Sipping a 40-ounce bottle of Old English 800 at the Nickerson Gardens housing project last week, Dale Marks stood among scores of celebrating Crips and Bloods--once deadly rivals in Los Angeles' street-gang warfare. For the first time in his life, he was partying in the name of peace.
From throughout the county, Bloods and Crips had converged on the project in Watts, as they had on a number of previous nights, swapping high fives and trading gang colors in a display of unity that would have been almost unfathomable before the riots.
The 24-year-old Marks, a longtime member of the Bloods and a father of three, said he doesn't doubt the resolve of various factions of the two gangs to end the pay-back killings that have claimed hundreds of lives of gang members and bystanders. But he said that, unless economic conditions improve for gang members, some may continue to engage in criminality.
"The average black person I know is just like me and can't get a job," Marks said. "Most of us don't have another way of being somebody other than being in a gang.
"One thing for sure," he said, without admitting or denying that he had engaged in criminal acts, "I have a family and I am going to take care of my family."
Police say they are wary of the accord--a surprising development in a city victimized by record increases in gang-related murders--because of reports that the Crips and Bloods may be joining forces to attack law enforcement officers. Gang members involved in the truce deny that contention.
"If in fact the two major factions want to bury the hatchet and they don't want to go against the police, the department is all for that," said LAPD spokesman Cmdr. Robert Gil. "Some of the things they're saying now are positive and some tend to be negative and we want to assess both sides of it."
Community activists say it is crucial for political leaders, business owners and neighborhood residents to quickly develop programs that will help ease the poverty and despair that give rise to gangs.
They worry that the positive energy from the truce already is dissipating in the nightly celebrations in South Los Angeles housing projects--one of which ended in two severe beatings and another with wild shooting in the air.
Compton Mayor Walter R. Tucker, former football star Jim Brown and 30 current and former Crips and Bloods this week challenged elected officials and corporations to create jobs for jobless gang members as part of the city's rebuilding effort.
Without an infusion of jobs, they said, youths can be expected to slide back into trouble. And without support, they said, the truce is unlikely to spread beyond South Los Angeles--home to the Crips and Bloods--and into other areas of the county where Latino gangs are based.
Authorities contend that there are an estimated 150,000 gang members countywide, and it is unclear how many of them are abiding by the truce. There is evidence that the feuding is continuing among some gangs: Last weekend, four people were killed and eight others injured in what police described as gang-related incidents throughout Los Angeles County.
Robert Moore, a Crenshaw area businessman and community activist, said young gang members he knows are not honoring the truce.
"They say they just don't believe in it, that it's a hoax created to keep them from doing this or that, till the anger (from the King verdict) blows over," said Moore. "They believe that no one is addressing the real issues."
Supporters of the truce contend that many gang members, who are not hardened offenders, truly want to change their lives and be included in the rebuilding of their riot-torn neighborhoods, citing a 10-page proposal by a group of Crips and Bloods outlining a $3.7-million rebuilding plan.
"If we turn our backs on these brothers there will be another riot," said Mayor Tucker, speaking Tuesday at a seven-acre site where Compton officials plan to establish a job-training center with the help of a grant from the Southern California Edison Co. "The gang truce can last if there is a foundation for the truce--that means local production and jobs."
Peter V. Ueberroth, chairman of Rebuild L.A., the nonprofit corporation created by Mayor Tom Bradley to lead the reconstruction of riot-torn areas, implied that gang members would be included in the effort.
"There is no group that will be excluded," he said. "We recognize that there is a critical need to understand problems and obstacles that young people throughout the city must deal with daily. Nobody has discounted the importance of addressing this segment of the community."
The peace movement among Crips and Bloods originated, by all accounts, with the gang members themselves. Those interviewed cited a series of incidents that they said led gang members to see black neighborhoods as besieged from without for the first time.
They repeatedly cited the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean-born store owner, the beating of King and the subsequent not guilty verdicts returned in Simi Valley by a jury that included no blacks.
"There is no equality," said Brad, a Crip who declined to give his last name. "You are only going to take the injustice for so long before something blows. And that's what happened. If they want us to work with the system then they have to show they gonna treat us right."
Many say the truce talks began in Watt's three largest housing projects--Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts and Jordan Downs.
On two recent evenings as many as 1,600 gang members gathered at the Imperial Courts, "hugging and exchanging tears," said Charles Norman a regional director of Community Youth Gang Services.
Former enemies renewed friendships, and relatives who had been too fearful in the past to venture outside their neighborhoods were once again united.
"One young man hadn't seen a cousin who lived only a few miles away for more than 20 years, since they were both about 7 years old," said Norman. "Now they were walking arm-in-arm."
Kevin Lymon, a 21-year-old Jordan Downs Crip, said he had not been in Nickerson Gardens since grade school, even though the two projects are less than a mile apart. He walked easily among his former enemies, wearing a black Malcolm X T-shirt and carrying a 40-ouncer that he shared with anyone who asked.
"It gets too tiring having to watch your back every time you go somewhere," the father of two young daughters and a son said with a weary grin.
