Sunday, September 26th, 2004

Peace At Home: Gangs, Domestic Terrorism, and Three Strikes

Take note, this morning’s New York Times featured a very important article: “Tattoed Warriors”, that is likely to reopen the discussion about gangs and gang violence, perhaps even as a campaign issue.

William Bratton, LA’s top cop, has called gangs “domestic terrorists” and has restored the same gang task force units that led to the Rampart scandal. Gang Injunctions, a legal strategy that failed miserably a decade ago, have been making a comeback.

Gang violence dropped dramatically during the nineties, but since Bush has been in office, it has climbed sharply every summer in cities like Los Angeles and Oakland. Except in those cities, the media has been largely silent about the surge of gang violence. Is it because the rise has been directly related to the failure of Bush’s domestic and economic agenda?

The recent rise in gang violence has been an urgent issue largely for street activists, community organizers, social workers, and sociologists. That hasn’t been entirely a bad thing. In Los Angeles, for instance, two major peace summits have been held in the last 6 months, and peace workers are making strong headway in the community. It’s possible they’ve been able to do this precisely because Bratton’s alarmist, reactionary approaches have as yet failed to win national attention.

This year’s ballot in California features Proposition 66, an act to amend the 10-year-old Three Strikes Law to include only violent offenses as a third-strike. Right now polls show a solid majority of Californians ready to do the right thing and pass this initiative. It would be a shame if Bratton’s pronouncements brought back the hysteria and scapegoating of the early 90s, which led to so many of these horrible laws being instituted in the first place, just at a point a grassroots movement for change is on the verge of moving gang members and citizens in the right direction. The people working for domestic peace don’t need wild emotionalism, they need popular support.

posted by @ 12:35 pm | 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Peace At Home: Gangs, Domestic Terrorism, and Three Strikes”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Here is an article from I know that isn’t the reputable source, but I gotta agree with the basic premise: good relations between the police and community is the most effective way to prevent and prosecute homicides.

    The main problem for both Los Angeles and Oakland is that people aren’t willing to step forward and be witnesses and press charges.

    On a counter note, the LAPD said it has reduced auto theft by like 30%. They did it by busting a juvenile ring of car thieves. This small group of juveniles were responsible for, yup, about 30% of auto thefts. I suspect a similar phenomenon would apply to gangs, where the same gang members — if not prosecuted — will likely commit murders without cessation, until they are killed themselves or get busted for a non-homicide crime.

    Seriously, there are many neighborhoods where people will just watch someone get gunned down in cold blood. And when the police come around they will say they didn’t see anything.

    I think your insinuation that Bush might somehow have a hand in this — due to his “domestic and economic agenda — is extremely dubious. Los Angeles has had an INDEMIC gang problem. This is the biggest gateway city in the world and home to very large low income neighborhoods that are extremely isolated from the rest of the city. Even if the rest of the city were experiencing prosperity, without effective police policies, these areas would still find themselves subject to gang violence.

    I don’t know how Oakland stacks up against Los Angeles, but I think one of the main problems with Los Angeles is how it has developed. The population density is low, the public transportation system is possibly the worst of any major metropolis, and the sheer size of South and Central L.A. creates an economic and cultural isolation that allows for problems to go largely unchecked. Add to this, most of the poor neighboorhoods in Los Angeles are maybe 50% recent immigrants. These are people who usually immigrated from even more impoverished conditions, who don’t usually form close bonds with other cultures, and often view police as the uncorrupted civil servants.

    In other words, I would say it is as much the conditions of poverty, as it is as much the condition of poverty, as it is local city geography and the willingness of people in the community to confront the problem by banding together against gangs and working closely with the police. And, most importantly, having the courage to be witnesses in homicide trials.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Agree that the NYTimes piece is important and a must read.
    One assertion the article made that stuck with me: the powerful Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 street gangs in L.A. were started by the children of refugees from the U.S. sponsored civil wars in Central America of the 1980’s.
    –Sacha (

  3. Anonymous says:

    I just read the article. yeah, very interesting. I read an article about the 18th Street gang in the L.A. Times and it echoes the dynamic of people moving and setting up gangs in formerly gangless territory, or pushing out less violent gangs.

    The comparison of gangs to insurgencies makes me wonder if maybe people are just hell bent on violence. Maybe gangs are just an excuse. Like I said in my first post… it seems more of a sociocultural thing than a response to deteriorating economic conditions. If you look at all violence — gang, wars, insurgencies — and lump all violence into one category… maybe violence overall has actually been stable over the last 30 or 40 years. Hmm.

    I, personally, blame Ronald Reagan for this mess, but that’s only because Hamburgler is secretly best friends with Ronald McDonald.

  4. Jeff says:


    well yeah ok. the bush cheap shot, i mean you know me.

    but seriously, what i’m hearing from gang peace advocates are two things: one is that there’s a new generation of kids out there–this is the general five-year cycle of neighborhood change. it’s too much to go into here, but i do a little more in the book in discussing bronx gangs. in a nutshell, every five years a new generation of kids comes up and makes their imprint on everything from the style of hip-hop you’re listening to, the clothes you wear, to whether or not it’s safe to hang out after dark.

    the other factor–which is greater–is the economy. if kids are idle, they’re gonna fight. i just think that’s just common sense reality. god knows i’ve seen it in my life and folks around me all the time.

    note for instance, that even in la, the gang homicide rates plunged drastically for about ten years–that means two generations of kids got through adolescence with a minimum of violence. the first rise in gang homicide rates came in the summer of 2001, when summer job programs and gang prevention programs got axed due to budget cuts. i think the correlation is obvious. and it’s just gotten worse since 9/11, which uh of course leads us back to bush…

  5. Anonymous says:

    interesting comments about the cycle. yeah, certainly economics is a prerequisite. you gotta be poor to see thug life as a good option. but to me it seems there are still a lot of poor people who DON’T join gangs. If we can’t change the economy (pretty difficult), then we need to focus on other strategies. Again, these neighborhoods in L.A. with all the gang violence… my understanding is that poverty levels have remained low thoughout the last 20 years or whatever. The economic situation has remained about the same, yet the violence has gone up and down. That points to other factors at work.

    My point is that what we are facing is a youth culture that doesn’t value human life. This isn’t just crime on the individual level. This is gang warfare.

    The NYT article puts it in the proper perspective. These kids are acting like they are in a foreign country fighting in the jungles or something. Clearly, we know the family situations are a big factor. But I do wonder how much of a factor this “legacy” or cycle thing is.

    Definitely looking forward to reading your book, Jeff. Have you posted any other excerpts, aside from the JA stuff? Also, are you gonna have any advanced excerpts published?

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