South-Central Los Angeles—It’s always the same, no matter the city. The night was chilly, traffic light, few people on the street. It was cold enough that not a lot of criminality was underway.. I was riding with officers Sean Malachi, a young (compared to me, anyway) white guy with a nearly shaved head, and Marcus Smith, a black guy with hair. They were typical cops, clean-cut, physically in shape, serious, gutsy: If you don’t have moxie, you don’t take this job. They were a little reserved with a new reporter but friendly once they got used to me.
They could have been on the PG force. Cops are pretty much the same kinds of guys everywhere.
The problems are the same almost everywhere, the sociology, the texture of the neighborhoods. If you’ve been to the bad section of one city, you’ve pretty much been to all bad sections everywhere.
Smith and Malachi were a CRASH unit, which is the anti-gang operation. Since the local gangs weren’t doing much, we mostly did traffic stops of cars that had looked stolen (dirty tags on a clean car, things like that) or that were filled with people using drugs. Time and again we stopped gangbangers and similar folk, who wore the same garbage-baggish loose clothes that all bangers and most teenagers seem to like. LA, Denver, Chicago, Washington-same culture, same English, same guns, drugs, attitudes, same everything.
Asked where they worked, they invariably said, “I ain’t workin’ nowhere now, officer.” There’s not a lot of work for high school dropouts who can’t read, and have a police record that would frighten a New York alley cat. Not to mention work habits that include shooting people they don’t like.
People talk about the connection between poverty and crime. Funny. I seldom see poverty. Most of the houses were perfectly livable middle-class places. We went through the projects, Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Gardens, Jordan Downs. Except for the crime, I would have no hesitation about living in any of them. I didn’t get inside any of them, but I’ve been in just lots of homes in similar sections of other cities. Usually they’re not badly kept. And yet crime, as in drugs, armed robbery, and dead people, is common.
From time to time Smith and Malachi would point out a crack house. Like as not it would be one of those low Mexican-looking California houses with the picture window and nice yard. Poverty it ain’t. You want poverty? Try a cotton town in Alabama in 1957: hovels with decaying walls, one light bulb, roof collapsing. Poverty isn’t the problem in LA.
Not the financial kind, anyway.
Cultural poverty? You bet. The schools are lousy, people have little contact with the larger society. People who don’t read are clueless. They aren’t anywhere, they aren’t going anywhere, and they know it. Lotta welfare, and nothing to do all day except get into trouble. Which they do.
Thing is, saying things are lousy doesn’t keep gangbangers from being dangerous. They will definitely kill cops here, and from time to time do kill them. CRASH guys don’t drive around one in a car, the way cops in Arlington do. They carry shotguns, and it’s not because they didn’t have closet space at home. They do stops differently.
Around Washington, you usually have one cop to a cruiser. He pulls a car, puts the spotlight on the rearview mirror to blind the driver just to be on the safe side, walks up to the car, and politely asks for a driver’s license. In South-Central, the cops stay at their own car and order the driver out. “Driver! Keep you hands where I can see them. Get out of the car. Walk backwards . . .”
It isn’t great community relations. Nobody likes being ordered out of a car. Thing is, cops don’t like getting killed, and it can happen-does happen-in these parts. On August 19th, an officer named Filbert Cuesta was sitting in his car near a loud gang party when gangbangers riddled the car and killed him. Nobody was sure just why. Wife and two kids.
Police take this stuff pretty hard. To most people, a dead officer is three paragraphs in the paper. The cops know his wife, had a brew with him after work, and they hear the “Mommy, when’s daddy coming back?” So they’re careful.
Sometimes things gets surreal. We’ll look at that next week. Meanwhile, more traffic stops, more hostile bangers glaring from the sidewalk, more slouching forms in alleys. It could have been anywhere.
(This was written a couple of years ago.)