"According to a panel of experts at a forum at University of California, Los Angeles, on Monday, America is just as vulnerable to attack as it was on 9/11, with street gangs funding terrorist groups and also draining resources from law enforcement agencies working to head off future attacks."
—New York Times, May 23, 2007
Spending time with the homies and homegirls had brought a new dimension to my research. I was deeply involved in trying to figure out what interventions truly helped gang members. I was also invested in their lives. By early 2007 I had completed several evaluations and had been asked by noted civil rights activist and attorney Constance Rice to serve as one of a team of experts for the groundbreaking report she was writing on gangs in the city of Los Angeles. Connie keeps referring to me as a "gang anthropologist." And I want to be in the field—living with homies, learning more, filling the gaps in my knowledge. Because of this, I am in Nickerson Gardens with Saint, whose real name is Ronald, or Ronny, Dawson. Ronny grew up here, in a three-bedroom unit with twenty-nine other people.
"It was a lot of fun. My dad was gone and when I was four my mom got addicted to crack and my granny took custody of me. I don't know what happened with my granny — nine out of her ten kids were addicts — but she raised all the grandkids. I loved school and had great grades. I played every sport — football, basketball, swimming — up to Jordan High."
Ronny brags that he never missed a day of school because "I got a welfare lunch every day." The plastic tiles stamped "subsidized lunch" were all that stood between Ronny and starvation. "My granny was poor. She never had enough money. Most times that lunch was my only food."
Ronny tries to portray his childhood as one continuous house party. But there is always deprivation. His life embodies the national statistic showing that more than one-third of all African American children live below the poverty line. When I ask if being poor bothered him, Ronny thinks for a moment.
"It wasn't that I minded being poor; everyone was poor. I just hated being poorer than anyone else in the neighborhood." But Ronny's family created a ready defense. They were the Marine Corps of the projects. They took their liabilities — poverty and multiple children — and turned them into strengths, organizing their own neighborhood, the Hillbilly Bloods. But this also makes it impossible for Ronny to ever leave the gang. I catch on immediately. They're not just his neighborhood — they're his family. Literally. How is he going to leave that?
This sounds all too familiar. I was raised in a neighborhood that was My Big Fat Greek Wedding cut with anxiety. Every action — real or contemplated — was subjected to the litmus test of "What would the Greek community say?" The infighting and rivalry and psychological retaliation prepared me — in the most perverse way — for life with the neighborhoods. This is in no way meant to minimize gang lethality — it just means that underneath, we all get jumped into something that we're not sure we can ever leave.
When I was young my family's propaganda maintained that there was nothing better than being Greek. We went to church every Sunday, not only for religion, but also for the sense of community. Our social life was exclusive — we interacted with Greek American families. My suburban neighborhood tract in Torrance, California, featured Greek households on literally every block. On top of that, my father served on the board of the directors and my mother sang in the choir of the Greek Orthodox church conveniently located fifteen minutes away. We vacationed with Greek families — usually our cousins. My brothers and I even went to Greek church camp. No aspect of our life remained Greek-free. Our doctors, our dentists, our babysitters — everyone was Greek. And the whole rationale for this existence was the expectation that we — my brothers and I — would perpetuate this pattern into the next generation.
It was a gang. We had colors and a language and loyalty. And control. It was all the same — whether you grow up in a neighborhood or in the Greek community. You would be secure and someone would have your back, but you would never know freedom or independence. You would never grow. Your wings were clipped in full view of the crowd.
I felt controlled from the moment I could walk. Of course, one of my childhood responses was to obey. But the other response was to run. I knew that I could not stay. I was going to suffocate. I was going to die.
I had to get out of the gang.
I was good at escape. When I turned four years old, I was found on a street corner about a half mile from home, holding the hand of a friendly stranger, wearing a T-shirt that said i love my daddy. I ran away from home, I ran away from Sunday school, I ran away from Greek school and the six-fingered, sadistic Greek instructor. But I always came back — first because I had to, then because I wanted to.
I grew up and out. But still, in unguarded moments, the cunning, indirect, and manipulative Greek girl would burst forth. I wanted my family and the Greek neighborhood. I wanted the warmth, the familiarity. I insisted on taking a family vacation with my brothers, their spouses, and their children, and I attempted to control everything, quietly, behind the scenes.
You just can't leave the gang.
As if listening in on my thoughts, Ronny declares, "We are not just Bloods, this is my blood. They are my family."
Ronny's family has also passed down a history of violence. He traces all of it to his father, who still checks in occasionally. "My daddy was never around all the time, he still isn't." In his family romance, Ronny's father juggled two wives and three sons, never living with one family full-time. But Ronny maintains, "My daddy loved my mama till she started doing crack. Then they fought. It's 'cuz she drove him crazy. He lost control and beat her. Then he left. He had his wife, my mama had crack, and I had my granny."
