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The Myth of L.A.'s Race War

Former gang members say the violent Los Angeles jail riots aren't about race; they're about power and pain.
 
 
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J.R. has spent 12 of his 28 years behind bars for attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and discharging a firearm, among other things. His broad back is covered with tattoos of women, marijuana leaves, cars, guns. The images were etched into him with a tattoo gun made from a Walkman motor, a guitar string and a single needle. Like the majority of men behind bars in Los Angeles County, J.R. was a gang member. Which gang, he declines to say.

The calculated intimidation factor of his tattoos and his gangbanging past were necessary for survival during his years on the streets and in prison, and are now necessary for his job. Amidst the brightly colored buildings of Hispanic East L.A., J.R. works as a motivational speaker for Homies Industries, a cornerstone of L.A.'s community of gang intervention organizations. He has been rehabilitated, not by the system but by the combination of parenthood, religion and the realization that gang life almost inevitably leads to prison or death. In the neighborhoods he works, kids are more likely to listen to tattooed ex-cons than cops or teachers, and this ex-con is hoping to steer kids away from gang life and toward education and jobs.

J.R. is not alone in this mission. Over the last couple of decades, a cadre of reformed gangsters has created a community that exists in a netherworld between law enforcement and gang life, working to prevent crime and simultaneously keep the trust and respect of gang members. Along with Homies Industries, there are organizations like Unity One, Unity T.H.R.E.E., Homies Unidos, Amer-I-Can and NO GUNS, which negotiate ceasefires between rival gangs, and provides tattoo removal, job training and life skills classes. The gang intervention workers know what goes on in the streets, jails and prisons better than pretty much anyone else. And recently, they have felt a sense of familiar wariness at the news of the violent, racially charged riots that erupted in L.A. County's jails.

Credit: AFP/Robyn Beck
Credit: AFP/Robyn Beck

For more than two weeks, headlines have been telling the story of sporadic violence inside the jails that has led to two deaths. The first articles reported that so-called brown-on-black violence began when the Mexican Mafia greenlighted Latino gang members to attack African-American inmates. Later, the sheriff's department said white inmates began the attacks on a black inmate, Wayne Tiznor, the first man to be killed. Though the stories about what sparked the riots have changed, the race war hype stuck.

"When you're on the outside looking in, you are looking for a political answer. And calling it a race riot is the quickest political answer," says J.R., who is Latino. It's both a sensational and digestible way to frame the crisis. "It's like 'Ten o'clock tonight! Mexicans killing blacks! Only on Fox 11 News!' That's what grabs people's attention." But really, he says, "it's about power, money, and dope."

The race-riot narrative simplifies and masks a much more complex tragedy in which racism may be the result of violence, but not its cause. L.A.'s sorely inadequate jails are the setting for a story that has many more antagonists than heroes. And it is a tragedy that begins and ends in the neighborhoods where many of L.A.'s inmates come from -- Compton, Boyle Heights, Inglewood and East L.A. -- where gang intervention workers like J.R. are working to calm the waters and dispel the destructive myth of a new black-Latino race war.

Power and insignificance

Feb. 4: "In rioting triggered by racial tensions, more than 2,000 inmates went on a four-hour rampage Saturday at a maximum-security jail in Castaic, leaving one prisoner dead and nearly 50 others injured." --L.A. Times

"This is more about power, not about whether Latinos hate blacks. It's about who gets to decide what's on television," says Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded Homies Industries and is a highly respected leader of gang intervention in L.A. "I think this has very little to do with race." Father Boyle's statement may sound dismissive, but it is true that the flames of large scale violence behind bars are often sparked by seemingly insignificant things.

For example, Shonteze Williams, a gang intervention worker who spent years in Corcoran State Prison remembers a battle in 1998 that began when a Latino inmate cut in front of a black inmate while they were waiting to use the phone. The ensuing melee involved hundreds of men and left Williams with 22 stitches in his arm. Williams says black and Latino inmates automatically divided along racial lines in the fight, because "you have to stick with your own." It's this kind of group mentality that leads to a "never-ending game" behind bars, says Williams.

At an emotional level, incarceration is the act of stripping someone of their self-determination, and in a street culture that values masculine pride, power and dominance, this is acute. Any minor affront is fraught with the possibility of violence.

