The Gangs of L.A.

Do the black and brown lines in the sand amount to ethnic cleansing?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Los Angeles’ gang problem has many intricate and labyrinthine causes, all of which have been deconstructed and debated for literally decades. The gang culture in Los Angeles is a well-oiled and self-perpetuating institution with a remarkable capacity for self-renewal that probably best explains the durability of gangs in Los Angeles.

The recent debate about whether new shifts in gang-related violence amount to ethnic cleansing of African Americans has become a real spitting match (I am trying to keep this clean) between Los Angeles City Police Chief William Bratton and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.

But it speaks to the unending and always-evolving rationale that allows gang violence to remain a permanent part of the L.A. landscape.

Not long after the murder of 17-year-old African-American Jamiel Shaw by an alleged Latino gang member, whom many suspect was gunned down because of the color of his skin, Sheriff Baca penned a compelling opinion piece supporting his belief that gang-related violence in Los Angeles is becoming more racially motivated. Bratton counter-penned an equally compelling opinion piece citing statistics to show that the recent spike in gang-related violence in Los Angeles has more to do with a step-up in gang rivalry than racial tension.

It is befuddling. We don’t know what to believe. Why?

Because when a stray or errant bullet is not identified as the cause of taking an innocent African-American’s life—as has happen in some cases—then seemingly random, fatal violence has no explanation; yet it clamors for one.

The case of Jamiel Shaw seemed to fit the profile. He was reportedly a non-gang-affiliated, college-bound student athlete randomly struck down, in broad daylight, by a Latin youth that had ties to a notorious street gang. And he wasn’t the first African-American youth believed to have been randomly killed by a Latino gang member.

Los Angeles is still grappling with the murder of 14-year-old Cheryl Green who was killed in the Harbor Gateway area of the city in 2006 for crossing an implicit Mason Dixon line, a part of the block African Americans were not welcome in, by a rival Latino gang.

However, the initially untarnished image of Jamiel has been called into question. During the recent preliminary hearing for his accused murderer, details about Shaw’s alleged gang affiliation were introduced, including a belt he was reportedly wearing at the time of his murder that was emblazoned with a gang related emblem; and there was testimony from alleged friends saying he had gang ties and an alleged gang nickname.