8/29/07

ECONOMICS and the VARRIO

In the low-income barrios, residents feel that the police are a repressive force as much as a protective one. Young male residents are stopped and searched on East LA’s streets-often, they say, while just “minding our own business.” While police searched residents, cars and pedestrians were held up behind their squad car roadblocks. At night, sleepers were awakened by the noise of police helicopters passing only five hundred feet overhead or by the light of the “midnight sun” searchlight that police used to track suspects. Older barrio residents complained that police were “never around when you need them” and were slow to arrive when called. Artists painted murals throughout East LA that celebrated the memories of young residents killed by police bullets during “legal interventions.” AS much as any event of everyday life, these well-remembered killings lent police forces the air of outside occupiers rather than community protectors.East LA street gangs are a visible opponent of police, and residents who feel oppressed by police often have sympathy for the gangs. Residents embraced a range of positions in ongoing police-gang conflict. Gang support range from active assistance to reluctant sympathy; some residents curse gangs and police equally; and still others wished the police would sweep the gangs out of the barrios. This variety of orientations reflects the multifaceted relationship between gang and community. Residents object to police brutality, but they also oppose gang-associated violence. Residents want safe streets and a law-abiding citizenry, but history taught them—and daily life reminded them—that unconstrained police officers could be both disruptive and dangerous. The relationship between gang and community differed from barrio to barrio and from time to time. In 1995, for example, inter-gang violence in East LA’s Pico Aliso Housing Projects killed four young people in less than two weeks. In these circumstances, one young resident’s opinion of the local gangs was typical. “Every night they (members of rival gangs) get drunk and start shooting. Bam bam bam. I hear them outside my apartment all night long. I get up in the morning and there are bullet holes in the outside wall. I hate them.” Pico Aliso residents welcomed police intervention to quell the violence. On the other hand, in another barrio near Boyle Heights, a community activist sought to end the tagging of neighborhood residences. Local gang members thought the activist too aggressive, and their viewpoint gained support from the community. Over the course of two months, negotiations between the local organization heading the anti-tagging campaign and the gang became increasingly tense. Finally the gang forced the activist to abandon the anti-tagging campaign and resign from the organization, and a gang leader assumed the vacant position on the organization’s board.

Estrada Courts barrio had only one gang, or varrio, Varrio Nuevo Estrada. The VNE varrio traces its history back to the 1930s, when Mexican-Americans first began settling in the private homes around Hunter Street that would later be torn down to construct the Estrada Courts housing project. After the housing projects were built, the Hunter Street gang re-established itself in the development. In 1995, VNE was peaceful compared to Pico Aliso because VNE had firm control over the projects. Raquel, a lifelong resident in her early forties, expressed the gratitude that many resident felt when she said, “One thing about Estrada that is good is that there is only one gang here. That means we don’t have the problems, like they do at Aliso, where the projects are cut up into so many different little territories. Over there, there is fighting all the time and violence is a big problem.”In the 1990s, VNE had extended its control to “natural” social borders in the greater East LA by establishing itself in two neighborhoods, the housing projects themselves, and in near-by private housing just beyond East LA proper. VNE members even established affiliated sub-gangs in distant communities. VNE members attributed the gang’s strength to its political stability-- (their historic rival gang in East LA, several residents said, was paralyzed by leadership quarrels) --and to a positive relationship with the Estrada Courts community.

The presence of VNE in the Estrada Courts community had both positive and negative effects on illicit economic activity. The presence of Varrio members and affiliates on the sidewalks of the community at nearly all times of the day and night discouraged some kinds of illicit economic activities in the neighborhood. Residents “hanging out” noted who entered the projects in cars and confronted strangers passing through on foot. Their presence created lively and populated streets that reduced opportunities for street crime. Their preeminence in public meant that many people strongly identified VNE the Varrio with Estrada Courts the Barrio. By maintaining a public presence on the streets of the projects, the VNE Varrio presented the whole community to the outside world.The strong identification between VNE the Varrio and Estrada Courts the Barrio facilitated illicit work by interfering with law enforcement efforts of suppressing illicit activities in the projects. The entrance of the police into the projects was announced by warning shouts from residents hanging out on the sidewalks, and news of police arrival often spread through the projects more quickly than the police themselves were able to drive from one side of the development to the other. Sometimes these warnings came from illicit workers, gang members, or gang affiliates who had specific reason to fear police presence. But as frequently “civilians”—Estrada Courts residents neither of VNE membership nor involvement in illicit activities—issued warnings.Advance notice was particularly valuable for residents selling illicit drugs. Gator an VNE member who made most of his income selling drugs on the streets of Estrada Courts. Like the other drug sellers, Gator was most vulnerable to arrest when he actually had drugs in his possession. So Gator maintained stashes near the hot spot. When he heard warning shouts, Gator would put whatever he was holding in a hollow spot near the base of a small tree or he would jump onto the handrail of a nearby unit’s stoop and jam the drugs into a rain gutter. Anyone on the streets could see where Gator had stashed the drugs, so he had to keep an eye out for “thieves”. At the same time, hiding places could not be too obvious, as police often raked nearby bushes or turned over garbage cans looking for stashes.

