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6 July 2022

From the NS archive: War in the streets

11 November 1988: Why the crackdown on LA’s black gangs won’t work.

By Mike Davis

In 1988, the Los Angeles civil authorities and police department took to the streets to crack down on the city’s gangs, in particular the notorious Bloods and Crips. The campaign, spoken of in military terminology, was, however, indiscriminate, and many hundreds of black youths were arrested whether or not they had any gang affiliation. In this essay, the American intellectual and social commentator Mike Davis (with Sur Ruddick) looked at the heavy-handed action and the causes of black disaffection. “In South Central LA rock or crack houses are now more common than liquor stores,” he wrote. “The police estimate that there are 150, maybe 200, houses, each turning over more than $5,000 per day ($25,000 on welfare and social security cheque days).” But jobs for black youths were scarce, prejudice was high, and many saw drugs and gangs as their only route to both community and economic survival. Criminalising young black people was no sort of solution.

On a weekend in early April, Los Angeles police and Sheriff’s units arrested more black youths than at any time since the Watts riots of 1965. A thousand extra-duty patrolmen, backed by elite tactical squads and a special anti-gang taskforce, imposed Chief Daryl Gates’s “Operation Hammer” on ten square miles of black Los Angeles. Like a Vietnam-era search-and-destroy mission – of which many LA police are 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 computerised 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 force’s gang roster for future surveillance.

Chief Gates, who earlier in the year had urged the “invasion” of Colombia, 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 district attorney’s Hardcore Drug Unit added: “This is Vietnam here.” 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 everyone who sees Dennis Hopper’s Colors will know, by their colour-coding of shoelaces, T-shirts and bandannas (red for Bloods, blue for Crips).

In the official gang version, reheated and sensationalised by Hollywood, these gangs comprise veritable urban guerrilla armies organised for the sake 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 high-school sophomores, local politicians frequently compare them to the “murderous militias of Beirut”.

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[see also: Gary Younge: We can’t breathe]

This very real epidemic of youth violence has been inflated by law enforcement agencies and the media into something quite phantasmagoric. The city attorney’s office has steadily increased its estimates of hardcore gang membership from 10,000 to 50,000. Local newspapers and television have amplified this figure to 70,000-80,000, while the 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, and even mutant white variants in Tucson (such, at least, is the fantasy of hysterical parents).

As long as the actual violence was more or less confined to the ghetto, the gang wars were a fantasy projection and a voyeuristic titillation for white yuppie Westsiders. Then last December frisson became fear as gang hitmen, in a mistaken moment, gunned down a young woman outside a theatre in the posh Westwood Village entertainment district. 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 Westwood councillor Zev Yaroslavsky, the Koch-like mayoral candidate, posted a huge reward for apprehension of the “urban terrorists”.

The dramatically differential press coverage of, and preferential police response to, the Westwood shooting ignited the simmering resentment of black community leaders. They blasted Yaroslavsky, the police and Mayor Tom Bradley for their failure to respond comparably to mayhem in their South Central neighbourhoods. For several weeks the council chambers resounded to an arcane debate over relative police response times in different divisions and the comparative allocations of personnel. This ideologically circumscribed and loaded debate, focusing on the demand for a more “equal” and vigorous prosecution of the war against gangs, provided a long-sought-after signal for the ambitious chief of police, who had been broadly distrusted, if not openly reviled, by the black community for his consistent cover-up of the Los Angeles police’s racism and brutality.

After the Westwood shooting, black demands for police reinforcements gave Gates an unexpected opportunity to make the pro-police coalition hegemonic in all parts of the divided and socially polarised metropolis. By appearing to respond to the outcry from black neighbourhoods, Gates was able to capture the born-again support of black politicians. To guarantee maximum media coverage, dramatising the department’s need for more personnel and resources, Gates launched the first of his anti-gang sweeps. This so-called Gang Related Active Trafficker Suppression programme (Grats) targeted “drug neighbourhoods” for raids by 200-300 police under orders to “stop and interrogate anyone who they suspect is a gang member, basing their assumptions on their dress or their use of gang hand signals”.

