Is the gang culture that emerged in Los Angeles in the '60s, once reserved for notorious street hoodlums, evolving into a peep show on the Internet? Since last spring, the Crips and the Bloods -- the most infamous gangs to rise from South Central -- have each had Web sites devoted to them. They offer gang members and potential gang members "a place to express their talents on the Internet," and boast several thousand hits each day.
Crips.com and Bloods.com both offer free e-mail and free page space to anyone who wants to post information about their crew. There are pictures and rants from all over the globe -- Los Angeles to Greece -- and folders offering everything from detailed histories and perspectives on gang life to book lists with recommended gang reading.
Despite the dripping-blood graphics, the gun icons one must click in order to proceed and a warning that all non-gang members should exit the premises immediately, these sites could be an indication of a kinder, gentler gang era. This is certainly true of the three rules at Crips.com and Bloods.com: no pornography, no drug recipes and no targeting of opposing gang members.
Then there's MafiaCrip.com, a self-described rival of the above sites, produced by several virtual gangsters in Philadelphia. The webmaster, Fource Warrant Mason, says, "Gangs are becoming more intelligent. We are coming up from the ghettos and into society ... The Internet is the best way to show the outside world that we are coming up."
The MafiaCrip site offers a treaty called the Word of Unity, apparently conceived and written by several Crip leaders. The document offers philosophy and advice such as "Don't sell drugs to kids that don't know any better. If you got to sell to survive then become rich off the people that are aware of the dangers." And "Many people die that aren't meant to be killed ... Be a little more accurate with shots." There are also chat rooms and links leading to other Crip pages.
Most of the gang sites on the Web are in crude stages of development, and their motives are often questionable. For instance, it's either a hint of prevailing peace or clever marketing that Crips.com and Bloods.com are both operated by the same provider, Dirkster Productions.
Dirk Lemmons, the owner, lives in rural Missouri, grew up in a middle- to upper-class neighborhood and spent time managing a real estate company in the slums of St. Louis. He looks at this endeavor as a chance "to touch the kids that I had contact with all those years."
Lemmons, who runs the sites on a virtual server with a staff of 10 volunteers, admits that they are a work in progress and easily misunderstood. "This is not me saying that I'm a gangster. This isn't about me," he says. "This is like having a basketball gym in the inner city. I'm saying come on in to our Web site and play."
Many of the Net's gang sites are filled with references to rap music and phonetic street language, and sometimes the sites even get the designated gang colors incorrect. This gives credence to critics of the sites who say they comprise mainly gangster wannabes. Lemmons says he gets e-mail from several inner-city public libraries, and "maybe 80 or 90 percent are wannabes, but there is also a core group of gangsters who are on our site."
Detective Chuck Zeglin, a gang specialist who monitors the Internet for the Los Angeles Police Department, says there's no way to be sure people are who they say they are online: "On the Net, you can say whatever you want to say." He also contends that most street hoodlums are not computer literate, and as far as designing Web sites, "They're just not that organized."
But in virtual America, people are often equated with what they say, not with what they do. And there is something intriguing about the possibilities introduced by virtual gangs: Their Web sites provide a fast route into a world that was previously off-limits for them, and offer the mainstream culture a safe, easy window onto theirs.
Zeglin has taken one gang-related site seriously enough to conduct a full investigation: The owners of KillerCop.com, which suggested rewards for people who kill police officers in creative ways, were eventually convinced to take the site down before any potential charges were pressed. Meanwhile, there's also a site called Tookie.com, created by Stanley "Tookie" Williams -- one of the original co-founders of the Crips, who has spent the past 18 years on San Quentin's death row -- with a clear message to "not follow in my footsteps."
It's difficult to see what the future holds for virtual gangsters. Web technology could be an effective tool offering a means of creative expression, but it could also strengthen the bonds of a dangerous culture.
As Lemmons says, "The problem with these sites is that when you're in Rome, you're like the Romans." On the one hand, his company seems committed to its mission of promoting a peaceful alternative to street life. On the other, its current sponsor is another Dirkster Productions site called "Guns-Knives-Ammo.com."