L. A. GANGS : Our City, Their Turf

<i> Robert Conot is an author and editor who has written extensively on urban problems and violence. </i>

The area around Harvard Playground, south of Slauson between Normandie and Western avenues, is a typical South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood--small, weathered, wood-and-stucco bungalows on constricted lots--a throwback to Raymond Chandler and the Southern California of the 1930s. The residents are primarily black, with an infusion of Latinos. The high school dropout rate is about 50% and youth unemployment is almost as high. Small groups of young people frequently congregate on the streets.

Just such a group was standing in front of 1428 W. 60th St. at noon, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 1985, when a late-model Cadillac cruised down the street. Some of the young men were wearing red--a cap or shirt--that identified them as members of the Six-Deuce (62nd Street) Blood gang. Among them was 19-year-old Daryl Lamont Clay; his sweat shirt was red.

As the Cadillac drew alongside the group, the barrel of a .30 caliber semiautomatic rifle was poked through the passenger-side window. Bullets sprayed out. Clay, diving away, was hit in the lower back. The bullet coursed all the way through his body into his brain. He died on the spot.


The incident was typical of gang-related killings; and Los Angeles County, where the Sheriff’s Department has identified 557 gangs and is still counting, has become the gang capital of the nation. While Latino street gangs date back to the turn of the century and a number of black gangs were active in the ‘50s and ‘60s, during the last 15 years the problem has swelled to new proportions.

Gangs have little resemblance to the romantic fiction of “West Side Story,” nor are they miniature replicas of an organized, disciplined Mafia. Quite the contrary. Gangs by and large are composed of the chaff of society. They exist because of the failure of family, of schools, of churches and of social agencies. Kids who are rootless and unwanted, whose homes and schools are places of conflict and negative experience, who cannot picture themselves part of traditional American society, find acceptance, camaraderie and, especially, identity as members of a gang.

The onset of puberty, between 13 and 15, is the usual age a youth is “jumped in” to a gang. In the power derived from the group and the approbation of older peers he obtains a sense of belonging and strength, while elsewhere he meets only with frustration.

The gang becomes his clan. He learns its language, a slight variation of the street argot, its hand signals, used for identification, and its graffiti--pictographs used to send messages, delineate territory and warn away intruders. Turf is a gang’s prized possession, a symbol of ego, manhood, strength and existence. It represents a primitive, animalistic instinct; much of the violence associated with gangs stems from the territorial imperative.

The gang is neither a monolith nor a well-ordered entity. If anything, it is the antithesis of anthill, corporation or military formation. Individuals clump together in a small group and the group interacts with other groups in changing patterns, but seldom do all members of a gang cohere to engage in joint action. Had they the intelligence, sophistication, discipline and leadership to plan and organize, they would not have been drawn into membership. The run-of-the-mill “gang-bang"--rumble or delinquent action--involves no more than a handful of people, more often than not characterized by its spur-of-the-moment, disorganized and senseless nature.

What, in fact, makes the gang so dangerous and antisocial is its dynamic: Within a group, individuals tend to descend to the lowest common denominator of intelligence while at the same time encouraging each other to the highest numerator of violence. Actions they might hesitate to take as individuals become routine in the group anonymity.

What makes Los Angeles so conducive to gang formation is its sprawl, a horizontal city where even disadvantaged areas contain a high percentage of single-family dwellings. Many kids remain in the same neighborhood; borders are easy to establish, and, with population density relatively low, there is plenty of turf available.

At the same time, the last quarter-century has seen a continuous and massive expansion of the youth pool from which gang members are drawn. In the Los Angeles School District, black and Latino junior and senior high school enrollment, representing in large part the population “at risk,” rose from 93,000 in 1966 to 145,000 in 1977 before temporarily leveling off, but has now hit an all-time high of 171,000 and will probably reach 200,000 by 1990.

Expansion of the number of children growing up amid poverty and family disorganization has been even more dramatic. In 1965 there were 175,000 children and adults--mostly one-parent families with the father absent--in the AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) program. By 1971 that number had risen to 615,000. Improved economic conditions, government job and training programs and a declining birthrate saw the numbers drop to 530,000 by the end of the decade. But starting with the 1982 recession and an infusion of Latinos, with a significantly higher birthrate, the figures have been reversed. In 1986, AFDC enrollment was back up to 584,000.

Amid a general heightening of violence in American culture, the early 1970s saw the emergence of the Crips, a particularly vicious gang that metamorphosed the Los Angeles problem. As the reputation of the Crips for machismo and terror spread, gangs that had been known simply by geographic designation added Crips to their names. Blue was adopted as their common color. Today there are an estimated 144 Crips gangs in the county, and the name, like many California fashions, has been exported to other parts of the nation.

