The Hollywood sign, the 405, golden beaches, swaying palm trees, Rodeo drive, the Bloods and Crips……there are few things more synonymous with Los Angeles, California.
The Bloods and Crips, along with other infamous street gangs, are as “American” as apple pie, albeit not so wholesome, and they were sparked by two other great staples of the U.S.A. — racism and The Boy Scouts of America.
During the past century, for many young white males the Boy Scouts provided a safe haven to hang-out together and channel their energy. It gave them purpose, identity and focus, along with a sense of belonging, family and identity.
However, young African Americans were oftentimes shunned from the organization, which was predominantly white and mired in a problematic ideology, with a long history of racial segregation, bias and inequality.
Boy Scouts racist roots
The Boy Scouts movement was originally founded in 1908, by retired British army officer, Lieutenant General Robert Baden-Powell, who died in 1941, age 83.
Baden-Powell was a contentious figure, to say the least—there’s a reason why it was announced earlier this year that his statue in Poole, England is going to be “removed for safe keeping”. He was outspokenly homophobic, racist and accused of commiting “atrocities against the Zulus in his military career”—in addition to being “an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler” and the facist movement in general.
Baden-Powell met with the head of the Hitler Youth movement in 1937 to discuss shared ideology and was even invited to meet Adolf Hitler himself, whom he held in great regard, describing the Nazi leader’s rambling “manifesto” Mein Kampf as a “wonderful book with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation etc.”
Baden-Powell’s zeal for the outdoor education of boys was driven by his concerns for “the moral tone of our race” and he once stated that “one aim of the Boy Scouts scheme is to revive amongst us, if possible, some of the rules of the knights of old.”
He was also a huge fan of the Italian facist dictator, Musollini, and the Japanese Samuri code of Bushido, the main tenets of which are “loyalty, self-sacrifice, justice, sense of shame, refined manners, purity, modesty, frugality, martial spirit and affection” and places honor above all else, even if it means death or suicide.
Boy Scouts go stateside
Baden-Powell’s crusade to preserve the “moral tone” of the white race went international in 1910 when the Boy Scouts of America was formed, with the stated mission to, “prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”
The movement’s birth coincided with the USA’s ongoing fight to enforce segregation, despite the civil war having ended in 1865, so it was little surprise that the Boy Scouts organization was strictly divided by race, a policy that was upheld and enforced by the Jim Crow laws.
Initially, the BSA was a whites-only organization, but in 1911, the first “Negro Boy Scouts” troop was formed in North Carolina, despite vehement opposition, and as time passed the boys’ movement flourished—although it remained “separate but equal” (segregated), right up until the 1964 Civil Rights Act forced a change in policy.
In theory, the BSA had attempted to integrate sooner, forming an Interracial Committee in the late 1920s and establishing an “Outreach Program” to form “special troops” of mixed races. But, in practice its purpose was to lump together racial minorities with poor, rural, disabled white children all under a “special needs” umbrella, regardless of the black members’ mental and or physical capabilities.
Also, in many areas of the South, black Scouts were forbidden from wearing the uniform and the “Negro Troops” were allocated much smaller budgets to work with than their white counterparts…..separate and definitely not so equal, it would appear.
Even after the Civil Rights Act purportedly made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, local chapters within the Boy Scouts movement were able to circumvent the rules by using “quota” levels as an excuse to turn away potential new members of color, and black kids were often left feeling unwelcome, shut out and isolated.
That resulted in a lot of angry, marginalized young boys looking for a place to “belong” and a “club” to call their own—which in the racially charged South Central LA of the 1960s made for a dangerous dynamic.
Pre- gang South Central
South Central Los Angeles (now known as just South LA) encompases a 16-mile rectangle with two offshoot points. The area became notorious as a “no-go” area in the 80s and 90s, but it wasn’t always a neglected, poverty-stricken, gang plagued hood.
Up until the 1920s South central was an affluent, mainly white, working class area, and the neighborhood of West Adams was one of the most desirable in LA, but then development was moved away to the west of downtown, investment disappeared and ever-increasingly restrictive, racially motivated zoning laws came into effect.
