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.

Identity Politics and Racialized Gang Conflict

This week in North Philly Notes, Robert Weide, author of Divide & Conquer, writes about growing up surrounded by racial division and sectarian conflict.

Since I was a child, racial divisions and gang conflicts have permeated my experience. I grew up in Los Angeles, the reputed “gang capitol” of the United States, during the peak years of the violent crime rate in the late 1980s and 1990s. I was 15 years old in the peak year of violent crime in Los Angeles (and the nation) in 1993. Like many children my age, I joined a neighborhood crew that could be described as a gang at the age of 13. The principle draw for my associations and affiliations was that that I was of mixed-race heritage. Having always been excluded from every category in America’s racial taxonomy, I found a sense of belonging and camaraderie with my homeboys.

Ours was a sort of junior gang known colloquially as “tagbangers”, associated by friendships and family with the two predominantly Latino Sureño affiliated gangs in our community, Culver City 13 and 18 Street, each of whom were embroiled in racialized conflicts with African American Crip and Blood affiliated gangs respectively. While gang violence was endemic to our existence at the time and funerals for boys and young men were a regularly occurring ritual in our world, one particular murder, that occurred less than a month after my 18th birthday, had an indelible impact on me. I recount the narrative of my friend Eddie’s murder at the hand of an African American Blood affiliated gang member in the opening stanza of my book. At the time we took for granted the presumption that predominantly Latino Sureño and predominantly African American Crip and Blood affiliated gangs were natural enemies and the animosity that carried over both gang and racial lines seemed as inevitable to us as the sky is blue.

I wasn’t until I became educated that I began to question how and why we had found ourselves in those racialized gang identities and how those oppositional identities served to orient us in conflict with one another across racialized gang lines. After reading about the history of capitalism, the race concept, and nationalist ideology, I realized that our fratricidal blood feuds only served to insulate the real cause of our frustration and anger, the ruling classes whose wealth and privilege only exist at our expense. That epiphany melted away decades of racial resentment and sectarian hostility I had harbored compelling me to finally realize that there is no them and us, there’s just us. That is the epiphany that I hope this book brings to many other young men like me both in the U.S. context and around the world—that we have been used for generations as the instruments of our own oppression, fighting one another instead of defending one another in the face of skyrocketing wealth stratification, burgeoning neo-fascist movements, and impending ecological collapse.

As a result of my education I also realized that the race concept, nationalist ideology, and the contemporary identity politics so pervasive in academia and the media are the conceptual tools that American oligarchy uses to compel us to oppose one another, just as white supremacy did for generations before us (and in many ways still does today). That is why I wrote this book, not just to examine racialized gang conflict, but, moreover, to expose the conceptual foundations of racialized sectarian conflict in contemporary America and the modern world at large. The foundations of these conflicts are predicated on and continue to be perpetuated by purveyors of identity politics in academia and the media. This book is an attempt to challenge those who perpetuate identity division and sectarian conflict.

Only by understanding the history of how we have been divided can we discard our oppositional identities and instead join in solidarity to resist our collective oppression. While I harbor little hope of dissuading the contemporary purveyors of identity politics in academia and the media who are personally and professionally invested in perpetuating identity divisions in our society, my ambition is that the book I have written will trigger the same epiphany I had in scholars who have not staked their careers on promoting division and conflict, and most importantly, provoke that epiphany in the parties to sectarian conflicts themselves, particularly gang members. Facing unprecedented wealth stratification, burgeoning neo-fascist movements, and ecological calamity the likes of which the human race has never known, we cannot miss the opportunity to put our differences aside and join in solidarity to save our children’s future before it’s too late.

Gangs on Trial: From the Corner to the Court

This week in North Philly Notes, John Hagedorn, author of Gangs on Trial, writes about why and how gang members are stereotyped and demonized in the courtroom.

I have spent more time in courtrooms the last few decades than I have on street corners or playgrounds. Over the same period, I have written many more court reports as an expert witness than I have journal articles as an academic. Why? Turning my attention to “gangs in court” was a conscious choice based on some fundamental beliefs I have on the uses of research and on my determination to challenge injustice.

First, the question raised by sociologist Alfred McClung Lee, “Sociology for whom?” has long streamed through my head on a continuous loop. Lee’s 1976 presidential address to the American Sociological Association attacked careerism in sociology. My mentor, Joan Moore, as well as my role model, Kenneth Clark, both argued that research should consciously benefit the community or it would be used by elites for their own interests. Clark’s haunting question, “What is the value of a soulless truth?” became my credo, accompanying my slogan, “Research not stereotypes.” From my first study on gangs in Milwaukee, I was conscious of the implications of my research. In the 1980s I told my People & Folks respondents—the “top dogs” of gangs in Milwaukee—that the purpose of my research was to provide evidence that “jobs not jails” was a better solution to Milwaukee’s gang problem.     