The relationship between illicit work and the varrio is also affected by the social capital conferred by gang membership. This social capital both constrains and facilitates activities in the illicit economy. Membership is a liability because police often focuses on residents dressed in the distinctive varrio style—young people in baggy pants and carefully selected sneakers who display tattoos and hand signals; young men with shaved heads; and smaller number of young women who carefully plucked their eyebrows and applied makeup in distinctive styles—when they patrolled the projects. Looking like a gang member is an important component of varrio membership. Residents who are merely affiliated with a gang often dress in the varrio style, and street wise residents of East LA pride themselves on their ability to distinguish the “wannabe” poser from the legitimate “original gangster.” On the other hand, as one VNE member complained, “the cops hassle us just because we wear baggy pants and we’re baldy. Half the time we’re not even doing anything when they rack us up.” Police also focus on Barrio “civilians” who dress in the fashionable “baldy” style. For example, Chaco was an eighteen-year-old Estrada courts resident who was not affiliated with VNE but did dress in the “baldy” style. He was hanging out with friends one afternoon when CRASH came into the projects. He was searched and questioned and, a half hour later, cited for drinking in public. Chaco, who was unemployed, considered the $100 citation a disaster. “There’s no way I can pay that, and there’s no way I’m going to go to court and get put in jail for a couple days. They’re going to put a warrant out on me. I guess the next time I get picked up, they’re going to arrest me.”Gang membership also facilitates illicit work-especially for residents engaged in the relatively sophisticated activities of illicit enterprises. Older VNE members teach younger members the skills needed to participate in these enterprises. For example Ronny, a twenty-four-year-old Estrada courts resident, learned how to steal cars from going on “missions” with older VNE members soon after he became active in VNE at age thirteen. Older members of the gang taught him which cars were valuable to steal, how to enter and start up a car, what to do if problems arose during the commission of theft. His first theft, Ronny said, were mostly just for joyriding. He remembered the horrible day he broke into his father’s car and ended up steering it into a telephone pole, and he recalled with bravado the day he and three homeboys in a hot car successfully eluded the police in a wild circuit through alleyways, lawns, and playing fields of Boyle Heights. But with time, Ronny began to steal cars for economic reasons. At that time, gang membership again proved valuable. Through members, Ronny was introduced to a mechanic at a nearby garage who bought stolen cars and parts. By his late teens, Ronny said he had become a confident and competent car thief. At times, he patrolled parking lots and residential streets not far from the projects looking for attractive cars to steal, and at other times he filled orders for particular parts or cars from the garage mechanic.VNE provided the social support needed for illicit enterprises. Following a drive-by shooting late one afternoon, Berto, a twenty-six-year-old VNE member, explained the techniques involved:“There are a couple of different kinds of drive-bys. Some of them, like the one today, are pretty disorganized. They just had one car come in. They just grabbed a car and came at us . . . A more organized one, you get two cars and you get a whole bunch of homeboys in the front one. They come in and they get all the attention. Everyone’s worried about that car because they can see all the homeboys. But the second car is the one with the shooter . . . Sometimes, they’d have a kid do the shooting so that if they got caught it wouldn’t be as bad.”

Supporting illicit activities need not be offered up voluntarily. Berto’s own experience with drive-by shootings provide an example of how VNE members could be coerced into participating as crime partners in illicit activities. “The first one I was in, I was terrified,” he recalled, “I was fifteen or sixteen years old, and they wanted me to do the shooting. I didn’t want to do it, but the older homeboys put a lot of pressure on me, and finally I did it. They really didn’t give me a choice.” Unaffiliated residents could be compelled to provide social support for illicit activities as well. When VNE members became convinced that the adolescent boy in one family had provided police with information about a recent robbery, they retaliated against him and his family. After receiving threats, the boy and his family hastily left their residence and moved in with relatives who lived some distance away. Their apartment was broken into, its contents burned, and its walls emblazoned with VNE tags. Many residents understood the burnt-out-apartment-soon boarded up by housing authority officials-as a reminder of what VNE could do to defend itself against threats from within the community.

