African-American Street Gangs in Los Angeles
by Mitchel Bagijn
In Los Angeles and other urban areas in the United States, the formation of street gangs increased at a steady pace through 1996. The Bloods and the Crips, the most well-known gangs of Los Angeles, are predominately African American and they have steadily increased in number since their beginnings in 1969. In addition, there are over 600 active Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles County with a growing Asian gang population numbering approximately 20,000 members.
Surprisingly, little has been written about the historical significance of black gangs in Los Angeles (LA). Literature and firsthand interviews with Los Angeles residents seem to point to three significant periods relevant to the development of the contemporary black gangs. The first period, which followed WWII and significant black migrations from the South, is when the first major black clubs formed. After the Watts rebellion of 1965, the second period gave way to the civil rights period of Los Angeles where blacks, including those who where former club members who became politically active for the remainder of the 1960s. By the early 1970s black street gangs began to reemerge. By 1972, the Crips were firmly established and the Bloods were beginning to organize. This period saw the rise of LA’s newest gangs, which continued to grow during the 1970s, and later formed in several other cities throughout the United States by the 1990s. While black gangs do not make up the largest or most active gang population in Los Angeles today, their influence on street gang culture nationally has been profound.
In order to better understand the rise of these groups, I went into the original neighborhoods to document the history which led to these groups. There are 88 incorporated cities and dozens of other unincorporated places in Los Angeles County (LAC). In the process of conducting this research, I visited all of these places in an attempt to not just identify gangs active in Los Angeles, but to determine their territories. Through several weeks of field work and research conducted in 1996, I identified 274 black gangs in 17 cities and four unincorporated areas in LAC.
Post WWII to 1965
The first major period of black gangs in Los Angeles began in the late 1940s and ended in 1965. There were black gangs in Los Angeles prior to this period, but they were small in numbers; little is known about the activity of these groups. Some of the black groups that existed in Los Angeles in the late 1920s and 1930s were the Boozies, Goodlows, Blogettes, Kelleys, and the Driver Brothers. Most of these groups were family oriented, and they referred to themselves as clubs. Max Bond (1936:270) wrote briefly about a black gang of 15-year-old kids from the Central Avenue area that mostly stole automobile accessories and bicycles. It was not until the late 1940s that the first major black clubs surfaced on the East sideof Los Angeles near Jefferson High School in the Central Avenue area. This was the original settlement area of blacks in Los Angeles. South of 92nd Street in Watts and in the Jefferson Park/West Adams area on the West side, there were significant black populations. By 1960 several black clubs were operating on the West side of Los Angeles, an area that had previously restricted black residents during the 1940s.
Several of the first black clubs to emerge in the late 1940s and early 1950s formed initially as a defensive reaction to combat much of the white violence that had been plaguing the black community for several years. In the surrounding communities of the original black ghetto of Central Avenue and Watts, and in the cities of Huntington Park and South Gate, white Angelenos were developing a dissatisfaction for the growing black population that was migrating from the South during WWII. During the 1940s, resentment from the white community grew as several blacks challenged the legal housing discrimination laws that prevented them from purchasing property outside the original settlement neighborhoods and integrate into the public schools. Areas outside of the original black settlement of Los Angeles were neighborhoods covered by legally enforced, racially restrictive covenants or deed restrictions. This practice, adapted by white homeowners, was established in 1922 and was designed to maintain social and racial homogeneity of neighborhoods by denying non-whites access to property ownership.
By the 1940s, such exclusionary practices made much of Los Angeles off-limits to most minorities (Bond 1936; Davis 1990:161,273; Dymski and Veitch 1996:40). This process contributed to increasing homogeneity of communities in Los Angeles, further exacerbating racial conflict between whites and blacks, as the latter existed in mostly segregated communities. From 1940 to 1944, there was over a 100 percent increase in the black population of Los Angeles, and ethnic and racial paranoia began to develop among white residents. Chronic overcrowding was taking a toll, and housing congestion became a serious problem, as blacks were forced to live in substandard housing (Collins 1980:26). From 1945-1948, black residents continually challenged restrictive covenants in several court cases in an effort to move out of the dense, overcrowded black community. These attempts resulted in violent clashes between whites and blacks (Collins 1980:30). The Ku Klux Klan resurfaced during the 1940s, 20 years after their presence faded during the late 1920s (Adler 1977; Collins 1980), and white youths were forming street clubs to battle integration of the community and schools of black residents.
