The Gangs of L.A.

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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.

Shaw's parents maintain that their son was never a gang member. The fact that there is no record of Shaw ever being arrested and no record of him being affiliated with any gang seems to support his parents' claim.


I believe that gang culture is highly seductive and alluring. As a parent, I don't think we fully understand how bewitching it really is. While many young people do not actually join gangs, they often can't escape having gang affinity. It's a seduction many youth succumb to in order to assimilate within their peer group, to gain acceptance or to survive in neighborhoods that are strongholds of particular gangs. Consequently, they sometimes innocuously embrace its mores, symbolism, fashion, trappings and paraphernalia. They walk close to the line without actually jumping over it. Unfortunately, they often do get painted with the same broad stroke. It's a dangerous dance, and it can be a fatal flirtation.

My parents used to say that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and talks like a duck, others are sure to assume it is a duck. And in duck-hunting season, we can lose a lot of innocent lives.


Veronica Hendrix is a journalist and television producer based in her native of Southern California.