Sunday, Sep 9, 2012 5:00 PM UTC

Fly trap

A wary dance between cops and criminals in gangland L.A.

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This article is excerpted from Operation Fly Trap, available from University of Chicago Press.

Kevin Allen and brother Elijah hadn’t known “blood” to signify much in St. Louis, Missouri. They did know, however, how to slap, pat, sing, and chant to do the hambone. When they moved with their mother to L.A., the boys became novelties. Kids played with them just to hear them talk. Kevin and Elijah listened back. In their first neighborhood, everyone said “cuz” in the customary Crips manner. Once they’d moved to Pueblo del Rio, a new word was “like the lyrics to a song,” Kevin says. “Blood, blood, blood.” And while language certainly carried deep meaning in St. Louis, they had never before lived in a place where the wrong word could get you into such serious trouble. On one of their first days in the Pueblos, they saw a group of kids drag a boy off the bus at 55th Street and Holmes and beat him for saying “cuz” to a girl. They would see this scene repeated countless times. “It happened so much,” Kevin says, “that in the beginning, you would feel for the person getting beat, but after a while you stop feeling for the victim and start rooting for the beater. I was desensitized from seeing so many beatings, and I decided I wanted to be part of the beat-down team.”

Any attempt to discourage the boys from joining gangs only encouraged them. Stories their stepfather told of his janitorial work at local schools opened their eyes further to the geography of gangs — Pueblo Bishops, Blood Stone Villains, 20s Outlaws, 53 Avalons, 52 Broadways, 59 East Coast Crips — and the nicknames of key individuals — Stomper, Lonely Blood, Doc Dirt, Pueblo Steve, Too Hard, Dangerous Dan, Spud the Blood, Fat Man. These high-ranking Pueblos became Kevin’s culture heroes. He wanted to earn their respect and move in their circles of power. His willingness to participate in violence protected him and ushered him in.

After Kevin won his first fight against a Crip, he had a reputation to preserve. The resulting power struggle played out regularly on the grounds of Edison Junior High at 64th and Hooper. “School was not a place of learning for me,” he says. “It was more like a boot camp getting me ready for war.” Kevin averaged three fights per week.

By age eleven, Kevin carried a .44 Magnum short barrel. Despite the danger, the drug trade and wars between gangs filled life with opportunities to fortify reputation and pocketbook. The neighborhood was still majority black, and any outsider was a target. Older gang members showed Kevin how to break into the box that regulated the traffic signal at 55th and Long Beach and turn the light permanently red. Kevin and the other homies would walk among the stopped cars and rob people. Police placed undercover units around the intersection to no avail. They finally removed the signal entirely. Even today, the corner of 55th and Long Beach, crosscut by four sets of railroad tracks, has only stop signs.

Every Friday, Kevin would fight at school. Even when he lost, being a victim to the collective violence of other neighborhoods elevated his status just as much as delivering the beating. The first time someone shot him, homies visited him from near and far: he had taken a bullet for the hood. When he took on a number of 59 East Coast Crips one day at Budlong Park, he fought until he blacked out. Everyone at school had a story to tell about him. Retaliation for that beating soon sent him to the emergency room with broken teeth, broken ribs, black eyes, and swelling in his brain. “I stayed in the hospital a couple of weeks taking different tests mostly on my head because it had swollen from all the stomping on it. I felt like a celebrity.”

The big homies began to include Kevin in their operations. They robbed enemy gangs’ crack houses, unsuspecting Mexicans’ wallets, and naïve drivers. Between the dealing and robbing, Kevin came into large quantities of cash. He gave some to his mom, stashed some in his room, and used the rest to buy drugs to sell. More violence landed him in juvenile camp, and eventually in youth authority, where he became acquainted with an even broader gang geography.

Inside, old beefs transformed into friendships, and new opportunities arose for retaliation and alliance. Whereas outside Kevin had his gun, inside he had to rely on wits and fists only. He had always been slender — years later Ms. Jackson would refer to him as “that skinny boy from the projects” — so he carefully calculated his attacks to maximize the impact of his blows.