In Huntington Park, Bell, and South Gate, towns that were predominately white, teenagers formed some of the early street clubs during the 1940s. One of the most infamous clubs of that time was the Spook Hunters, a group of white teenagers that often attacked black youths. If blacks were seen outside of the black settlement area, which was roughly boundaried by Slauson to the South, Alameda Avenue to the east, and Main Street to the west, they were often attacked. The name of this club emphasized their racist attitude towards blacks, as “Spook” is a derogatory term used to identify blacks and “Hunters” highlighted their desire to attack blacks as their method of fighting integration and promoting residential segregation. Their animosity towards blacks was publicly known; the back of their club jackets displayed an animated black face with exaggerated facial features and a noose hanging around the neck. The Spook Hunters would often cross Alameda traveling west to violently attack black youths from the area. In Thrasher’s study of Chicago gangs, he observed a similar white gang in Chicago during the 1920s, the Dirty Dozens, who often attacked black youths with knives, blackjacks, and revolvers because of racial differences (Thrasher 1963:37). Raymond Wright was one of the founders of a black club called the Businessmen, a large East side club based at South Park between Slauson Avenue and Vernon Avenue. He stated that “you couldn’t pass Alameda, because those white boys in South Gate would set you on fire,” and fear of attack among black youths was not, surprisingly, common. In 1941, white students at Fremont High School threatened blacks by burning them in effigy and displaying posters saying, “we want no niggers at this school” (Bunch 1990: 118). There were racial confrontations at Manual Arts High School on Vermont and 42nd Street, and at Adams High School during the 1940s (Davis 1990:293). In 1943, conflicts between blacks and whites occurred at 5th and San Pedro Streets, resulting in a riot on Central Avenue (Bunch 1990:118). white clubs in Inglewood, Gardena, and on the West side engaged in similar acts, but the Spook Hunters were the most violent of all white clubs in Los Angeles.
The black youths in Aliso Village, a housing project in East Los Angeles, started a club called the Devil Hunters in response to the Spook Hunters and other white clubs that were engaging in violent confrontations with blacks. The term "Devil" reflected how blacks viewed racist whites and Ku Klux Klan members. The Devil Hunters and other black residents fought back against white violence with their own form of violence. In 1944, nearly 100 frustrated black youths, who were denied jobs on the city’s streetcar system, attacked a passing streetcar and assaulted several white passengers (Collins 1980: 29). During the late 1940s and early 1950s, other neighborhood clubs emerged to fight the white establishment. Members of the Businessmen and other black clubs had several encounters with the Spook Hunters and other white clubs of the time.
In Watts, several of the clubs were organized geographically by the housing projects in the area. The projects were built for war workers in the 1940s and were intended to be interracial. The first public housing project of Watts was the Hacienda Village: single-story units, built in 1942. In May 1944, the Imperial Courts (498 units) was built, and in September, Jordan Downs (700 units) was completed. In 1955, the most massive of all public housing projects was completed and named the Nickerson Gardens (1,100 units) (Bullock 1969:14-15). By the end of the 1950s, over one-third of the population of Watts lived in public housing (Bullock 1969:16). Clubs like the Huns and the Farmers were active in the Watts housing projects. Several of these groups fought against the established white clubs for several years. As black clubs began to negotiate strategies to combat white intimidation and violence, the effectiveness of whites to fight against integration and residential segregation began to fail.
