On the Plight of the Inner City


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Note: The issue of gang violence is something that I just can’t overlook. Although I discuss mostly black inner-city history in Los Angeles and Chicago, I feel that this history directly relates to the gang problem across the country (and the world) today. In no way is this article intended to offend anyone (well, maybe the mainstream media…) In writing this piece, I simply hope to open more eyes to an issue that few know much about. 

Former gang member Kershaun Scott on joining a gang at the age of 12:

“Initially, I didn’t feel any different because the people around me didn’t change. These were the same people I grew up with, from ‘short pants’ days. These were the same people I shot marbles with, flew kites with, you know. We weren’t flying kites and shooting marbles anymore, now we were shooting at people.” 

      It seems that December’s school-shooting in Newtown CT has sparked a heated gun control debate in US media and across the country between those who want to keep firearms restrictions the way they are and those who want to change them completely. An even bigger issue is unemployment.

What isn’t mentioned so often in the media is the violence and poverty that many inner-city residents around the country face on a daily basis. I’m talking, of course, about gang violence. While there are organized gangs in all corners of the world, what makes most U.S. inner city gang killings so alarming is how randomly and easily they’re provoked- “gangbangs” can happen anywhere, anytime, usually for no valid reason other than the intent to harm. To quote filmmaker Cle Sloan in his gang documentary Bastards of the Party, “It’s not a lifestyle, it’s a deathstyle.” Unclear motivation, randomness: hmm, sounds kind of like the descriptions of the tragic mass shootings at Newtown and Aurora right?

For over 30 years, gang members in southern Los Angeles have been killing each other (also known as “banging”) purely out of retaliation for a previous murder of a close friend or “homie.” It’s romantic, saddening, yet disturbing to see a young man barely in his prime cry over the murder of his homie whose deathwish is to exact revenge on the “banger” who shot him. Rapper Jay-Z provides a vivid depiction of such an anguished and bloodthirsty mindset in the song, “Lucifer:”

I got dreams of holding a Nine milla

To Bobs killer

Asking him “why?” as my eyes fill up

These days I can’t wake up with a dry pillow

Gone but not forgotten homes I still feel ya

So, curse the day that birthed the bastard

Who caused your Church mass

Reverse the crash

Reverse the blast

And reverse the car

Reverse the day, and there you are

Bob Allah

Lord forgive him we all have sinned

But Bobs a good dude please let him in

And if you feel in my heart that I long for revenge

Please blame it on the sun of the mourning

Thanks Again

-Jay-Z’s “Lucifer,” 3rd Verse (Source H)

     Even among my generation, the remarkably unique culture of black Americans has made it’s way into traditionally white culture.  Influences like hip-hop (aka ‘rapping’), athletic ability (see White Men Can’t Jump starring Woody Harrelson), or baggy clothing (with a 75% black population in Detroit by 1990, Eminem’s high school classmates weren’t wearing button-downs with pocket protectors) are quite common among today’s white high schools.

I consider myself very fortunate grow up in a well-off (and predominantly white) town in southern Massachusetts, yet I’ve always felt that the lack of ethnic diversity has left my peers and I “sterilized.” In our own way, most of us ignorantly and unknowingly embraced some form of black hip-hop culture. Whether it was blasting bass-heavy rap music in the car, greeting friends with “yo,” or wearing oversized sweatpants with a duck-billed hat, only few of us recognized that these aspects hinted at something more.

Cities across the country have impoverished ganglands that are home to families of brothers, mothers, and human beings struggling to survive. Jacob Riis helped expose the decrepit conditions of tenament housing in 1890. If black, “gangsta” culture is so prevalent among today’s U.S. youth, why is it that mindless murder and poverty has gone relatively unnoticed in the mainstream media for so many years?

When people think of gang violence in the US, they usually think of Southern Los Angeles. From 1985-2001, over 9000 homicides in Los Angeles County resulted from gang-banging, according to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. and the California Dept. of Justice. Here’s something fairly interesting: no new results have been released since 2001. Even in the city of Los Angeles itself, attempted homicide cases stopped being recorded after 2005. Why is this? Has gang violence been reduced or ignored?

In a separate study of gang-related murders from 1979-1994, it was found that firearms were used in 95% of cases (assault weapons were only used in 2.8%), less than 5% were related to drugs, and most shockingly, the death rate of black Americans aged 15-19 tripled.

