Little Rock’s Boyz in the Hood Illustrate ‘90s American Graffiti : Violence: Gangs have colonized even small cities, bringing big-city crime with them. Lifestyle wins adherents via television.
The night Timothy White was shot in a drive-by by the rival Blood gang, his fellow Crips--packing guns and itching for revenge--came to Dewitt (Paw Paw) Jackson looking for advice.
They gathered in Jackson’s dingy room at the Ritz Motel, where he had been living since his boyhood home was condemned and bulldozed a few months earlier.
“I advised them it wouldn’t be a good idea to retaliate, but it’s hard to control them,” said Jackson, at 40 one of the oldest active members to survive the teeming gang life of central Little Rock.
“When you can look at a 14-year-old and he’s got it in his mind, ‘I’m gonna go kill me some slobs,’ he’s gonna do it. If he’s got a gun, he’s gonna do it. We become a family and when someone destroys people out of your family--that’s gonna happen.”
It’s certainly happening in Little Rock, a Southern city of 179,000 known more as the former home of President Clinton than the home of 50-plus gangs.
The numbers are startling: The last five years in Arkansas have seen a 51% increase in the number of youths under 17 arrested for murder and a 40% increase in murder arrests of 18- to 24-year-olds. From 1988 to 1992, the number of murder arrests of those under 18 had increased a staggering 256%.
In 1993, Little Rock had one of the highest per-capita homicide rates in the country; it ranked fifth last year in Money Magazine’s list of most dangerous cities.
Perhaps just as startling is that what is happening in Little Rock mirrors what is happening in small- and medium-size cities across the country.
“For a city of that size, it is not uncommon to have a gang situation,” said Malcolm Klein, director of the University of Southern California’s Social Science Research Institute and author of “The American Street Gang.”
“It’s probably quite common for a city of that size,” he said, “because there’s been an enormous explosion of gang-involved cities since 1980.”
According to Klein’s research, in 1960, 58 cities had gangs--and most of those were in Southern California cities and suburbs. By 1970, 98 cities nationwide had gangs. By 1980, that figure had jumped to 178. And by 1992, it had skyrocketed to 792.
Most of the gang activity is “home-grown,” Klein said, taking root with kids who view the culture as cool.
“They see it on MTV,” he said. “They walk into the Gap and see baggy clothes and high-tops, so they can play gang. They try out the behavior of ganging and some find out they like it. It’s a very seductive style.”
Especially, he said, when the kids are part of the urban underclass, living in poverty, segregation and unemployment--as so many are in Little Rock.
In an effort to stem the violence, Little Rock police locked up the city’s gang leaders and set curfews, while legislators passed laws carrying stiffer penalties for gang-related crimes.
But to some, the crackdown comes too late.
“We were not ready for it in this city. Nobody believed it was happening,” said the Rev. Hezekiah Stewart, who runs a community center for troubled youths and has tried to strike peace among the gangs.
“We could have squashed this thing a long time ago,” Stewart said, “but the powers that be didn’t believe it was happening. I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.”
For a while, gang members themselves seemed interested in peace. In 1992, when a Crip was killed in a drive-by shooting, Jackson persuaded the gang to stay calm.
“We would have a meeting. If we gave an order for a drive-by or whatever, for something to be carried out, OK. But you don’t do it on your own,” he said. “We confiscated all the guns.”
A year later, Jackson and his gang put down their guns and picked up shovels to convert an overgrown lot into a park. TV cameras, followed by politicians who normally avoided the neighborhood, showed up for a press conference to herald the effort.
The next day, a car zoomed past and Jackson was shot in the leg. The park idea soon fizzled, and the weeds grew back.
Just last winter, the Crips and Bloods spent a few Saturdays playing football together. But any hopes of a truce were dashed when “Crip Tim” White was shot in Blood territory last May and revenge took over.
A pizza delivery man wearing a red shirt--the color worn by Bloods--was shot dead in Crip territory. Crip Tim’s funeral procession was sprayed with gunfire. Then, a wake the next day was hit.
“It would have been hard to keep anybody down then,” Jackson said. “They had their guns. They were prepared.”
Soon, a 20-year-old Blood named Cornelius (Skeeter) Ganaway was killed in a drive-by. When rumors got around that Ganaway’s old girlfriend had set him up, her two little sisters and brother were lined up in their living room face down and killed execution-style.
“It’s a constant thing, retaliating,” Jackson said. “It’s been happening like that all the time.
“It’s not just Crip Tim. It just goes on and on. Crip Tim was just one of the homeboys that got gunned down. I can count a whole lot of ‘em. We done lost too many homeys.”
His short black hair flecked with gray, Jackson sits under an old shade tree in what used to be the side yard of his house. The house is gone, but he still comes here every day.
The ramshackle bungalow, Jackson’s family home for 30 years, had become a flophouse for the Crips after his mother died several years ago. For the last two years, about 20 of them lived in it without water, lights or heat.
It was hard for him to keep up the place, Jackson says, since four of his five brothers were in prison and Jackson--in and out of jail about 20 or so times himself on drugs and weapons charges--was left alone to maintain it.
Over the years, eight Crips were gunned down on the porch in drive-bys, including Jackson’s younger brother, Bruce. The house was riddled with bullet holes. But it was home. Gang members who had no love or respect in their own homes got it here.
The gang would play drinking games in the living room, clean their guns in the kitchen and warm themselves by a bonfire under the old tree.
Now, there is nothing left but the tree’s singed branches, a mildewed yellow couch, a couple of shaky tables and a rotted picnic bench. Concrete steps that once led to the front walk now lead nowhere.
Like a tribal elder, a de facto dad to so many gang members, Jackson doles out advice from under the old shade tree. It’s about all he has left to give.
“That’s my Paw Paw in all ways. He ain’t my father father, but we call him Paw Paw. We respect his authority,” said Solo, 28, who wore a pager as he smoked a cigarette and sipped beer out of a sherry glass.
“Right now, the only thing that keeps me going is the love I have for the Crips,” Jackson said. “There’s never a day when I’m not experiencing some type of love from somebody.”
But it’s a hard life.
From his perch under the tree, Jackson looks at the freshly paved streets bisecting the tumbledown neighborhood of boarded-up houses and car parts strewn in front yards. In its hopelessness, it is not unlike sections of so many American cities.
“They put in new streets, but they still don’t have a place for recreation,” Jackson said. “They’ve got new streets and that’s all they’ve got is streets. There’s nowhere else to go.”