In reaction, gangs in conflict with Crips-affiliated gangs restyled themselves the Blood and adopted red as their color. While Latino gangs remain individualistic, black gangs today come in two broad classes--Crips and Blood--even though it is not uncommon for a Crips gang to fight another Crips or a Blood another Blood.

Given the correlation between family disruption and poverty on the one hand and crime and violence on the other, as the number of children in one-parent families ballooned from the ‘60s to the mid-1970s, crime increased in tandem. Both the AFDC rolls and the crime rate bottomed out in the early 1980s but have now started to rise again.

Since gang crimes have an added element of violence, violent crime has manifested the greatest increase. As guns proliferated, attacks became more deadly. Even as the overall number of more serious felonies fell significantly in Los Angeles during the latter 1970s, aggravated assaults rose 50% between 1976 and 1980, and the number of homicides nearly doubled, from 517 to 1,028. Rifles, tire irons, household utensils and handguns of all kinds are among the gangs’ arsenals, but knives and “Saturday-night specials"--cheap .22s--are the most-used deadly weapons.

Because gang members are responsible for a major proportion of violent crime, common sense dictated that gangs should be made a particular target of law enforcement.

In 1978 the Los Angeles Police Department organized its CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) anti-gang unit, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department followed the next year with OSS, Operation Safe Streets. In 1981 the District Attorney’s office, recognizing specific requirements of gang prosecution, formed its own hard-core gang unit. The Los Angeles County Probation Department, which at one time tried to engage in gang rehabilitation, found itself underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed; it turned instead to emphasizing protection of the community from gang members.

The formation of such gang-fighting units has become a more effective law enforcement tool than its initiators imagined. By developing a cadre of specialists and building up rosters of gang members, the police have established an intelligence apparatus that is already in place when a crime is committed. The police often have more difficulty gathering the requisite evidence and persuading witnesses to testify than in identifying the suspect.

In the Feb. 19, 1985, murder of Daryl Lamont Clay, the killer had publicly announced himself as a member of the Five-Deuce Crips two days earlier. Witnesses had seen him and could presumably identify him--if he could be found and if they could be induced to overcome fear of retaliation.

Three months of detective work led to the identification of the suspect: 19-year-old Anthony D. Evans. The police had no difficulty apprehending him. He was an inmate at the Chino Training School, where he had been lodged for a parole violation--not associated with the Clay murder--three days after the shooting.

Evans was the youngest of nine children. His parents had separated when he was 13 and his troubles with the law had begun soon thereafter. Between his 14th and 15th birthdays he had seven contacts with police, ranging from cases of stolen pigeons, vandalism and possession of a small amount of marijuana to stealing a school bus and robbery of two junior high school students. After the last offense he was sent to a probation camp, then to a California Youth Authority facility. There he and two others overpowered a group supervisor, escaped and barricaded a highway with the intent of commandeering a car. Three years later, in June, 1984, he had been paroled.

During the following eight months, gravitating between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Evans was suspected of a number of felonies, including the shooting and wounding of an undercover vice officer. (Trial in that case is still pending.) While awaiting trial on the murder charge, he was arraigned for participating in the gang rape of another inmate but that case was dismissed because the police accidentally destroyed evidence. On Nov. 26, 1986, a jury found him guilty of Clay’s murder. In January he was sentenced and given a term of 31 years to life imprisonment.

Among Clay’s companions in the Blood were Mark Strauss and Sam Cunningham. Strauss was brought to the trial as a witness from prison, where he is serving an eight-year sentence for using a gun in an assault on a Five-Deuce Crip. Anthony Evans’ brother, Kenneth “Big Ken Dog” Evans, was convicted of murder in another Crip-Blood killing; he escaped from jail on Feb. 5 and is still at large. Daryl Herbert, a witness who was another member of Evans’ gang, is awaiting trial for murder in an unrelated killing. Sam Cunningham’s murder trial, which involves three other defendants, is just getting under way; Gervon Hall was stabbed 17 times in retaliation for the 1986 killing of Wilbur Joseph, another member of the Six-Deuce Blood.

In the wood-panelled courtroom those four defendants sit well-groomed and well-behaved. During recess, one turns toward his mother in the audience, waves and calls “Hi, Mama.”

There is an unreality in trying to reconcile this ordered world, the symbol of American society as it perceives itself, with the culture of the gang on streets five or 10 freeway minutes away. A spectator is overcome by a sense of the waste, of lives propelled on a shoot to oblivion before they reach adulthood. Aside from human considerations, the economic cost of just one mindless feud, in terms of law enforcement, trial, incarceration and loss of lives--both victims and perpetrators--is staggering.

At one point Ralph Shapiro, the prosecutor in the Anthony Evans case, tried to pin down the basis of the feud and asked one of the gang members: “What’s the rivalry about?” The youth stared at him blankly. “We kill ‘em,” he said.