Within two decades the neighborhood had shifted from mainly middle class white to majority working and middle class African American, and it started to become severely overcrowded as black US citizens were forced to settle in South Central and prevented from moving outside of the area, due to strictly enforced segregated housing “lines”.
The overcrowding was worsened by an influx of poor black Southerners who migrated to California in the hope of building a better future for themselves and their families in the supposedly more free, equitable and racially harmonious North.
Not surprisingly, given the pressure cooker situation that’s created by masses of people being forced to live in just one small area, tensions soon began to rise, eventually boiling over into rebellion and violence in the 1960s.
But, prior to that time the African American community had created a flourishing neighborhood, with black-owned local stores and businesses and a thriving jazz scene that earned South Central the nickname of “Harlem West”.
White terror campaign
However, the white population surrounding the neighborhood engaged in terror tactics such as bombings, shootings and even burning crosses on the lawns of homes purchased by black families south of Slauson Avenue, on the fringes of South Central.
The message was clear: know your place, and stay there….Oh, and don’t dare to try and do well for yourself while you’re at it. The unofficial directive was enforced by heavy-handed and racially unjust tactics employed by the LAPD, who would accost and violently assault black people who braved to step outside of their newly designated “zone” in addition to over-policing the residents inside the neighborhood. The segregation was enforced yet further by newly constructed freeways that helped contain the area even more.
Then, a massive decline in manufacturing resulted in a huge loss of skilled union jobs, hitting the African American workforce particularly hard and leading to skyrocketing unemployment. It was the final nail in the coffin, and South Central LA began its descent into poverty, division, fear and violence.
“Fear of attack from Whites was widespread and this intimidation led to the early formation of Black social street clubs aimed at protecting Black youths against persistent White violence directed at the Black community,” California State university scholar, AA Alonso states in a report he wrote for the Urban Identity journal.
“As white clubs began to fade from the scene, eventually the black clubs, which were first organized as protectors of the community, began to engage in conflicts with other black clubs. Black gang activity [soon] represented a significant proportion of gang incidents across Los Angeles.”
South Central LA was turned into a warzone as the Bloods and Crips grew in strength and battled for turf. Back in the 1970s through the ‘90s just wearing the wrong color could prove to be a death sentence for somebody who stumbled a street too far into rival gang territory. Hundreds of young men found themselves confined within tight and claustrophobic invisible boundaries, oftentimes just three blocks in size.
However, the original South Central “gangs” that were the precursor to the Bloods and Crips didn’t start out with the intention of becoming violent organized crime syndicates at war with each other.
The groups’ initial motivation was more pure, intending to provide an alternative community for young African American boys who were disenfranchised, and disillusioned with the institutionalized racism in white controlled clubs, such as the Boy Scouts of America.
South Central social clubs
“Made in America: Bloods & Crips” is a documentary by Stacy Peralta that traces the origins of the two notorious street gangs, interviewing a number of young and older residents from South LA—including three men, Ron, Kumasi and Bird—who were fundamental in forming The Slausons, the first all-black “gang” back in the 1950s.
The trio started the Slausons after being rejected from the local chapter of the Boy Scouts, which at that time had an all-white membership and planned to keep it that way.
“The most significant thing was when I went to join the Boy Scouts, the Boy Scouts of America, my mother took me up to the Scout troop, at the Goodyear rubber plant where the original blimp from 1933-1983 was parked in our neighborhood there,” Bird explains.
“So I go up there to join the Boy Scouts, my mother takes me up to the Scoutmaster, he was nice but he tells my mother, ‘well I don’t know, but some of the parents might object because it’s a white troop’.
“So they say be prepared, do a good turn daily, the scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, brave, clean and reverent. That’s the Boy Scouts of America….a bunch of racists.”
