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Dying Is a Scary Thing to Do

From where he sits, the young man can see the buck-brush ceanothus blooming on the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains, brushing tones of smoky white into the deep green. Signs of spring are everywhere in the canyon that encloses him. Feathery yellow acacias glow in the sunlight, and blossoming fruit trees sing renewal to the sweet-scented breezes that blow across an open courtyard. The young man sits amid the bursts of life on a day laced with gold. And he talks about death.

“Sometimes I dream I’m dying,” he says, pulling a heavy jacket around him, more protection from the dream than the day. “I see myself being shot and then I feel myself, you know, fading away, and I wake up sweating, man, really shaking. I can’t tell you the feeling.” He thinks about it for a moment and then says, “You hear guys say they’d die for their neighborhoods, but you know, man, when you think about it, dying is a scary thing. . . .”

His name is Richard and he is sitting slightly hunched forward on a bench at the edge of a central courtyard in a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp tucked into Las Virgenes Canyon. Walls 14 feet high surround the camp, and the rules of incarceration are severe and unbending, belying the peaceful tone of its surroundings. This is prison. The young man knows it.

Richard is a member of the Westside Raymond Crips and is doing time for armed robbery and possession of narcotics. “Sometimes,” he says on the day I visit him, “I think I’m going to get out of the gangs, you know, leave the city. But you’ve got to go far away, man, or they’ll find you. A friend will find you, or an enemy. You don’t just step in and step out of a gang, man. You step in and they lock the door behind you.”

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“This is like R&R; for those guys,” camp director Robert Stanley says as he leads the way through the bleak dormitory that is home to the camp’s 125 inmates. “They come out of a war zone to ‘rest.’ It’s safe here. A lot of them get nervous when it comes time to leave and sabotage themselves to do more time.”

He stops and turns to face me. “They’re only kids. Sure they can be deadly, but they’re still kids and they have no options. We try to develop their self-esteem, but you put them back in the same neighborhood and it’s a lost cause. Eventually they bend to the pressures and the temptations. A guy running dope makes $600 a week. How can $5 an hour compete with that?”

What strikes me are the contrasts. The youth of the boys and the enormity of their crimes. The vast efforts and the deep frustrations. Spring coming and lives unraveling. “I’ll never make it,” a young man says to me on a day that glows with birth. “I’ll be dead by the time I’m 20.”

Who’s to blame? I read the numbers. Sixty-nine gang killings in the county in the first two months of the year. Maybe more than 400 by the time December fades. Babies die. Pregnant women die. Old men die. The sidewalks of L.A. are stained with the blood of the innocents. Who’s to blame? You? Me? The cops? The kids? Curiosity brings me to the camp.

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“How did it happen?” I ask Richard.

The ambiguity of the question doesn’t faze him. He’s a bright kid, but at 18 Richard has lived a lifetime of violent, antisocial behavior, shooting, robbing, beating and using a range of narcotics that staggers the imagination.

“I don’t know, man,” he says. “You kind of ease into a gang, you know? My brother was a gang-banger, in and out of jail. I began kicking with these guys when I was 12 and pretty soon I’m in. My mother would say, ‘No, get out,’ but it didn’t do no good, man. I wouldn’t come home or I’d come home stoned. You don’t think about nothing. You get high and whatever comes up, man, you just do it. Who cares, you know?”

“We were like a club at first,” another kid says. His name is Perez and he’s a member of the Lynwood Mob. “We only met to party, but then the Compton people brought in guns and people got shot. They shot one of our home boys and we shot them. It made no sense, you know? What were we doing? The scariest place is our own neighborhood. All I ever thought about was being killed.”

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The time for talking is over. “I can make it, man,” Richard says. “I dream of dying and I know now that dream can come true.”

As I drive out of Las Virgenes Canyon, I wonder if tonight he’ll dream of death. And I wonder, as evidence of renewal brightens the mountainsides, if spring will ever truly come for him again.


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