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Jumping Out: Leaving Gang Life in LA

Publishser: Clamor
Date: January/February 2002
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It's closing in on 7 p.m. and Shadie just isn't feeling up to it tonight. He's evasive; his eyes are shifting from the faded and racked veneer of the parking lot off the Boulevard to the space behind Brownie who's talking in staccato bursts about retaliation for some tagged-over graffiti.

"You're stupid, fool. How are you gonna go slashing when you see how many cops are over there? Shadie asks his friend, who, at around five-foot five with a dark complexion and white T-shirt that looks about a size or two too big, has the reputation for being as vicious as a cornered wolverine.

"I'm just sick of looking stupid, fool," he says.

"Then stand up straight then."

Tagged-over graffiti, especially in gang territory, is a violation often requiring swift retribution and, just as often, dangerously repaid. And for a relatively small, primarily Hispanic gang like Psycho Ass life, retaliatory slashing through a Mara Salvatrucha graffito means more than simple retribution against the much larger, more violent, and mostly Salvadoran gang. But despite Brownie's cajoling and the opportunity to reclaim what's theirs, it's apparent Shadie's not coming. With his 8 p.m. probation curfew approaching, Brownie leaves, armed with spray paint, alone. Shadie leans against a beat-up black Topaz and says, "Now this fool is going to tell everyone, 'Oh, I think Shadie is changing. He chose a security guard and a parking lot over us.'"

Breaking Away

Shadie, known by most people as Vicente Gonzalez, is getting used to this, however reluctantly. Like more than 200,000 others, Vicente is a Los Angeles gangbanger, and at 20 years old, maybe he's already seen enough. Shootings, stabbings, jumping fools, and getting jumped himself—maybe he's growing out of it. Maybe the angst is working its way out of his system. Maybe he's tired of getting hit up by other gangs; maybe he's tired of walking around strapped or seeing his friends locked away on multiple life sentences. But getting out is, of course, easier said than done.

He is by no means a burnt-out and retired gang member. He keeps his hair razor short and his eyes betray a sense that he can turn from his usual comedic self to a brutal realist in a second. He sometimes brings his silver .357 Magnum to work and he'll flip the revolver open to show his friend six bullets in six chambers. In May, he shot into a group of MS members who were jumping another friend. One was hit in the tailbone and remains paralyzed, while the condition of the other, whom Shadie shot point-blank in the chest, remains unknown. But he brings the strap mostly for his friends Lazy (Jonathan), Grumpy (Carlos), and others who drift in and out of the area. "My friends want to borrow my toy," he laughs. "They want to bring World War III to L.A. Something must have happened."

At first glance, it's difficult to label the bright, funny, young man as a violent gangbanger. "When I was growing up, I always had people who were older and cared about me," he says. "And that's fucked up because some of my friends come from the streets, like they have nothing , so they're like 'Fuck the world.'" But the gang influence was present much earlier, when his family lived in a sketchy apartment complex unremittingly surrounded by gang activity. Vicente would occasionally deliver drugs and packages for them so he could buy birthday presents for his family and flowers for his grandmother.

When he was suspended in 10th grade at St. Gregory's, a private school off Crenshaw, Vicente's parents sent him to live with his cousins in Montebello as punishment while the rest of the family vacationed in Mexico. This proved to be his official introduction to gang life in southern California. "That was their mistake, because my cousins were all gang related, and when I came back I had a shaved head and was dressing all big and baggy," he says. His adoption of the gangster appearance eventually got him kicked out of St. Gregory's, and his parents, for the first time, sent him to public school in the Valley. He soon transferred to a closer school in Hollywood where he began associating heavily with other gangsters.

But mere association, though the law states very differently, wasn't enough for Vicente to become gang-related. "There was this guy and he was always saying, 'Come in with me,' but I'd say, 'No, fool. That's not my style,'" he explains. "I didn't like walking around having to worry." It took a fight with another crew called CNE (Crime Never Ends) for him to become fully involved. "I was standing there watching my friend get jumped and I was like, 'Fuck, I got to pick a side.'" From there he joined Psycho Ass Life, which was formed from a band of underdog graffiti artists who were tired of getting jumped by rival crews. Compared to the notorious 18th Street gang, or La Deciocho, which has nearly 20,000 members, more than 40 years of history, and more territory than officials can comprehend, PAL was a premature fetus. And from there came names like Shadie, Lazy, Grumpy, Chuky, and others like Creeper, Profit, and Shyboy.

It was Shyboy who became best friends with Shadie when he transferred schools. They'd gone to St. Gregory's together years before, and now with both of them gangbanging, there was little to separate the two. "I had so much respect for Shyboy," Vicente says. He was still maintaining himself in school, joining a literature club, and getting decent grades even with gangbanging a big part of his life. "I was doing good until I met my homeboys," Vicente says. "I don't really regret it, but they changed my life."

