It happened about a year ago on 103rd Street in Watts outside an attractive government-subsidized housing project.
A bunch of the neighborhood kids began junior high. That’s where you see the innocence fade. That’s when a 12-year-old begins to watch the incredibly mature 14-year-olds from the block with awe, and one day at school, in front of everybody, one of them greets him: “Hey, my li’l homeboy,” and he’s hooked.
Back at the project, there was a blue gate at the entrance, and that’s what some of the boys began calling themselves: the Blue Gate Mafia Crips.
Another generation of young black men had come under the spell of that strange, mystically powerful word: Crips.
It wasn’t always like this.
Twenty years ago Crips did not exist. Twenty years ago there were almost no black street gangs in Los Angeles.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, a smaller number of gangs claimed many of Los Angeles’ black neighborhoods. They had names like the Businessmen, the Gladiators, the Swamp Boys, Slausons, Watts. Many were keyed to certain high schools, but their existence was a relatively quiet one, according to those who lived it. Students who were not gang members might occasionally be bullied out of lunch money, but you could usually go your own way. There were few shootings, and crimes were relatively petty by today’s standards.
“The toughness of a guy was his ability to take you out head to head,” remembers John Dillard, a Locke High teacher. “The status of a man was being tough from the shoulders.”
The Watts Riots of 1965, sparked by a confrontation between a South-Central Los Angeles man and police, changed everything.
Gangs stopped feuding with each other because a more ominous enemy had surfaced: law enforcement. Many gang members were caught up in the Black Power movement, joining groups like the Black Panthers and US.
“Everybody was into the Panthers,” said one 40-year-old former gang member. “It was a protection thing to stop police harassment, to unite, to hold our ground. Gang fights, we didn’t allow that. Nobody was snatching purses from the old ladies.”
Peace broke down quickly, however.
As early as 1967, members of US and the Black Panthers engaged in a shoot-out on the streets of Southeast Los Angeles. The squabble made its way to UCLA, where the two groups fought for control of the university’s Afro-American Studies Center.
In 1969, two US members shot and killed two Panthers on campus. The split was out in the open.
In the wake of the UCLA shoot-out the first stirrings of a new street gang network began.
Accounts vary wildly, but oral historians agree on one of the founders. He was Raymond Washington, a Fremont High School student who had been too young to be a Black Panther but had soaked up some of the Panther rhetoric about community control of neighborhoods.
After Washington was kicked out of Fremont, he wound up at Washington High, and something began to jell in the neighborhood where he lived, around 107th and Hoover streets. Whether it was simply a gang of street kids or an attempt to organize the neighborhood is not clear. What is clear is that two notorious incidents, both attributed to Washington’s group, followed.
In 1971, a pimp who was beating up a prostitute at 109th and Figueroa was killed by some young men in the neighborhood. And in early 1972, a group of youths, including a Washington High track star regarded as one of the city’s best athletes, beat a 16-year-old boy to death when he refused to surrender his leather jacket outside a concert at the Hollywood Palladium.
Word spread about the guys. They were different. Some said they wore earrings. Some said they carried canes. Some said they walked with a limp, like cripples. The nickname spread: Crips.
There may have been something else to it. Manual Arts High teacher Donald Bakeer said he has been told that Crips was an acronym for Continuous Revolution In Progress. Dillard remembers Crips as a simple mispronunciation. He said Washington was hanging out with younger members of a gang called the Avenues, who were nicknamed the Crib Avenues, or Cribs, in reference to their youth. On the street, Dillard suggested, Cribs became Crips.
Regardless, the 107 Hoover Crips became nothing more than a new urban gang. Washington, who died in state prison in the mid-1980s, was by most accounts in and out of jail too often to make an imprint.
Gradually, new sets of Crips began to sprout. With more gangs came confrontations. With confrontations came notoriety. County juvenile camps became training and recruitment grounds.
Words of brotherhood became words of war.
