisa into San Miguel Elementary, a Catholic school. But she couldn't afford to keep them in private school, and Michael ended up at Markham Middle School -- in the Bounty Hunter Bloods' neighborhood.
"First day at Markham, I'm in the nutrition line and I come out and they're all in my pockets," he said. "Right away, my people in my neighborhood said, 'Come over here.' "
The tribal mentality took root. The kids in his neighborhood, Crip turf, started walking to school "15 deep," he said.