This begs the question: just how involved are the local police departments in L.A. County today?

According to filmmaker Cle Sloan in his documentary Bastards of the Party, local police departments have barely had an aiding presence in L.A. county since the early 1970s. Sloan is a current member of the Bloods gang in Athens Park, but don’t get the wrong impression: in recent years, he’s worked tirelessly with current gang members around the country to stop violence from the inside. According to him, law enforcement officials began feeling threatened after the formation of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (against police brutality) in 1966.

Clashes between L.A. police and black residents became common in counties around the city. It wasn’t until January 17, 1969 when these conflicts were brought to light by the local media when BPP members “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins were shot and killed on the UCLA campus. Carter and Huggins were murdered by members of the US Organization, a rival black-rights program with an acronym often misinterpreted as the United Slaves. What news stations didn’t discover until later was that both were victims of a set-up by Hoover’s FBI sponsored program, COINTELPRO.

COINTELPRO – (Counter Intelligence Program) a secret program run from 1956 until 1971 when it was exposed. The program ordered the surveillance and neutralization of domestic groups that posed a threat to national security. 

Prison activist Elaine Brown had this to say about the assassination of Huggins:

“He was killed at UCLA in this moment. No one could have killed him in the ‘hood because they know they wouldn’t have come into the ‘hood to shoot him unarmed and to shoot John Huggins in the back.”

     Even outside of the Los Angeles area, cities across the country saw similar incidents involving police. Another notable victim of Hoover’s program was Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Illinois BPP chapter. Hampton was murdered by Chicago Police at 4:30 am in his apartment on December 4, 1969. According to the internet community, exact details of the killing are still disputed. The most popular theory that I found seems to be that Hampton was shot point-blank while he was still asleep in his bed.

What do you think? Here are two crime scene photos I found with a simple Google search:

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     With the “black on black murders” at UCLA and a general distrust of the establishment after the murders of key political and BPP leaders, poor inner-city black communities in LA and around the country had few positive influences to look up to. Combined with little to no job or educational opportunities and dilapidated living conditions, violence and drug dealing seemed to be the younger generation’s only viable answer to such blatant segregation. And so it was.

In L.A., two youthful gangs were formed as “bastards” of the fallen Black Panther Party: first, the Crips (under Raymond Washington and Tookie Williams) and the Bloods. (Sloan) Both were established on a misunderstanding of BPP principles, choosing to take the party’s “fight-back” mentality to the extreme (Sloan). In Stacey Peralta’s documentary Inside: Bloods and Crips: LA Gangs, Eastside Crip member Raymond Cook highlights his generation’s naive discontent for the local police or “pigs,”

“At 13 and 14, we really didn’t know what the hell they (Black Panther leaders) were saying, only thing we really understood was the ‘pigs.’”

As a highly respected and widely known organization at the height of it’s time, the Black Panther Party had a huge influence on younger generations of black inner-city kids with Blaxploitation films like Shaft and powerful orators like Huey Newton. For once, poor black Americans had the chance to show that they mattered – as the Party lost power and influence, the formation of the Bloods and Crips essentially filled that role of “being somebody” and building character. So-called “character contests” were the main source of violence among members, according to William Sanders in his investigative book, Gangbangs and Drive-Bys: Grounded Culture and Juvenile Gang Violence.

“The gang offers a wide variety of identities to be claimed or established…In other words, the gang provides resources in the form of identity-generation situations so that the youth can be somebody… ‘respect’ and ‘honor,’ can be achieved, maintained or reestablished through violence…An ambitious move or a test of skill is an effort to gain or maintain face. (a positive aspect of identity) In the context of the gang, it is a good cause for violence.” (Sanders 35)

Ironically, the anti-gang media hype generated by Blood and Crip activity only helped “promote” the image of gang members, making membership a “status symbol.” Local anti-gang advertisements were essentially useless, as misappropriation of profits left little to no money for the community. (Sloan) As a result of gaining such infamy, gangs became increasingly territorial and hostile towards gang members from other areas, often overlooking personal merits and character. Rising rapper Kendrick Lamar constantly brings up this paranoid aspect of “identification by territory” in his songs. I could find examples in dozens of songs, but I think these opening lyrics from “m.A.A.d City” give a good idea:

Man down

Where you from, nigga?

Fuck who you know, where you from my nigga?

