Once upon a time in these United States, California was seen by the rest of the country as the land of milk and honey, a bastion of unlimited opportunity where anyone could discard their past troubles and reinvent themselves in the sunshine of the Golden State.

Time and the growth of civilization have revealed chinks in the foundation of this utopia, however. Among them are a variety of malaise and side effects, good and bad, that impact all societies, including the social unit with roots in that problematic bridge of adolescence between childhood and adulthood: the gang.

Always a staple of the process of growing up in every civilization, gangs as they exist within the context of this article manifested themselves during the economic and racial highs and lows of the late 20th century. The observations here are but a glimpse, of a very narrow perspective, of a vast issue.

Changing the hustle

“Anonymous” began his civil service career after the millennium, and is a decade long veteran of gang suppression in the L. A. metropolitan area. During a protracted phone call, he outlined the evolution of the gang economy, how narcotics are still a substantial source of income, but shifting times have encouraged progress (of Black gangs) into prostitution, home invasions, and burglary.

The progression of society brings increased complexity and sophistication, matched by the underworld’s methods to secure their ill-gotten gains. The cult of celebrity means that social media can be utilized to track the movements of athletes and entertainers who’ve achieved “baller status.” This means that the patronage of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter can provide the likelihood of when a given personality might be attending an event, leaving their lavish abode empty for an impromptu treasure hunt. For whatever reasons, these break-ins are not always reported, paving the way for a cottage industry of malfeasance with minimal risk.

Others within the set still opt for “ole school” blackmail and shakedowns. One nameless set targeted a high profile White owned car wash on the fabled Crenshaw strip. Confronting the proprietor about the small amount of Black employees in their establishment, they pressured him to hire members of their own individual clique.

The owner finally “sold out” to Hispanics. Today, the business exists successfully without any Black workers.

Wheels of the legal system: Pros and cons

“A gang injunction is a civil lawsuit requesting a restraining order against a group. It declares the group’s behavior a nuisance and asks for special restrictions on their activity. The suit names individual gang members, specifies a certain geographical area (often labeled as a “safety zone”) where the injunction applies and lists the exact activities gang members are prohibited from doing. Prohibited activities often include: wearing certain clothing, acting as lookouts, fighting, and taking illegal narcotics.”

—from the website https://www.legalmatch.com/

Legal injunctions as a gang suppression device were initiated in the late 20th century, than ramped up with the dawn of the millennium.

Ideally, these measures allow non-gang members to enjoy their neighborhoods free from the harassment of nefarious elements. Side effects of these efforts include the misidentification of innocents not linked to the criminal lifestyle. The CalGang®  System, a data base run by the California Department of Justice (DOJ), has weathered criticism because harmless individuals labeled as gang members find it difficult to have their names removed from the system even after being cleared of any allegations.

These and other concerns by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Youth Justice Coalition, and others led to a class action lawsuit which determined that the injunctions were illegal and unconstitutional. In a March 15 judgment, District Judge Virginia A. Phillips wrote that these injunctions “…impose significant restrictions on plaintiffs’ liberty.” (Coming in its wake will be case action suits and other counter arguments.)

Capt. Peter Whittingham is the commanding officer of the South Bureau Homicide Division (formerly the Criminal Gang-Homicide Division, a name change he suggested so as to avoid the provocative implications of the “g” word). Drawing on his decades of experience, he has a balanced outlook of the injunctions. What started out as a sound concept conceived with good intentions has been compromised, in his view, by inconsistencies in the execution of these edicts, and possible overzealousness on the part of the officers implementing them.

To substantiate the idea that the injunctions “…had value at one time,” he cites the judicial order directed at the Harpies street gang in the West Adams District, circa 2003-2005, an operation he personally was involved in.

Regardless of the methodology utilized, Whittingham maintains the larger issue is the rampant denial within the familial environment surrounding gang members and youngsters affiliated with these antisocial groups. To hammer home this point, he cites the July acquittal of Cameron Terrell, an 18-year-old Palos Verdes resident who allegedly drove the getaway car in a 2017 gang-related shooting in South Los Angeles. He believes that the fact that Terrell is White highlights the double standard that plagues the justice system (Whittingham and others maintain that this defendant’s race and status as a scion of affluence precluded him from the harsh indictments regularly handed out to minority youth).

Aqeela Sherrills made headlines when he and the late Tony Bogart brokered a 1992 truce between the traditionally antagonistic Crips and Bloods. Twenty-five  years later, he still believes these peace overtures are having a lasting effect in his native city, as he works as a consultant in conflict areas throughout the country and locales like Ireland and South Africa.

Sherrills applauds the recent settlement overturning gang injunctions throughout the county, noting these restraining orders had been deemed unconstitutional as far back as 2007. Instead of the positive impact intended, the injections had a reverse affect via disrupting the lives of those targeted, while implicating innocent bystanders.

Another down side of these injunctions is the likely removal of middle aged “O G’s” who are overly represented on the CalGang® roster. The arrest of these “shot callers” deprives the ‘hood of stabilizing influences on the younger “homies” responsible for much of the mayhem occurring on the streets, as covered in Our Weekly (see “Street Cleaners,” Sept. 23, 2015).

Curiously, nearby Pasadena has not utilized the injunction process, according to Lt. Javier Aguilar of the Pasadena Police Department’s Special Enforcement Section. Echoing the sentiments of Los Angeles activists, he reasons that such efforts cause more problems then they solve. In any event, gang violence is down for the past several years, abetted by the dwindling Black population within the city, says police spokesman Lt. Jason Clawson. This drop is further prompted by the accelerated cost of living, which pushes potential gangsters towards places like Palmdale and Lancaster. Those that remain maybe redirected from negative influences by non-profit programs like the Flintridge Center.

The other side of the coin

Weighing in on the debate is “Mr. Ben Davis” (not his real name), a born-and-bred Angelino, from the hardscrabble eastside. Through pluck and industrious labor, he eventually managed to get his piece of the pie in the form of lavish domain on the “Black man’s Beverly Hills”: Baldwin Hills. Balancing the “street cred” sensibility of his youth with his desire to live out his remaining years in suburban/urban splendor, he declared.

“Those injunctions work!”

In the early millennium, he was privy to nightly shootings choreographed in “The Jungle,” apartment complex below him. The festivities would begin with the crackling of automatic weapons, followed by a protracted silence as residents waited to see if the mayhem would continue. Soon, male African American voices would provide profanity laced commands, punctuated by the screams of female bystanders, eventually drowned out by the chopping roar of helicopters, then the siren of ambulances and police cars. Usually, the paramedics would arrive before law enforcement (one anonymous police acquaintance informed him that patrolmen generally do not drive directly to shootings, reasoning that the damage is already done and getting there early increases the likelihood of encountering the

assailants, thus jeopardizing their chances of finishing their shift unharmed).

With the advent of judicial intervention, Mr. Davis began to enjoy the relative peace of quiet evenings, with regular sightings new-comer White people walking their dogs. During infrequent jaunts down the hill, he even sees Whites traversing the streets of the Jungle (now called Baldwin Village to overshadow the turmoil of its recent past. (Publisher’s note: as this article went to press, a random shooting transpired on the evening of Oct. 23, resulting in one fatality.)