‘Tonight we pick ’em up for anything and everything.’

lapd Spokesman (9 April)footnote1

On a weekend in early April Los Angeles police and sheriff’s units arrested more Black youth than at any time since the Watts Riots of 1965.footnote A thousand extra-duty patrolmen, backed by elite tactical squads and a special anti-gang taskforce, imposed Chief Daryl Gate’s ‘Operation Hammer’ on ten square miles of Southcentral Los Angeles between Exposition Park and North Long Beach. Like a Vietnam-era search-and-destroy mission—of which many L.A. police are in fact veterans—the Los Angeles Police Department (lapd) saturated the streets with its ‘Blue Machine’, ‘jacking up’ thousands of local teenagers at random like surprised peasants. Kids were humiliatingly forced to ‘kiss the sidewalk’ or spreadeagle against police cruisers while officers checked their names against computerized files of gang members. 1,453 were arrested and processed in mobile booking offices, mostly for petty offences like delinquent traffic tickets or curfew violations. Hundreds more, uncharged, had their names entered on the lapd gang roster for future surveillance.footnote2

Chief Gates, who earlier in the year had urged the ‘invasion’ of Colombia (in 1980 he had offered Jimmy Carter the lapdswat’ team to liberate hostages in Tehran), derided civil libertarian protests. ‘This is war . . . we’re exceedingly angry . . . We want to get the message out to the cowards out there, and that’s what they are, rotten little cowards—we want the message to go out that we’re going to come and get them.’ To reinforce the military analogy, the chief of the da’s Hardcore Drug Unit added: ‘This is Vietnam here.’footnote3

The ‘them’—the analogical Vietcong—are the members of local Black gangs, segmented into several hundred fighting ‘sets’, and loosely aligned into two hostile super-gangs, the ‘Crips’ and the ‘Bloods’—universally distinguished, as every viewer of Dennis Hopper’s Colors now knows, by their colour-coding of shoelaces, t-shirts and bandannas (red for Bloods, blue for Crips). In the official version, reheated and sensationalized by Hollywood, these gangs comprise veritable urban guerrilla armies organized for the sale of rock-cocaine (‘crack’) and outgunning the police with their huge arsenals of Uzi and Mac–10 automatics. Although the gang cohorts are hardly more than highschool sophomores, local politicians frequently compare them to the ‘murderous militias of Beirut’.footnote4

Across town, in Latino Los Angeles, there is another large, traditional constituency of gang membership—frequently depicted in the same lurid images. But gang warfare in the Eastside barrios has become significantly less murderous than on the Southside, presumably because of the incomparably higher stakes involved in ghetto turf rivalries over control of the retail cocaine trade. Eastside gang killings reached a maximum of twenty-four in 1978, then declined sharply to four in 1984 (although this may only be a temporary trend as gangs try to restructure themselves to capture crack sales). ‘Gangbangin’ in the ghetto, on the other hand, has exploded since 1984, in rough synchronization with the rerouting of the main cocaine trail from Florida to Southern California via Mexico and the emergence of crack as poor man’s cocaine. Over the last year and a half gang-related killings, principally in Southside city and county areas, have averaged more than one per day.footnote5

This very real epidemic of youth violence (with, as we shall see, its deep roots in dramatically increasing youth poverty) has been inflated by law enforcement agencies and the media into something quite phantasmagoric. In a number game which ceases to distinguish the authentic ‘high rollers’ and ‘stone killers’ of the gang world from the ‘claimers’ and ‘wannabees’, the city attorney’s office has steadily increased its estimates of hard-core gang membership from 10,000 to 50,000. Local newspapers and television have amplified this figure to 70,000–80,000, while Sheriff’s ‘gang experts’ have invoked a spectre of 100,000 ‘rotten little cowards’ overrunning Los Angeles County. Meanwhile an Andromeda Strain of Crips and Bloods is reported to have infiltrated the entire West, with accounts of local spores from Seattle to Denver, even mutant white variants in Tucson (such, at least, is the fantasy of hysteric parents).footnote6

Like Tramp scares in the late nineteenth century, or Red scares in the early twentieth, the contemporary Gang scare has become an imaginary class relationship, a terrain of pseudo-knowledge and fantasy projection, a talisman. But as long as the actual violence was more or less confined to the ghetto, the gang wars were also a voyeuristic titillation to white Yuppie Westsiders devouring lurid accounts in the L.A. Times Magazine or tuning into Michael Jackson’s popular local talkshow. Then last December frisson became fear as gang hit-men, in a mistaken moment, gunned down a young woman outside a theatre in the posh Westwood Village entertainment district near ucla. Westwood’s influential merchants, who had recently induced the police to use curfew ordinances to repel non-white youth from the Village, clamoured for extra police protection, while Westside councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, the Koch-like main challenger to incumbent (Black) Mayor Bradley, posted a huge reward for apprehension of the ‘urban terrorists’.