A look beneath the surface of Los Angeles' street gangs

September 01, 1991|By Walter Dean Myers | Walter Dean Myers,Los Angeles Times


Leon Bing.


304 pages. $19.95.

DTC There is an ease connected with writing about people engaged in heavy criminal activity. The drama is already in place and the characters involved usually are different enough to appear exotic, perhaps even romantic. Now that the gang scene has raged into our attention, we can expect many books professing to be the "inside" story. Few will get that story right. Leon Bing, a white woman, a former model, has got it right.

What makes "Do or Die" a fascinating book, and a frightening chronicle of Los Angeles' gang life, is the way the author slowly strips away social and psychological veneers to reach fundamental truths about some aspects of life in America. Those truths are very, very scary.

By now the names of the gangs are familiar: Crips and Bloods. The violence also is familiar. So when the author begins her interviews in a minimum-security facility for youth there are no immediate surprises. One of the young men she interviews, G-Roc, has just turned 15. Calmly, he talks about doing a drive-by shooting.

The jargon falls into place. G-Roc is a Crip and the Bloods are the "enemy." His "homeboy," someone from his particular "set" of Crips, has pulled a drive-by and killed a baby. But there is more than jargon in this book. There is the sense that something has gone drastically wrong when a 15-year-old can talk so casually about killing strangers.

The author reveals her own discomfiture in talking to these young men. She is afraid of the randomness of the violence that identifies reasons for killing people as their being members of a rival gang, for revenge, for being looked at in a challenging way, for wearing the wrong color, for "dissing" (disrespecting) either an individual or a gang, for putting an enemy's initials or signs on a wall; the list goes on and on. If the person who committed the offense is not immediately available to wreak vengeance upon, then any other member of the offender's set or gang might be hit in a drive-by shooting.

The interviews are with very young men, 14 and 15, who have accepted this way of life, and with older men who have spent major portions of their lives in jail, who have been shot and knifed and beaten and who have meted out the same savage punishments to others -- men who feel that they have no real life in front of them, and see none for the tiny gangsters who have come after them.

What the author reveals in this document, what she lets the reader see through the interviews, is that what we see simply as antisocial gang activity really is the creation of an entirely different world. What the Crips and Bloods know, conclusively, is that their chances of becoming part of mainstream America, and that mainstream's acceptable avenues of value, are close to nil. In reaction, they have created their own world, a world in which terms such as O.G. (original gangster), Homeboy and Hood (neighborhood) are as important as CEO, limited partner and national border. Violence not only is acceptable in this world, it is also mandatory, to prove one's worth.

The most disturbing message of this book is that we members of the "straight" society are not ever likely to accept these young people, and that we will continue to "dis" them with our abhorrence of their activities, and with our apathy toward the poverty, drugs and lack of social and family support that entrap them.

The book is almost cruel in its honesty. Ms. Bing has no illusions about these fiercely angry children; she often is afraid of them even as she coaxes them to talk about themselves, or brings them small gifts. But her fear does not turn her away from recognizing the humanity of a 15-year-old who already has seen his friends dead in the streets, or the hopelessness of a boy whose crack-addicted mother works the streets as a prostitute.

Leon Bing has given a brutally honest portrait of a growing phenomenon in American society: young people whose ethics are steeped in mass violence. It is up to the rest of us whether we will give the young men and women alternatives that we can live with.

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