Gangs of Los Angeles

LA love & war!

People wanna settle the score

between the haves & the have nots

Country clubs & crooked cops, Range Rovers & bus stops..

LA LOVE & WAR.. What are we fighting for?

Murder! The number of homicides (600+) in 2002 Los Angeles was almost twice the figure seen just two years ago.. The post-riot unity has faded away & given way to the tense conditions that spawned gang warfare & the uprisings in the first place.. To counteract this trend the city now has a new police chief, William Bratton & we’ll get to him later.. First, there are many factors that promote gang violence, but like so many issues in this world the biggest factor is simple economics.. Between our recent recession, 9/11 & the economic policies of dubya Bush, impoverished folks have less hope than ever.. It is this desperation that fuels the gangs of Los Angeles..

In these fragmented times people are searching for identity, belonging, something to hold on to. As our unemployment rate goes up, so does any sense of security.. As time goes on the years of Bill Clinton, the internet boom & pre 9/11 will be remembered as glory days.. Somewhere around the turn of the millennium it all changed..’s went bust, we’ve had scandals like Enron & record numbers of layoffs.. When there are no jobs people have lots of time on their hands.. The devil will find work for idle hands to do.

Gangs are just like any other group of people: a social system of like-minded folks uniting together on a common mission.. The ethos of a street gang are not much different than a Country Club, a gun club, a church, Al Quaeda, a sports team, a fraternity.. Granted these groups have different aims, but each of these groups are made up of a group of people banding together to join forces & usually groups of men.. Gangs are basically small armies.. Their existence dates back to the first human settlements..


Gangsta Party

Y'all know what's crack-a-lackin

I'm from the hood of the drivebys and kidnappings, and car-jackings..

Snoop Dogg..


Throughout the 20th Century gangsters have been celebrated in popular culture: Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, the Godfather movies, Good Fellas, Scarface, the Sopranos and of course gangsta rap.. Much of the mystique of gangsterism revolves around getting rich quick.. For impressionable youth, images of the gun-slinging gangster making the quick buck & romancing the fly women make it a far more alluring opportunity than working at McDonalds..

For obvious reasons the issue of gangs has been the subject of studies as well.. Authors such as Luis Rodriguez, Mike DavisAlejandro Alonso and many others have written fascinating accounts explaining the stories of Los Angeles gangs.. This essay will give a brief history & highlight the socioeconomic conditions that keep gangs alive.. For further research on this topic I strongly suggest you read the work of the authors mentioned above & check the links throughout this article.. The many sources of this article will blow you away if you check 'em out..

Bloods & Crips.. 18th Street Mara Salvatrucha.. Willowbrook Compton Watts East LA Rampart, Santanas, Longos, Sotel, Sarzana, Norwalk, Pacoima, Korean Killers, Asian Boys, Aryan Nation, KKK, LAPD.. The lines above present the tip of the Los Angeles gang iceberg.. Some are names of gangs, others are areas overrun with gangs..

The urban landscape of Los Angeles as an urban sprawl is much harder to police than our denser metropolises.. Estimates have placed as many as 200,000 gang members within the LA area.. Not only are there Black & Latin gangs, but Asian & Anglos.. And although many gangs are made up of poor youth there are plenty of gangsters that grew up in middle class households that have joined for a sense of community & a variety of other reasons.. I grew up with Korean & Filipino gangsters that had nicer houses than I did & brand new Acuras the day they turned 16.. For these kids its the mystique of being a gangster.. They want the perks of being a gangster, like the ca$h & the women.. For kids from broken homes, gangs provide a sense of belonging or peer support.. Whereas many kids growing up in impoverished areas like Compton or east LA join gangs as a part of neighborhood survival.. Within the inner city landscape there is intense competition for jobs, housing & scarce public resources.. In these cutthroat areas there is often little choice..

As Mike Davis reports in the City of Quartz the first black gangs in Watts were a response to the Ku Klux Klan, the LAPD & white working-class gangs living in adjacent South Gate & Huntington Park.. Until the mid 1960’s, Alameda Boulevard was a dividing line between the Black & White world.. West of Alameda was Watts & the Black world.. East of Alameda, were White working class suburbs.. During the 40’s, 50’s & early 60’s youth from both sides battled incessantly.. The first Latin gangs in East LA were the Zoot Suiters who eventually fought with military personnel during the 2nd World War, otherwise known as the Zoot Suit Riots....

Many of the first gangsters of Los Angeles were clans of youth organized to defend themselves from racism & discrimination.. There has always been a certain sense of lawlessness in the city of angels.. The LAPD has been treating the local population like “kings” for well over 100 years.. After the Black Panthers dissolved in the early '70's the first Crips appeared.. But what made the gangs of Los Angeles gain international notoriety was the appearance of crack cocaine in the '80's.. This highly addictive toxin also has the highest profit margin.. Once gangsters saw the loot they could make from crack, that is when the violence started to sky rocket.. Crack not only ravaged the ghetto, but made the crack dealers viscious killers willing to do anything to protect their turf.. 


