three years on the turf in gang land

Jesse Katz is Houston bureau chief for The Times.

I became the Los Angeles Times' gang reporter on a September evening in 1991 when I stepped into a roomful of Bloods and Crips at the home of former NFL star Jim Brown in the Hollywood Hills.

The week before, I had covered a devastating arson fire in Watts that killed five members of a Latino family in a mostly African American housing project. Outside the charred apartment, I met an ex-gangbanger named Chopper, a chiseled man in his mid-20s. There's nothing you can learn, Chopper told me, by coming here only when the community erupts. If you really want answers, he said, you'll have to write about the conditions that keep it simmering every day. I asked Chopper to teach me. He invited me up to Brown's.

Winding my way up Sunset Plaza Drive a few days later, I didn't know what to expect. One of the greatest running backs of all time was playing host to some of Los Angeles' most notorious gangsters--and there I was, a modestly built white guy in glasses, who'd never even been in a fistfight. I wanted to appear amiable and self-assured, but when I reached the front door, I felt my muscles tighten. All around me were young, hard-looking black men in baggy jeans, bulky parkas, braided hair, teardrop tattoos. Someone took my hand and shook it, guiding me through the fluid, grip-shifting salutation of the 'hood. There was no overt hostility. I was welcome, so long as it was clear that I was a student and this was their school.

For the next three hours, I absorbed the gospel of Amer-I-Can, a kind of self-help program for the recovering felon. Jim Brown was articulate and commanding. Standing in black shorts and a warm-up jacket at one end of his mirror-paneled living room, he preached the virtues of good communication, goal-setting and positive thought. Surrounding him were dozens of big-time shot-callers from Watts and Compton and Willowbrook who spoke starkly of their struggles to survive on society's fringe. "Stay strong, brother, stay strong," urged one who wore a carving of a clenched fist around his neck. I sat on a stool in the middle, at times shifting uncomfortably, worried that my own speech would sound too refined if they asked me to talk.

"Some nights you will come up here and you will see the baddest cats in the city . . . the brothers society says you cannot do anything with," said Brown, addressing me in front of the group. "Yet we know that these young men with their negative power, if turned positive, can change our communities. This is the source . . . the hope for America."

The whole thing might have been a hustle--other journalists have since suggested as much--but I found myself drawn to the energy in that room, to the visceral sensation of rubbing shoulders with men who thrive on intimidation. I wanted to believe they were no different from me, and that I was no different from them, that their gangsterism was not some inherently criminal trait but a desperate reaction to years of racial prejudice and economic deprivation. That is what I had been taught to believe, at any rate, from the time I was a little boy--as young as 6--helping my mother, now the mayor of Portland, Ore., picket a Safeway store accused of selling non-union grapes. If I had been raised in an environment of abuse and neglect, without the privileges that come with my skin color and a tradition of success, perhaps I, too, might have sought my identity as an outlaw--especially if the alternative was to be a victim. Chopper, who ended up becoming both my good friend and an upstanding, taxpaying member of his community, later put it this way: "My mission is to obey the laws of a free society. But down here, the abnormal is accepted as normal and the normal is unspoken of--it's all backward."

The story I wrote--"Jim Brown Taps Potential of 'Baddest Cats' in City"--was the beginning of a three-year journey during which I functioned as sort of a foreign correspondent in a community forsaken by the city. My editor, Joel Sappell, had been looking for someone to explore gang culture from the inside instead of condemning it from the outside. He wanted me to put gang violence in a broader social context, rather than merely tallying the bodies as they piled up. I imagine now that some of my colleagues must have questioned whether a white reporter could succeed in that role, but I was convinced that, with enough earnestness, I'd be able to get at the truth. Besides, this first story had started me off on solid footing, especially out on the streets, where it was viewed as a rare example of "positive" journalism in a sea of sensational, exploitative coverage. I was proud, in so short a time, to be considered among the few outsiders who could be trusted to get it right.

I was wrong. Not only did much of that goodwill eventually sour, but the answers I was so sure of grew hazier with every question I asked. I'd been sympathetic to the problems that produce gangs, but I was not prepared for the rage and anguish I would see in others, or the bitterness and despair I came to see in myself. My internal pendulum began to swing dizzyingly from day to day, even hour to hour. One moment I'd look at a gang member and see a wounded child dying a slow death of the spirit. The next I'd see a monstrous sociopath. Reality became a matter of perspective. Truth, if I ever stumbled upon it, never came in absolutes.