But his father's violence was not strictly domestic. There had been trouble in Louisiana, where his father killed a man and did time in prison. Ronny relates this story with nonchalance, adding that his father's other two sons — his half brothers — also murdered people during the Los Angeles gang wars of the mid-1980s.
"What happened to your brothers?" I ask.
"They're both dead," he says flatly. "I'm the only son my daddy has left."
"So you're the third generation of violence," I offer.
"Yeah, the cycle has gotta be broken." Ronny could truly go either way. He starts to talk about what went down two nights earlier, when the LAPD showed up at his auntie's house to arrest his cousin, Little Joey, for murder.
"What happened?" I ask.
"Little Joey went to West LA to see his girlfriend. He was in Crips territory and they cornered him. He had to shoot his way out. The cops got him."
"Does he have a lawyer?" I am already looking up numbers in my cell phone.
"Oh, he told them he did it."
"Why are you surprised? He did it. So he told the cops. But I am thinkin' maybe he can get off on — whacha call it? — self-defense. He went there before to see that girl and some guys from the set told him, 'Don't come back or we gonna kill you.' I think he could say he did it because they were gonna kill him."
"One little problem," I snap. "He had a gun — that shows premeditation. And I'm sure he didn't buy the gun at Sears."
Ronny is unfazed by my sarcasm.
"You're right. Oh well. I guess he's gonna do time."
There is a resignation to Ronny that comes from years without.
Without parents. Without money. Without anyone to take care of him.
While I am thinking about this, we both see an eleven-year-old riding around on a bike and Ronny motions with his chin. "That's me. You wanna know what I was like back in the day, look at this little homie, Darius."
Darius rides up to exchange greetings with Ronny, eyeing me suspiciously.
Ronny responds with the same line he uses on everyone in the projects. "That's Jorja, she's my godmother." Satisfied, Darius rides off and we walk over to a two-story unit and stand outside the security door — a heavy-duty screen made out of steel. The smell of marijuana comes wafting out. Ronny's cousins and friends are inside smoking a combination of bud and crack and God knows what else. When they see me through the grille they start joking, then invite us in.
"This yo' first time at Nickerson Gardens, little mama?"
"She's a cute little spinner, Saint. Mama, you been here before?"
Ronny doesn't even have time to launch into introductions before I start talking and laughing with them. They offer me some of their spliff, but I decline.
"No, I was here before any of you were born. In the '70s and the '80s, I worked at Martin Luther King Hospital." I leave out the fact that most of the time I came to the projects I was there to pick up children for placement in the foster-care system.
"You was at Martin Luther King?" One homie is suddenly interested.
"Yeah. I loved it there."
"You saw me born! I came through there. I was the little baby with an Afro!" He is suddenly excited, high, and the air fills with laughter. He is choking on smoke, and Ronny and I walk him outside to breathe fresh air. As if on cue, a black-and-white pulls up and the police jump out of their car so rapidly they leave the doors open. They are running across the grass.
"It's the popo," I observe, and Ronny starts laughing.
"Yes it is. They gonna arrest someone," he adds. His prediction comes true while Darius rides by on his bike, watching carefully, collecting data. We all witness two men who look to be in their twenties being handcuffed and pushed into the back of the police car.
"They got Little Devon," Darius reports. "Little Devon is so stupid, he got hisself arrested by a rookie. What a dumbass."
The arresting officer looks up, walks over to where we are standing, and asks what we are doing. Darius's assessment is accurate; this is a rookie. I doubt the LAPD officer has even started shaving. He begins to give Darius and Ronny a hard time until he looks at me and pulls up short.
"Ma'am?" He is tentative.
"Yes?" I truly don't want to say a thing. I don't want to introduce myself. He is a rookie and this is South LA, but I don't want to take the one–in-a-million chance that he is going to recognize Mark's name. I am prepared to remarry my ex-husband on the spot and reclaim my old identity.
"May I ask what you are doing here?"
I want desperately to tell him, No you may not, this is wrong. But I tell him that I am a social worker meeting with my client. That suffices and he moves away. Ronny, meanwhile, starts complaining about the LAPD and their constant "fuckin' with everyone in the projects." This is not the friendly, easygoing Ronny—he morphs into angry-black-man mode. Destiny, his girlfriend, has warned me, "You gotta be careful with Ronny. You know he has four personalities at once." Right now I am getting a look at gangsta Ronny — Saint.
"It's not fair, it's not fuckin' fair," Ronny says, hitting the side of a building in frustration.
"I know, I know," I tell him.
"Shit, I gotta go. I gotta go talk to my homies about this."
Ronny takes off abruptly. I can't remember where I parked my car. Darius rides back by and I ask him to help me. I don't want to wander around alone.
"I need to find my car, can you — "
"Yo' ride is a Prius — yeah, I know where it is."