One of the hallmarks of the Black Power movement had been the widespread use of the term “blood,” shorthand for blood brother. “Cuz” was also a common greeting. But by the late 1970s, gangs that appended Crips to their names began to claim “Cuz” as a nickname for members and began to refer to members of a smaller number of non-Crips black gangs as “Bloods.”
Today, according to law enforcement gang specialists, there are about 160 Crips gangs in Los Angeles County with about 13,000 members or “associates"--young men on the fringe. There are about 100 Bloods gangs with about 10,000 members or associates.
Crips tend to be more aggressive, a fact they claim as a badge of honor. Members of Bloods sets rarely fight each other, but fights between Crips gangs this year accounted for a third to a half of all gang-versus-gang incidents in various law enforcement jurisdictions.
Much of the evolution of black gangs occurred without close scrutiny of law enforcement, because during the 1970s the prime concern of gang specialists was Latinos in East Los Angeles and parts of the East San Fernando Valley who were killing each other off routinely in rivalries that stretched back decades.
Until only recently, Latino gangs have been the model for many sociologists who claim to be gang experts. This has been disastrous when it comes to evaluating black gangs, whose members put a lower premium on tradition and a higher premium on making money by robbery and drug sales.
Black and Latino gangs use different slang and different turf boundaries and different ethics. Many Latino gang members, who like to pride themselves on being honorably violent, are openly contemptuous of black gangs for random drive-by shootings and selling rock cocaine. Latino gang members are more likely to sell PCP than rock cocaine.
But there is a curious coexistence. Despite the increasing Latinization of black neighborhoods, and the fact that black and Latino gangs often operate on the same ground, there has been no significant racial conflict. Blacks kill blacks, Latinos kill Latinos, and in some cases rough alliances have been formed.
Latino gang violence began to drop off in the late 1970s, thanks to a decade of work by community-based organizations that used the Chicano-consciousness movement of the early 1970s to encourage peace among gangs.
In black neighborhoods, the very opposite was occurring.
Teacher Bakeer remembers hearing repeated references to black gangs in the mid-1970s, when he was working as a junior high school substitute teacher, and being skeptical.
“I thought it was just a convenient label for bad kids. But as time went on I realized Crips were for real, that they were starting to formulate into something that would institutionalize,” he said. Although the Crips sets were separate, the fact that they were linked by a name gave them more power. Every three or four years brought a new generation of gang members, and every generation brought a hardening, a legacy.
By the early 1980s the first wave of Crips were in their mid-20s and the second generation had already matured. The gang network was hardening. The economy would harden it further. The unemployment rate was skyrocketing. So was inflation. The federal government was canceling the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, which had paid unemployed people to train for lower-level jobs.
‘Lot of Pressure’
“We used to talk about these things,” remembers Fred Williams, a youth worker who was a gang member in the 1970s. “There was a lot of pressure coming down on the older fellows,” gang members who might have normally sought out work after they had passed through their rough-and-tumble teens. Jobs were the issue, but the economy was putting a lot of people on the street.”
The message was clear: Do what you have to do. Survive. In the 1970s and early ‘80s, this meant robbery, often at the point of a gun, and newspapers began to fill with tales of brutal assaults by gang members.
By the mid-1980s, when the supply of cocaine and the development of cheaply processed “crack” began to spread through urban areas, “survival” came to mean joining the loose network of drug suppliers and salesmen, many of them older gang members using their connections to expand their business. Gangs, now claiming specific neighborhood boundaries in a manner unthinkable in the early 1970s, had de facto control of who sold drugs on the street or through rock houses. Poor youngsters who might not have cared about “gangbanging” but wanted to make fast money through drugs realized that they needed to pledge at least surface loyalty to a neighborhood’s gang if they wanted a piece of the action.
During the 1980s sociologists developed a new noun, the “underclass,” to describe the unsolvable poverty that fostered this kind of behavior. In Los Angeles, gang members were inventing a new verb: Cripping. It meant surviving. Rob, steal, whatever you had to do and, as one gang member says, “Damn who give a damn.”