While Kevin was incarcerated, his mother moved to a new neighborhood where, once again, everyone said “cuz.” He could not live there after his release. He was, and long had been, a hardcore Blood from the Five Duse Pueblo Bishops, and had taken the name Bishop K-Rok.

The Pueblo Bishops and Blood Stone Villains were close allies for years. “A lot of dudes would claim both,” Kevin says. “For example, some Villains, if asked where they were from, would say ‘Villain-Pueblo,’ and if a Pueblo was asked, he would say he was from ‘Pueblo-Villain.’” The two gangs shared initials and combined their names, PBSV or BSVPB, to symbolize the strength of their alliance.

That camaraderie evaporated in the late 1990s. The shift had roots in local demographics, recent Los Angeles history, and neighborhood and prison politics. By the late 1990s, gangs had anchored new patterns of animosity and alliance in L.A. Some Bloods and Crips began to be unified, some Bloods groups sparked chronic internal warfare, and some black and Latino gangs began lethal cycles of conflict. Pueblos and Villains were now enemies.

***

K-Rok described the fate of Pueblo Steve, who was a “BIG,” or Blood general, and had made the initial decision in the late 1980s to prohibit non-gang members from selling drugs in the projects. Gang members represented the hood in correctional facilities of all kinds. They ran with other Bloods, and their good name protected people from the hood while they were behind bars — whether or not those people were formally affiliated with the gang. They also kept the neighborhood safe from the economic intrusions of outsiders, and they regulated, questioned, and fought when necessary. Gang members bore the brunt of whatever violence accompanied the drug trade. As both victims and shooters, gang members were the focus of frequent gunfire and were also in charge of retaliation. With these reasons in mind, Pueblo Steve decided to implement exclusionary rights to the profits from dope dealing in the projects.

Pueblo Steve flat-out rejected the separation politics among prison-based Bloods. He ran the projects at a time when street Bloods’ unity remained the order of the day. The division between two California prison gangs, Blood Line and United Bloods Nation, ran counter to Steve’s belief that all Bloods should unite. He also knew that prison gangs would sap neighborhood strength. They would demand revenues from the illicit Pueblos’ economy — revenues that Steve felt should have remained in the projects. And they would inevitably force people to kill their own homies. Pueblo Steve never caved to continual pressure to be “on the paperwork.”

Before his death, Pueblo Steve had mentored many young homies in the neighborhood. He had showed them how to scheme, move in silence, and gather information through observation. He preached discipline and unity. Pueblo Steve was a Big Homie: he ran everything that went on in the Pueblos projects. In his case, politics intervened to take both his rank and his life. Someone in a yellow Cadillac coupe rolled up on a corner crowd that included Steve and opened fire. By the time the police arrived, Steve had died.

Many young Pueblos, including K-Rok, grew disillusioned after the murder of Pueblo Steve in 1992. Rok had been in that corner crowd and had watched Steve bleed to death. After Steve’s murder, K-Rok grew more isolated. He began hanging around with drug addicts, prostitutes, and crack heads instead of his homies. K-Rok considered himself a money addict. He still supported his hood, but gang banging no longer held the same attraction for him. He took the best parts of his life — his family, the girls, and the money — and he left the violence behind.

This change in K-Rok coincided with a major event, the 1992 L.A. riots. Nothing that unfolded surprised K-Rok — not the beatings, not the lying cops, not the verdicts — except that other gang members were thinking the same way he was. The birth of his first child at this time, coupled with Steve’s murder, set the stage for his transformation, which fed into a citywide decrease in gang warfare that had partly resulted from the riots.

Although the peace that resulted from the riots was short-lived in some places, it was not short-lived in K-Rok. He supported local alliances; he attended a global peace summit in Geneva, Switzerland, with other neighborhood activists. Although pimping and the drug trade continued to be his financial mainstays, he never returned to the violent lifestyle he had honed as a young gang member.