I had forgotten about hood intelligence. Darius leads me to the car. I give him five dollars and he rides away happily.
I go home that night, thinking about the LAPD. I don't say anything to Mark. I really don't want to deal with his reaction. I have also gone silent because we have been fighting constantly. It's not about gangs; it's about counterterrorism. It's clear that there is an insane amount of money being spent protecting Los Angeles from (drum roll here) terrorist activity. I am finding this all laughable — except for the fact that there has been what the LAPD likes to call mission creep. The war against terrorism has slowly started to include talk of the need to "fight urban terrorism in our communities." Increasingly Mark has been talking to me in his "official business" tone of voice about terrorism on the streets and in the neighborhoods. It doesn't help that while I am driving home after Ronny has abandoned me, I hear Mark on the radio discussing how terrorist organizations are raising funds by selling counterfeit purses at swap meets. He is about to be interviewed on PBS's Frontline by the correspondent Lowell Bergman, my longtime hero. I don't knowwhether to feel proud or angry or embarrassed.
"Hi, honey, I'm home from the swap meet," I snap in lieu of describing my day in Nickerson Gardens. "I think a terrorist just tried to sell me a counterfeit Prada bag." Mark ignores me as I continue. "But I'm not worried, 'cuz I heard what you said on the radio. I'm so relieved that this is what my tax dollars are being spent on."
"Y'know, you don't even know what you are talking about," Mark begins, with exaggerated patience. He has adopted the tone of a math teacher explaining division to the class idiot. "This is not a small thing. We are talking about millions of dollars being funneled into overseas accounts. This is what is financing terrorism across the globe." I really think I am about to lose my mind. "You want to explain to me why it is so important to watch swap meets carefully, while patrols have been cut in East LA and there was a big shootout in Nickerson Gardens two days ago?"
"Here we go," he mutters. "Poor black woman."
This phrase had its origins in a major fight that was still a sore spot for Mark and me. A month earlier, I had arrived home drained after spending time with the family of a young homie who had been shot near Athens Park in South Los Angeles. It was unclear whether he was an active member of any neighborhood. All that was certain was that a sixteen-year-old boy would be facing the rest of his life paralyzed from the chest down. I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my husband's arms and cry. Instead, I was greeted by the sight of Mark hurriedly making arrangements to leave the house.
"You can order something from Emilio's," he instructed. "They'll deliver. Shannon already circled what she wants on the menu." All I saw was the uniform and all I heard was his officious tone, so I started screaming:
"Where are you going?"
"Will you control yourself?" he whispered. "I don't want Shannon to hear you yelling." This was all I needed to hear to raise my voice another decibel level.
"Stop telling me what to do! Stop being so controlling!" Then in a triumph of intellectual reasoning, I added, "You're acting like an asshole!"
"Calm down." This was the "license and registration voice" I knew so well. In the past, Mark had told me stories of soccer moms swearing a blue streak when he stopped them for speeding. He would ignore the profanity while adding charges to their citation. As the women screamed he would write, "Driving without a seat belt," and "Brake light out," and "License expired"—all visible offenses that would add to the ticket's grand total. He was maintaining the same pleasant tone with me while I screamed like a banshee.
"Look, I'm not supposed to tell you this," he began.
Here we go, I thought. I wasn't fooled. This was the sweetener. All cops used this with wives and family. You were let in on some important, inside information — so inside it was probably just being reported on the local news — to help you understand why your husband, boyfriend, father was running out the door. When Mark and I were newlyweds, the long-suffering wife of the chief of operations advised me, "Honey, get used to being alone. They're gone all the time." I had absolutely no intention of accepting this reality.
"Just tell me where you are going," I repeated, now using a normal tone of voice.
"There's a guy who killed two cops in Colorado and they think they've got him trapped in Long Beach. So the LAPD has set up a command post along with the Long Beach PD to get him. We've got thirty men on overtime and I've got to get there as soon as possible." That only enraged me further.
"You don't have to go to this."
"No? This is my job." Mark was just starting to show signs of agitation.
"No it's not. Your job is to run the counterterrorism bureau and babysit John Miller. Please just tell me how someone who may or may not have killed two cops in Colorado relates to counterterrorism. Please. Tell. Me."
The mention of John Miller was not good. By tacit agreement, Mark and I stayed away from the subject of the man who was, on paper, Mark's superior. Early in his tenure, Bill Bratton had brought along Miller — who was his best friend — to head up the counterterrorism bureau, which had been designed and implemented by Mark. Bratton frequently pointed out Miller's wide-ranging experience, which included a stint working as Barbara Walters's co-anchor on 20/20. This did not exactly endear him to the troops. But Miller was a good guy who constantly sought Mark's counsel and acted responsibly, given his limited law enforcement experience. Despite all this, the favoritism evident in his appointment was a particularly vicious thorn in Mark's side and a topic I generally avoided. But not tonight. Mark looked at me sharply.