That change came rapidly in March 2000, when CNE members jumped a PAL member outside the school. "My homeboy Shyboy called me up and said it's time to do something," he recalls. "They planned to page Shadie and have him skip a school assembly the next day and meet up with a Shyboy and another PAL member outside. Together they would jump a CNE kid named Anthony*, just take him down and beat the shit out of him. But Vicente missed the page and was sitting in the auditorium while something outside was going terribly wrong very quickly. Anthony ended up getting stabbed to death, and Vicente ended up getting fingered as the one who did it. "Two girls saw it," he says. "They knew one, but not the other one. The only person who fit his description was me."

He was quickly arrested and charged with Anthony's death. "[The police] didn't care as long as they closed the case," Vicente says. "I was fucked. They asked me, 'How come you're getting so mad?' And I said, 'You're talking about me doing a murder, how do you want me to react about this?'" His friends eventually turned themselves in, but it still wasn't over for him. "Everyone said, 'They already think it's you, you might as well admit it was you,'" Vicente says. "Shyboy has a little girl and I kept thinking about it." But would he have taken the blame for Shyboy had he asked? "Yes," he says. "Definitely."

School wasn't through with Vicente either. "They said, 'It's not safe for you here. Just come back next year,'" he says. "And I was like, 'Fuck that, I've only got three months left to graduate.'" He returned to his first public school in the Valley where he was met with an authoritarian administration. "They said, 'You want to come here? Well, let your hair grow; wear your glasses. Wear big pants and we'll kick you out, and if we see you hanging out with baldheads, we'll kick you out,'" he says. In June, Shadie graduated, having to take the MTA every day since the school saw him as a threat to the rest of the students. It's been over a year since then, and "Fuck," he says. "A year has passed and I think 'What the fuck has happened?'

"I'm stupid because I want to get out [of gang life], because I know I could do better, you know? But I'm confused. I don't want to leave just to get out."

Gang Wars in California

The state of California, however, can provide plenty of reasons for him to get out. California is the leader in the U.S. clampdown on gangs with action often raising critics' questions of whether the state has declared war on crime or youth. From neighborhood injunctions to Proposition 21, California has passed nearly 1,000 anti-gang statues since the late 1980s, and jail time for criminals identified as gang members has been increasing steadily. And as more and more members fill the world's third-largest prison system, after the United States itself and China, the legal requirements dictated for gang membership become increasingly broad.

The Supreme Court in 1997 overturned a 1995 appellate court's decision, making constitutional an injunction that, according to an ACLU article, imposed a fine of up to $1,000 or six months in jail for "engaging in such legal activities as being seen in public with another 'known gang member,' talking to someone inside a car, climbing a tree, making loud noises, wearing certain clothing, or carrying marbles, screwdrivers, pens, pagers, and spark plugs." Amitai Schwartz, an attorney with the ACLU, stated that "The enthusiastic affirmation of anti-gang injunctions by the state's highest court adds momentum to the broad movement... across the country that advocates criminalizing non-criminal conduct, if such conduct is engaged in by people out of favor—justifiably or not—with the social mainstream."

Indeed, it seems that many of the gang injunctions and anti-gang statutes passed in California are used as political footballs rather than to quell the gang problem. Alejandro Alonso, the man behind the Streetgangs.com Web site, says the laws not only inflate gang statistics, but also the notion of racial profiling. "These injunctions are criminalizing people of color and in doing so, they are oppressive," he says in a phone interview. "You only find [injunctions] in communities that pose a threat to affluent neighborhoods. The communities that actually need these injunctions are being ignored.

"These are moves that highly effective for politicians. Everyone wants to hear 'tough on crime.' But on the streets they actually solve very little—gangs will just avoid the area defined by the injunctions, and another area inherits the nuisances, loitering, drug dealing, etc."

California's Gang Enhancement Statute (GES) set the standard for packing the burgeoning state prison complex with gang members, laying out some of the broadest criteria possible within constitutional bounds. In an article by Michael Slate for Revolutionary Worker, the statute is said to "make gang membership a crime," by designating gang members as "anyone active in a criminal street gang, defined by three or more people involved in criminal activity, [which] can be punished with one year in jail—it doesn't matter if the person committed a crime or not." The statute also defined gang membership as anyone who fits at least two of the following descriptions: you admit you are in a gang, you associate with gang members, your name is mentioned by gang members, you wear baggy clothing or "gang-style" jewelry or tattoos, you throw gang signs, you write gang graffiti, or you write to or receive letters from gang members in prison. Add to this the liberty of the "probable cause" stop, and you've got a system that routinely targets young minorities as criminals.

March 2000 saw the enactment of the Youth Crime Initiative, a.k.a. Proposition 21. Like the GES, this law sought to solve the gang problem by targeting youth—but instead of marking them on the streets, Proposition 21 aims at youths in the court system. Children as young as 14 can be charged as adults for special-circumstances homicides, one-strike sex offenses, and a number of other crimes, including hate crimes and crimes against the elderly or disabled. Gang-related carjacking, home invasion robbery, and drive-by shootings require a 15-year minimum sentencing. Active gang recruitment is also punishable by three years in state prison. The law targets graffiti as well, lowering the felony damage claim from $50,000 to $400. Misdemeanor charges can be elevated felony levels if there is a gan connection, and the statue puts minors 16 or older who are convicted in adult court in the California Department of Corrections instead of the California Youth Authority.