"It's a little bit like rape. Rape has nothing to do with sex. It has to do with power," says Father Boyle. The violence manifests along a racial divide, but racism is not the cause. Steve Whitmore, Sheriff's Department spokesman, recognizes this as well: "The conflict was divided along race, but the reason it happened was that it is the culture of the jails. What fuels the fights is the tension in the jails."

Violence has erupted frequently in L.A.'s jails, where overcrowding, understaffing and underfunding have historically been part of the system. In the last few months, seven major fights have been reported in L.A.'s jails, and in the Men's Central facility alone, eight inmates were murdered in under three years. The jails saw similar rioting in 2000, 1996, 1985 and 1972.

Since the riots began, the county has been in a tailspin of fingerpointing. "Who should the fall person be? They try to make [Sheriff] Lee Baca the fall guy. Or they try to blame the county," says Bo Taylor, founder of the gang-intervention organization, Unity One. "Well, it should be society. We allowed this to happen."

These problems are not confined to L.A. County jails or California's prisons, but are part of the larger prison industrial complex set up across the nation. Similar stories are told everywhere of corrupt corrections officers, inmate hierarchies, overcrowding, mistreatment, and -- always -- violence. What's unique to California is its historic reliance on segregation as a method of managing inmates.

Riots and segregation

Feb 5: "Violence broke out again late Sunday, this time at the Pitchess Detention Center North 10 inmates were injured in the violence that broke out just before 10:30 p.m. at Pitchess. [Deputy Alba] Yates said the incident involved approximately 170 Latino and 35 black inmates who 'divided on racial lines and fought'." --L.A. Times

Bo Taylor is a clean-cut black man with a bald head, neatly trimmed goatee, and a tattoo on his inner forearm that reads "God's First" in an elaborate script that takes a moment to decipher. "I've had this 14 years," Taylor says. "People look at it and see something negative before they even read what it says. But that's OK. I want people to prejudge us," he says, because people need to realize their initial judgments are often wrong. "They say you can't judge a book by its cover. I say you can't judge a book by its first chapter."

Taylor does not have an office; he conducts meetings in a Mexican diner housed in a bowling alley near mid-city Los Angeles, and is interrupted every four minutes by the ring of his cell phone. When the discussion turns to the jail riots and segregation, Taylor sighs.

Gang intervention workers repeatedly say that segregation is necessary right now simply to save lives. In the same breath, they say cops and the penal system reinforce the racial antagonism.

"Most inmates have a 6th- or 7th-grade education level," Taylor says. "They don't know how to make decisions. They have no tools to figure things out, and once the media gets involved they start saying things that aren't necessarily true and adding fuel to the fire," he says, referring to the racial component of the coverage. "When you look at a jail, you look at groups of whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and then others. People can't use the same phones, or use the same toilets. Someone has implemented a system based on racism."

For decades, California segregated its prison inmates by race. Last year, a Supreme Court decision outlawed the practice and the state is still in the midst of changing its segregation policies. L.A. County has followed suit, stating that it will only segregate inmates in times of emergency. That time came when the riots began Feb. 4, and since then deputies have segregated some jails by race and ethnicity largely in attempts to protect black inmates, who are outnumbered by Latinos.

"It makes it easier for them to control you, but it promotes hatred. There are boundaries set up by the institutions," says Ralph, a Latino volunteer for Taylor's organization and an ex-con who was released from prison last year. (Like many former gang members, he declined to give his last name.) "It's hard to say if it would be better without segregation. It's been etched into prison life."

Taylor believes that segregation is appropriate now, but still holds that race has been used as the scapegoat. "You have to take into consideration that [if you are incarcerated], you don't have a job, you don't have a house or a car, you might not even have a family when you come out. You are a frustrated person! To say it is a race riot is a blanket statement."

Gangs and communities

Feb. 8: "Nearly 500 inmates fought Wednesday in racially charged melees at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic, marking a fifth day of violence in the Los Angeles County jail system and underscoring officials' inability to stop unrest tied to street conflicts between Latino and black gangs." --L.A. Times

Shonteze Williams Sr. euphemistically calls gangs "communities." His community is the Harlem 30 Crips.

Williams is careful to differentiate between gangbangers -- those who commit crimes and use violence -- and gang members, who are part of the "community" but not necessarily part of the criminal element. "I still have a gangbanger's heart but not a gangbanger's mind," says Williams, who considers himself the voice of reason and peace within the Crips.

