Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Every Day, a Spoonful of Poison

(Editor’s note: Once more we welcome to this page Seamus Scanlon, a librarian and professor at The City College of New York, who today critiques a 2009 TV documentary that looks at the history of street gang violence in Southern California and its many victims.)

Crips and Bloods: Made in America, an Independent Lens production for PBS-TV, is a documentary, a soundtrack, a sociological and historical review, and a vivid dissection of the violence that young black men visit upon their own communities.

This film is also intended as an adjunct to the peace and reconciliation movements in Los Angeles founded and run by ex-gang members. Listening to the articulate and reflective people interviewed in the course of this 94-minute documentary, it is sobering to assess the waste of talent and potential behind the bald statistics--15,000 gang-related deaths over the last 40 years in L.A. County.

The fundamental question of why the internecine feud between the Crips and Bloods has gone untreated or unchecked since the 1970s is addressed in the movie, which was directed by Stacy Peralta. The irony of blacks killing blacks who share the same sidewalks, strip malls, poverty, neglect, urban decay, stigmatization, and color is analyzed, although it remains baffling. One cogent explanation is provided by the 62-year-old Kumasi, an original member of L.A.’s Slauson street gang (they used fists rather than Uzis): “Part of the mechanics of oppressing people is to pervert them to the extent that they become their own oppressors.”

Kumasi has spent 18 years in jail. He is a revelation--passionate, articulate, forceful, enunciating his sense of oppression and dismay with a voice made for paying attention to, with a timbre made for radio or television that you could listen to for hours. One scene in Crips and Bloods finds him recounting how the violence was precipitated in the Watts neighborhood during the mid-1960s. He remarks that “Every day he [the police, whites, The Man] is feeding me a spoonful of hatred. Every day that’s my diet, a spoonful of hatred.” Not surprisingly, the built-up resentment had to erupt somewhere, as it did in Watts and almost three decades later in the Rodney King uprising.

This documentary traces the genesis of the Crips and the Bloods, beginning in the ’60s with the disintegration of organized Black Power and civil-rights movements after the killings of influential African-American leaders such as Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King Jr. The territorial limits placed on blacks in Southern California’s largest city (and enforced with manic determination by racist elements of the L.A. police) fostered a mindset of claiming and protecting territory within the segregated area by various local youths. Those claims were often backed up by fistfights, engaged in at set times--everyone knew you had an appointment, so you had to make sure you were there. In that era, comparatively few guns or other lethal weapons were used against rivals.

But after the optimism of the Black Power period was quashed, the gangs re-initiated themselves--only this time, they were far more deadly. The Crips reportedly evolved from the Slausons. The Bloods (using a nickname that had formerly been employed by black soldiers in the Vietnam War) established themselves as the rival force to the Crips, and black-on-black homicides became the norm. Rival gang members died by the hundreds every year defending blocks to which they were confined by the LAPD. The “enemy” was not perceived as the Establishment, the ruling class, the government, the police; instead, it was the population of equally deprived black men and women living in the adjacent blocks, people who suffered the same paucity of schooling, skills development, and opportunities.

The main aim of director Peralta and his fellow filmmakers is to initiate a debate about gang warfare in Los Angeles. But they also want to make clear to viewers of all races what carnage this turbulent history has left behind--and ask how differently residents might have reacted had it been affluent white adolescents in Beverly Hills who were killing each other, rather than young African Americans in South Central L.A. and elsewhere. Actor Forest Whitaker, who narrates Crips and Bloods, has made another valid comparison. He cites the decades-long “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, which claimed the lives of approximately 3,600 people and prompted major political and disarmament initiatives, before a peace process finally took hold in the 1990s. No such efforts have been made to quell the hostilities in the City of Angels.

Even now, the main initiatives in L.A. come not from politicians or Nobel Prize winners, but from ex-gang members pushing education and increased communication. Crips and Bloods attempts to bolster that work by presenting a cogent, artistic, and urgent call to reverse the tide of remorseless murder. In one segment, we see the mothers of young men who have been killed on both sides, each of them facing the camera while the names of their sons scroll past. Most of those mothers are crying, all are grieving--and remember, there are thousands just like them in one small area of L.A. County.

The Crips and Bloods were made in America. The poverty, police brutality, white supremacy, and oppression were made in America. It’s high time that social justice was made in America, too.

Above: The trailer for Crips and Bloods: Made in America.

READ MORE:Strange Maps #479: Gangs of L.A.,” by Frank Jacobs
(Big Think).


Austin Carr said...

Poverty, police brutality, racism, and economic oppression were common long before America was discovered. And dealing drugs is a dangerous life. Does Seamus think the people killing each other get at least some of the blame?

Anonymous said...

Dear Austin,
Thanks for feedback. I believe everyone is responsible for their actions. I agree all those factors you mentioned were in effect long before America was colonized but is it acceptable that these conditions continue in the world's richest and country. 3000 dead in my country and there were commissions, world leaders trying to solve it. In LA 15,000 dead and no interest really in solving it.
Best, Seamus.

Conus Escargot said...

Hi Austin, for me assigning blame misses the point. The hatred causes violence, without the hatred there is less violence. Most forget humans are reciprocal beings, we give what we get. The less hate we give, the less hate we get.