The Multicultural Metropolis


Will the boundaries between different groups become faultlines of conflict or high-voltage generators of an alternative urban culture led by poly-ethnic vanguards?

[Mike Davis]


Both. Have you seen the Fast & the Furious? Welcome to the new America.. Multicultural America.. Ride the superexpressway to see hyperactive kids of all colors racing rice rockets.. Cyberpunk kids In Southern California zoom by in souped-up Acuras.. its an emerging Latino Metropolis, heavy Asian influx.. Immigrants.. Blending in with longtime Anglo geriatrics, African-Americans, Southeast Asians, Middle Eastern Jews & Moslems.. Growth in Southern California has continued steadily for the last 100 years.. As so many urban theorists have extolled we live in a ‘laboratory of the future.’ Los Angeles runs the gamut from interracial lovers to racist gangsters.. Decadent displays of architecture to busted, vacant buildings.. Bipolar urban order in the postmodern metropolis.. Marriages & murders.. 21st Century in Los Angeles beyond Benetton beyond BladeRunneR.. LA’s the home of Border culture .. AfroAsianLatinization.. Capital of the Pacific Rim.. Capital of the Third World.. The multicultural metropolis contains both the perfect world & stark realities darker than the darkest cyber punk vision..


As Mike Davis explains in Magical Urbanism.. “In Los Angeles’s new ethnic division of labor, Anglos tend to be concentrated in private-sector management & entertainment production, Asians in professions & light industry, African-Americans in civil service occupations, & Latinos in labor-intensive services & manufacturing.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out economy & crime are directly related.. The poorer people are, the more desperate they are..

Lately the news has featured stories about race wars in Compton.. Blacks & Latins killing each other.. Neighborhoods scarred by the Riots are once again afflicted with frequent drive-bys.. It all sounds like the late ‘80’s & early ‘90’s again. A decade ago gang colors were being worn at shopping malls.. Gangsta rap came on the scene in the late ‘80’s.. Police chief Daryl Gates conducted massive gang sweeps.. Dennis Hopper made a movie called, “Colors.” Los Angeles gangs were all over the news.. Then somehow around the time of Rodney King & the Riots, the gangs of South Central made a truce.. For the last decade crime stats were way down from the all time high of the late ‘80’s & early ‘90’s.. Politically correct principles & multiculturalism were featured in the news.. Feel good stories.. Hip-hop clubs like “Unity,” celebrated a new time in LA’s rap scene.. In many ways the Riots birthed the multicultural LA underground of groups like Jurassic 5 & clubs like Firecracker & Root Down.. I remember hearing people in 2000 talking about how much had changed in 8 years.. And though the conscious hip-hop movement remains a flourishing multicultural scene; the realities & philosophies of these folks partying in Echo Park & Chinatown remain a world away from the realities of South Central & East LA..

The truth is we have made progress in many ways, ..

Life is getting better & life is getting worse..


So why all the murders now? Have all the conscious ones grown up? Is this the product of 15 years of gangsta rap? Interracial marriage is up.. Local colleges have multicultural centers.. Hallie & Denzel won Oscars.. They’ve built a few new grocery stores around South Central, a Home Depot, Krispy Kreme & a few Starbucks.. Then there was the LAPD’s Rampart Scandal.. It took cops off the street & freed lots of delinquents..

There are no definitive answers.. Concessions made by the city & the hyper speed of these times only exacerbates conditions.. The rich get richer, old busted buildings get older, the Catholic church is mired in scandal, Osama Bin Laden orchestrates mass murders & legislative promises get broken.. Burnt down department stores may not get rebuilt.. Rebuild LA was just a lot of cameras & the public face of Peter Ueberroth.. 30 seconds on the news like everything else.. Broken dreams on the TV screen.. In the city of dreams so many never make the big screen..


One of the biggest stories related to the current gang crisis is interracial violence in Compton & South Central.. Although the real interethnic violence occurs in prisons, some of the gang wars have been Black against Latin, Asian against Black & Latin against Asian.. As stated before there is a shortage of resources in the inner city.. Latin immigration has not shown any sign of slowing down for the last 40 years.. Neighborhoods that were once all Black are now half Latin, in addition to the racist LAPD & white supremacists out in the boondocks.. Misunderstandings between long time Black residents & recent Latin arrivals are bound to happen when there are no jobs.. A third factor in these inner city areas are Korean merchants.. After the 1965 Riotsmany businesses that were once Jewish-owned are now owned by Koreans.. The urban landscape of much of inner city Los Angeles has dramatically changed even since the Carter administration..