In other words, I believe research needs to be understood outside of “truth for its own sake,” and deliberately designed to benefit those in powerless communities, especially those who are stigmatized and demonized. If social scientists will not defend the powerless, what values do we have? Did we understand sociologist C. Wright Mills when he called on social scientists to challenge the rationalization of society?  

Second, I realized frustration/aggression theories of violence are not only applicable to the streets. Just go to any trial of a gang member and listen to the angry tone of the prosecutor saying the community is “fed up” with gang violence and wants… well, prosecutors often say “justice” when they mean “revenge.”

Social psychologist Craig Haney teaches us that sentencing is not based so much on the criminal acts of flawed human beings, but on the belief the accused has an evil character—“unstoppable evil” was what one of my defendants was called. Evidence of the criminal act is secondary to what prosecutors believe is the less than human nature of the accused. Demonization was taken literally in one of my first cases, when the defendants were labeled “Followers of Our Lord King Satan”, a law enforcement make-believe acronym for Georgia’s FOLKS gang.

Violence is hard, sociologist Randall Collins concluded, and in order to justify it and overcome our deeply embedded inhibitions. Philosopher David Livingston Smith argues the victim needs first to be dehumanized. On the streets rival gang members are called “Slobs” or “Crabs” or some other non-human appellation. You are killing an “it” not a “he” or “she.” I found that is precisely how it works in the courtroom, with a predictable racist tinge. Gang members, typically Black or Hispanic, are dehumanized—another of my defendants was called a “mad dog.” What do you do with a mad dog? If you can’t kill it, you lock it up and throw away the key. What better description is there of today’s sentencing policy? 

I began my expert witness work in 1996 opposing a possible death penalty for Keith Harbin, who was then on trial. At that time, there were few academics willing to consult with the defense, and hesitant to risk the ire of law enforcement. There clearly was an unmet need. From the start, I saw my expert witness work as an extension of my social responsibility to confront racism and dehumanizing policies and practices. 

So, it is as simple as that. My “life in court”—and this book—are the results of my particular circumstances, the general punitive nature of today’s mass incarceration society, and my belief in the social responsibility of research.

Watch a video of John Hagedorn talking about his book here.

What is past is prologue: A century of gangs in the United States

This week in North Philly Notes, Scott Decker, David Pyrooz, and James Densley, the coauthors of On Gangs take a look back at gangs in American society.

Like most social phenomena, gangs are dynamic. The structure, membership, activities and relationships among gangs and gang members change over time and space. Against this backdrop of evolving gang life, there are some common findings. Levels of involvement in crime, gender imbalance, short-term membership, and a loosely structured organization remain common features of gangs historically and geographically.

On Gangs examines transcendent and emerging issues in the understanding of gangs. The book is motivated by a simple, but sometimes elusive principle; understanding should bring about fairer, more just and effective policies, practices, and programs. The study of gangs has had an important job to do in this regard. Explaining the increase in gang membership during the crack cocaine epidemic, rising gun violence, mass incarceration and the role of technology (particularly computer-mediated communication) in conflict, crime and the response to crime are all topics that gang research has tackled.  

If asked to identify a single finding from gang research, policy, and practice, we would point to the enhanced involvement in crime that accompanies gang membership. Simply put, gang membership increases involvement in crime, particularly violent crime, and increases the risk of victimization, resulting in loss, debilitating injury, and, tragically, death. Group processes in gangs are what land gang members in jail or prison, dimming their chances for education, employment, housing, and participation in many civic activities. Gang membership impedes adolescents and young adults from participating in the very activities that social scientists expect to either prevent them from further criminal involvement or enable them to reverse their involvement in crime. From this perspective, addressing mass incarceration and the pipeline from schools and the streets to prison is a key issue to address through economic and social policy.

The field has learned a good deal about gangs in the past three decades. The pace and volume of gang research increased dramatically as data improved and a broader range of scholars grappled with understanding involvement in and consequences of gang membership. Critical issues such as the involvement of women in gangs, the role of technology in gang joining and activities, the spread of US-style gangs to other countries, and the changing structure of gang membership are all features of the book.

On Gangs also provides comprehensive assessments of the role of gender and masculinities in gangs, immigration, race, and ethnicity, the changing role of imprisonment in gang life, and a sober assessment not only of gang “programming” but also of how criminologists must go about assessing the impact of a wide range of interventions from prevention through confinement. We take a critical look at policing gangs in the 21st century and the emergence and expansion of controversial anti-gang legislation. We take the “What Works” question head on and offer objective frameworks for assessing the impact of a wide range of policies and practices.

