It’s been less than a year since David Muscadine’s brother was shot to death by a rival gang member — and now seventeen-year-old David’s in jail, accused of slitting the throat of a kid wearing the wrong colors. What’s strange about this scenario is that in the eight months in between the two killings, David tried to do something to make a difference, to get out of gang-banging, to stop the violence. In neighborhoods like Oakland’s Fruitvale district, where the pressure of omnipresent drugs and violence are a seductive lure away from crowded schools and dead-end jobs, it’s a lot easier for teenagers to talk about getting out of gang life than to actually do it. But this is the story of a few who thought they could.
Oakland’s Norteño gang kicks it on “Quince,” their name for a corner of East 15th Street just a block away from the fast-food joints and discount markets of International Boulevard. The streets that make up the residential neighborhoods behind International are broad and flat, lined with low-slung apartments and crumbling Victorians. Souped-up cars roar past, ignoring stop signs, and Norteños flash their red hats and belts, throwing up their signs: fingers twisted to form an “N.” It’s the first week of March, and the night still falls early; in the dark, the flick of lighters creates eerie shadows. The kids on the corner deal heroin, crack, sometimes cocaine.
A block down the street is the Black Dot, a community arts collaborative hidden inside a squat, unassuming building. Fliers stapled to a dark alcove along the side mark the entrance. Inside, very young black kids are finger painting with a patient woman in a turban; in a windowless room beyond, community organizers Josh Parr and Favianna Rodriquez are leading a meeting of a handful of Norteños who have come saying they want to stop the violence. About a dozen kids are sitting on plastic desk chairs and a nubby old couch, girls in denim miniskirts and sandals, boys hiding behind dark glasses. They look like, well, teenagers; there’s little to their clean, bright faces to indicate that these fifteen- and sixteen-year olds are frequently locked in violent combat over Fruitvale’s grimy streets and few dusty parks; that a few of these girls harbor nightmare memories of being pinned and raped by members of the rival gang.
Parr starts the meeting with a dark version of show-and-tell: Each teen in turn describes someone they’ve lost. “Yeah, my brother was killed by a bullet to the head; and I lost my cousin too,” David says.
“So, like, were you there when that happened?” someone butts in. This is no grief-counseling session. This is just life. “We lost my homegirl to a heroin overdose,” adds a quiet girl in the corner. “And then there are some who are dead in their hearts — I mean, they’re just straight dope fiends.”
Parr is an activist for Youth Together, a well-established citywide nonprofit that runs leadership training programs for students in a dozen East Bay high schools. For Youth Together, Parr works organizing students at Berkeley High. Here in Fruitvale, Parr is volunteering his own time; this group of Norteño kids — many of them high school dropouts — are much more “at risk” than those with whom he spends his days.
Once a journalist who filed stories for an English-language paper in Korea and then here at home for the Berkeley Daily Planet, Parr has also worked counseling kids in juvenile hall. Although his Japanese-American grandmother suffered internment during World War II, Parr describes himself as “just a white boy,” but while his own background has little to do with the harsh world of the urban ghetto, Parr’s laid-back style and easy way with street lingo make him an instant hit with most of the teens — especially the girls, who like his winning smile and long dark ponytail. A young father himself, he’s dedicated and genuine, driven to seek out the youths who fall through the cracks; his vision of social work has a lot more to do with grassroots empowerment than with concrete goals and established systems.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Parr’s partner for this project, Favianna Rodriguez, another consummate community organizer. “I have a big problem with how nonprofits operate,” she says. “What the nonprofits do is a quick Band-Aid approach: Give them a job, train them. But you never attack the roots of the problems.” Rodriguez grew up in Fruitvale; she says she herself was tempted by the gang life but found a different outlet when she joined a Latino activist group that led mass student walkouts to protest the lack of ethnic studies classes in the Oakland schools. Since then, Rodriguez says, she has pursued “self-sustaining” employment so she can spend most of her time organizing youth through art. She now supports herself doing independent Web design work. Her home office, in the basement of the Fruitvale house she grew up in, is decorated with brightly colored Latino art and shared with her three pet dogs. It also serves as a home base of sorts for the many students Rodriguez meets through additional part-time work as an arts instructor for schools and for nonprofits that serve young people. A striking, energetic woman who talks a mile a minute, Rodriguez has an overwhelming list of projects-in-the-making (she also meets with kids from Norteño rival gang the Border Brothers), and adding one more effort didn’t faze her.