Eventually "white flight" occurred, as white residents began to move into the growing suburban areas that flourished in the 1950s, leaving the city areas of South Los Angeles behind. This left the central city of Los Angeles as a primarily black enclave, with blacks accounting for 71 percent of the inner-city population (Brunn et al. 1993: 53). By 1960, the three separate communities of Watts, Central Ave, and West Adams had amalgamated into one continuous black settlement area where low, middle, and upper class black neighborhoods were adjoined into a single community.
During the 1960s, conflicts among the black clubs were growing and, as more white residents continued to move and the white clubs began to fade, the black clubs moved from interracial violence to intraracial violence. The Gladiators, based at 54th Street and Vermont Avenue, were the largest black club on the West side, and clashes between other black gangs were increasing as intra-racial violence between black club members was on the rise. By 1960 several clubs emerged on the West side and rivalry between East side and West side clubs developed, along with infighting among clubs organized on the same side of town (Figure 4.1). The Businessmen (an East side club) had a rivalry with both the Slausons (an East side club) and the Gladiators (a West side club). Even though more than 50 percent of the gangs active in Los Angeles were Hispanic, black gangs represented a significant proportion of gang incidents that were rapidly increasing in numbers (Study of Delinquent Gangs 1962: 1). During this time, disputes among these were handled by hand-to-hand combat and by the use of weapons, such as tire irons and knives, but murders were rare. In 1960, the six gang-related murders that occurred in Los Angeles were considered an extremely high number. At that point, black-on-black violence between the clubs was becoming a serious concern in Los Angeles. On the surface, the rivalry between East side and West side clubs was associated with altercations on the football field, disputes over girlfriends, and disagreements at parties, but most of their clashes were rooted in socioeconomic differences between the two. East side youths resented the upwardly mobile West side youths, because East side residents were viewed as economically inferior to those residents who lived on the West side. On the other hand, West side youths were considered less intimidating and lacking the skills to be street savvy and tough. In an effort to prove themselves equally tough, West side youths engaged in several confrontations with East side youths during the early 1960s.
Several of these clubs fought against each other during this period, but in 1965 after the Watts Rebellion and under the leadership of several socially conscious organizations, most of the rivalry was eradicated. Young black youths moved towards being more politically aware and having greater concern for the social problems that plagued their community. Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, a member of the Slausons, was successful in transforming several black youths of South Los Angeles into revolutionary soldiers against police brutality (Hilliard & Cole 1993:218), and several other organizations were also contributing to the change. The Watts Riots of 1965 were considered “the Last Great Rumble,” as members of these groups dismissed old rivalries and supported each other against the despised Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) (Baker 1988:28; Davis 1990: 297). Paul Bullock wrote that a result of the riot activity in Watts was a movement to build organizations and institutions which were led by and entirely responsible to the [black] community (1969:69).
Social-Political Period, 1965-1970
In the aftermath of the rebellion, young people, namely former club members from the community, began to build political institutions to contest social injustices, specifically police brutality, which sparked the 1965 Watts Riots. Following the Watts Riots, and throughout the rest of the 1960s, black groups were organizing and becoming politically radical.
For nearly five years, beginning in 1965, there were almost no active black street gangs in Los Angeles. Several reports that black gang activity was on the decline began to circulate (Klein 1971: 22). According to Sergeant Warren Johnson, “during the mid and late 1960s, juvenile gang activity in black neighborhoods was scarcely visible to the public at large and of minimal concern to south-central residents” (Cohen 1972). It was the formation of these new movements that offered black youths a vehicle of positive identification and self-affirmation that occupied the time and energies that might have been spent in gang activity. A sense of cohesiveness began to form, along with self-worth and positive identification, as pride pervaded the black community (Los Angeles Times 3/19/72).