Street front fraternities
“We couldn’t be Cub Scouts, couldn’t be Boy Scouts, couldn’t be Explorer Scouts,” Kumasi says. “We couldn’t get involved in organized activity that would take us anywhere, that would bear us any kind of good fruit. So we built an auxiliary, alternative club, a street front fraternity that we could belong to.”
“Our neighborhood was situated in an area where we were assigned and designated to a little small park on 62nd and Hooper called Slauson Park, that’s where our name came from,” Bird reveals.
The Slausons grew into what many consider to be the USA’s first modern African American gang, and spurred a number of rivals to form in the area such as The Gladiators, Swamp Boys, Watts, and Del Vikings.
However, according to Kumasi, the Slausons were never actually a “gang”, that was just the label they were handed due to the fact they were a group of young black men.
“We never called ourselves a gang, that was something the city and police would describe us as, we were clubs,” he says.
“What drew me to Slauson was that they mirrored who I was, and it made one feel one had some status, and I literally didn’t have anywhere else,” Ron explains. “There’s a sense of family, there’s a sense of acceptance, You have a way to wield some power, because now you’ve got numbers.”
“We had rivalries among ourselves and then we had rivalries in other neighborhoods,” Kumasi continues. “It wasn’t really about destroying somebody, it was just competing with each other.”
That all changed however after racial tensions reached boiling point in the mid 60s, sparking the violent and devastating Watts Rebellion which decimated South Central LA and united young African American men in anger and disillusionment.
South Central warzone
The Slausons and others had started out as social clubs and community groups, an alternative to the whites-only Boy Scouts movement, but things quickly took a turn as the black neighborhood became ever increasingly under fire from white hostility and overzealous policing.
The LAPD was a constant fixture in South Central, routinely carrying out baseless car stops on African American drivers and engaging in aggressive and racially biased law enforcement practices.
The neighborhood became a tinderbox primed for explosion as hostility, resentment and anger grew amongst the black community. It reached a head in August 1965 after Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old African-American, was pulled over, allegedly for reckless driving.
The situation became volatile after Frye’s mom, Rena Price arrived on the scene to scold her son, but was arrested, along with Frye’s brother Ronald who had been a passenger in the car, leading to protests from onlookers who claimed officers physically shoved Price, and assaulted a pregnant bystander.
The incident resulted in the Watt’s Rebellion, and for six days and nights a 46-square-mile swath of Los Angeles was transformed into a combat zone as the LAPD and Sheriff’s department employed extreme force against the unarmed protestors. The streets burned and citizens were gunned down, some shot in the back as they fled the scene, before 16,000 National US Army guards were sent in to squash the uprising, employing an iron fist, iron hammer, free fire zone policy.
“This is a criminal… a lawless element with which we are confronted and the only thing they understand is force and power,” LA Mayor Sam Yorty announced at the time.
The Watts uprising resulted in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries and $40 million worth of damage to property after hundreds of buildings and entire city blocks were burned to the ground. South Central residents were condemned by the media and outsiders for “destroying” their own community and viewed as acting like senseless “thugs”.
“When you send me the message that my life is of no value then how can your property, how can your society, how can your civilization, how can any of the laws or rules or any of the monuments, how can any of that be of any value to me? When all it has on the door for me is a rejection notice?” Kumasi says of the resulting destruction.
“I’m not allowed to look, I’m not allowed to touch, I’m not allowed to partake, I’m not allowed to participate, All my life I was rejected before I was born, I’m the most rejected, nothing is open to me and every time I knock on the door and I’m rejected it takes a little something out of me. So how does it mean anything to me that I should try to salvage it or I should respect it or I should try to preserve it? It stands as a barrier before me, it was there before I was born, it will be there when I die.”
The calm after the storm
Initially, in the months following the uprising, elders in the community called for peace and unity as they attempted to rebuild the neighborhood. The local “gangs” came together with a common cause, fighting against institutional power instead of each other and focusing their energy on civic action and advocacy.
“Rebellion helped accelerate our consciousness, from 65 until about 71 gang activity in LA was at an all time low because so many young people were joining organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panthers,” Ron explains.