***
K-Rok and Officer Brooks had known each other a long time. Brooks knew all about K-Rok’s chosen profession but could never quite catch him at it. He did catch Rok with quantities of cash a few times, but the dice Rok always carried in his pocket provided an easy way out. K-Rok gambled; that was why he had the money. Brooks didn’t believe for a minute that Rok was into peace. Not for peace’s sake, anyway. He was into peace for the profit of it, to benefit himself. K-Rok counters that he “was one of the main proponents of ‘Stop the Violence.’”

The fewer dead bodies you have, K-Rok said, the more money you can make:

Funerals cost about $6,000. That’s like a down payment on a business. Then you got to spend money on flowers, on the party after the funeral, on something to wear. By the end of it, you done spent close to $10,000 that you could have spent on something else. And think there might be four or six funerals during a year. Instead of putting money into a video store or a laundromat to further your business, you had to spend it on funerals.

K-Rok was the first to admit that Brooks was correct. He wanted the money. Violence notoriously obstructs drug revenues. Many consider the drug trade a primary cause of violence, but the opposite is also true. Economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh conclude in their study of a Chicago gang’s finances that gang wars “are costly, both in terms of lost lives and lost profits.” Almost all of the deaths of drug sellers are concentrated in war periods.

Moreover, the violence keeps customers away. This negative shock to drug demand is associated with a fall of 20 to 30 percent in both the price and quantity of drugs sold during fighting, and the drug operation becomes far less profitable. Chicago and L.A. gangs and drug trades differ dramatically, so violence and nonviolence reverberate in unique ways. L.A. gang members consider that less violence will not only minimize funeral expenses but also curtail police attention on the gang.

Gang politics in the early 2000s provided plenty of opportunities for new association. The memory of the riots as well as traditional intergang alliance techniques gave shape to unification efforts that now included previously inviolate divisions between Bloods and Crips. Many people helped broker the partnerships that developed during this period. Some remembered friends from their old neighborhoods; others might have had family on another side of town whom they had never met because the gangs got in the way. These groups had picnics and played basketball and football games — all traditional gang alliance mechanisms. For some, these events meant peace, pure and simple. They meant leaving behind the chaos, the drama, the corpses. For others, peace also brought an opportunity to expand business. However short-lived, these new relationships were a win-win.

Police hold little faith in local peacemaking attempts and mistrust former gang members who turn into community activists. The chronic antagonism between police and gang peacemakers leads individuals to question the motives of the police in disrupting internal gang unification procedures or targeting leaders. Police trust neither because they view peacemaker motivations as ultimately anchored in illegal profit. Police thus scrutinize and sometimes penalize efforts that might bring some calm to chronically violent situations. Gang members and community members, in turn, consider that police do this to keep law enforcement numbers up, since gang violence helps keep police in business.

If Brooks holds that peacemaker K-Rok had an ulterior motive, K-Rok maintains that Brooks has one too. Brooks has always proclaimed an interest in the community. He used to go around the neighborhood gathering kids into a school bus. He would take them to the park to do activities. All the while, K-Rok claims, Brooks would really be gathering information about neighborhood goings-on. He wanted to build trust — and future informants — through his good works.

Among gang members, Brooks has the reputation of being a bitch, a liar, a user, a power tripper, an asshole, and somebody who was mean for no reason. I heard all of these things said about him at one time or another, long before I ever met him in person. K-Rok said about him, “How could you work for a system that’s basically here to lock your peoples up? That commit cultural genocide against your people? I never could wrap my mind around that.”

Brooks countered that K-Rok is the one committing cultural genocide. Drug dealing brings slow death to the black community of which they are both part:

My conscience is totally the opposite. K-Rok was selling dope right across from the elementary school on Holmes. He don’t care about anything but making money. In terms of black officers, there needs to be a balance. We need to be a reflection of the community we make up. Somebody’s got to represent the community. All I did was respond to what was going on down there. It was killing and selling drugs. I been there, and I seen good people down there. I seen how gang members target good people. I see the victims. I see the aftereffects.