Ex-Crip & Author Kody Scott in his book Monster, offers this account after being released from prison, “ I couldn’t believe the drabness of the city. Burned-out buildings and vacant houses took up whole blocks. Gas stations and liquor stores owned by Koreans were on every corner. Mexican merchants hung on corners, hawking oranges like dope. The obvious things that had been there all along I now saw differently. Washington Boulevard was wrecked, rife with empty lots and homeless people pushing grocery carts commandeered from supermarkets. They used to seem like lazy bums. Now they seemed to manifest the cruel irresponsibility of society.”


Korean Liquorstores


Ever since Korean grocer Soon Ja Du shot Latasha Harlins over a stolen bottle of Orange juice, Korean liquor storeowners have had a bad reputation. I grew up with some great Korean families in Cerritos so I never experienced all the talk of rude & racist Korean merchants until I moved to Koreatown .. After living in Koreatown for the last four years I understand both sides.. There are definitely some rude Korean storeowners.. Some of this is partially cultural, Koreans are private, modest people & for many traditional Koreans direct eye contact is considered confrontational.. Nonetheless, the reputation of rude Korean merchants resulted in Korean businesses being the most targeted during the 1992 uprisings.. Obviously the Korean backlash of the last decade has educated many Koreans to standards of friendliness.. But I still run into some rude old Korean merchants once in a while.. Runnin’ an innercity business when you’re an immigrant isn’t easy, but being open & receptive to your customers can determine if they’ll keep comin’ back or torch it..


11 years after the Riots, Korean small businesses are flourishing more than ever. The Korea Daily reported in May of 2000 that the number of Korean-owned businesses in South-Central Los Angeles is on the rise. “Currently, there are about 400 such stores, up from the 300 that stood shortly following the 1992 riots. The number is still less than the 500 that were in the area prior to 1992.” The article noted that Korean shopkeepers were “more social with the community and smiling more.”

The Kwon family practices this.. The Kwon family own the most popular Liquor Store in North Long Beach because they know how to treat their customers.. Their customers are people living paycheck to paycheck.. On the first of the month & payday Fridays people are cashing checks, buyin’ blunts, beers & other party favors.. As far as Korean stereotypes go the Kwon family defies them.. Customers of every race come into the store & greet Philip & Brian Kwon by first name.. Two Korean liquor storeowners have been murdered in North Long Beach since 2000 & both were within a mile of the Kwon’s store.. The Kwon’s know that respect is not only good business, but a positive seed in their community.. The relationship they have with their customers is proof that respect & cooperation usually disarms hate..


Evolution of LA Ghettos


Before the Los Angeles & San Gabriel River’s were placed in concrete channels, North Long Beach was one of the most flood prone places in all of Southern California.. It lies between the two rivers.. Prolific floods of the 1930’s reportedly had places in North Long Beach under five feet of water.. Within the immediate area of North Long Beach there are wealthy & upper middle class residential pockets like Bixby Knolls & the Virginia Country Club.. Somehow these areas are elevated on a bluff. The flood prone element of the flatlands in North Long Beach made the land undesirable & thus cheap.. Other areas of Southern California that are now gang-infested were also undesirable real estate due to their proximity to flooding.. Watts was nicknamed “Mudtown,” because the marshlands of Watts were muddy swamps.. East Los Angeles is directly in the floodplain of the Los Angeles River.. Hawaiian Gardens is wedged between Los Coyotes Creek & the San Gabriel River.. When the rains came you better believe each of these areas were flooded, read Holy Land by DJ Waldie for more info on this..


North Long Beach is a liminal urban pocket.. Here the inner city melts with the suburb.. Small, wooden houses, lower middle class to apartments.. Close to wealthy Bixby Knolls Virginia Country Club.. South of Compton, west of Lakewood, north of Signal Hill.. Once the home of truck drivers.. Rockabilly car clubs.. US Steel & hells Angels.. Geriatric Anglo residue & immigrants.. Okies, Cambodians, Mexicans, Blacks & every blend you can think of.. The intermingling of North Long Beach is exceptional.. Whats more is the wide range of socioeconomic levels coexisting together.. North Long Beach is a Crip neighborhood also populated with Latin & Cambodian gangs.. The Long Beach Press Telegram reports, “the city's Cambodian refugee population is at upwards of 50,000.” Over the last few years Cambodian gangs have been battling Crips over drug turf..

In the midst of a very multicultural area there is both great harmony & conflict..