After the Rebellion in 1965, club members began to organize neighborhood political groups to monitor the LAPD and to document their treatment towards blacks. Ron Wilkins (ex-member of the Slausons), created the Community Action Patrol (CAP) to monitor police abuses (Davis 1990:297), and William Sampson (ex-member of the Slausons), along with Gerald Aubry (ex-member of the Orientals), started the Sons of Watts, whose key function was to “police the police” (Obtola 1972:7). The Black Panther Party (BPP) started a chapter in Los Angeles shortly after Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale started the Party in Oakland, California, in 1966. The BPP in Los Angeles also organized both the black Student Union on several high schools campuses in Los Angeles and the black Congress, a meeting place for black residents concerning community issues on Florence and Broadway in 1967. Ron "Maulana" Karenga organized a nationalistic group called US Organization, and Tommy Jacquette organized the Self Leadership for All Nationalities Today (SLANT) in October of 1966 (Bullock 1969:67; Tyler 1982: 222). After splitting away from the US Organization, Hakim Jamal started the Malcolm X Foundation in 1968, and Robaire Nyjuky founded the Marxist Leninist Maoist (MLM), which had an office on 78th Street and San Pedro (Tyler 1983:237). Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a national organization of black nationalists visited Los Angeles and opened an office on Central Avenue in 1967. Also during this period, Ron Karenga created Kwanza, a non-religious holiday that celebrates African heritage.
All these groups were formed in the wake of the 1965 rebellion to provide political support to the civil rights movement that was gaining strength within the black community of Los Angeles. There were several other black nationalist groups in Los Angeles, but the Panthers and US Organization were considered to have the largest following and the most political influence in the black community of Los Angeles following the Watts Rebellion. The BPP heavily recruited members from the Slausons, an East side club, while the US Organization had a large a following from the West side clubs, including the Gladiators, but members of both political groups came from a variety of different clubs from all over Los Angeles. _____________Carter was elected president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the black Panther Party (BPP), whose sole purpose was monitoring the actions of the Los Angeles Police Department. Several members of the black Panthers and the US Organization headed by Ron “Maulana” Karenga, were at one time members of the black clubs of Los Angeles during the 1950s and early 1960s. Some experts have suggested that the rivalry between the BPP and US was rooted in previous club rivalry, but it was actually associated with the opposite philosophies of the two groups.
After the formation of several progressive groups in Los Angeles, local and federal law enforcement agencies began to target those groups that they viewed as a threat to society and the nation as a whole. The emerging black consciousness of the 1960s, that fueled the political movement, was viewed as hostile. The efforts of these political and militant groups to organize young blacks against police brutality were repressed by the FBI, because they specifically viewed the actions of the Panthers and other groups as subversive and a threat to the security of the nation. Chief Thomas Reddin of the Los Angeles Police Department retained the military model and police tactics that his predecessor (Chief Parker) had employed for sixteen years. Reddin believed that the black Panthers represented a major threat to the safety of his officers and their authority on the streets (Scheisl 1990: 168).
By 1967, the Panthers were one of the strongest black political groups in the nation, and by November 1968, J. Edgar Hoover dispatched a memorandum calling his field agents to “exploit all avenues of creating ...dissension within the ranks of the BPP” (Churchill and Wall 1990:63). This was accomplished by the use of counterintelligence (COINTELPRO) which are tactics designed to divide, conquer, weaken, and to make ineffective the actions of a particular organization. COINTELPRO tactics that the FBI began to use against the BPP to weaken its power base, were previously used during the 1940s and throughout the 1950s against the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Communist Party (CPUSA) in the United States (Churchill & Wall 1990:37). From 1968-1971, these tactics were used against the BPP to control and neutralize what was believed to be “a dangerous black political group.” The most vicious and unrestrained application of COINTELPRO techniques during the late 1960s and early 1970s was clearly reserved for the BPP (Churchill & Wall 1990:61; Horne 1995:13).
After several confrontations for over two years, the disputes between the BPP and US continued to the campus of UCLA resulting in the murders of BPP leaders. There are several versions of the events in the described oral histories of those who were present and those who knew the victims personally, but US members were ultimately arrested for the murders. The years of 1969 and early 1970 marked the end of any forward progress by black political groups in Los Angeles.