Big Mike hitches up in front of Jordan High School in Watts like a bull snuffling for trouble.
He scans the stoops down Juniper Street. He peers in the windows of passing cars. And he keeps a firm eye on the three chain-link gates of the Jordan Downs housing project down the block.
As a gang interventionist, Michael Cummings trolls the streets here every day making sure students get to and from school safely -- and that gangbangers mind their manners.
Cummings is a tow-truck driver, Pentecostal pastor and former Grape Street Crip. He is as imposing as a defensive tackle and wields absolute respect in the neighborhood where he grew up. Parents adore him. Gangbangers listen to him.
No one messes with Big Mike.
“He can get between people,” said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Curtis Woodle. “He’s able to actually talk gang members down. . . . And that’s critical.”
On this morning, five teenage boys cruise out of the project toward the school.
“What’s up, soldiers?” Cummings asks.
“Hey, Big Mike,” one mutters.
Nothing about their appearance suggests whether they’re gang members or not; hip-hop long ago standardized the look in this part of town. But Cummings knows the players.
He smoothly peels one of them away as they pass the school gate.
“Today’s the test, right?” he says. “You taking the test?”
His voice rumbles like dredging gravel. The kid hesitates, then says he forgot his uniform.
“Just tell them you’re here for tests and you forgot your shirt,” Cummings says. His tree-trunk girth closes in on the young man, shunting him through the gate.
The boy looks helplessly at his friends and then slouches inside the old Art Deco building. His homies continue along the sidewalk.
“See, if they send him home” for not having his white shirt, “he’s not going home,” Cummings says. “He’s going with them. They’re my troublemakers.”
They are members of the Southside Grape Varrio Watts, he says. The boy is not -- at least not yet.
Cummings, 45, can read the subterranean forces in his neighborhood the way a seismologist sees the stress points in shifting earth. For years, the warfare in Watts was mostly triangular, waged by three fiefdoms rooted in the big public housing projects: the Grape Street Crips in Jordan Downs, the Bounty Hunter Bloods in Nickerson Gardens and the P Jay Crips in Imperial Courts.
Now it is scattered and harder to decipher. Jordan High School alone brings together an explosive mix of loyalties to the Grape Street Crips, the Southside Grapes, the Wiegand Colonial Watts, the Baby Locs, the Fudgetown Mafia Crips, the Ten Line Gangsta Crips, the Peach Gates and the 99 Mafia.
Cummings tries to spot emerging conflicts between any of these and squelch them before they explode. He scans for hard stares and gang signs -- anyone “throwing their set-up.”
There are dozens of so-called gang interventionists in the city. They have many strategies and programs and run the gamut in terms of effectiveness and credibility.
Only a handful step into the crucible every day -- walking through the projects, listening, talking hotheads down, breaking up fights.
“There’s a lot of things I see Mike do that I don’t see him getting anything back for,” said LAPD Capt. Phillip Tingirides, who commands the department’s Southeast Division, “except making things better and stopping people from dying.”
He says the worst gang violence often happens because of poor communication. A shooting in one area is immediately blamed on a rival gang, whether it is correct or not. Rumors spin out of control and fuel more killing.
Police often don’t know what’s driving the violence. Now, after years of mutual mistrust, officers are turning more to gang interventionists to get a handle on retaliatory killings, dispel false rumors and act as peace brokers.
Cummings did this work without pay for seven years. Now, he says, he takes home about $17,000 a year. He would make more if he spent the time driving his tow truck. He is always on call, going to crime scenes, police meetings and midnight basketball games.
He says he is a man driven by faith and shame. He hopes he can redeem himself with a community he once betrayed.
Cummings grew up in a blue shotgun shack on Wiegand Street that his grandfather built. His grandmother always told him to be proud of his tight neighborhood. “Watts may be at the bottom,” she would say. “But what’s on the bottom holds the top up.”
His father was never much a part of his life. His mother, a beautician, worked multiple jobs to get Michael and his sister Lisa into San Miguel Elementary, a Catholic school. But she couldn’t afford to keep them in private school, and Michael ended up at Markham Middle School -- in the Bounty Hunter Bloods’ neighborhood.
“First day at Markham, I’m in the nutrition line and I come out and they’re all in my pockets,” he said. “Right away, my people in my neighborhood said, ‘Come over here.’ ”
The tribal mentality took root. The kids in his neighborhood, Crip turf, started walking to school “15 deep,” he said.
Cummings played football at Jordan High and graduated without a problem. But during his first year at Southwest College, he started transporting PCP for a manufacturer he knew. As he tapped into the drug economy, he drank and smoked dope with the heavies in Jordan Downs. He dropped out of college and nurtured the hood’s feudal hatred of Bloods. He started gangbanging, stealing hubcaps and car stereos, robbing people, mixing PCP in the desert to sell back home.
Cummings lived large with women and drugs, bringing in cash from many spigots. He took to driving a bandit tow truck, trolling for stranded motorists and wrecks.