The African American community was united and focused—and it started growing in strength and power as black citizens rallied together to fight for civil rights, equality and equity.
However, the FBI quickly laid rest to those dreams though. J Edgar Hoover launched a covert counter intelligence war against the Black Panthers and other civil rights movements, declaring them “without question, the greatest threat to internal security of the country”.
Clearly by “the country” he meant “white power” as the USA’s citizens of color were once again suppressed, oppressed, and even murdered in broad daylight. Influential and iconic black leaders were incarcerated in mass or gunned down dead, like Dr. Martin Luther King.
Young black men learned an important and terrifying lesson, peaceful and political activism wasn’t going to work, it would only result in their death. White supremacy was so powerful and so institutionalized that the only answer was to stay in their designated zones, put up and shut up.
So, a new element rose up, they were called the Crips, and as Kumasi puts it, “the shit started again”. However, this time around the shit got real, real fast. “I’m a walkin’ time bomb,” he says. “I’m gonna go off. Some day, somewhere, on somebody. The question is: ‘Upon whom?'”
Birth of the Bloods and Crips
“The original Crips came out of our neighborhood,” Kumasi explains. “They were the children we passed everyday and paid no attention to, but they watched us. We had the generations our parents came from, and we had the great personalities of their generation to connect with, we had something to attach ourselves to.
“[The Crips] were born in a state of suspended animation though, they were totally disconnected and disenfranchised, they’re like a planet out of orbit.”
The brutal suppression of the civil rights movement led to the emergence of a new order, born in the playgrounds of Fremont High School, South LA, motivated by gross injustice, inequality, anger, frustration, and ultimately, projection and self-destruction.
A report on History of Gangs in the United States notes, “The end of the 1960s was the last chapter of the political, social, and civil rights movement by Black groups in LA, and a turning point away from the development of positive Black identity in the city.…[But the] deeply racialized context coincided with the resurgence of new emerging street groups between 1970 and 1972.”
Two teenagers, Raymond Washington and Stanley “Tookie” Williams, started the Crips, who were named after the “pimp canes” that members carried to cripple their targets. Membership quickly grew as poverty-stricken and directionless youth flocked together in hopes of creating a sense of belonging, unity and purpose.
The beginning of mass incarceration of African American men was fully underway, resulting in a slew of broken, struggling families and an abundance of young kids with a severe shortage of father figures and financial resources—proving to be a catalyst for exploitation, manipulation, control and ultimately violence and war.
Seventy percent of black kids were born to single moms, and one in four black men would be incarcerated in their lifetime. With mothers oftentimes having to work two minimum wage jobs just to survive, children were left unsupervised, alone and lacking in direction. With the absence of positive male role models to guide and inspire them, young kids started forming their own perception of “masculinity” and what it entailed to be a black man in the USA.
Meanwhile, in response to the Crips’ growing power and influence, a number of rival small gangs in the neighborhood formed an alliance, calling themselves the Bloods, in reference to the name that was coined by African American soldiers serving in Vietnam.
Opposing armies were now in place, battle flags were raised—blue for the Crips and red for the Bloods, and over the next four decades gangs of urban soldiers, born and bred in the war-torn streets of LA set about carving up the streets of South Central into rival territories. Fighting to the death and destroying their community under the shared ideology of kill or be killed.
“Part of the mechanics of oppressing people is to pervert them to the extent that they become the instruments of their own oppression,” Kumasi notes.
And, sure enough, the oppressed became their own destruction, without the LAPD having to beat anybody to death. Now, instead of the police keeping blacks out of certain neighborhoods, the Crips and Bloods battled to keep each other out of their own neighborhoods.
As territories became more rigid and fixed, and gangs grew in power and violence, over time they stopped becoming “gangs” and started becoming just “family” and a means to survival, even though in reality, more times than not they ultimately resulted in death or incarceration.
Pick a color
Young men were suddenly forced to “pick a side” and choose a color, or run the risk of braving the streets alone with nobody to have their back and no hope of protection. Suddenly, a trip to the local mall, or a night at the movies became a possible death sentence, just simply because of which street you were born on.