But what exactly is this project about? Everyone tells a slightly different version of the story of how the group got started last November — did the kids ask Parr and Rodriguez to help organize it? Or did one of the organizers suggest these meetings, and the kids agree to try it out? Everyone does agree that the project grew out of David’s reaction to his brother’s killing. Rodriguez sought out the Muscadine family after the murder, she says, because “as much youth as gets killed in this area, it should still never be commonplace.” As she explains it, being confronted with his brother’s death and the birth of his own child led David to an abrupt about-face: “I remember the first thing I said to David after his brother died was, ‘This is not about [gang] colors,'” Rodriguez recalls. “‘This is about what we can do with our power, and you as a gang member what you can do with your people to help them understand that [your brother] can’t happen again.’ I remember he looked at me and said, ‘I been thinking a lot about what you said, and when my brother died, I wanted to kill myself, because I knew that fuck all the colors — my brother got dead in front of me.’ I remember him saying, ‘I think I can do it.’ After that, David never again got into a gang confrontation. He actually stopped kicking it — when they would sell drugs, he stopped going. It was like, ‘I see this other world, and I want to be a part of that.'”
Since David’s other brother had been a student at the American Indian Public Charter School — the Muscadine family has native, Italian, and Mexican blood — Rodriguez and Parr asked the Native American Health Center to join their coalition. Clay Akiwenzie, youth services director for the health center, had been a teacher at the charter school; a reserved, quiet guy whose four years working with Fruitvale’s disenfranchised youth has taught him the dangers of burnout, Akiwenzie didn’t commit to attend each weekly meeting, but other staff from the center often filled in. By March, the group had gone on a retreat and had chosen a tentative name — the Oakland Unification Project. Parr was filled with hope and enthusiasm for his fledgling project. “It’s based on the idea that there are natural youth leaders in our communities,” he said. “We want to create a citywide model for gang intervention, so these groups, which are well organized, don’t just compete for jail time.”
Parr’s enthusiasm spills over into the meeting. The group romps through an ambitious list of projects: Should they hold a festival to unite different gangs? Yes! A car wash to raise funds? Sure. Do a sweat to get back to native roots? Why not? Design a mural for the park where David’s older brother was killed? Definitely. And how about they make a movie about themselves, and show it to the City Council, to PBS, to everyone, to explain how hard life is for teens? Sounds cool.
Parr passes out appointment calendars — for those who have lost or forgotten the ones he provided last week. Dates are set and tasks assigned, but none of the kids bother to write their assignments down in their new calendars without a reminder. Alicia, who wears the shoulders of her tank top rolled under her bra straps, scribbles on her hand instead. (Except for the Muscadine brothers, all the youths in this story have been given fictional names.)
On a more serious note, the kids decide to write a letter to the City Council on behalf of David’s brother Mikey, who tells a harrowing story of being pummeled by cops even after he was lying unconscious on the street in a pool of his own blood. The teens spend much of the evening levying charges against the police. Cops pick them up for truancy and end up driving across town on a chase while they’re still in the back seat; cops take photos of boys and steal their cash, saying it’s drug money; “Today, the cops called me a bitch, and said my mother didn’t raise me right,” says Alicia.
If David had made a commitment to rally his friends around a new way of life, his leadership is hard to see at this first meeting. A large guy who uses deadpan sarcasm so often it’s hard to tell when he’s being serious, David says little and slumps in his chair. David’s contributions to the antigang efforts happen behind the scenes, trying to shift the rules of the street. Parr asks him to talk about his plan to meet up with Carlos, a leader of the Border Brothers — the rival gang. “It’s nothing to talk about, right now,” David says. “[Carlos] is trying to talk to his people. He’s telling me that if my homeboys treat him with respect, we’ll be cool. Probably because we got kids and shit.”
“What are we going to base a truce on?” Parr asks.
“I got to talk to my homeboys about that.”
“But what does it mean to be cool — stay in the neighborhoods?” Rodriguez persists. “Or if somebody is caught slipping in another neighborhood?”