K-Rok in turn countered that:

In order to change any system, you have to become a part of the system, to learn the rules in order to be able to change it. And he in a position to do that. And make it fair for everybody. But he don’t want to do that. He want to do, for lack of a better term, what they tell him to do. And that’s what he do. And believe it. And he really believe. You supposed to believe in what you doing but, not to the extent where you committing a racial genocide, you know what I’m saying?

Brooks said of K-Rok:

He’s trying to say I’m whitewashed. But he can’t wash the black off me. I’m trying to do my job. When I got transferred out of Newton, people wanted me back. They wanted me back down there, because I was keeping peace down there. I don’t even pay attention to a comment like that. Nobody has to tell me that I’m black. He’s trying to look at the whole picture, what he needs to look at are the decisions he made in life.

The two squared off one time, outside Kevin’s uncle’s house. The champion boxer versus the Crip-tested Blood. Neither seriously injured the other, and the pride of both remained intact. I often considered the similarities between the two men, though they would have hated the comparison. Both men were gregarious, smart, and funny. Both were great storytellers. Both were into power in their own ways. And both were men into strategy. They weighed the risks, measured their moves, and relied on wits, training, and experience for survival. There were differences, of course. Kevin was a lady’s man, for example — his ability to juggle women was partly what had led him to pimping. Mark was strictly monogamous.

If Brooks knew he was going to “get” these people someday, the Pueblos and Villains also knew that they had to get him. At some point, they felt him getting too close. A council of senior gang members decided they had to do something about him — something permanent. Brooks only heard about the contract on his life after it had already been called off. The Pueblos involved had planned to kick in a radio call, wait for Brooks’s squad car to show up, and hit him in the crossfire between two AK-47s. By this point, the Pueblos and Villains already knew a lot about Mark Brooks. They knew the hours he worked, his days off, and when he went on vacation. The one thing they didn’t know might have saved him had gang leadership greenlighted the contract: as the senior lead officer, Mark didn’t answer radio calls.

That kind of coincidence wasn’t the only thing that safeguarded Mark. His childhood in gang neighborhoods, experience in the field, and familiarity with the area provided him with a constant blanket of protection.

I trust my judgment. If I see something, and trust me, you know, I’m from the neighborhood. I can see something. When I look at the neighborhood, I can see things in the neighborhood that most people can’t see. I can see when somebody’s acting different. I spend all my time down there. I spend more time working than I do at home. I drive through the neighborhood, I’m able to tell you, turn a corner and I’ll tell you everything you gonna see cause I done drove through it so much. And it’s not the entire division, it’s just that area. So, I can see things out of place.

At the time the hit was put out on Brooks, he had numerous sources in the neighborhood. One of them was a Pueblo named Thomas Carl Adams, or Big T. After his arrest some weeks earlier, Big T had agreed to wear a wire but wound up going sideways. Big T mistakenly thought he could give a little information and return to his old life. Even if he didn’t help the cops the way they had wanted him to, however, he convinced the homies to call off the hit on Brooks. Somehow, this gamble didn’t bring suspicion down on Big T. Brooks says the homies lacked the guts to go through with the hit anyway.

[After a gangster’s death in 2003] cops managed to detain K-Rok for obstruction of justice and resisting arrest. He was taken to jail, booked, and held without bail. There, they threatened him with everything they had: phone calls, pictures, videotaped surveillance, and informant information. He was supposed to do what Crystal had been doing: wear a wire and conduct controlled buys. At first he agreed, but, like Big T, K-Rok “flipped out on them,” Brooks says. He was supposed to have given them the structure of the gang, but he stopped calling. When police lost contact with K-Rok, they stopped considering him friendly.

K-Rok had been the key to uncovering the Pueblos network. He recalled:

I had information on everyone — in both neighborhoods. I could have put every single person in my neighborhood under and walked away scot-free. But I stayed away from my neighborhood. I gave information on the Villains, but not on the Pueblos. I just wanted to do enough so I didn’t get a life sentence, which they were trying to give me. I mean, I got a family. I like women. I like to sit out in the sun — free. I like to cook what I like, eat what I like, when I like — free. I don’t like to wear beige every day. The hood not gonna love you like you love yourself. You got to save your own life.