ON FEB. 1, 1992, I GOT MY FIRST HINT OF JUST HOW QUICKLY THE GROUND could shift. A top-level chieftain of the infamous Rollin' 60s Crips, a guy who'd been sitting with me in Jim Brown's living room that first night, was found lying face down in a San Gabriel Valley avocado grove, his hands bound and a bullet hole in his head. Keith Cardell Thomas, a.k.a. Stone, had been double-crossed by some fellow Crips in Duarte who had squandered $10,000 worth of his dope and then killed him when he came to collect. I felt queasy when I got the news. As much as I wanted to believe that negative energy could be converted to positive, I was forced to see that making such a change was not some neat little reprogramming process but a life-and-death struggle.

That became painfully clear to me at his funeral the following week. I went with Chopper, who had wanted to pay his last respects but whom I also needed for entree. As it was, most of the nearly 400 mourners packed inside Inglewood Park Cemetery's Grace Chapel were too consumed with grief to care whether I was there. While we waited for the service to start, the heat and tension, intensified by the echo of sobs so unrestrained they sounded like retching, were almost unbearable. I sat on a wooden pew with my jaw clenched, sweating under a wool sport jacket that concealed my reporter's note pad. Some of the tributes to Stone were predictable--"a warrior," "Six-O all the way"--but this event was no affirmation of gang life. Instead, a burly Crip named Keta Roc, who has "Rollin' 60s" tattooed in flowing script across his neck, took the microphone and told his homies that they were all to blame, that their own cutthroat business had again claimed a beloved friend. "The 'hood," Keta Roc declared, "is liable."

Back in the safety of my car, I furiously scribbled down notes. The final crude sentence was a reminder to myself: "Remember . . . it wasn't outside forces, i.e. cops . . . it was him--a product, reflection of his and all their lives--that came back and bit him in the ass."

Every story I wrote exposed me to complexities and contradictions that I had never imagined. After a day wandering through the Pico-Aliso housing project with Father Gregory J. Boyle, I'd be persuaded by his argument that gangbanging is nothing more than teen suicide by the urban poor. Whenever I'd pay a visit to Chilton Alphonse at his Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation in the Crenshaw district, I'd buy into his belief that gangs are a twisted path to success for a generation denied access to the American Dream. Cruising the streets of South-Central with veteran probation officer Jim Galipeau, I'd somehow see gang members as he did: powerbrokers battling over warped notions of honor and respect. My conversations with Wes McBride, the sheriff's sergeant responsible for tallying the county's gang homicides, would remind me of the heartless opportunism behind so much of the violence. But whenever I'd run out the door with an address from the coroner's log--like the time 2-year-old Thomas Regalado III was gunned down on his tricycle or when 60-year-old June Guin was shot in the head as she packed to move to a safer neighborhood--I'd realize that the theories were all inadequate. Every day, two more families would have to identify the body of a loved one.

Some stories hurled me from one extreme to another before I could even write them. I met Roberto (Beto) Villalobos in a Kansas City Howard Johnson's lounge. We had both flown from Los Angeles for a 1993 national summit of gang leaders, and Beto--a 60-year-old veterano who, with his broad silver mustache, looked like a Mexican cowboy--was holding court over a pitcher of beer. His gang days, he told me, dated back almost to the Zoot Suit era, when he would snatch pickles from the Jewish-owned stores that then dotted Boyle Heights. As a young man, Beto recounted, he had done 20 years at San Quentin for murder, a crime for which his two sons were later convicted just as he was being paroled. Now Don Beto had become a grass-roots peacemaker, warning youngsters in South Whittier against repeating his mistakes. After we spent another day together back home, I was sure that I should tell Beto's epic, transcendent tale.

Three months later, before I'd had a chance to start the story, Beto plunged a nine-inch hunting knife into the heart of a man half his age. The victim, ex-gangbanger Peter Awana from the South Whittier barrio, had accused Beto of being an emissary of the brutal Mexican Mafia prison gang. As shocking as all that was, I probably could have made sense of it. But later, as I sat in the basement archives of Los Angeles Superior Court, staring at a faded roll of microfilm from the 1950s, I realized that I'd been betrayed. The horrible truth about Beto was not that he had killed again but that he had never killed before. His whole story had been a lie, woven to conceal an even more shameful criminal past: two late-night burglaries, both of which ended in bungled sexual assaults. There was no evidence of his two sons, let alone their murder convictions, and I couldn't help but wonder what or whom I could believe.

Certainty was no less elusive during my interviews with gang members themselves. I'd spend hours trying to get close to them, then go home and lie awake wondering whether they were now out terrorizing families like mine--and what responsibility I shared for having empathized with their criminal identity earlier that day.