David shrugs. “Carlos said, ‘You want to have a meeting, bring some boxing gloves, take it out that way.'”
“Well, if something does go down, we don’t want to ruin all the work we’re doing,” says Rodriguez. “Maybe we could even have meetings in the nineties.”
There’s a chorus of response: What? Are you crazy? No way! The nineties — 90th Avenue and up — is deep inside Border Brother territory.
The natural leaders of this meeting are the young women. Alicia, her sister Jessica, and her friend Lola are articulate and eager to take on projects. But there are hints at deep-rooted problems in their lives: Rodriguez tells the girls that there’s an artist she wants them to meet, and she’ll need to pull them out of school early.
“Oh, we’re not going to school,” they respond. “We dropped out.”
“What? Why? That’s crazy.” There’s a pause. “Well, okay, on to the next item.” Dropping out of school is not good news, but it’s not surprising news either. Better to focus on goals rather than trying to put out each brush fire that pops up along the way.At the next meeting, a week later, things are more chaotic. Everyone’s wearing baggy, sporty clothes this time, Nike wind pants and Tommy sweatshirts — red ones, of course. Fire-engine red is the Norteño color, and if you’re wearing red shoes and a red belt, and, preferably, a red shirt and visor or headband, then you’re claiming the color, a significant move out on the streets.
Before the meeting gets going, Jessica announces that she has not had a good week: Her boyfriend’s in juvie, her sister ran away, and she got three Fs. She says this all with the shy smile these kids seem to always use when they’re talking about themselves — especially the bad things that happen to them.
Parr finally manages to get the reluctant group into a circle and asks each teenager to explain why he or she is there. Luis is new and shy of talking in front of the group in this sincere setting (although later he proves capable of laying it on thick when he’s flirting with the girls). David explains his reasons again: “To keep youngsters off the streets — I don’t want them to make the same mistakes.” His younger brother Mikey is even more direct: “For me to get up off the streets,” he says. The girls obviously feel a little self-conscious at being asked to be so serious, but most have a flair for drama once the giggles die down. Jessica says, “I come for all of you guys, because I love you guys”; Lola adds, “I’m here to help them be better people, not out gang-banging on the streets.” When they hear that an article might be written about them, they love the idea; “It’s true, we are really doing something good,” Lola says. A few minutes later she is secretively showing off a joint to a newcomer, a quiet girl whom everyone seems to eager to woo. Another kid drifts in and motions for David — he’s needed on the street for a while.
The new girl — Katianna, Lola’s godsister — is shy and demure; she’s wearing a button-down shirt and a pastel cardigan, and she doesn’t join in the fast-talking banter of traded insults that erupts again and again as Parr struggles to stick to his agenda. The guys come on to Katianna relentlessly: stroke her hair, ogle her with what they obviously hope are bedroom eyes, throw their arms around her. After the meeting, Luis keeps asking her to come home with him, and he doesn’t seem to be hearing her quiet “No way”s at all.
Josh has printed out copies of a long, wordy Web page about Cesar Chavez, but asking the group to read out loud one by one engenders a major struggle. The boys make a big show of refusing; it’s not that they don’t know how to read, they insist, just that they get flustered in front of people. “You can’t make me do nothing I don’t want to do, ’cause I’ll snap,” says one. Parr gives in.
There’s a quiet moment, and one of the teen guys holds the floor by talking quietly, almost to himself, it seems. He says he’s a gangbanger because he was brought up that way; “I was born into it,” he says. “But I don’t do drive-bys because you don’t ever want to see the look on people’s faces when they’re lying on the ground.” Is this a memory? Something he’s been told by older gang members? Or is it just a joke?
Rodriguez doesn’t make it to the meeting because she’s busy picking up speakers for an upcoming event, and there’s not much else to report: Mikey’s family doesn’t want to sign a letter protesting the beating they say Mikey got at the hands of the police; Alicia, who volunteered to organize a fund-raiser car wash and a festival called Diacutea de La Vida, is also not there. “Well, it doesn’t look like we made any progress on any of the stuff,” says Parr. But he manages to get the three kids left in the room to write a few sentences about the festival anyway. “I imagine that there would be people from all types of gangs,” David writes, “and there would be no fighting, and people would talk.” “People would see that we really do care,” adds Lola. “The gangbangers really do care.” It’s a moment of vulnerability, as the kids expose their longing for stability and recognition — but it passes quickly. Mostly, the kids want to talk about the food — there should be quesadillas, enchiladas, tamales, and, definitely, Indian tacos.
