Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Street Soldiers: Warfare American Style

Last night my local PBS station aired an amazing documentary that should be viewed by anyone concerned about the current state of young Black men growing up in the abandoned neighborhoods that exist in every major U.S. city. The film is entitled: Crips & Blood - Made in America. For those who saw the 2006 documentary Bastards of the Party, it tells a similar story. Both films are about the history of the Crips & Bloods - the gangs that took root in South Central Los Angeles more than 25 years ago, wreaking havoc on the lives of gang members and the neighborhoods they inhabit. So far the warfare among these two primarily African-American gangs have claimed the lives of more than 15,000 - primarily young people. And that's just the number of the murdered - it doesn't include the number who've been permanently maimed or injured or the tens of thousands languishing away in California's numerous and overcrowded prisons.

The men interviewed for the film describe themselves as growing up in a war zone where to show any sign of weakness or emotion (other than anger) is to risk serious harm or even death. Most acknowledged getting their first gun in their early teens. Because the war has been going on so long - there are now successive generations of Los Angelenos that know nothing except gang membership, shootouts, violence and death. They decried the lack of a father or other positive male role model in their lives and it's obvious that for many, the 'cool' posture and tough image they project is a cover for the pervasive fear and unspoken longing that's just below the surface.

The commentators and community activists discuss the various public policy decisions that have helped create these conditions and keep them in place -
  • the decision to invest in prisons over education - California incarcerates more Black men each year than graduate from the state's colleges and universities;
  • California has reduced funding for education - especially higher ed at the same time it has engaged in massive prison expansion (it's one of the many consequences of having an aversion to taxes and an attachment to cowboys);
  • Until recently, the principal response to gang violence has been increased law enforcement and surveillance - particularly of young, Black men in and out of South Central LA;
  • The adoption of mandatory minimum sentencing, three-strikes and no parole policies have removed large numbers of men from the community for long periods of time - the combination of long incarceration and post-conviction sanctions means that involvement in the criminal justice system becomes a lifetime barrier to advancement and mainstream life, regardless of ability and personal rehabilitation;
  • The failure to fulfill on promises for community investment and political inclusion - (after the 1992 rebellion the city created 'Rebuild LA' with a promise of job creation, business development and committed attention to the problems of the area - within 18 mos the initiative was abandoned and with it the fragile truce between the Crips & Bloods)
  • The failure of the media to consider urban warfare as newsworthy despite the high number of casualties. There's plenty of media coverage of school shootings which claim the lives of young people in affluent and/or suburban communities, but as noted recently by Bob Herbert in the New York Times, the media is virtually silent about the killings of Black and Latino youth.
One can debate the degree of personal responsibility one should take for the choices one makes in life - but to listen to these brothers it's clear they didn't feel they had a choice. The options available to them in the environment in which they live dictated in the words of one, "I had to put my moral feelings and thoughts aside and become an animal in order to survive".

The film ends on a hopeful note - it features the organized effort of former gang members and formerly incarcerated men to redirect the lives of young men who would otherwise follow their path. They are working in the community to address the fear, anger, frustration, desperation and nihilism that continues to define life for many Black and Latino youth. Most are working without resources and support from local government. Clearly, that needs to change. But more importantly, we need to think about the message we send as a society that continues to endorse war - against real and imagined enemies; that continues it's love affair with guns - including semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles (don't believe the founding fathers had those in mind); elevates results over means (e.g. doesn't matter how you made your $$$ as long as you have it - think Wall St. or doesn't matter if you break int'l conventions and torture people as long as the results are useful). Whether we like to admit it or not - our youth are watching, listening and learning. The Crips & Bloods are a mirror into an aspect of America we prefer to regret - the country that suppressed Black people with fear and violence; that virtually exterminated Native Americans in the name of 'manifest destiny' and believes in an economic system that benefits the few at the expense of the majority............................ These brothers are seeking to make change for themselves and the next generation - the question is will we be enablers of change or continue to maintain the same institutional barriers?

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