Whether out on the streets alone or in the company of a community worker, I relied on a somewhat schizophrenic mix of tenacity and humility: just enough moxie not to be scared off but enough deference to recognize that I couldn't remain on gang turf without the consent of my hosts. I always tried to be upfront about who I was and what I was after; I never wore a bulletproof vest, for instance, because that would've implied a lack of trust. My Spanish, honed from years of carousing in the cantinas of Echo Park, also helped open doors that otherwise would have been shut. And although I never condescended to homie-speak, I did find myself spicing up my language and mannerisms just a bit, slipping in a few more ain'ts than my education permits, and occasionally making my point with one of those stiff-fingered, wrist-cocked gestures that are a staple of "Yo, MTV Raps!"

Once, not long after I started the beat, I decided to try my luck in a totally unfamiliar neighborhood. I must have spent at least an hour that day scanning the parks, alleyways and street corners along Hooper, Avalon and Central, praying for the nerve to bring my petite Toyota coupe to a stop. I was afraid I might stumble onto a crew of stone-cold killers or, just as horrifying, that I might select someone who wasn't a gang member at all.

I finally settled on a group of guys in sagging jeans, passing around 40-ouncers in front of a decaying apartment complex on 68th Street. I pulled to the curb and introduced myself, hoping they wouldn't sense the slight quiver in my voice. For a moment, they stared at me in disbelief, a stunned look that quickly exploded into anger and fear. One of them said I was a cop and bolted off at full tilt. Another yanked his white T-shirt over his nose, bandido -style.

"What the f - - - do you know about the ghetto?" he yelled.

I felt a chill down my back, as I instinctively braced for the sight of a gun. Is this how it happens, I wondered, so fast, so impulsively? Would I even feel the bullet? Would it be the searing, ice-hot perforation I had imagined in my dreams? Before things deteriorated any further, however, a Crip named Lep Loc intervened. He was impressed that I had come alone and unprotected, that I was both putting myself at his mercy and depending on him for my safety.

"Somebody could drive by and just start blasting on us," he warned me.

"When you duck, I'll duck," I said.

That seemed to put us on some kind of even footing, common enough ground for us to spend the next two hours trading stories there on the asphalt, baking under the late-afternoon sun. I offered to spring for another round of malt liquor, but they insisted on bringing me Budweiser--a brew they assumed was more suited to my tastes--which we sipped curbside in small plastic cups. For just a minute, as the beer buzzed in my head and a rap tape thumped nearby, I understood what it must be like to stand out there day after day with nothing but a swagger to your name, defiant and vulnerable, daring the world to come by and take its best shot.

THE MORE DEEPLY I PENEtrated that psyche, the harder I tried to keep it away from my personal life. Although I'd often bend over backward in my stories to make sense of seemingly irrational acts of violence, I made my home and neighborhood a zero-tolerance zone for anything related to gangs. My wife, Raynelda, and by extension my in-laws, all of whom had lived through war and poverty in Nicaragua, thought I was being alarmist. But then, maybe I was just prudent and they were naive.

My apprehensions often put me at odds with my stepson, now 12, who had spent his early years without a father. I was determined to give him the values of discipline and sacrifice that had shaped my own childhood, but I also felt awkward, even hypocritical, every time we'd sit at the dinner table and he'd hear me discuss my latest escapade. I wanted to demystify the gang world for the newspaper, but I insisted that it remain demonized for him. When he began to develop a fascination with that culture--toy guns, baggy pants, hard-core rap--I couldn't help but wonder whether it was a normal phase or his way of calling for my attention. This led to frequent showdowns in the shopping mall, where I'd insist on approving all his clothes, as well as enforcing our own version of a money-for-guns program, in which I'd buy back his cap pistols whenever he'd blow his allowance on them.

"I've had to write stories about kids like you," I would tell him, "good kids who thought they were being cool."

"You're trying to control my life," he would snap. "I can't be perfect. Like you."

I found myself surreptitiously scanning his school papers and sports gear for any signs of trouble, and once, when I discovered graffiti penciled throughout his math book, I reduced him to tears by ordering him to erase every last scrawl. He had been goaded by a slightly older cousin, who herself was being drawn to a gang in Echo Park. We had taken her into our home to distance her from the gang, but she later ran away and spent nearly a week on the streets. Desperate for help, I asked the Los Angeles police anti-gang unit to be on the lookout for a tiny fifth-grade girl. When she finally returned, my wife and I put her on a one-way flight to Nicaragua.