The group breaks up amid talk of Jessica’s boyfriend and his friend in juvie. The two could get life, the kids agree, if the guy they beat up stays in a coma. Mikey says it’s all Lola’s fault — guys feel obliged to jump another kid if the kid is rude to any girl he’s with. “Girls are nothing but trouble,” agrees David, while Lola protests loudly to little effect. As they filter outside, Parr worries about what’s coming next for them tonight — “In here, it’s one thing,” he says. “But out there, we’re just one block away from the corner where they sell drugs, do drugs.”
Outside, Lola and David are kissing; Luis continues pressing on Katianna until he notices David and Lola, and starts shouting, “Jump her, Jump her!” Lola runs giggling into the middle of the darkening street. It’s been a depressing night.
Within a few weeks, Alicia is back, but that doesn’t mean that the next Wednesday meeting is any better. Rodriguez is still missing, which frustrates some of the kids, but even more disruptive is a fight that erupts between Jessica and Cathy. There’s a good deal of drama — the kind you would find in any high school clique — but Parr worries that if he doesn’t deal with it here, there will be a fight on the streets. So the meeting is almost entirely derailed trying to hash out the girls’ squabble. This sidetrack frustrates the other kids, some of whom had come ready to work; Alicia and Lola had even typed up an agenda. David steps up to the plate, shepherding everyone back into the meeting room, but by then it’s gotten late and attentions have fizzled.
In the weeks to come, Alicia — who has a confident air and a sharp wit — will take on more and more responsibility for the group. She is clearly a bright kid, and she knows it: “I’m not going to lie, I’m really smart, I know I’m smart. I just need to use that, I need to apply myself.” Native American Health Center Youth Services Director Clay Akiwenzie says its confusing to him to see a kid like Alicia caught up in gang life. “She knows this is a dead end, but has romantic ideas about being a gangster and wearing red,” he says. “Maybe it’s a self-esteem issue.” Parr’s analysis is similar: “She’s searching for an identity,” he says.
Alicia tells her own story in a more roundabout way. “I moved up here about three years ago,” she says. “It was kind of hard, ’cause I was so preppy; I was into school, but everybody out here was so laid-back and just didn’t care. I kicked it with the Chinas first, but wasn’t working — they were more into school, didn’t have fun on the weekends, stayed at home. I wasn’t into that; I thought I was, but I wasn’t. I kicked it with Sudeños before, too, way back in the early ’90s, and I didn’t really like the things they did; they treated people scandalous, the way they treated females … they didn’t care about anybody else. My cousin’s a Norteño, so he introduced me to them and I liked them; they were respectful as soon as I got there. They put themselves out there like they’re all big and bad, like they don’t care about nothing, that females are nothing, but when it comes down to it, they are so respectful. That kind of shocked me, but once I started getting to know them, they treated me more like their little sister, rather than some female.”
Alicia puts on a tough outer shell; she says she gets in a fight about once every other week, usually to back up her friend Lola, a loud girl who likes to flirt and throw back her head with peals of laughter. Alicia hasn’t been officially jumped into the gang — an initiation ritual that involves being attacked by a few older girls in the gang — and she sometimes realizes she ought to get out of this life, especially after having a gun pulled on her: “It was like, I wasn’t scared at all,” she says with bravado. “When they pulled a strap on us, my two homeboys, they ran. But I just stood there looking at him, I wanted to look into his eyes. I don’t know why, but I wanted to look at him, you know? I wanted to see who he was. So I just stood there looking at him. And he went back into the car to get his strap, that’s when I hid behind a car … but, like, after that, I wanted a different life. I just could not stop thinking about, what would have happened if he would have shot me; how would my family have felt, you know? What would that have done to my mom, my sisters, my brother, my grandma? It’s like, I don’t know, I didn’t want that anymore. I didn’t want to have to think about what they would go through if something happened to me because of the life that I choose.” So Alicia left to spend some time with her grandmother, a good day’s drive from Oakland; “I wanted a change,” she says. “But, you know, I couldn’t. I couldn’t. It didn’t work. I didn’t want to change anymore. Once I got out there, I missed it. The second I got out there, I didn’t have no red, I didn’t have no belt, I didn’t have no colors. I had baby blue and pink. And that wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t representing.”