Where your grandma stay, huh, my nigga?

This is m.A.A.d city I run, my nigga!

-Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d City,” opening hook

     The introduction of crack as a cheap alternative to cocaine in the early 1980’s only exacerbated an ongoing problem. Before, gang members could chose to bang or “sling” (drugs.) In the 80‘s, you were usually told to do both. According to former Eight-Tray Crips member Kershuan Scott, crack-cocaine was extremely profitable and so easy to make that a “kid could do it.” On his first night selling, Scott claims he made $4,000 in only four hours, discouraging him from going to his newly-attained minimum wage job. In the big picture, crack addiction essentially destroyed entire families while making drug dealing gang members more dangerous as they gained more money. I know I keep using quotes, but I think it’s better for you to read others’ words than my own. Black P-Stone Bloods member Tuemack Rodgers had this to say of crack-cocaine and it’s effect on families:

“A 13 year-old kid would make more than his mother would make in a year, in a week, and then he became the head of the house. Then his mother became his best client (for crack.) See something is wrong with this, when a mother can can drop her baby off to me…for ten days – over a $25 rock?

     With the ease of making money from dealing crack, more gangs started to acquire wealth, influencing the stereotypical diamonds and chains persona that older people associate them with today. It wasn’t until gang members were seen in predominantly white places like Disneyland or Aspen ski slopes that the general public realized how deeply embedded gangs were. From there, corrupt members of police and government found opportunities to make personal profit by exploiting the inner-city gun and drug trade. It was also easier start profiling. Non-corrupt members of authority tried to crack down on gangs in the most effective way possible, arresting and booking black males for a variety of offenses regardless of whether they were in a gang or not. More prisons were built to accommodate the thousands of new inhabitants arrested. This period of time created an even bigger rift in the trust between the very police officers who were trying to help and the wary black community.

Right now, inner-city black Americans face the same problem they’ve been facing for 30 years – and even more. Because of the lack of profit, businesses have left poor communities, leaving even less job opportunities, most of which don’t pay a living wage. Anti-gang efforts have essentially proved to be fruitless. Take the murder of 15-year old anti-gang advocate Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot in a Chicago park as she was leaving school on January 31. Her death marked the 40th homicide in Chicago that year, only by February. In 2012, there were over 500 homicides in the city.

In Los Angeles, hispanic gangs are on the rise, especially in Compton where 65% of the population is hispanic. Black families are being pushed out of their communities by hispanic gangs, especially the Azuza 13 gang, which started an initiative to kill other blacks. One black male was shot outside of his home, revealing in an interview, “I got shot because of my skin color, because I’m a black male.” With the United States hispanic population at 52 million, (or 16.7% of the population) it is the nation’s largest ethnic minority. The influx of hispanics has effectively driven out black-owned business, making finding a job for blacks even harder.

With the re-election of President Obama, (who is more than familiar with gang violence from his years in Chicago) our country has proved that as a majority, it rejects black racism. Yet discrimination is still even present on a corporate level, in schools, and even in salary. In a 2011 government census, the per capita income differential between the US average and black average is close to $10,000.

UNTIL NOW, I NEVER LEARNED ANY OF THIS IN MY 19 YEARS ON PLANET EARTH. NOT AT SCHOOL, NOT FROM MY PARENTS, NOT FROM THE TV.

     Gun control. Unemployment. It took the mass shooting of an elementary school and 22.7 million unemployed people (the real number) for the media to decide that these issues are the most important right now. Wait……only right now?

I learned a great deal from the research I did for this blog. I wish I could have included much more, but there’s only so much I could put into the context of this article. Please, check out the sources I used below, you’ll learn even more. 

a. “Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins.” Donpalabraz.com. N.p., 17 Jan. 2009. Web. <http://donpalabraz.com/?p=909>.

b. Bastards of the Party. Dir. Cle Sloan. Antoine Fuqua, 2005. Film.    (It’s on Netflix)

c. “Bloods and Crips: LA Gangs.” Inside. National Geographic. 8 June 2010. Youtube. 26 Oct.   2011. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiuAIow13wY>.

d. Brancaccio, David. “NOW Going Undercover/Criminalizing Dissent: COINTELPRO Again?” PBS. N.p., 5 Mar. 2004. Web. <http://www.pbs.org/now/politics/cointelpro.html>.