Thus, on the flimsy “probable cause” of red shoelaces or high-five handshakes, the taskforces in February and March mounted nine sweeps, impounded 500 cars and made nearly 1,500 arrests. By Good Friday Chief Gates was gloating over the success of Grats in drastically curtailing street violence. A few hours after his speech, however, gang members mowed down a crowd on a South Central street comer, killing a 19-year-old woman. Hysteria again took command in the Civic Center. Yaroslavsky claimed that the city was “fighting a war on gang violence… that’s worse than Beirut”. Gates, frantic to retain the limelight, announced the escalation of Grats into “the Hammer”, with deployment of his force’s full manpower resources. The first of the thousand-cop blitzkriegs hit the streets of South Central LA.

Although black politicians rallied almost unanimously to the Hammer, police spokespersons complained of less than enthusiastic support at the embattled grass-roots. Civil rights organisations reported an unprecedented number of complaints, in the hundreds, about illegal police harassment. Given an open warrant to terrorise gang members and crack dealers, the police predictably exceeded the call of duty. On 5 April they shot down an unarmed teenager cowering behind a small palm tree on Adams Boulevard. He was alleged to be reaching suspiciously into his pants; more importantly, he was a “suspected gang member”. A few weeks later, Hammer forces, storming a supposed “rock house”, poured double-ought buckshot into an 81-year-old retired construction worker. No drugs were found, there was strong suspicion that the police had an incorrect address, and the victim’s niece – a witness – testified that he had been killed with his hands up. The police department simply replied that gangs were paying off elderly people to use their homes as sales points.

In a season when every gang murder was a headline atrocity, these two police homicides caused barely a blip. One of the few groups willing to criticise the Hammer was the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Attorney Joan Howarth, who defends youth civil liberties for the ACLU, was vigorous in denouncing the catch-as-catch-can sweeps as “publicity stunts”, designed to glorify Gates and to shift scarce tax resources to the greedy LAPD.

Howarth pointed out that the Hammer involved the massive infringement of youth civil rights – not to mention police shootings – with little practical effect except to enrage gangs while increasing their outlaw prestige. She emphasised the relative ineffectiveness of repression – short of police death-squads or mass internment – in countering the economic or psychological inducements to gang membership.

Despite nearly a thousand Crips and Bloods segregated in their own special wing of LA’s county jail, and the several thousand more incarcerated at all levels of the penal system, from youth camp to death row, gang recruitment has remained strongly on the upswing – James Hahn, LA’s aggressive young city attorney, has also questioned the efficacy of mere shows of force like the Hammer. But if Gates’s persona is that of a General Westmoreland, then Hahn’s approach is reminiscent of an ambitious bureaucrat in an authoritarian state like South Africa or Chile. From his standpoint the underlying problem is the law itself, with its ‘‘excessive” guarantees of due process to criminal individuals. Like the prosecutors of communists earlier this century, he proposed to criminalise an entire class, in this case gang members, and to suspend their protections under the Bill of Rights.

As the legislature continues to debate gang criminalisation under the shadow of California’s newly conservatised Supreme Court (which would almost certainly sustain the constitutionality of such legislation), progressive opposition is desultory. Joan Howarth of the ACLU complains, more in sadness than bitterness, that “progressives have virtually deserted us on the issue… the left has been largely shut out of the policy debate, which is now totally framed by the Reaganite right and its Democratic shadow. There is no progressive agenda on crime, and consequently, no challenging of the socio-economic forces that have produced the burgeoning counter-culture of gang membership.”

In justifying this aggressive strategy, the gangbusters themselves look no further than to recapitulation of traditional white prejudice about “family failure” in the ghetto, abetted by indulgent welfarism and the decline of paternal role models, creating a feral population of grave social menace. Thus mayoral challenger Yarosavsky, once McGovern’s organiser at UCLA, now snarls when asked about the “economic roots of the gang problem”. As head of the city council’s finance committee, Yaroslavsky has been responsible for issuing Chief Gates’s blank cheques.

In a city where emergency care for the poor has virtually collapsed, where 50,000 nightly go homeless and where non-white infant mortality levels are inching upwards towards Developing World levels – Yaroslavsky has put firepower above all.

In past years, this pitiless approach to juvenile crime might simply have been dismissed as the venom of white backlash. But this time there is an angry “blacklash” as well. The qualitatively new, and disturbing, element is the swelling support of black leadership for the “war on gangs”. Thus the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People controversially endorsed Hahn’s attempt to impose martial law on a gang called the Playboy Gangsters operating on the edge of rich white neighbourhoods, while the South Central Organising Committee has led the fight for greater police deployment against street youth.

