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Gang Stereotypes in the Docket

Increasingly, prosecutors are trying to tag young black defendants with gang labels to help them win convictions. The Long Beach hate crimes trial is a stunning example.
 
 
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When the tall thin black teen with a ponytail took the stand to testify in his defense, the prosecutor loudly shouted at him from across the courtroom, “You’re a naughty, nasty gangster Crip.” His attorney hit the roof and the judge admonished the prosecutor to tone it down. But the charge that Anthony Ross is a predatory gang member hung heavy in the courtroom air.

Ross is the sole male defendant in the Long Beach Hate Crimes trial in which he and nine teen black teen girls are charged with beating three white women on Halloween night in Long Beach, California. The trial drew national attention when prosecutors slapped the teens with an added racially motivated hate crime charge.

But the added tag on Ross as a violent gangster raised yet another troubling issue in the explosive, racially charged case. That issue is whether black males are reflexively typed as gang members no matter their background. Ross is a clean-cut young man with no prior criminal record. There’s no hint, other than the prosecutor’s name calling, that he’s had any gang involvement. The prosecutor’s gang affiliation accusation could be easily dismissed as a routine case of a prosecutor engaging in courtroom theatrics to score points with the judge and to get a conviction.

But it’s much more than that. The gang label is a legal tactic that more prosecutors are using in courtrooms across the country to help win convictions against young black male defendants especially in murder and assault cases. They haven’t stopped with simply gang typecasting. They use violent rap lyrics found on or written by black defendants to also gain convictions.

The prosecutor went one better with Ross. She cited his MySpace page and insisted that the letters in his space name were a secret code for Crip Killer.

Prosecutors say rap lyrics, and in the case of Ross’s MySpace name, show their gang affiliation, and provide motive, intent and the state of mind of the defendants that commit violent crimes. Defense attorneys dispute this and say this confuses art and life and doesn’t establish motive or intent. They say that prosecutor’s use of rap lyrics is a subtle play on the prejudices of largely middle-class juries to get convictions.

Prosecutors get away with the tagging of young men such as Ross as a gangster in part because more young black males than ever are winding up a courtroom docket and many of them do have gang ties. The plague of gang killing and violence and murders in Los Angeles and other big cites has fueled even more intense public fear and a backlash against black lawbreakers.

But the gang tag against Ross sticks neatly in even greater part because of the relentless media and public tagging of young black males as gangsters. When some young blacks turn to gangs, guns and drugs, and terrorize their communities, much of the press busily titillates the public with inexhaustible features on the "crime prone," "crack plagued," "blood stained streets" of the ghetto. TV action news crews routinely stalk black neighborhoods filming busts for the nightly news.

The explosion of gangster rap and the spate of Hollywood ghetto films convinced many Americans that the gang lifestyle is the black lifestyle. They had ghastly visions of the hordes of gang members heading for their neighborhoods next. The overwhelming majority of the victims of gang attacks are blacks, and the violence almost is exclusively confined to battles over drugs and turf control in poor urban neighborhoods.

But with public panic over gangs, and with few accurate numbers on just how many urban youth are actually gang members, some police and city officials play fast and loose with the numbers. In Los Angeles, police claim that more than 700 gangs with 40,000 members ply the streets of the city committing murder and mayhem. Police and city officials have tossed similar colossal figures on gang affiliation around in other big cities.

The gang numbers, whether real or wildly inflated, stir even greater public clamor for lawmakers, police and prosecutors to clean the streets of violent gang members. That includes using gang sweeps, court injunctions, stiff adult prison terms and incarceration for teens, and holding accused teens indefinitely in juvenile jail detention. The Long Beach defendants have been held without bail since Halloween night.

The gang tag on Ross, though there’s no proof that he is a gang member, was more than enough for the prosecutor in Long Beach to try and toss the book at him. He and the other defendants vigorously protest their innocence, and there is much doubt whether some or even most of them actually took part in the attack. But if the judge convicts them, that almost certainly will trigger even more debate over whether they were convicted because of a vicious hate assault or because they fit a vicious racial profile. In the end, it could be both.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.

 
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