e. “Gang-Related Crime in Los Angeles County.” Los Angeles Almanac. L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, n.d. Web. <http://www.laalmanac.com/crime/cr03x.htm>.

f. Lopez, Ricardo. “South Los Angeles Has Bleaker Jobs Picture than in 1992.” Los Angeles Times. N.p., 28 Apr. 2012. Web. <http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/28/business/la-fi-black-unemployment-20120428>.

g. Preston, Jennifer. “Chicago Teen Gun Victim Starred in Antigang Video.” The New York Times. N.p., 31 Jan. 2013. Web. <http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/31/chicago-teen-gun-victim-starred-in-antigang-video/?ref=gangs>.

h. Rap Genius. Genius Media Group Inc., n.d. Web. <http://rapgenius.com>.

i. Sanders, William B. Gangbangs and Drive-bys: Grounded Culture and Juvenile Gang Violence. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1994. Print.

j. United States. Senate Republican Policy Committee. January 2013 Unemployment Report. By John Barrasso, C. N.p., 1 Feb. 2013. Web. <http://www.rpc.senate.gov/policy-papers/january-2013-unemployment-report&gt;.

k. United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Facts for Features: Hispanic Heritage Month 2012: Sept. 15 — Oct. 15. N.p., 6 Aug. 2012. Web. <http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/ archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb12-ff19.html>.

l. United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Michigan – Race and Hispanic Origin for Selected Large    Cities and Other Places: Earliest Census to 1990. N.p.: n.p., 2005. Web. <http:// www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0076/MItab.pdf>.

m. United States. U.S. Census Bureau. Michigan – Race and Hispanic Origin for Selected Large Cities and Other Places: Earliest Census to 1990. N.p.: n.p., 2005. Web. <http:// www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0076/MItab.pdf>.

Table 1.

Black CPS Population and Per Capita Money Income, Black:  1967 to 2011
(Population as of March of the following year. Income in current and 2011 CPI-U-RS adjusted dollars (28))
Year Number (thousands) Per capita income
Current dollars 2011 dollars
Black A.O.I.C.
2011   42,750   18,357 18,357
2010 (37)   42,472   17,541   18,094
2009 (36)   40,957   17,711   18,571
2008   40,216   18,054   18,859
2007   39,683   18,107   19,641
2006   39,083   17,564   19,593
2005   38,729   16,629   19,158
2004 (35)   38,179   15,748   18,751
2003   37,651   15,583   19,056
2002   37,350   15,269   19,089

Table 2.

CPS Population and Per Capita Money Income, All Races:  1967 to 2011
(Population as of March of the following year. Income in current and 2011 CPI-U-RS adjusted dollars (28))
Year Number (thousands) Per capita income
Current dollars 2011 dollars
2011   308,827   27,554   27,554
2010 (37)   306,553   26,558   27,396
2009 (36)   304,280   26,530   27,819
2008   301,483   26,964   28,166
2007   299,106   26,804   29,075
2006   296,824   26,352   29,396
2005   293,834   25,036   28,843
2004 (35)   291,166   23,857   28,407
2003   288,280   23,276   28,464
2002   285,933   22,794   28,497
2001   282,082   22,851   29,030
Source:  U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements.  For information on confidentiality protection, sampling error, nonsampling error, and definitions, see http://www.census.gov/apsd/techdoc/cps/cpsmar12.pdf%5BPDF%5D.
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2 Comments

Filed under Class Work, Historical Context, Journalism, News, Opinion

2 responses to “On the Plight of the Inner City

  1. David Perkins

    This is a complex and ambitious piece–you’ve lots of impressive reading–and I like how you try to weave together your own personal experience, the rise of hip-hop, gang violence and poverty. What you’ve written seems to me to be a list of themes “for further exploration.” Perhaps you can pick one or two and dig into them more deeply. For example, the influence of hip-hop on young (white) styles. Or the persistence of black poverty. One issue you don’t explore in this piece is the incarceration rate, and the severity of drug sentences (even for marijuana), and Three Strikes rules, which hurt black offenders (and youth offenders) harshly, and leads to a revolving door. The film touched on that — but didn’t really explore it. BTW, Cle Sloan drew on a book called “City of Quartz,” which you might want to look at–the author is the white guy who appears often in the video.
    –DP

  2. Pingback: Welcome Everyone! | Youth and Gang Violence

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