A Pootbutt’s Scary Life in Outer Space L.A.
I ALWAYS THOUGHT Stanley Tookie Williams wanted to kill me. I thought he wanted to kill all of us pootbutts who didn’t gangbang, and that fear informed how I lived my life as a boy.
Thirty years later, I don’t believe in the death penalty, and I don’t want the state to execute Tookie. But I do want the people who grew up in better neighborhoods and now want to lionize the gangster to understand just how hellish he made many people’s lives.
I’m about the same age as Tookie, and I grew up in the ‘70s, in the neighborhoods lorded over by the Crips he reputedly created. I never wanted a leather coat, because then Tookie couldn’t shoot me over it. I wouldn’t wear a gold chain or sport anything valuable that could possibly get me killed by Tookie or the boys who did his bullying. Tookie is why I didn’t walk south or east, didn’t go to house parties, didn’t and still don’t care for people who talk loud or argue too much.
This was the psychology of a pootbutt who wanted to survive Tookie and the world he ruled. I never shot a gun in a drive-by or kicked somebody to death then spray-painted his corpse — things that happened in my Jefferson Park neighborhood. But human nature being what it is, I would sometimes walk to the comic book store where Crips hung out and have this burning impulse to shout “Brim here!” (Brims being the Bloods of their day — the red-wearing rivals of most Crips.) Courting death held no attraction for me, but this desire to shout a rival gang name occurred so often that I came to think of it as my Tourette’s syndrome, a barely suppressed tic that was unacceptable if I wanted to live.
Wanting to live seemed almost an unreasonable expectation if you were a young black boy who, as boys do, wanted to run the streets. We were alone with Tookie because his folks couldn’t do anything with him, and neither could his teachers or the police.
I was in a summer science program at USC when the Crips, in a squabble with the Bloods, shot up the community center with a machine gun. A police officer showed up and explained the LAPD’s plan of action if the Crips returned: “We’ll take our time getting here,” he said. “We’re not prepared to handle machine guns.”
I was 15 when I heard that, sitting in a broad recreation room filled with folding chairs and anxious kids who just wanted to finish their summer jobs and go back to school. Later that day the Crips did return, and I saw the leader standing in the doorway — Tookie or someone from the quickly growing ranks of even more lunatic Tookie clones — looking for somebody to shoot. I can still see the muzzle of his gun casting a shadow on the freshly mopped linoleum floor. But I was a pootbutt, not a Blood, and so not worth shooting. He left.
Nobody reported these things in the vacuum of outer-space black Los Angeles. So we were left alone with Tookie and company, and we had to make our accommodations. We could get strapped and exchange lead with them, or we could hunker down as I did and pretend the world wasn’t so terrifying, or we could, as many black folks got around to doing, get out of Dodge to anywhere that seemed slightly less dangerous than black Los Angeles’ Tookie-filled streets.
The city may never recover from that fear and that mass retreat.
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