Homicide is a special case for Proposition 21, adding a minimum of 10 years to any gang-related murder, regardless of whether the act was gang-motivated or not. "They look at it as beyond the usual murder," Alejandro Alonso says. "In Chicago, a gang-related murder has to be motivated by gang affiliation, not an individual act. L.A. is very unique in that regard of defining a [gang-related] homicide, because it's not defined by motivation of a gang. Just being a gang member is enough to be indicted."

The results of these laws can be devastating to the youths targeted by these statutes. In the case of Michael Duc Ta, an alleged member of the Asian Boyz, gang laws left him sentenced with 35 years to life for a drive-by shooting in which no one was killed or seriously injured. Ta, who was 16 at the time, would have faced seven years for the attempted murder, but under gang laws, the charge increased to 15 years, and the gun charge added another 20 years. Serious questions arose from the fact that prosecutors never fully proved Ta was a gang member—a charge he's always denied.

Jumping Out

It's 9 p.m. on a Saturday and Vicente's family has gathered in the gym of St. Gregory's for his sister's quinceanera party. He's dressed in a dark gray suit adn he's talking and laughing with family friends and relatives while Lazy and Grumpy patiently hang out in the middle of the courtyard. They're walking in circles, talking shit on each other, shadowboxing, feeling restless. Carlos, who cuts a very intimidating figure with his broad shoulders and thick arms marked with PAL tattoos, has six or seven keloid scars on the back of his shaved head from "when I was running from a gang of fools and they cracked me on the head with a tee-ball bat." Like Shadie, Carlos was a good student in high school before getting expelled for fighting one week before graduation. "I had As and Bs so they couldn't say shit about a baldhead doing nothing," he says. He seems angry, but his dark, burning eyes change quickly from bitterness to regret. "A week away from graduation and then my whole life went down the drain. In one minute my whole life went down the drain," he says.

It's that kind of lament that makes Carlos, like Vicente, such a conundrum: he can almost watch himself in third person and isn't oblivious to the likelihood that this kind of lifestyle is going to get him either dead or imprisoned. He has hopes and wishes beyond gang life, which seems to point to the belief that gangbanging is a phase out of which he'll eventually grow. "Once I get my GED, I"m out of this shit," Carlos says. "I want to join the Marines. I want to disappear. I'll make it, I hope."

Later that night, Vicente and Carlos return to Jonathan's apartment off Wilshire in West L.A. In the corner, Jonathan's resumé is draped lazily overtop a computer. Jonathan is tall, has a strong love for writing and books, and though his hair is cut short, it isn't shaved. Without him telling you, it would be difficult to pin him as a gang member, but underneath the expensive dress shirt are PAL tattoos. "I'm a schoolboy, straight up; my friends know I'm a schoolboy," he says. "Once I got jumped with Grumpy, and there were like five of those fools and my backpack was like 90 pounds and I just went in swinging that thing." On his coffee table are pages of hip-hop lyrics he's written about gang life, and most start with typical gangster fashion before drifting off to ask when it's all going to stop. In the dim lighting of his apartment, as he's wiping up spilled beer from his rug and grumbling about losing his security deposit, it seems like Jonathan will be the first of the three to make it out.

***

It's now 11 a.m. in August and Vicente has been waiting outside L.A. County jail for five hours to see Lazy and Grumpy. The first week of July they were arrested at that same apartment for attempted murder. There is no hiding their gang affiliation: their tattoos speak for them before they can open their mouths. They face at least 10 years each, with gang charges that can bring it to 25 to possible life in prison. Jonathan and Carlos are both 19 years old.

Vicente still lives the disjointed life of the disinclined gangbanger. In the three years he's been in PAL, he's gone from a prominent member to a peripheral one, and his absence has not gone unnoticed. "Older guys, like 25 or 26, who have kids, are coming back out," he says. "And they say, 'Where's Shadie?' It makes it so much harder. When I did the shooting, everyone said 'I knew you'd be back.' But that was the last bullshit." Though his ambiguity is running thin with the friends he feels he cannot rid himself of completely and with whom he cannot heavily associate, it seems that these same friends are what's keeping him locked in a cycle that pits its constituents in a dangerous and violent struggle for respect and recognition before spitting them out into the prison system. "I think everyone fucks shit up, and I've had my time," he says. "I want to move away from all that little by little, just let it fade away."

But even with three of his best friends facing long prison terms, will there ever be a time when he won't claim PAL as his neighborhood? "That's a tough one," he muses, not making eye contact, and seeming to waver again, avoiding the question. "I know I have to handle my shit, but I don't want to be away from everything and come back to find out my homeboys got killed or are in jail. We've always been together; it all started because we were in a tagging crew and we didn't like getting dissed. If we didn't trust in each other, we wouldn't be here. The whole reason we're here is because we believe in each other."

 

 

*"Anthony" is a pseudonym used because the case against Shyboy was still in court at the time of writing.

† Due to an editorial error, this article first appeared as "F****** Rough" in the original publication. This version has the correct title.

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