The trend is probably national. Although Jesse Jackson continues to campaign for a programme of rescuing ghetto youth, including gang members, others argue that vigilantism has become the order of the day. In an essay written from Oakland, “Ground Zero”, the novelist Ishmael Reed predicts that the time is fast approaching when the black working class – “people who’ve put in time at stupid dull jobs all their lives and suffered all manner of degradation so that their children might become achievers” – will have to take the offensive against “black terrorists… the brutal crack fascists”. Comparing daily existence in East Oakland to the oppression in Haiti under the Tontons Macoutes, Reed pours scorn on the white liberals from the Berkeley and Oakland hills “who have ‘Out of Nicaragua’ bumper stickers on their Volvos but are perfectly willing to tolerate drug fascists who prey upon the decent citizens of Oakland”.

In order to save black America, Reed canvasses the idea of a curfew for 18-to-24-year-olds and a much sterner community invigilation of youth. Black revulsion against youth criminality – indeed the perception that dealers and gangs threaten the very integrity of black culture – is thus the catalyst for a realignment of the usual politics of law and order, laying the basis for a potential tidal-wave majority for repression. The traditional antipathy between inner-city black communities and the police is now overlaid by a more urgent, transposed fear of gang culture. Once-fiery nationalist intellectuals like Reed openly float the idea that a “sacrifice” of the criminalised stratum of the young may be the only alternative to the dissolution of a community fabric heroically built up over generations of resistance to racist white America.

How is it, in days of such apparent rainbow hopes, that relations between old and young in the black community have grown so grimly foreboding? Over the last 15 years white-collar and professional blacks have abandoned the plains of South Central LA for upscale homes in the city. Working-class blacks in the flatlands have faced relentless economic decline. City resources have been absorbed in financing the corporate renaissance of downtown, but black small businesses have withered and jobs programmes have virtually disappeared. Most devastatingly, the old Eastside manufacturing belt of auto, steel, rubber and electrical plants, to which working-class black LA always looked for high-wage jobs and occupational mobility, has been entirely restructured. Gross manufacturing employment still managed to expand, but “reindustrialisation” has overwhelmingly centred on minimum-wage sweatshops. Blacks in California, especially young men, have been excluded from the latest suburban job booms.

It is a stunning fact – emblematic of institutional racism on a far more rampant scale than usually admitted these days – that most of California’s job and residential growth areas have black populations of 1 per cent or less. Apart from losing mobility in relocated industrial or transport jobs, young blacks have been locked out of the more attractive service-sector entry-level positions. Young black males, for example, are most apparent by their absence in the sales force of regional shopping malls – jobs coveted by white teenagers. On the other hand, young blacks willing to accept menial service jobs find themselves in a losing competition with new immigrants, not least because of clear employer opinions about labour “docility”. As a result, unemployment among black youth in LA County, despite unbroken regional growth and a new explosion of conspicuous consumption, remains at a staggering 45 per cent.

This bias in labour-market trends affecting young black men is so specific and extreme that it is no wonder that black scholars increasingly invoke the “endangered black male”, the “new black morbidity”, or white society’s de facto “declaration of war”. What is happening to black males in the labour market is only one dimension, albeit crucial, of the socio-economic crisis, the poverty, especially among the young; the dismantling of youth employment schedules; segregation in the schools; and cutbacks in youth policies, that has incubated the counter-economy of youth crime and drug dealing.

Revisiting the Watts riots nearly a generation after a famous pioneering study of its problems, UCLA industrial relations economist Paul Bullock discovered that conditions had grown far worse since 1965. At the core of community despair was endemic youth unemployment. The only rational option open to youth – at least in the neoclassical sense of individual economic choice – was to sell drugs. Indeed, as power resources in the community have declined, ghetto youth, refusing simply to become “expendable”, have regrouped around the one social organisation that seems to give them clout: the street gang.

Since the militarisation of federal drug enforcement in south Florida in 1982, Los Angeles, according to US attorney Robert Bonner, has displaced Miami as “the principal distribution centre for the nation’s cocaine supply”. At the street level, retailing is franchised to the gangs who run the so-called rock houses: fortified apartments or bungalows that act as drug convenience stores. In South Central LA, rock or crack houses are now more common than liquor stores; the police estimate that there are 150, maybe 200, houses, each turning over more than $5,000 per day (and $25,000 on welfare and social security cheque days). The rock houses – employing usually four youths: a leader, a setter, a guard and a lookout – transform the powder into the crystalline rock form suitable for smoking and sell it on.