"Look, you know, it's about the murder of a cop. I've got to go."
"You're all a bunch of maudlin idiots. You're gonna spend a lot of taxpayer money on overtime hunting this guy down because he killed a cop. Meanwhile, a mother was shot and killed in South Los Angeles last weekend. Was there one hour of overtime spent on her? No. Because it was a poor black woman. You don't fucking care."
"Look, I've gotta go." He walked over to kiss me good-bye and I ignored him.
After he left, Shannon came down wide-eyed. "You and Daddy were having a fight?" She was half-questioning and half-observing.
"Yes, and I don't want you to get scared. We were just fighting over the way the LAPD investigates certain cases with lots of energy and ignores other cases — particularly those involving poor people." The ongoing brainwashing of my only child diverted me from my fury. Mark rarely interfered in the education of Shannon; for that I was grateful. When I had come into her life, she was attending a summer camp run by Calvary, a fundamentalist Christian group. This was a desperate choice, made at the last minute, after Mark was unable to enroll Shannon in a school-sponsored summer camp. I had known Shannon precisely two weeks when she announced, "I have something wonderful to tell you." I narcissistically waited for the declaration that she would love for me to be her new mommy. Instead I had to check my facial expression when Shannon continued, "I found Jesus." It took all my self-control not to ask, "Was he lost?" and smile while thinking, I have gotta get to work on this kid.
That had all changed. Recently Shannon had arrived home from school and announced that it was important to be honest and say she was an atheist because people who were agnostic were just afraid to tell the truth. She also believed George W. Bush was probably the Antichrist. But right now she was focused on my anger at Mark.
"Do you mean how Daddy doesn't care about gangs and you do?"
Shannon was well aware of the never-ending argument about how much money was spent on counterterrorism and how little was spent on gangs. While Mark was tasked with spending $50 million in government grants, negotiating how money would be allocated — City Fire, Information Technology, Emergency Response — I was working with community-based organizations that were lucky to get by on $100,000 a year. Greg Boyle did not receive any government funding at Homeboy Industries to support his work on job training, tattoo removal, mental health services, drug counseling, and education. From that night onward, whenever we argued about gangs and counterterrorism, Mark would try to end the conflict by joking, "Poor black woman."
"Dad doesn't always understand what people go through — especially people in Watts. They are poor and they commit crimes. That's wrong, but it doesn't make them terrorists."
"When we went to the Watts Towers you told me lots of people there weren't gang members. Is that what you mean by 'poor black woman'?"
I was happy to settle for this small victory. Shannon and I moved on to the take-out menu.
A few days after the swap-meet argument, however, Mark and I continue to argue. "It's not 'poor black woman' and you know it," I say. "It's the inequity of the whole situation. You should have been with me two days ago with Ronny. The LAPD is just hassling people in Nickerson Gardens for nothing. And they don't even understand the gang problem."
It only increases my fury when Mark responds, "Look, the gang problem has been around for a long time. It's not gonna get better — and after 9/11 we need people to feel safe."
"It's wrong," I insist. "People are not afraid of terrorists. They're afraid of getting killed. They're afraid of Florencia and the Rollin 60s. In the hood, the Twin Towers don't mean the World Trade Center. They mean the county jail. That's what's real — 18th Street is real." But I know we are arguing about money and what Mark had said on the radio and the emphasis on counterterrorism because we really don't want to talk about the elephant in the room.
Mark is afraid.
And, even though I didn't want to admit it, so am I.
It had all started about a week earlier, when a gang interventionist named Mario Corona told me, "There's a rumor on the street your husband is LAPD."
I never volunteered that I was married to a cop, nor did I hide it. I also knew that street intelligence on outsiders was pretty limited. The neighborhoods knew about one another and who came into their territory, but they knew very little about people in the outside world. I was never involved in any arrest. I kept telling people nothing was going to happen to me.
But Kenny Green had told me the story of Gil Becerra, and it had an impact. Gil Becerra had functioned as a gang interventionist. He had impressive bona fides — he had been in the US military and on the streets. None of this had saved him from what occurred when he got in between two rival gangs, trying to negotiate a truce. He was beaten and left for dead. He sustained multiple broken bones and now had permanent back injuries that made it painful for him to walk or stand up straight. But for me, the critical issue lay in the phrase "gotten between two rival gangs."
I was convinced that as long as I didn't plant myself between warring neighborhoods or interfere in gang activity, I would be okay. I also was careful never to go into a violent situation without someone from a neighborhood along for the ride. When Mario told me about the rumor, I told him I was always careful. He listened patiently but warned me again.
"You gotta be careful. If these guys find out that you're married to someone who is a cop, they'll kill you."
From Jumped In by Jorja Leap. Copyright 2012 by Jorja Leap. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.