The underground economy of prostitution, day labor, and the drug trade often flourishes in the absence of a formal economy of stores, taxes, and workers’ compensation. But you rarely find so extreme an example of this phenomenon as exists in North Richmond, a slice of unincorporated land in west Contra Costa County. Home to just over four thousand impoverished souls, North Richmond has nothing — no factories, no department stores, no start-ups providing e-solutions. Just a few liquor stores, one or two nonprofit organizations, and the North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church.
But Richmond has a silent, invisible economy: illegal dumping and drug dealing. In the mid-1980s, a baseball team called the Project Trojans slowly evolved into one of Northern California’s most violent street gangs, and authorities claim its members now control most of the drug trade in North Richmond. Federal officials say the gang was allegedly responsible for 90 percent of all homicides in the area during the 1990s. Numbering around three hundred members, the gang got so large that it splintered into subgroups. According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, members of the Project Trojans deal crack, methamphetamine, and powder cocaine.
The operation has gotten so large that even county workers have to accommodate the gang. According to Supervisor John Gioia, whenever county employees haul away the mountains of garbage people dump in North Richmond, they first alert the Trojans so they can retrieve their drug stashes from the trash; otherwise they might encounter armed men racing over to protect their stash.
In March, more than one hundred FBI officials and local law enforcement raided the homes of several alleged Project Trojans, ultimately arresting fifteen people. The raids were the culmination of a two-year investigation, which included street surveillance and wiretaps of the suspects’ cell phones. As part of the criminal complaint, federal agent Richard Davis submitted an affidavit that included partial transcripts of more than forty cell phone conversations. The picture that emerges from these transcripts is a rare glimpse into the real business of North Richmond, an elaborate operation of wholesale drug distribution.
Entire families are involved; suspects keep drugs and guns at their mothers’ homes, and daughters pass along their fathers’ requests for methamphetamine. While most North Richmond residents are flat broke, the money involved in these purchases exceeds tens of thousands of dollars, all in cash. While most businesses deal with words like commissions, rebates, and marketing, the language of business in North Richmond uses words like “sizoft,” “zip,” and “thumper.”
On October 24, for example, a man named “Cutthroat,” identified as a high-ranking member of the Project Trojans, told a man who goes by the name “Squeek,” “Shit just hella slow. I don’t know, man, I think you snapped up all my sales.” At other times, the Trojans seemed ready to get rough with their rivals. On October 31, Cutthroat allegedly called a man who goes by the moniker “G-Money.” After Cutthroat told G-Money he was in the hood and “fucking with that goddamn shit,” G-Money asked to borrow his gun: “Let me use your thumper for about an hour.” Cutthroat replied, “I got it on me right here; where your shit at?” G-Money said, “Cuz, I got my shit on me. Where your gun at?”
Often, the Project Trojans allegedly stashed drugs at the homes of their relatives. On November 9, Cutthroat got a call from “Project Mike,” a man who, federal authorities claim, is a senior member of the gang. Project Mike said he needed drugs, and Cutthroat told him to “go down there to my momma’s house” and look in the closet next to the baby’s bed, where he would find a “trey,” or three ounces of cocaine. After Project Mike allegedly secured the drugs, they agreed that the asking price would be “42 cold motherfucking dollars,” or $42,000.
Occasionally, the Project Trojans would run afoul of the sheriff’s deputies, the “rollers” who patrol the area. On December 1, according to the affidavit, Cutthroat was pulled over by Contra Costa deputies conducting a traffic stop. As they checked his driver’s license, Cutthroat got a call. “The police pulled us over, a couple counties pulled us over, and I’m dirty [carrying drugs] like a motherfucker, man,” he said. A passenger in the car shoved the drugs into his underwear, and although the deputies impounded the vehicle because Cutthroat’s license was suspended, the two men got away. Joking about the incident afterward, Cutthroat told a friend on the phone, “This nigga Steve was nervous as a motherfucking snitch at a gangsta party.”
Heavy weaponry. Illegal drugs. Cash in massive quantities. Suborning family members into a criminal enterprise. This, allegedly, was life in North Richmond, the world the Project Trojans controlled. Law enforcement had cracked down on the Trojans once before, in the 1990s, and for a time, crime dwindled in the neighborhood. But a few years later, it was just as bad as it ever was.
Now that so many of the Trojans’ alleged leaders have been arrested, it isn’t clear whether it has made a difference. The county sheriff’s office could not pull together crime statistics by press time. According to Mark Vermeulen, the lawyer for Project Mike, life in North Richmond is still a frightening prospect — but the worst offenders, he suggests, may be the police themselves. “It’s a place that just has been completely neglected, and, to a real degree, militarized by the police force there,” he says. “I have spoken with folks that have spoken with police out there, and they say if they put every black man in North Richmond in prison, it’s no great loss. And that’s really sad.”
Gioia gamely talks about all the social programs, youth centers, and beautification programs he is trying to put in place, and maybe that will make a difference. But the most telling note about North Richmond was expressed by AC Transit director and North Richmond resident Joe Wallis, who is simply sick of everyone talking about the Project Trojans. “They should know us for the things that are positive, not the things that are negative,” he says. “Sometimes people blow up crime so big, but I’ve been here for 51 years, and I see a lot of positive things happening here. … I don’t know why people keep trying to blow the criminal aspect up. We’ve got people out here working to lift the stigma off North Richmond.”
Indeed, things are finally beginning to change in what is arguably the Bay Area’s most impoverished neighborhood. Large numbers of working-class Latinos are moving in, replacing the unemployed poverty that characterizes the African-American population with an entirely different rhythm of life. Middle-class residents of all races are moving into new housing along the Richmond Parkway. As time goes by, and the demographic changes that have swept the rest of the Bay Area finally reach the shores of North Richmond, the lexicon of business may no longer consist of treys, grams, and glizass, and may become intelligible to the rest of the world.