As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, February 09, 2009

Crips And Bloods: The Manifestation of a Failed Prison Policy

The Stacy Peralta-directed documentary Crips And Bloods: Made In America looks at the history of gangs in South Los Angeles over the last 50 years, and the violent civil war on the streets that has raged for the past 30, killing as many as 15,000 residents, three times as many as in the Unionist/Catholic war in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 80s. Anywhere else in the world, UN peace negotiators would be brought in and Security Council resolutions passed to stop the violence. In South Central, the battles continue, and children growing up among the chaos, according to a recent RAND Corporation study, have higher rates of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) than children growing up in Baghdad.

One of the more amazing things about the documentary is that, despite unparalleled access to the gang-bangers surviving on the streets over the past 30 years, there is precious little about the actual feud between the Crips and Bloods. Most of the history of why they fight and why they kill has been lost in the minds of the young leaders on both sides who suffered an early death. Crips and Bloods shoot and get shot largely because they are supposed to oppose one another. Wearing the wrong colors in the wrong neighborhood is a death sentence, but it's unclear why. At one point, one of the original gang leaders, Masuka, says that "one of the ways the oppressor state functions is by turning the subjects against one another."

The story traces gang culture from the earliest days, through the Watts riots of 1965, the Black Power movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the rise of the Crips and Bloods, as South Los Angeles fell into a self-perpetuating cycle of decay and despair. After the major factory jobs left in the early 1960s, residents were without opportunity and without hope. Crack cocaine and other drugs eventually became the only economic salvation. And it led to violence and warfare in the streets.

The most revealing sequence in the film comes when every current gang member is asked about their childhood, and they all - to a man - respond that they were products of a broken home, without fathers, with the family members who raised them selling drugs out of the house, caught at an early age without positive role models or figures to enable their own empowerment. Those living in South LA with strong family units had mothers and fathers who kept them off the streets and away from the gangs. Those without had little hope. And this is a very direct consequence of an insane prison policy that locks up nonviolent offenders, particularly in the black community, at absurdly high rates. One out of every four black men will be imprisoned at some point in his life, and particularly in California, the inability of the system to handle all the warehousing of inmates leads to a lack of rehabilitation and an expanded recidivism rate. In fact, the explosion of gang activity inside the prisons ensures an increase outside the jail. This revolving door in and out of prison rips apart families and leads to a sustained cycle of gang activity and violence. The "war on drugs" is unquestionably a war on people of color and the lower classes.

That is the faillure we are talking about when we look at California prison policy, a failure that will now lead to mass release in the absence of leadership in Sacramento. Policymakers would rather lock away the problem instead of facing the terrible blight in the black community. Indeed, they have locked up these people inside AND outside of prison, confining them to the few miles in South Central that is their turf; there are stories in the film of young gang members who have spent their entire lives in a 10-block radius. The border between South Central and suburbs like Lynwood and South Gate has been a virtual pen for black youth for 50 years, with anyone crossing the border risking a beating or even their lives. We built communities that are prisons, through restrictive housing covenants and police directives to "maintain order". This is what created gang life, out of mutual protection from whites. And what now sustains it is not only the locking up of parents from sons and daughters, not only the locking up of blacks inside ghettos and away from opportunity, but the locking up of minds, the locking in of self-loathing and the snuffing out of the flame of hope.

While South LA is now as Latino as it is black, the difficulties for residents and the ravages of gang life remain. While violent crime has decreased since 1992 it remains unspeakably high. As we look at prison policy in California, and in particular the efforts by elites in Sacramento to block any meaningful reform, despite bending over backwards from federal receivers to work out agreements that allow for inmates to retain their Constitutional rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, we need to think about the Crips and the Bloods, about why they persist, about why they fight, and about why we made them.

Labels: , , , , , ,