Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crips and Bloods: Made in America (PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The library movie was a preview screening of Crips and Bloods: Made in America, a PBS “Independent Lens” documentary by Stacy Peralta (a white man, by the way) that offered a chilling view of the 40-year civil war on the streets of south-central Los Angeles between the Crips and the Bloods. Peralta’s approach was, rather than create a straightforward documentary, to make a sort of visual equivalent of a D. J.’s mix tape, moving backwards and forwards in time, and also a sort of fashionable liberal bit of sociologizing that locates the origin of the gangs in the de-industrialization of inner-city Los Angeles (the film depicts both the opening of the big defense and auto factories in the early 1940’s and their closure in the late 1950’s and 1960’s) and the successful suppression of the Black nationalist self-help movements of the 1960’s by the federal government (particularly the FBI) and local police departments.

The film depicts L.A.’s legendary police chief William Parker — who may have rooted out the LAPD’s previously endemic corruption but was also such a flaming racist that, as a series of memos recently published in the Los Angeles Times revealed, even J. Edgar Hoover thought he was crazy — and therefore unwittingly (or perhaps not so unwittingly) contributes to the debate as to whether the new LAPD headquarters should retain the “Parker Center” name of the old one. The film — at least in the truncated hour-long form shown last night (apparently there’s a longer version that at least one audience member had previously seen) — leaves out a lot, including barely touching on the importance of the drug trade in general and crack cocaine in particular in financing the gangs. A veteran of the 1950’s predecessors of the Crips and Bloods remarks that their generation of gangsters just fought each other with fists, and it was in the next generation that the gangs began arming themselves until now they have assault-quality weapons and probably are better armed than the police; this is true, but what the film inexplicably didn’t mention is that what’s financed the gangs’ ability to arm themselves is the massive income they get from the drug trade.

The screening was facilitated by Rafik Muhammad, a tall, strikingly attractive African-American who lives part-time in Los Angeles and part-time in San Diego, where he heads the sociology department at USD, and he was confronted by a young Black man in the audience who claimed to be an ex-gangbanger himself and asked if he’d ever used drugs (he refused to answer and both the library staffers in charge of the screening and most of the audience backed him in his refusal — and, let’s face it, that was none of our goddamned business!), and he filled in some of the movie’s hardest-to-understand omissions, including how the gang war on the L.A. streets is not only a civil war within the African-American community but a war between them and Latinos (indeed, the most deadly street gang in L.A. today is probably the MS-13, short for Maru Salvatrucha Trece, a gang that started with refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, though most of their lower echelons these days are filled out by undocumented immigrants from Mexico who’ve joined for protection).

I’m generally quite sympathetic to sociological arguments for crime, but I think it’s a bit too simplistic to think that if the Black Panthers had been able to survive the 1970’s there wouldn’t be Crips and Bloods today — it’s one thing to say that a lot of the potentially positive social-service and entrepreneurial spirit among young African-Americans is being channeled into criminal enterprises because it doesn’t have an outlet in the legitimate economy (Malcolm X made that point in his autobiography 45 years ago!), and quite another thing to absolve the African-Americans themselves for the ridiculous level of intra-group violence that has left 15,000 dead on the streets of L.A. Indeed, through much of this film I was wondering if perhaps the best outcome would be for the Crips and Bloods to get together and form a commission to settle differences between them the way the various Italian-American gangs in the early 20th century formed La Cosa Nostra — while that hasn’t stopped drive-by shootings and other forms of violence between various Mafia families, it has cut down the violence quite a bit and for most of the 20th century left the Mafiosi alone to provide the illegal services that kept them in business and not have to watch their backs for each other all the time.

Perhaps realizing how hopeless and despairing he’d made the rest of his film — Peralta naturally mentioned that due to “tough-on-crime” legislation (though one law he didn’t mention is the ludicrous discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine sentences — in a law actually drafted by African-American Congressmember Charles Rangel in the mistaken belief that he was protecting his community in the early days of the crack epidemic, federal drug laws stipulate minimum sentences for cocaine possession based on the total amount of substance, even though in crack most of the substance is inert, rather than the amount of active drug — which means the Black people’s cocaine is punished far more severely than rich white people’s cocaine) over one-fourth of all African-American males will serve some time in jail or prison — though that’s one of those double-edged statistics since it also means that almost three-fourths of all African-American men won’t serve time, and at least part of the solution lies in facilitating opportunities for them and making sure they and their wives and children don’t become peripheral or collateral victims of gang violence — he dragged in some hopeful characters at the end, a group of middle-aged Black men (many of them former gangbangers) who call themselves “Gang Intervention” specialists and are reaching out to the young to try to keep them from going into gangs and giving them alternatives (though so much of the “alternatives” involve sports and coaching, and one can’t help but think that we’ve been here before).

Peralta is right to be shocked that the death toll on L.A.’s streets is higher than that in the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and that there are more L.A. Blacks being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder than are residents of Baghdad, and it’s clear that the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key attitude hasn’t worked (Rafik Muhammad pointed out in his post-film talk that the recidivism rate in California prisons is over 70 percent, which he cited as a reason to institute rehabilitation programs, though once again that’s a double-edged statistic that’s been repeatedly used by “tough-on-crime” politicians and activists as a reason to make sentences even longer), but from the evidence presented in the film it’s not all that clear what will work, if anything — one could use the information in this film to argue that by now the Crips and Bloods are as utterly separate tribes as the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, and only by isolating them from each other can they be prevented from killing each other in perpetuity.