Fussin’, Cussin’, and Discussin’ among South Los Angeles Juvenile Gangs

This week in North Philly Notes, John C. Quicker and Akil S. Batani-Khalfani, coauthors of Before Crips, provide a historical analysis of South Los Angeles juvenile gang life as revealed by those who were there.

Before Crips is the first book on juvenile street gangs with co-authorship by a Black and a White author. One of us never left the streets, the other never let the streets leave him, and we both found refuge in professional careers and academia where we met. Over the almost forty years we have known each other we have developed profound respect and trust, forming a bond that permitted us to go places and do things that neither could have done alone. We have fussed, cussed, and discussed with one another during this time over more issues than we can recall, deepening our understanding, strengthening our analysis, and clarifying our resolve of doing what needed to be done to fill a vast hole in the academic literature on street gangs.

We recognized that unless we knew where we’d been, we were limited in knowing where we are. By using broad-based first-person interviews with key street figures, we gave voice to the unheard and space for their extensive narratives. We spoke to them in their neighborhoods, where they were comfortable, encouraging them to expound on what they knew. We augmented our written imagery with unique period photos of pre-Crip and Blood street group members and an artfully constructed map of 1950s South Los Angeles.

A major critique of gang research has been the spin put on the analysis by the use of data, which when infused with accepted or unrecognized political ideologies can result in the creation of “facts” when, in the wisdom of Otto Lindenmeyer, actual history has been “lost, stolen, or strayed.” Say it often enough and loud enough, leave it unchallenged, and myths become transmogrified into facts.

This is what happened with Crip and Blood gangs: they appeared to drop from the sky into the “hellhole” identified as South-Central Los Angeles, then spread like a virus to other “innocent” cities around the planet. Their formation was often simplistically associated with the Black Power movements of the 1960s. Ignored by these analyses was the powerful role played by racism, social class, power imbalances, and the differences between adult and juvenile gangs. Crip and Blood became symbolic with danger, giving any group that adopted these names their 20 minutes of fame – immediately. All communities, we hypothesize, with so-named juvenile gangs in most cases adopted the name.

Since 1946, Carey McWilliams noted, the population of Los Angeles has contained “important elements of every racial strain that has gone into the making of the American people.” Its wide-open spaces permitted various groups to remain invisible when their numbers were small. This was especially the case for Black people, whose presence was unproblematic until the demographic landscape was reconfigured by World War II. Hangout street groups of Black juveniles soon became targets for official opprobrium, following most notably in the path established by Mexican street groups, whose recognition preceded them. Similar to the Mexican groups, they were transformed into gangs. Gangs became an acronym for Grab Another Non-White Group.

By describing the street groups existent before the infamous Crips and Bloods, we show that they, while no angels, were also not the devils justice agencies and the media wanted voters to believe they were. Male juveniles fought, primarily with their fists, over jealousy and honor because of a comin’-from-the-shoulders ethic that eschewed the use of guns. Female juveniles hung-out with them and were involved in their escapades, but female behavior was more mediated by traditional values. Limited resources and legitimate opportunities contributed to theft among both genders, while Illegal drugs, which were available in limited quantities, but were of weak pecuniary value, were used and sold infrequently.

We concur with Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, who write, “Americans have always been given to a kind of historical amnesia that masks much of their turbulent path.” This amnesia has also characterized our understanding of juvenile groups, and allowed us to perceive them as a foreign other, permitting the imposition of an unwarranted contempt. We note that the clichéd question, often raised by juvenile justice proponents, of why would juveniles join gangs is more answerable when turned around: why wouldn’t they?

Juveniles have been involved in same-sexed peer groups—with names—since before the dawn of capitalism. It is only over the past hundred or so years that these groups have become termed gangs. In Los Angeles pre-Crip and Blood street groups were not the essence of evil as is so often depicted, and imposed on us from an alien world—they were made in America. If they have gotten worse, it is because our society has gotten worse.

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