Cocaine was until recently a glamour drug. Then, in 1983-84, $25 rock hit the streets of LA and a few other cities. It is important to remember that crack is not simply cheap cocaine, but a quite lethal form. Indeed, it is the most addictive substance known to science – an absolute commodity that permanently enslaves its consumers. As the street supply has burgeoned, gang rivalries have exploded into violent battles over sales territories and profits. The appearance of crack has given gang culture a terrible, almost irresistible momentum. Economic pathology, not surprisingly, is a more powerful causal factor than putative syndromes of “family breakdown” or “ghetto culture”. Which is not simply to reduce the gang phenomenon to mere economic determinism. Gang bonding has always offered a terrible and total love, a solidarity which closes out other empathies and transmutes self-hate into a festival of rage. But the Crips and Bloods – decked out in Gucci T-shirts and expensive Nike Air shoes, ogling rock dealers driving by in BMWs – are also authentic creatures of the age of Reagan. Their world-view, above all, is formed of an acute awareness of what is happening down on the Westside, where gilded youth, at moral degrees “less than zero”, practise the insolent indifference and hungry avarice that are probably also forms of street violence.

The shattering effects of gang violence and crack addiction upon lower-income communities pose urgent, and immensely difficult, problems for advocates of grass-roots politics and rainbow coalition. How to steer between support for the police on the one hand and ignoring the cries of desperation from terrorised working-class families on the other?

The tactical responses from the left have so far not been brilliant. Thus, Mark Naison, a distinguished historian of black history proposes “dramatic measures to break the stranglehold of criminal elements in poor neighbourhoods”. His programme includes placing “drug-related offenders in work camps in rural areas, physically removing them from the neighbourhoods, while new youth programmes are put in place”; “more vigilant law enforcement at the local level, something which community residents in every low-income neighbourhood have been demanding for years”; and “a national service requirement should be instituted immediately sending millions of middle-class youngsters into poor neighbourhoods to staff day-care centres and clinics, work in schools and community centres and set up programmes in theatre, music, and sports”.

The half-baked character of these proposals betrays the superficiality of analysis and the scant concern for juvenile civil liberties. And realistically, what strategy does he propose to generate the social resources to reconstruct the political economy of the inner city? Practically all the ideas put forward, like gun control, are almost irrelevant to the scale of the problem at hand. The first and greatest nightmare is rampant youth poverty and inequality – the reduction of our children to social refuse. For socialists this is the “deep structure” of the problem of juvenile crime that must take precedence in every discussion, whether of etiology or of treatment. Legalising cocaine will not alter the structure of minority youth employment or turn the gangs into pacifists. By the same token, to seek palliatives at the level of the “left law and order programme” in the name of the “working class” may be a worse delusion. Meanwhile, more repression only sows dragon’s teeth.

If, as Gates, Hahn and Bradley all maintain, the gangs really are an “urban guerrilla army” and this is really “war”, then only determination will ultimately conquer. The strictly punitive strategy, now embraced by all sides of the political establishment, including many blacks and liberals, will assuredly make the nightmare worse. The logic of civil libertarians has never been more compelling: the rights taken away from gang members will be rights denied all minority youth; the walls put around gangs will imprison whole communities; the police state once expanded will not easily be contracted.

[see also: George Floyd’s murder one year on: has the US changed?]

The social polarisation across Los Angeles, and late imperial America as a whole, has been internalised as a firestorm of self-violence within oppressed communities; it is not an uprising of the poor against the rich. The gangs are socially rooted in old-fashioned economic survivalism, the “getting your own piece” ethos that Americans worship. As the novelist Claude Brown reminds us: “The nation’s young crack dealers are merely pursuing the American dream through what they see as the only channel open to them – drug-dealing entrepreneurial ventures. True, it’s a high-risk endeavour, but so is life in America for minority youth. As they see it, what alternatives do they have?”

Yet we should never concede that this is a “lost generation”. As LA inner-city organisers constantly point out, the gangs flourish in part because more humane and radical role models were literally shot down by the police in the 1960s. Nothing is more important than an alternative model of youth culture and self-organisation, a different channel for passion and group-bonding that points towards the resumption of the struggle for liberation. It is disappointing that the immense excitement of the Rainbow Coalition has not been translated into the creation of a “Rainbow youth movement” of the inner cities, drawing from the examples of the SNCC, the Panthers, the “Comrades of Soweto”, and so forth. Like so much else, this remains both a dream deferred and a last hope.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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