‘Tonight we pick ’em up for anything and everything.’

lapd Spokesman (9 April)footnote1

On a weekend in early April Los Angeles police and sheriff’s units arrested more Black youth than at any time since the Watts Riots of 1965.footnote A thousand extra-duty patrolmen, backed by elite tactical squads and a special anti-gang taskforce, imposed Chief Daryl Gate’s ‘Operation Hammer’ on ten square miles of Southcentral Los Angeles between Exposition Park and North Long Beach. Like a Vietnam-era search-and-destroy mission—of which many L.A. police are in fact veterans—the Los Angeles Police Department (lapd) saturated the streets with its ‘Blue Machine’, ‘jacking up’ thousands of local teenagers at random like surprised peasants. Kids were humiliatingly forced to ‘kiss the sidewalk’ or spreadeagle against police cruisers while officers checked their names against computerized files of gang members. 1,453 were arrested and processed in mobile booking offices, mostly for petty offences like delinquent traffic tickets or curfew violations. Hundreds more, uncharged, had their names entered on the lapd gang roster for future surveillance.footnote2

Chief Gates, who earlier in the year had urged the ‘invasion’ of Colombia (in 1980 he had offered Jimmy Carter the lapdswat’ team to liberate hostages in Tehran), derided civil libertarian protests. ‘This is war . . . we’re exceedingly angry . . . We want to get the message out to the cowards out there, and that’s what they are, rotten little cowards—we want the message to go out that we’re going to come and get them.’ To reinforce the military analogy, the chief of the da’s Hardcore Drug Unit added: ‘This is Vietnam here.’footnote3

The ‘them’—the analogical Vietcong—are the members of local Black gangs, segmented into several hundred fighting ‘sets’, and loosely aligned into two hostile super-gangs, the ‘Crips’ and the ‘Bloods’—universally distinguished, as every viewer of Dennis Hopper’s Colors now knows, by their colour-coding of shoelaces, t-shirts and bandannas (red for Bloods, blue for Crips). In the official version, reheated and sensationalized by Hollywood, these gangs comprise veritable urban guerrilla armies organized for the sale of rock-cocaine (‘crack’) and outgunning the police with their huge arsenals of Uzi and Mac–10 automatics. Although the gang cohorts are hardly more than highschool sophomores, local politicians frequently compare them to the ‘murderous militias of Beirut’.footnote4

Across town, in Latino Los Angeles, there is another large, traditional constituency of gang membership—frequently depicted in the same lurid images. But gang warfare in the Eastside barrios has become significantly less murderous than on the Southside, presumably because of the incomparably higher stakes involved in ghetto turf rivalries over control of the retail cocaine trade. Eastside gang killings reached a maximum of twenty-four in 1978, then declined sharply to four in 1984 (although this may only be a temporary trend as gangs try to restructure themselves to capture crack sales). ‘Gangbangin’ in the ghetto, on the other hand, has exploded since 1984, in rough synchronization with the rerouting of the main cocaine trail from Florida to Southern California via Mexico and the emergence of crack as poor man’s cocaine. Over the last year and a half gang-related killings, principally in Southside city and county areas, have averaged more than one per day.footnote5