Alicia and Lola should have finished tenth grade last spring, but both dropped out of school when David’s brother was killed (each claims she was the bad influence on the other), and by the time they tried to get back into their classes there was no way they could pass that year. “I used to love school; I used to get ‘A’s and ‘B’s, I used to never miss a day,” Alicia says. “But when [David’s brother] died I was confused. We wanted to spend our time with the family and the rest of the homeboys, just in case anything else happened, so we were just spending time with the homeboys, cutting school, thinking, We’ll start again next week, we’ll start again next week. It just got too hard, and when we finally did get the courage to go back to school, to get our lives back together, it was just so discouraging that we were going to flunk no matter what we did.
“I couldn’t go back to school anyway because I got caught up in the streets, I got too caught up with the life. It’s like the thrill of, every day, living life by the day instead of planning out the whole week with homework, just living by the day with whatever came up, whatever happened with the morning, whatever happened in the afternoon, I didn’t know nothing. That was perfect — instead of knowing I was going to go to school every day and then after school I was going to come home — I couldn’t do that. I wanted to be somewhere at all times, with my friends at all times; I wanted to be with the homeboys all the time. I couldn’t be away from them, and even to this day I still find myself at the park every day no matter how many times I say I’m not going to go.”
Girls like Alicia and Lola act as if they need to prove themselves to the boys: “To tell you the truth, if something went down and people came by shooting, I’d jump in front of one of the homeboys,” Alicia says. “In a quick minute without even thinking about it. Those are the people you do anything for. It wouldn’t even occur to me that I’m getting shot and they’re not. It’s just that they’re not getting shot, that’s what I’m thinking about. If I get shot then it’s my time to go. I believe in destiny.”
Alicia and Lola are now running the Unification Project meetings — another way to prove their dedication, perhaps. They draft agendas complete with scheduled “ice-breakers” (as if this group, with their in-jokes and lavish flirting, needs any more ice to be broken) and writing workshops. The two girls set a date for a car wash and even secure the parking lot at Victory Outreach church for the event only to find that no one is available to help. Undaunted, the two shift their focus to planning for Diacutea de La Vida, the festival they want to hold in Fruitvale’s Sanborn Park. It’s originally scheduled for May 30 — but soon moved back to June 30. “How are we going to get our point across (what is the point we are trying to get across),” reads the agenda item for the festival.
At the next meeting, Lola is elated: “Guess who might sponsor our festival,” she says. “Mervyn’s, Old Navy, Albertson’s — we just called everyone we could think of!” (It is soon clear that “might sponsor us” means “asked for more information.”) In the background, Jessica is calling her mom for a ride home — “I don’t want to waste my time on this stupid meeting,” she says with her lip curled. She’s had a fight with one of the guys, it turns out. But when Rodriguez suggests that maybe they shouldn’t hold a meeting tonight after all, Lola’s face falls. “Look at all the work I did,” she complains. Luis gets a call on his cell phone and proceeds to give the caller detailed directions to Quince — “I gots to go now,” he says.
Parr finally shows up, giving each kid a hug. “I’m hungry,” he announces. “Let’s go eat.”
So the group treks over to International Boulevard’s Taqueria San Jose, and holds a fragmented, chaotic meeting while eating greasy burritos and chips slathered with processed cheese. Other customers greet David, who has dyed his hair neon gold — “Now I can fit in Piedmont real good,” he jokes.
Alicia says she met some Border Sisters last week — “We smoked with them, and that means we’re connected.” Parr tries to start the meeting, shouting over the din what he hopes will be an uplifting message: “If we can eat together, we can live together; food is love,” he says. But David is busy with more important business; he whispers something to Cathy, who looks indignant and says, “I never said nothing!” Parr tries to hand the meeting over to Alicia; even though she has food in her mouth, she reports that she’s talked to a number of performers who she’s sure will put on a show for the festival. “All they need now is to get the information in writing,” she says. Lola and David stalk off — their romance seems to be on the rocks, perhaps because David has a girlfriend and baby just down the street. Someone throws up just outside the door.