One measure of the importance of gangs in American society can be gauged by their role in popular culture, particularly movies and music. As we note in the book, “Gangster Movies” are just as old as academic gang research. James Cagney and Jean Harlow, two of the biggest names in Hollywood starred in The Public Enemy in 1931, one of the first portrayals of gangs and gang members on screen. West Side Story debuted in 1961, and now sixty years later has been remade by Steven Spielberg. And Al Pacino’s Scarface continues to serve as inspiration for gang members; in some cases, Tony Montana’s rags to riches story is a blueprint for their gang careers. Public fascination with gangs, gang members and gang activity certainly help spin myths about gangs (e.g., once you join a gang, you can never leave; gangs are highly organized; women are “appendages” to male gangs; prison gangs run the streets, etc.), which often have negative consequences. Such myths impair our ability to build consensus about gang interventions, secure funding and public support for such interventions and spread fear and racial animus.

As comprehensive as On Gangs is, it is not the final word. There will be new challenges—globalization, climate change, continued demographic churning, the changing nature and structure of employment, virtual life and the metaverse—that will alter the character of social relations and social structure. Certainly, gangs will be affected by and have effects on the social orders to come. It is our contention that the accumulated knowledge on gangs be viewed with a critical lens and be used to shape future perceptions of and responses to gangs and gang members.

Announcing Temple University Press’ Spring 2022 Catalog

This week in North Philly Notes, we are pleased to present our forthcoming Spring 2022 titles (in alphabetical order).

Africana Studies: Theoretical Futures, edited by Grant Farred
A provocative collection committed to keeping the dynamism of the Africana Studies discipline alive

Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China, by Jennifer Lin, with a foreword by Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin

An eye-opening account of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unprecedented 1973 visit to the People’s Republic of China

Before Crips: Fussin’, Cussin’, and Discussin’ among South Los Angeles Juvenile Gangs, by John C. Quicker and Akil S. Batani-Khalfani

A historical analysis of South Los Angeles juvenile gang life as revealed by those who were there

Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature, by Christopher Krentz

Why disabled characters are integral to novels of the global South

Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, by Elora Halim Chowdhury

Illuminates how visual practices of recollecting violent legacies in Bangladeshi cinema can generate possibilities for gender justice

Exploring Philly Nature: A Guide for All Four Seasons, by Bernard S. Brown, Illustrations by Samantha Wittchen

A handy guide for all ages to Philly’s urban plants, animals, fungi, and—yes—even slime molds

If There Is No Struggle There Is No Progress: Black Politics in Twentieth-Century Philadelphia, edited by James Wolfinger, with a Foreword by Heather Ann Thompson

Highlighting the creativity, tenacity, and discipline displayed by Black activists in Philadelphia

It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism, by David Steele

Examining American athletes’ activism for racial and social justice, on and off the field

Just Care: Messy Entanglements of Disability, Dependency, and Desire, by Akemi Nishida

How care is both socially oppressive and a way that marginalized communities can fight for social justice

Letting Play Bloom: Designing Nature-Based Risky Play for Children, by Lolly Tai, with a foreword by Teri Hendy

Exploring innovative, inspiring, and creative ideas for designing children’s play spaces

Loving Orphaned Space: The Art and Science of Belonging to Earth, by Mrill Ingram

Providing a new vision for the ignored and abused spaces around us

Model Machines: A History of the Asian as Automaton, by Long T. Bui

A study of the stereotype and representation of Asians as robotic machines through history

Public Schools, Private Governance: Education Reform and Democracy in New Orleans, by J. Celeste Lay

A comprehensive examination of education reforms and their political effects on Black and poor public-school parents in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina

Regarding Animals, Second Edition, by Arnold Arluke, Clinton R. Sanders, and Leslie Irvine

A new edition of an award-winning book that examines how people live with contradictory attitudes toward animals

School Zone: A Problem Analysis of Student Offending and Victimization, by Pamela Wilcox, Graham C. Ousey, and Marie Skubak Tillyer

Why some school environments are more conducive to crime than safety

Warring Genealogies: Race, Kinship, and the Korean War, by Joo Ok Kim

Examines the racial legacies of the Korean War through Chicano/a cultural production and U.S. archives of white supremacy

Water Thicker Than Blood: A Memoir of a Post-Internment Childhood, by George Uba

An evocative yet unsparing examination of the damaging effects of post-internment ideologies of acceptance and belonging experienced by a Japanese American family

What Workers Say: Decades of Struggle and How to Make Real Opportunity Now, by Roberta Rehner Iversen

Voices from the labor market on the chronic lack of advancement

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