North Long Beach native Jeanetta Wolfe now attending Occidental College told me, “I am so happy to have been born & raised in North Long Beach, it's my pride and joy... I still spend a lot of time in my old's where my spirit is. I feel so complete when I am there. My favorite thing about my neighborhood is the racial diversity--it's been vital to my life's journey. My family is mixed, so North Long Beach was the perfect place for us. My grandmother is a white woman, an immigrant from France, who married a black man. As a matter of fact, she just recently got her citizenship. I grew up around blacks, mexicans, whites, samoans, everybody. I've always had a racially mixed group of friends. My best friends growing up were Mexican and Cambodian. I believe living in such a diverse community allowed me to be able to deal with just about anything.”

So did Cerritos.. The 1990 US Census called Cerritos the most ethnically diverse city in the nation.. Now its getting to be straight Asian, mostly Koreans & Filipinos.. Youth growing up in Cerritos knew racial harmony.. Many kids out of Cerritos are just like the Fast & the Furious.. Racing around in tricked-out Accords & Civics.. Although many of them are Korean & Filipino, I knew Latins, brothas & white kids just as caught up on souping their rides up.. These kids grew up racing the freeways.. It’s no longer a bunch of blue-collar rockabilly white kids from east of Alameda drag racing.. The new superhero looks more like the Rock or Vin Diesel than Elvis Presley..

As one that has lived all 28 of their years in LA County my destiny is intimately tied to the future of this city.. I’m a 3rd generation LA native.. Born in Long Beach I’ve lived in Cerritos, West LA, Hollywood & Koreatown .. As a poet & freelance journalist, I’ve earned a paycheck at dot.coms, tourguiding, corporate jobs, sales, insurance auditing, television production.. Jobs with high-powered producers or soccer playin’ lunch workers, Westside Jews, suburban Koreans, inner city brothas, old guard WASP ‘SC alumni, Cambodians from North Long Beach, East Los Latin folks & every mixed mosaic you can think of.. My friends come from all these places..

In addressing the current state of affairs we need to remember that we are dealing with humans and not monsters.. Too much of the rhetoric around gangsters revolves around villainizing them.. Gangsters strive to get more from a world that offers them little hope.. While their ambition is to be applauded, it is in the means in which they operate where the tragedy lies.. Particularly in the sheer number of youth killing youth.. Much of the shootings are done by young up-and-comers fighting over drug turf & eager to make a name for themselves.. In the age of bling-bling, celebrity worship, you better believe these kids wanna be famous.. With no other outlets, their thirst for power & Ca$h becomes an intoxicating greed that causes destructive behavior like murder.. Intense competition for ca$h & clout often causes victims to kill those that are most like themselves.. Self-perpetuating genocide..

Many of the youth are too caught up to realize that instead of improving their personal situation they are only making it worse for themselves, their family & the entire community.. By treating our inner cities like war zones, they only become more so.. New Police chief William Bratton has declared a war on gangs, but more war is the last thing they need.. What they need are jobs.. And jobs that can pay the bills..


And the Future?


PHD candidate at USC Alejandro Alonso is among the foremost gang experts.. He has appeared on local news programs discussing the current climate of LA gangs, written a several hundred page manuscript & created a website that is the most comprehensive source for information on LA gangs.. He predicts, “As we enter 2003.. that the increasing crime trend will continue, regardless of the plan that Chief Bratton will implement. Expect approximately 700 homicides next year because the cycle of crime is much too powerful to impede by draconian police tactics that have proved to result in catastrophic consequences. In addition to the history of failure that LAPD has had with gangs, (the increasing crime trend will continue) because of the continuing negative economic indicators that started in early 2000…. Unemployment is rising and the level of layoffs has reach record levels. For the poor, this could be one of the most devastating recessions in the last 40 years because it is the first recession since the 1996 welfare reform act.”

And so the bloodshed continues..

Noted author Luis Rodriguez recently wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Could Today’s gangbangers be tomorrow’s heroes?” He discusses “You want to stop gangs? Find out what's vital in the lives of young people and their communities. Help provide them the necessary regenerative ground, tools and doorways. Many of us are tired of the headline-grabbing "wars" -- the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs and countless wars on gangs. In the end, we've only seen more poverty, more drugs and more gangs. Let's declare peace and teach respect. Let's create a lasting basis for trust and eradicate the conditions that have given rise to gangs from time immemorial: poverty, abuse, fractured relationships and social neglect.”

This may seem like a tall order, but what else are we gonna do?.. Who wants to see more death? Particularly when it’s our youth.. Bush wants to fight Iraq, Bin Laden & North Korea, but first he needs to stop fighting his own people.. Although there are no easy solutions, if we really want all the killing to stop, its going to start with economic restructuring.. Otherwise frustrated citizens will continue to take the law into their own hands to level the playing field..


LA love & war!

People wanna settle the score,

between the haves & the have nots,

Country clubs & crooked cops,

Range Rovers & bus stops..

LA LOVE & WAR.. We can quell the uproar..