A final way in which the social capital of Varrio membership facilitates illicit activities is by mitigating the consequences of police apprehension and imprisonment. VNE is a large enough Varrio that its membership is represented inside penal establishments including the Los Angeles County Jail and California state work camps and prisons. Illicit workers who were affiliated with VNE benefit from the protection of the gang if they spent time in prison. The experiences of Scorpio, a twenty-one-year-old member of VNE, illustrated this dynamic. Scorpio was implicated in an auto theft that several members of VNE participated in. Because his firearm was used in the incident, he received a longer prison sentence than the other participants in the robbery, and he spent about two years in state prison. “Prison wasn’t too bad,” he said. “I had all my homeboys in there, and they help you out a lot. They get you what you need and teach you how to deal with the prison and everything, and they make sure that other people don’t fuck with you or anything like that. I mean, it wasn’t too different in there from out here except it was really boring.”Another VNE member described how VNE membership affected his short stay in county for armed robbery. As really scared going in,” he confided. “Because I’d heard all this stuff about how they treat you so bad. But because I was in VNE they put me in the special gang unit. So I only had to share my room with one other guy. He was from some other neighborhood. We didn’t really talk much or anything. It was better where we were than in general population where you have to deal with all the drunks and all that stuff.”Whether they were incarcerated or not, the gang played an important role for illicit workers in Estrada Courts. Against the background of tense police-community relations, many residents of the low-income barrios sympathized with local street gangs even if they had little affection for violent inter-gang wars. Gang wars were not as pressing a problem in Estrada Courts as in nearby barrios because the VNE gang had consolidated the physical territory of the whole barrio. In the neighborhood, gang membership had some important advantages as well as some drawbacks for illicit workers. One drawback was that police recognized the signs of gang membership. They targeted enforcement efforts against residents who looked like “gangsters”-even if a “baldy” hairstyle, baggy pants, or distinctive makeup was adopted as a fashion statement more than in accordance with the requirements of membership. On the positive side, gang membership provided access to specialized training and introduction to valuable social contacts for those who participated in more sophisticated illicit enterprises. In addition, membership was a form of social capital that could prove especially valuable to illicit workers who spent time in jail or prison.

. . . . From the book ~> The Price of Poverty.

8/4/07

A PRAYER AND A WISH

WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL THE HOMIES?
Where have all my HomeBoys gone?

Don’t see them around no more
Used to be a Gang of us all
At the alley or at the poolhall

at the courtyard or the school yard
on the hillside;
at the hangout or on the Boulevard

You met up with them at the beach
or Cinco de Mayo at the park

You gathered up at the parties
at them weddings or quinceƱeras
at them baptisms or at the hall

All around the Varrio
and in all them cross-roads
You’d run into them at the corner
or at the liquor store

You’d look over the fence and look who's there?
The Homeboys where always there!
Nite & Day
Day in--Nite out

Seemed like the Boys would forever be there
Never ever going nowhere
But One by One surely
~> I’ve lost most

They’ve moved on
Some for better, some for worse
And before no time
~> I stand here most alone

The memories of their laffs
are all mostly gone
Shadows and phantoms
their faces have become

Most Locos I remember
some barely at all
I look back in time and realize
~> I miss them all

And I wonder much ‘bout them
now that I’m gettin’ old
Why we all broke?

Then I think 'bout the things that happened
and the situations that caught most
Life or death took hold of us all
Away from the Varrio
Away from our homes

How did it all happen?
Sometimes it hurts to know
Time did not wait up on none
It came upon us so quickly
and before you know
~> Away we go

Homeboy by Homeboy
Day by Day
Year by Year
And today they’re all gone

Taken from me for this or that
by these or those
the causes, you already know

By a mad bullet or by a cruel system
By a dream come true, or a promise made
By a bad fix or an evil woman
By a reckoning, or a Saviors’ Love

In any case
I don’t see them around much no more
Some even forever no more
I shed a tear for those
And for the rest

“A prayer and a wish from mi Corazon.”

A Lonewolf Memory!