‘Do or Die’ : Books: As a white former fashion model, Leon Bing has drawn controversy for writing about L.A.'s black gangs. But she’s won praise for her hard-hitting look at life on the streets.
A month or so before the book tour, Bone took a bullet behind the heart.
Bone, a retired member of the Bloods, recovered in time to help author Leon Bing promote “Do or Die,” her new book about L.A.'s African-American gangs. Only thing was, the bullet, a hulking .45, came along for the ride, setting off airport security systems.
“He’d been in the park talking to a couple of kids playing baseball. . . . He was ambushed. He has a big reputation as a gangster for the Bloods. And someone looking to make his rep, probably a youngster, shot him.”
The person saying these things is no bruiser. Bing is a slender woman, somewhat slight in build. She has wraparound cheekbones and deep-set chestnut eyes that remind you of her earlier incarnation as a model for designer Rudi Gernreich in the Day-Glo ‘60s. But today, she is wearing not a whit of makeup and her hair is breezily wrapped in a pink towel. For someone who once made a living on appearances, she doesn’t give a hoot for them now.
That disdain for mere surfaces is plain in her acclaimed new book about the warfare between the Bloods and the Crips.
The New York Times called it “a poignant, sometimes chilling record of conversations with hard-core gang members.”
A Los Angeles Times critic wrote: “What makes ‘Do or Die’ a fascinating book, and a frightening chronicle of Los Angeles’ gang life, is the way the author slowly strips away social and psychological veneers to reach fundamental truths about some aspects of life in America. Those truths are very, very scary.”
In these harsh days, when the human detritus of gang activity litters the news, law-abiding Angelenos recoil almost reflexively at the mention of gangs. But Bing, who has interviewed L.A. gang members for four years, has no time for such easy dismissals of a generation of kids.
“You can only be petrified of that which is faceless and nameless like the plague, animals killing each other,” she says. “They’re not. These are not pit bulls. These are real people. This is real life.”
Real life in South-Central. Children dying because of gang violence. Young boys with peach fuzz on their chins packing assault rifles, bats and ice picks. As many as 90,000 kids gangbang in L.A. County, police say, and their numbers appear to be spreading across the country.
“Gangs don’t have membership drives,” says Bing, who is in her 50s. “Kids drift toward gangs. Organizations like the Crips and the Bloods are the only option. There is no Little League in Watts. There are no programs. Those streets are stultifying. And there’s no way for kids to get out their natural aggression.
“In many cases, the gang is a surrogate family. It offers love, a sense of welcome. It offers rules, regulations and ultimately empowerment. These kids are completely disenfranchised and without power.”
In her conversations with gang members, Bing found that loyalty is behind some of the most senseless violence--the drive-by shootings, the pay-back murders of the innocent simply because they were standing next to the guilty.
“What the motives are about is fallen comrades,” she says. “People just won’t give up their grudges, and how are you going to say to someone, ‘Forget one of your brothers’? The gang bargain is family.”
But if loyalty was something gang members could respond to, then that was a language Bing could speak. Gang lingo trips easily from her tongue. Family photos of Monster Kody, the former gang member who posed for the cover of her book, dot a wall in her Pasadena breakfast nook.
Her work space is littered with scrawled pledges of affection from “Hart” (a pseudonym from the book), languishing at California Youth Authority for selling drugs. “I talk to him about every 10 days,” Bing says. “He’s allowed to call me collect. He has no one, and I’m going to try to get him placed in some safe haven when he’s out.”
She produces a photograph of a lanky boy sitting on a lawn, his arms clasped around his knees, while he peers skeptically at the camera. This, Bing says, is Hart, just shy of 16.
“I didn’t have a picture before. I sent film. I sent threats. I said, ‘Get it done.’ Finally, I said, ‘No picture, no running shoes and no jeans.’ ” She laughs. “That’s it. That did it.”
“Of course, when people first met her they were skeptical because they didn’t know if she was the police or what,” says Tamu (which means sweet in Swahili), the wife of Monster Kody. “But Leon’s very open and upfront and true to what she says. You can trust Leon, and in the community, what you have to have is trust.”
“Do or Die,” which takes its name from a gang credo, is being publicized as the first book to look at gangs from gang members’ perspective. The fact that its author is white has stirred some controversy in their community. Monster Kody, described in some detail in the book, is among Bing’s defenders, says Tamu.
“You have African-Americans who resent the fact that she wrote the book (first). But they could have done the same thing,” Tamu says, noting that the Crips and Bloods have been around for at least 15 years. “Talking doesn’t get you places. Leon did her homework.”
Bing approached the toughest homeboys without fear, but her enthusiasm for her homework was not without risk. At one point, she vividly describes an incident in which she drifted into Blood territory with G Roc, a member of the Crips--a violation of gang code that could have meant instant death for both of them.
“We got in the wrong territory, and these were my friends in the Bloods. But as G Roc says, ‘You gonna drop a name to a bullet flying in the window?’ Right then we were at a stoplight and here’s this car next to us full of Bloods. I was petrified, petrified . I felt like I could have read the combined works of Dickens while I sat there.”
“She took a lot of chances, but the fact is the woman cared, and she has a lot of fortitude,” says Jim Galipeau, whose work as a deputy probation officer for L.A. County is described in “Do or Die.” “And she’ll do what’s necessary to get the story.”
Galipeau would take her on his rounds, dealing with some of the toughest gang members in Los Angeles, and Bing would later return on her own, her dog, Woofer, in tow.
When she began in 1986, Bing found virtually no takers for her reporting on gangs. Now, “Do or Die” is leading off a string of books about L.A. gangs, which are also turning out to be big fodder for the box office, most notably with John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood.” Bing traces the growing interest in her subject to the violence in the ‘hood.
As for her own interest, Bing knows that she’s not what you might expect of a reporter on such a gritty beat. She grew up in the Bay Area, raised by her grandparents after her parents divorced. Her grandfather was an executive for Steinway pianos.
“It was like the Waltons, only very much to the right,” she says in an interview in her home, where a baby grand commands a big chunk of her living room.
Bing attended USC and moved to New York, where she became a bride and mother. (Her daughter, Lisa Bing, is a 33-year-old actress in Los Angeles.) Bing’s marriage was short-lived, though, and she soon fell into modeling. She modeled for Oleg Cassini and Norma Norell. But it was her association with Gernreich that landed her on the cover of Time in 1968. Bing was wearing a heliotrope pullover with a revealing plastic panel that inspired the press to nickname her “Nouveau Navel.”
“My background does not indicate that I would do this,” Bing says, with some understatement.
When Bing decided to try her hand at journalism six years ago, she found herself drawn to stories about troubled teen-agers. Her first piece looked at kids who squat on Venice Beach.
“This country has an enormous appetite for its young,” she says with fervor. “Just eats it right up, especially minorities.”
She was drawn to reporting on gangs because they were among the most troubled teen-agers of all. She wanted to know why they were killing each other.
When teen-agers are “told in many ways how worthless you are and having that proven to you in thought and deed in the country in which you live--and by the white society that rules it--then you begin to hate that thing that keeps you in that position, and so you kill someone who is like you and that rings true.
“We as a society give more than permission. We approve and abet this by our apathy, by our complete lack of concern . . . (and) by making them ‘they’ and ‘them,’ by dehumanizing them.”
Bing’s book gives “them” faces, names, hearts and minds.
“Communicating,” Bing says, “that’s the way to maybe get it to stop.”