Clifford Thurby, 24, a Blood, also was in territory that he would never have entered only two weeks earlier.
"We're like little children knocking at the back door. We want to come home," said the soft-spoken Thurby, who belies the stereotype of the hardened street thug.
Terry Jones, a 28-year-old gang member who brought his 2-year-old son to a recent unity meeting, said his oldest brother, a minister, lives in Bloods territory about a mile away from his own home. He had not been there in 10 years. "Since the peace treaty," Jones said, "I go over there almost every day."
Nearly every gang member has a similar story.
"All of us grew up together and attended the same junior high school; we ran the streets together, played basketball, but then we went down that road and we separated," said Charles Rachal, 28, a friend of Jones and a fellow Crip. "We've all got aunties and cousins who we haven't been able to visit in years, but we're tired of it."
Details of the truce have been spread by leaders of various Crips and Bloods factions, typically older gang members or former gang members known as "OGs," or Original Gangsters.
"We've got our own rules and regulations," said an OG Blood who identified himself only as B J from Nickerson Gardens. "There are no more drive-bys. No more disrespecting each other."
From a stage at the housing project recreation center B J told a cheering crowd of Bloods and Crips:
"There's 20 years of war right here in this room. I can't see it going back like it was."
Later, outside the recreation center, Crips tied their blue bandannas to the red bandannas of bloods in a gesture of solidarity.
The ceremony took place in front of a large mural bearing pictures of gang members, automatic weapons and scenes of violence. It also bears the names of nearly a hundred Nickerson Garden residents who have died in gang wars and by other violent means.
The rally that day was sponsored by the Nation of Islam, whose representative, Minister Khallid Muhammad, stressed racial solidarity among the overwhelmingly black Crips and Blood.
White police officers "have been beating on black folks for years, and now I'm tired of us helping them kill us up," Marks said after the rally.
A Watts Crip named Dwayne also described the truce as "a black thang."
"It ain't about Blood. It ain't about Crip," he said. "It ain't about none of that because everybody here is my brother."
Gang members interviewed by The Times stressed a desire to correct the negative expressions of gang life, and dismissed suggestions that they would attack police.
"It's a lie, that's the last thing we want to do," said Greg Box, 26, the father of a 5-year-old girl, who said he has become a community activist.
"We want them to police our community but with all due respect, like they do in Beverly Hills. We're tired of being pulled over with our mother or our kids in the cars and told to get against the wall. They have got to give us our respect."
Jerry, a 28-year-old former Blood who did not want his last name used, agreed.
"They are scared," he said, referring to police. "They are always scared when they hear that black men are getting together."
Jerry, walking with a cane at the Nickerson Gardens rally, alleged that he had been shot five times in the lower back and hip during the riot in a shootout with police. He eluded arrest, he said, and told hospital workers he had been the victim of a drive-by shooting.
He had been shot one other time in his life, he said, by a Crip who was also at the Nickerson Gardens celebration.
"I saw the brother just a little while ago," Jerry said. "He was kind of leery of me, but I told him he didn't have to be leery."
Gang members also contend that gang crime has been vastly overstated by police. They say people who are not gang members are labeled so by officers and that gang members are accused of crimes they did not commit.
Most of those who do break the law, according to the gang members, realize they are in a losing battle.
"You've got the RICO Act they throw at you now," said Box, referring to the federal statute originally designed to combat organized crime.
"If I'm out with five buddies and I want to get into something and my buddies are thinking like me, then they say we're a conspiracy. There's a lot more at stake now. If the feds get you, you're gonna be gone for a long time."
Worse, some gang members alleged, some police officers appear to be trying to sabotage the truce by harassing gang members, hoping to provoke a violent reaction.
Terry Jones said that shortly before he joined the truce effort, a friend was picked up by police from a corner near Western and Slauson avenues and deposited in territory claimed by Bloods.
"They took him there and expected him to be killed," said Jones.
The episode, he said, led to a reconciliation between rivals. "We're all tired of running people away from our neighborhoods," he added. "We want to bring people in."
Lt. Don Shirey, who is in charge of the LAPD's anti-gang unit for the department's South Bureau, denied that officers are fomenting conflict among gangs.
But he acknowledged that since the riots, officers have been out in force and are more likely to stop almost anyone.
"We are very sensitive to the fact that it could be people out there trying to spark another riot," Shirey said.
Despite the reconciliations, many residents in areas that have been terrorized by drive-by shootings are buoyed by the possibility of an end to the bloodshed.
Frances Reed is one of them. A 31-year-old mother of two young children, she lives near the intersection of Normandie and Gage in a gang-claimed neighborhood, and said she relishes the "new feeling of safety" near her home.
"I don't hear as many gunshots around here," she said, cradling her 7-month-old niece. "You don't worry as much about whether your child will be coming home from school."
William Scott, 49, who grew up in Watts in a house half a block from Imperial Courts and still lives there, said of the huge parties at the housing project:
"I'm glad they were over there enjoying themselves. It's better than them shooting all night. In the past when the war was going on it was every night. It was a combat zone over here."
Staff writers Louis Sahagun and Amy Wallace contributed to this story.