Skipp Townsend dreaded running into Big Mike on the streets. Townsend was a Rolling 20s Blood trying to survive in the South L.A. tow business, which was dominated by Crips. Other drivers constantly mad-dogged him, but none more virulently than Cummings.
When Big Mike rolled up, he hefted his 265 pounds out of his truck and ordered Townsend and his pigeon chest to stay north of Jefferson Boulevard. When Townsend refused, they hurled insults at each other.
One day, Townsend was at a wreck on Adams Boulevard and La Brea Avenue when he saw Big Mike’s Tow rolling in. Townsend told him to get lost. He signaled his wife, driving his truck, to come hook up.
A meaty rack of knuckles cracked Townsend in the mouth from behind.
Townsend reeled. He ran to his truck to grab a shovel.
Cummings went to his truck to grab a gun.
The police stopped them before they killed each other.
Cummings cut a swath of mayhem across South Los Angeles until one night in 1992, when he spotted a paraplegic man on crutches in a phone booth across from Jordan Downs. The man shifted a wad of cash from one pocket to another as he dug for change. Cummings went for it. He tried to force the man to hand it over. But the man fought back. He was small, but disproportionally strong in his upper body from using crutches. Soon it was Cummings who couldn’t free himself.
“Please let me go,” he begged.
He freed himself as a police car approached. He cut through the project and hid on a porch. “Here he is!” a woman called out.
Cummings would do three years in county jail for attempted robbery.
In the joint, he continued gangbanging, but he gradually came to see his life’s relationships for what they were.
“They say your homies, we’re going to stick together, this and that. They didn’t send me a quarter. I called one of my buddies, he was supposed to be my close buddy, and I asked him to send me a pair of shoes. He told me to call my woman. And then I called another buddy and asked him to send me something, and he said, ‘I ain’t sending you nothing.’ That just changed my mind because your homeboys really ain’t your homeboys.
“I started thinking about my life when I ended up in the hole by myself. My mother started sending me scriptures. I started reading the Bible and that’s kind of when my life changed. When I got out on a Thursday, I went to a church the next Sunday.”
Cummings is now a pastor at the Pentecostal Holiness Church on Avalon Boulevard and runs his own gang intervention ministry, We Care Outreach. Much of the job is street-level networking; he talks to gangbangers of every stripe, getting a sense of the hotheads and shot-callers, gauging whether things are heating up or cooling down.
“He’s not intimidated like most people are,” said the LAPD’s Woodle, the department’s liaison to gang interventionists in South Los Angeles.
“He grew up in the system. And now he’s trying to change it. He’s very passionate about trying to change it.
“He’s big, and his heart’s bigger.”
Cummings typically tows in the morning, guides children home in the afternoon and attends community and law enforcement meetings. At a gang intervention meeting in 2006, he came across Skipp Townsend, his old tow-truck nemesis.
They immediately clicked and started collaborating. Now they appear in classrooms together, talking about the depredations of gangs and prison, and work on Crip-Blood disputes.
“He’s real,” Townsend said. “I know he doesn’t have any ulterior motives.”
Cummings and his wife recently abandoned his grandfather’s shotgun shack to the “chee chee birds” that live in the rafters. They moved to the high desert so their 6-year-old daughter, Emonni, could grow up in a more nurturing place.
But Cummings is not abandoning the children in Watts. He is back in the maw first thing every morning.
At 3 o’clock one afternoon, students flood out of Jordan High School. Cummings is out on the asphalt on 103rd Street with his two-way radio, seeing who is who and greeting parents and children in his booming, jovial way.
“Hey, hey,” he says. “You all right? You all right?”
“Rev!” a man calls out from a car.
“Big Mike!” bellows someone from across the street.
When Cummings started doing this eight years ago, gangbangers in the project regularly went through the pockets of passing kids, looking for cellphones and Game Boys.
Now it’s iPods and iPhones they go for, so Cummings tracks the students well past the project and into their own neighborhoods.
Just the day before, he noticed a group of boys shadowing a student home. He stayed right behind them all the way to the student’s house.
On this day, nothing blatantly portends the type of tragedy that occurs so often here in “Gangland.” The sea breeze is soft, the hibiscus hedges are blooming yellow. An ice cream truck plays the “Do your ears hang low?” tune. Students in uniforms and backpacks laugh and flirt.
But there are subtle signs of tension.
In the crowd, three school-age boys not in uniform stand at the fence looking for someone. Cummings recognizes them as the culprits from the day before.
He corners the tallest one, in baggy gym shorts and a black shirt.
“My job is to keep you off these kids,” he says. “I want you to give them a break, give them a pass.”
His voice is like a slow-motion rock slide.
“Let me tell you about gang banging. If a kid is gang banging here he’s going throw his set-up. If a kid don’t throw his set-up at you, leave him alone.”
The young man’s eyes move about uncomfortably. He nods vaguely to show he’s listening.
“When you get back in there, tell your homies to give them a break. From here, I had to follow these kids home to get them safely. Those kids aren’t gangbangers. It’s just where they live.”
The chastened teenager is at a loss for words. He shuffles back inside Jordan Downs.
He’ll be back out tomorrow. So will Big Mike.