“If I’m a young person growing up in a particular neighborhood and the closest movie theater or the closest shopping mall is claimed by a rival gang, whether I’m a gang member or not, I’m not going to feel comfortable, I’m going to have to spend more time on a bus, put more gas in my car, to travel to other areas,”George Tita, a gang criminologist at UC-Irvine told KCRW.
“The turf basically serves as a warning to stay out of my area. You know, for forever and a day the quintessential gang homicide was the ‘where are you from?’ homicide, right. And this is where one individual would approach another and ask the question, ‘where are you from?’ In far too many instances nobody waited for a verbal answer. The answer came in the form of gunshots.”
Because nobody ever truly learns from history (especially when things are just brushed under the carpet and or ignored), it was inevitable there would be another violent uprising in Los Angeles again at some point.
That point came in 1992 and was sparked yet again by LAPD racism and violence, and a righteous sense of injustice amongst the besieged African American community of South LA.
After fourteen LAPD officers were caught on camera violently beating and kicking an unarmed black man, Rodney King, who they had stopped on suspicion of drunk driving, they were forced to face “justice” and stand trial for their brutality.
However, despite having beaten King between “53-56 times” with batons, breaking his leg, badly cutting his face, bruising his body and burning his chest after jolting him with a 50,000-volt stun gun, there was no justice served as the four of the fourteen officers who were actually charged with using “excessive force” ended-up walking away free in the end.
The not guilty verdict was met with disbelief, outrage and anger by African Americans, sparking the LA riots that raged for six days in 1992 and resulted in the death of 63 people and 2,383 injured.
After the rioting ended, it appeared that the US government may have actually acknowledged the role they had played in causing the unrest, as California launched the “Rebuild LA” initiative, which promised to rebuild and invest in its broken communities.
For a hot minute it looked like there was hope and a real possibility of turning things around. Many of the Bloods and Crips sets even agreed to a truce, the never-ending violence and chaos finally began to cease and the neighborhood started to heal.
But yeah, it was just one hot minute, because within twelve months of its launch the Rebuild LA initiative quietly and suddenly disappeared and it was back to business as usual for South Central.
Over the following 15 years violence ramped-up even further than previously as disillusioned young African Americans who felt invisible, ignored, rejected and thrown to the curb took their anger out on each other.
Whether you were affiliated or not, it was impossible to live in South Central in the 80s and 90s and NOT be affected in some way by gang violence, as grandmothers, mothers, sisters, fathers, grandfathers, brothers and sisters lost family members and friends.
Little kids became victims of drive-by shootings as they waited for the bus to take them to school in the morning, innocent bystanders became “collateral” by simply being on the wrong street at the wrong time, and hundreds of young men who’d been swept up in gang life were senselessly murdered, or incarcerated.
Students as young as 6-years-old started exhibiting signs of extreme PTSD, struggling to concentrate and experiencing vivid disturbing flashbacks as they attempted to process grief and trauma, inhibiting their ability to function, learn and enjoy a “regular” school life.
A research study found that one out of three inner-city kids had experienced symptoms consistent with PTSD at some point in their life—a level that’s higher than children living in Baghdad during the Iraq war.
However, the US government’s reaction to the crisis was to carry on throwing fuel on the fire, declaring a “war on gangs” and even tougher law enforcement practices—inciting yet worse violence in response.
Ironically, in the end it was the men who had started the cycle of gang violence who stepped up to the plate and started devoting their life to ending it.
The older residents of South LA, who had previously been active gang members themselves, turned their backs on violence and division, uniting to effect change in their fractured and devastated community—working with privately funded outreach groups and organizations dedicated to helping kids at a grassroot level and developing non-violence programs and anti-gang initiatives.
However, their work is made even harder by US authorities, as their past actions continue to define their current and future, by the simple fact that their names remain on the government collated gang database, branding them as criminals forever in the eyes of law enforcement.
Because, clearly, in the eyes of the USA they’re “gang members” and not humans. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.