"You helped educate us, but you also had us completely paranoid," Raynelda recently told me. She'd often been unable to sleep, worried that some aggrieved gangbanger was going to avenge one of my stories. I asked her which person she thought was the real me, the one out on the streets drinking beer with the homies or the one purging that imagery from our house.

"I think a big part of you is drawn to that world," she said, "but I also think you were scared by what you found there."

When she became pregnant with our second child in 1992, we moved from Silver Lake to Glendale, ready to trade in funky hipness for a bit more blandness and calm. We found a home to rent on a tranquil, dead-end street, but I was soon unnerved by signs of a tiny neighborhood gang. When a local bakery just around the corner allowed some graffiti to remain on the shop front for several days, I went to the manager and demanded that it be painted over immediately. A few blocks away, there was a convenience mart, which also was becoming a magnet for a group of teen-agers with shaved heads and oversized khakis. Every day on my way home from work, I'd drive past them, hating that they were there, knowing that they were glaring at me just as I'd learned to glare that day out on 68th Street. In a moment of frustration, I called the mayor's office and suggested that the pay phones on the corner be removed.

I worried excessively about my family, especially our little one. He was in a stroller with us on Broadway last year when violence erupted during the big Cinco de Mayo street fair. I had noticed an unusual number of gang members wandering around earlier that day and even found myself trying to decipher their tattoos, curious about which neighborhoods they had ventured from. But when a stampeding crowd forced us to take refuge in an alleyway, I forgot about being a journalist. I didn't take any notes, didn't wait for anything else to happen, didn't want to be a witness to the very phenomenon I had devoted so much time to understanding. I knew enough to pick up my baby, grab my wife's hand and get out of there.

SOME OF MY FEARS CAME from my own evolving perceptions, but some came from the gangs themselves, which, I believe, grew more sinister and conspiratorial with every year that I covered them. I realized how much both of us had changed when, early in 1994, Tony Bogard, a nationally renowned leader of the gang truce in Watts, was shot dead in a gun battle with an alleged drug dealer. The next day, I wrote the story much as I might have when I first started the job: I described him as a celebrated peacemaker cut down before his time. Then the calls started coming, from folks in the community, from cops, even from the mother of one of his own homeboys. "After all these years," she told me, "you should have been able to see the truth." The truth about Bogard, as I wrote several months later, was that even as he called for peace, he packed a pistol. Even as he preached the gospel of economic empowerment, authorities suspected him of taxing his own gang's drug sales. More than any other article I had written, I thought that this one captured the nuances of that paradoxical world, where the line between right and wrong is often blurred by the battle to stay afloat.

The article was also attacked more fiercely than anything I'd ever produced. I received angry calls from people in Watts who wanted to know why everything I wrote about their community was so negative. Letters came in criticizing me for devoting so much time and space to detailing the foibles of one man. Some of his supporters--smart and sophisticated activists--issued a nine-page, paragraph-by-paragraph denunciation of the article, blasting it as an "extreme injustice to the black urban community of Los Angeles."

A week later, Chilton Alphonse invited me to meet with a different group of would-be peacemakers at his respected Crenshaw District anti-gang agency. But when the participants realized that I had written the Bogard story, they turned on me with a vengeance. One of them, a close friend of Bogard, gave me a look of contempt.

"How could you do Tony like that?" he demanded. "How dare you assassinate the character of a black man."

There were Rollin' 60s in the room, Eight-Tray Gangsters, Hoover Crips and Black P. Stones, some of the most notorious gangs anywhere in the nation. But this was nothing like Jim Brown's house; it felt as though it was about to explode. I was ordered to leave. Then somebody got up to lock the office door.

"You got a lot of heart to even show your face around here," snarled a tall, powerfully built ex-gangster from Gardena known as Big Ship.

With Alphonse's help, order was restored and the group grudgingly granted me permission to write about their cease-fire. Afterward, he laughed and said that it had been healthy, for them and for me.

That may have been so, but, like the rest of my three years on the gang beat, the experience robbed me of a certain innocence I wish I could have kept. In the end, I came to see gangs not as an invading army but as our own offspring--the byproduct of a polarized economy, ineffective schools, broken families, exploitative politicians and a history of racial hatred that remains unhealed. Any real solutions have to address the fundamental inequities of our society, giving a generation of have-nots the skills and opportunities to compete for what they need and deserve.

With nearly 150,000 gang members already in Los Angeles County, even the most optimistic community workers know that any effect they can have will be small. The best they can hope for is to save one child at a time. And after three years of such enormous losses, that just wasn't enough hope for me.

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