Clay Akiwenzie of the Native American Health Center is sitting in on the meeting tonight, and the girls are practicing making their Diacutea de la Vida pitch to a potential donor. But although they keep asking for funding, they’re not even sure what they need that money for. Is it just to put on the festival? Is the festival going to make money for them, to fund their group to take more retreats (Great America is a favored choice)?
Akiwenzie’s agency is a partner of sorts in the Unification Project; staff members from his office have occasionally brought snacks to the meetings, and have offered to mentor the kids to make a movie. But Akiwenzie is frustrated with the chaos and lack of direction he’s seen at many of the gatherings. “I think there was some confusion about what we’re trying to do,” he says. “What was Wednesday night about? I didn’t feel like there was a comprehensive plan, and I think the kids felt the same way: ‘Why am I going to this meeting, and what are we actually going to do?’ There wasn’t a lot of communication about what we were trying to achieve at any given moment.” In fact, Akiwenzie has philosophical differences with the way Parr and Rodriguez run the show. “I was frustrated that kids were coming to the meeting high, and we’re a prevention program,” he says. “We don’t allow that; you can’t come to a Native American Health Center high. If you make that choice, this isn’t the place for you. That’s hard, because you’re putting them out on the street, but we can’t have the street in our building.”
Akiwenzie stresses that kids make a choice to be involved in gangs, and there are other options open to them; there are about 450 youngsters enrolled in the programs offered by his center alone. “I’ve got other kids on probation too, and some of them aren’t as far along into the gang life,” he says.
Parr and Rodriguez respond that they’re working with this particular set of kids because David asked them to. And since these are very much “at risk” kids who probably won’t take the initiative to get into the more structured, established programs, there needs to be more flexibility. “Sometimes I check them on [drugs] and kick them out when they’re high,” Parr says, “but I just know that’s what they do. If you don’t deal with them in that state, half the time you’re not going to deal with them at all.”
Parr and Rodriguez also argue that the best way to help these at-risk kids is to politicize them. They both encourage the kids to talk not only about how Proposition 21 — the ballot measure that set stricter sentencing for youth convicted of crimes and made gang-affiliation carry a harsher penalty — has made their lives harder, but about the idea that their actions are merely defined as crimes because of white prejudice and oppression. It’s a way of transferring the pressing blame for their tough lives off their own shoulders, Parr says. “The kids internalize all this stuff,” Parr says. “They do consider themselves to be at fault for all the things that have happened to them. So you want to get them out of that; you need to make them feel positive first. They need to get over the stereotypes they have about themselves. Once you give them something to focus on, then you can give them responsibilities.”
Rodriguez argues that it’s only through this kind of political action that individual kids can be steered towards the straight and narrow: “I’ve seen from my experience that when youth become politicized, they gradually want to take control of their lives because they understand the system better, so they say, ‘Okay, these are the risks I’m taking when I do such and such.’ That takes a long time.” That is certainly evident as Parr leads a discussion with a few of the kids: Lola and Alicia tell the group — half-chagrined, half-boastful — that they got in a fight with some girls from the Border Brothers. David scolds them; they shouldn’t have been claiming colors, he says. But his commitment to stopping all violence is guarded; there’s not just the Border Brothers to contend with, but also the Sudeños, the historic enemies of the Norteños. The Sudeños started in Southern California, and here in Oaktown their ranks are swollen with recent immigrants who don’t speak English — Norteños derisively call their rivals “wetbacks.” “The Norteños and Sudeños are always going to be fighting,” David tells the group. “That’s how it goes. With the Border Brothers you got a chance. But if you go to juvie, the older gang members in there say, “Why you trying to kick it with Sudeños?’ — and then try to kill you.”
“So you got to stay out of juvie,” Parr says. “You got to not hang out on Quince.”
“What? We’re just hanging out there. The cops, they treat us like animals.”
“Okay, so why are there so many cops? Who pays for them?” Parr says. “Who’s been moving into your neighborhoods?” There’s a pause. “Rich white people and Asians, right? And do you think they like seeing minorities on their streets? They say you have to clean up the streets.”