Sitting in an office in South Central L.A. that relies entirely on donations and volunteers, Williams talks about the camaraderie of gang life and his belief that gang members can help make positive changes. He believes you don't have to leave the gang to do that: "To be giving back to the community you grew up in, that you used to cause havoc in? Man, that's a beautiful thing."

Williams understands what a lot of law enforcement bureaucrats fail to recognize -- that gang life offers a powerful sense of belonging, the thrill of street life, and a surrogate family to replace absent fathers and strung-out mothers. The group adhesiveness is based partly on a common enemy, and gangs operate much like their own nations by protecting borders, finding symbolism in "flags" or colors, and declaring war on rival gangs. The national values are pride and dominance. Rules are enforced by violence and intimidation.

The rules that apply in jail are established out here, where even during ceasefires men are afraid of looking weak. Williams helped negotiate a ceasefire among 12 gangs that began after the death of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a founder of the Crips who was executed in December. Even then, those agreeing to the ceasefire were not agreeing to turn the other cheek, says Williams; only not to be the aggressors. "But either way the result is the same -- peace. And credit needs to be given to the gang members for doing that."

A large part of what gang intervention workers do is control rumors and calm tensions before retaliation takes place. On this particular night, Williams plans to get some information on a recent shooting that left a teenager dead. He hopes to comfort family members and simultaneously quell any plans for vengeance. The community of gang intervention workers across L.A. is hoping to do the same on a larger scale.

Williams is part of an effort to strategize how to keep the peace on the streets when hell breaks loose in the jails. The Unity Collaborative, a gang-intervention network made up of five Los Angeles area agencies, brought together a dozen black and Latino gang-intervention leaders in San Pedro, Calif., just south of William's office.

"It's a war out there," one man says at the meeting. Heads nod in agreement. Discussions roam from the current ceasefire in South Central, the peace-building process that is still underway, and the most recent casualty of the jail riots -- a black inmate who died Feb. 12. By the end of the meeting, a mixture of wariness mingled with dogged hope emerged as the men went around the conference table sharing their woes. One spoke about the need for blacks to be unified, another about the upcoming funeral of a 16-year-old who was shot by the cops the day before. There is clearly no immediate end to violence between gangs in or outside of jail, but it is obvious that preventative measures must continue. The men around the table remind themselves that they can't save every life, but that they must keep going in order to save some.

Silence and fear

[Feb. 17: "Skirmishes between black and Latino inmates broke out again Friday night at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic Six inmates were slightly injured, including four who were taken to a hospital, after more than three dozen prisoners scuffled." --L.A. Times

On Saturday, Feb. 18, the parking lot at the inmate reception center in Pitchess is desolate. As she drives up and catches sight of a piece of paper declaring "No Visits," Elizabeth Schultz feels the wind of hope knocked out of her. Her boyfriend was arrested on drunk driving charges Feb. 6 and since been awaiting trial in the North County Correctional Facility, the same building where the most recent fighting took place. Schultz has been unable to communicate with him because of the lockdown. No mail was allowed in or out until a couple days ago, and inmates are still prohibited to make phone calls or receive visitors. Only the sparsest bit of information is available on the county's inmate information phone line and website, and even that has been more confusing than helpful.

Meanwhile, newspaper headlines continued their story of regular race riots being quashed with tear gas, "sting balls" and rubber pellets. Inmates are punished by having privileges taken away, including showers, and most recently, clothes. According to a Feb. 19 New York Times article, deputies attempted to "calm" inmates by taking away their mattresses and forcing them to strip, leaving only blankets to cover themselves.

Now, in the cold breeze that gusts across the inmate reception center's parking lot, Schultz peers through the gate, even though the actual jail buildings are behind the hills, far from view. The faint, unnerving sound of gunshots echoes through the air. Every few minutes another car ventures in, another family checks to see if visits are allowed today. A father comes and goes, a mother, a neighbor. A guard at the employee entrance road tells Schultz the jail will probably be on lockdown for another couple weeks. He has no other information.

Schultz brushes away tears as she drives away. She is beginning to feel the frustration and outrage at the system gang-intervention workers have been dealing with for decades.

"California's answer to gangs is 25-to-life for teenagers," J.R. says. His voice rises in disgust. "You can rape a woman or molest a kid and be out in a few years. That's messed up."

As for the jail riots, J.R. declares, "I don't see no color lines. I see struggle and pain."

Maria Luisa Tucker is an AlterNet staff writer.