Their response? “Asian people are hecka rich…”Akiwenzie has little patience with all of this. “I’m not in this to fight the juvenile justice system. If you want cops to stop harassing you, stop gang-banging. How about trying to stop selling drugs, stop wearing red — try getting a job,” he says. “I think Prop. 21 was a disaster; it’s a horrible law. It sucks that kids are being held accountable for real-life decisions — but those are the rules of the land. It’s either pay attention to them, or you’re going to end up in that system in jail, like David.”
So how do you motivate gangbangers to change their lives? For David’s younger brother Mikey, the answer is the church — and a hefty dose of reality. While his older brother decided he needed to change the rules of the streets by trying to forge understanding with rival gangs, Mikey has focused on changing himself. “Seeing my brother get killed, that’s what’s really getting me out of this stuff, because I don’t want to end up like that on the street corner getting shot over just a color,” he says “Why should I want to die for this? So I’m going to do something better.”
Mikey says he’s been beat to the point of unconsciousness by police officers three times, and he’s been to jail three times. The last time he was in juvie somebody handed him a Bible. It all rang true for him, and since then he’s been going to church — and trying to abide by the law. “In the Bible you ain’t supposed to drink, smoke, you aren’t supposed to dirty your body,” he says. “So I’m doing whatever the Bible tells me to do, like stop having sex. I try and stop doing that. It’s hard, but I take it one day by day — that’s what the pastor and everybody tells me.
“A lot of people could earn a lot more money on the streets ’cause they’re selling drugs, but that’s like selling drugs to your own family though, your own friends. I would rather get a job. I could sell all those drugs if I really wanted to but I don’t; that’s why I’m trying to get a job and everything. Feels like you’re more of a man when you work at a job. It feels like I’m doing something. When you’re on the corner, you could make a lot of money, but that’s really wrong and evil. Why should I want to sell drugs when I’m going to church? That’s like being a hypocrite. So why should I do all that?
“My friends, they look at you a different way. I just ignore them most of the time. They be all asking me, ‘You ain’t for this no more?’ I be like, ‘Nah.’ They be like, ‘Why?’ And after that, I just tell them the reason: My brother got killed over this stuff, my cousin got killed over this stuff. This stuff is crazy.”
Mikey skips UP meetings most weeks now because his church meets at the same time; he found the meetings frustrating anyway. Parr and Rodriguez didn’t always show up, and they weren’t always on time; plus, Mikey says, “All they would do is just talk about different things, never do it.”Mid-June
If there was a debate about how political the UP project should be, that debate ended, at least for Rodriguez, when David was arrested for murder. A fifteen-year-old Sudeño was stabbed on International Boulevard, and although the police first said the suspect weighed about 145 pounds, they later questioned and then arrested the much-heavier David. Everyone in the Norteño gang is convinced David didn’t commit the crime — some say they were with him that night, and most say they know who the real killer is. “It’s commonplace for these kids to get sentenced for something they haven’t done,” says Rodriguez. “It’s unbelievable how often that happens. I think it’s a good chance to take what’s happening right now and attach it to the bigger picture, which is police are harassing youth everyday. The police are the biggest gang; they have the power, the money, and the weapons. I think it takes something like this [for the youth] to really rally around.”
Once David is arrested, the Wednesday night meetings change dramatically. Carmina, the mother of David’s baby, shows up for the first time; so does her twenty-year-old friend. Both were once in the gang, but now they say that was a stupid mistake; Carmina says it was her baby that made her get serious; for Nora, it was just growing up. “I want to have a good future for my baby,” Carmina says. “I don’t want to be working hard and just for the minimum, like my mom is and my dad. I want a good job for the baby, like an office job.” Although they say they can understand why kids join the gang (to fit in, and because if they don’t choose one gang, they’ll be harassed by both), they say they now think it’s silly. “Back then, I thought it was just a game,” Carmina says. “But then I was seeing, we got to go put it down for this, we got to go shoot people, we got to go jump people, we got to do a lot of things. Why fighting your own race? You’re killing your own kind of people. It’s not right. You do things just for a color.”
Carmina hadn’t come to any meetings before David was locked up; his flirtation with Lola probably didn’t help. But now she shows up, even runs the show, raising money to hire a lawyer and collecting letters to send to David, who is reportedly almost suicidally depressed. Carmina also agitates to loosen the strict rules that define a gang’s code of conduct. A kid named Amos shows up to a meeting a few weeks after the stabbing, and when Parr asks the kids to explain their reasons for coming and to “keep it real,” Amos takes him at his word. “I’m not going to lie,” he says. “I ain’t here to stop the violence, ’cause what they did to [David and Mikey’s brother], that’s for life. The issue is either David speaks, or he keeps quiet. That’s gang life.”
“He’s not going to take that hit,” Carmina says without missing a beat. “That’s not homeboys.”
“We just need to prove him innocent,” Parr interrupts. “But you guys are tripping. I say we need to talk to the Border Brothers and Sudeños. You’re all Latinos; the cops can beat on you both, and you both get in jail.”
“It’s more than just a color,” Amos retorts.
“You know who’s laughing when either one of you go down? The pigs, and the people who control them.”
“I’m asking you all to put this aside,” says Carmina. “I know they’re helping, the Border Brothers, they’re raising money for David.”
“But check this out, homey,” Amos says. “This is the wild life out here. You ain’t gonna change the streets.”
“You can change yourself,” offers Parr.
“But you can’t change the streets.”
A few weeks later, Carmina reports that there’s a death threat on her head.
The work that Rodriguez and Carmina put in does pay off. With the help of David’s family, they raise enough money to hire a lawyer to investigate David’s case. But as the organizing gets more and more focused on David, Alicia and Lola fade further and further into the distance. These two, who once seemed to have the most promise, now seem the most endangered. Carmina has claimed her place as David’s rightful partner, the point person for his future, so it’s hard for Lola to continue coming to the meetings. At one of the meetings she and Alicia do attend, both show up high as a kite; Lola shows off a black eye. Parr and Rodriguez do not attempt to hide their frustration with this behavior. “[Alicia and Lola] don’t really represent what we’re trying to do,” Parr later says. “I don’t know what to do with them half the time. No one can control them.”
The future is far from sure for any of these kids, of course. Clay Akiwenzie points out that while young mothers like Carmina may try to finish school and get good jobs, more often than not they end up on welfare. Still, for Lola and Alicia, the crisis is now. “I see them becoming more and more involved in this stupidity, on the verge of being absorbed by it,” Parr says. “I was asking [Lola] what she had done for the last three weeks, and she said, ‘I really can’t remember, but I was at the park each day. You just hang out there every day and you see everybody.'” It’s amazing to see how she’s been sucked into it. If their level of disengagement from society increases, it makes heroin seem like an answer. I’m worried about that, but what can you do? The pull of the streets is alluring.”
On a bright summer afternoon, the UP kids throw a barbecue to raise money for David’s lawyer. It’s just the kind of event Lola and Alicia dreamed of but somehow could never pull off. Someone has made “Free David” stickers, and Muscadine family members are grilling seasoned beef and tamales. Lola and Alicia, with several friends in tow, drift by late, and leave almost immediately. Though everyone had agreed not to show colors at this gathering, Lola’s wearing her red Norte belt and a red tube top. “Why’d they even bother to come,” snorts one family member.
It’s a hot day, and the thirty-odd people who have gathered to support David head for the shady spots. Across the grassy lawn of Dimond Park, we see other family gatherings with their picnic food; an African-American father buys his son a balloon from a passing vendor. At the Muscadine tables, Rodriguez is in top form; some of her fellow community organizers show up, and she connects them with David’s grandfather, who talks about what a good kid his grandson is. David’s baby son is napping in a stroller borrowed from another young mother. Lola and Alicia cross the lawn again, on their way to the bathroom; by the time they return for food, they’re high, eyes fringed with red.
“We’re not coming to those meetings anymore,” they say. “We quit.”
“It’s not worth it anymore. They promised us a festival, they promised us murals, but what ever happened? Now all these people are involved, just to get David out. But once he gets out, it’s back to the same thing again.”
“That’s the truth, blood. You can’t change the streets.”
Stopping gang violence is harder than just saying you want to.