Thursday, March 04, 2010

Tom Hayden: Street Wars

When I picked out this book at the store, as usual, I had no idea what I was getting. I seem to specialize in picking books by their covers, or at least, by their general topic. I didn't realize that Tom Hayden wasn't just the author of this book, he's also a really well known activist, former California state Senator, ex-wife of Jane Fonda, and familiar to me as the sponsor of the Hayden Bill which has affected my work daily for about 8 years. (I've written about it most recently in relation to Oreo's Law.) Tom Hayden could be classified as a radical, I gather from this book- and I like it. His book challenged even me, and I think I'm pretty progressive. Hayden takes readers through "inner city" gang life through the perspective of peace makers: ex-gang members that are still "homies" or "homeboys" (his words) that want to move forward, through truces between gangs, or community projects that help people with few prospects to have more prospects. Hayden has spent lots of time with these men (mostly men, some women), and as the reader gets to know them, he humanizes them, and their realities.

Hayden traces the rise of gangs as we "know" them, and the history of social, governmental, and political responses to gangs. In the 1920s, sociologist Jacob Riis studied the "distemper of the slums" and defined the problem NOT with the individuals who made up a violent element, but with the problems that "fostered slums." This is Hayden's go-to point: there are many things wrong with society that cause ghettos, poor economic opportunities, shitty schools, etc that lead to reliance on gangs. Blaming the "gangbanger" (again, his word), and targeting policies and punishments at the individual is missing the point entirely. In the late 1800s through the 1920s, white ethnic gangs were the model for what came later. The difference is that these gangs are now romanticized (think The Sopranos or The Godfather) and that the members of the crime syndicates were often the same people who became powerful members of society- Richard Daley "began his career as an Irish Gangster" and became a longstanding member of the Democratic Machine in Chicago. These "gangs" are now seen as "criminal organizations" and are not nearly as feared by the general public as gangs. They're "racketeering enterprises," not thugs, and we don't spend nearly as much money doing extraconstitutional searches and seizures, and blatantly racist targeting of them: the comparison is amazing, and the ratio of the severity of the crime is amazing. The vast majority of gang members are involved in minor misdemeanors such as vandalism and truancy, while the criminal organizations are large-scale stealing, racketeering, etc.

Hayden argues that black gang life can be traced to slavery, and the runaway tradition: "a Virginia study revealed the lethal effects of self-hatred and intratribal bloodletting: among those convicted of murder, one third of the killings between 1785 and 1864 were black-on-black." Hayden argues that post Civil war and lack of dignity and self-worth along with police and prison codes made many blacks realize that the "northward migration" was a "dead end:" "Conditions in Watts and the South Central ghetto reproduced the culture of "bad" black men" in the 1960s. The Slausons, a black gang at the time, were not necessarily formed for criminal or political reasons, but as a "'cultural' response to exclusion and deprivation." As more kids were sent to the Youth Authority (YA), the prison culture started to be raise them politically, intellectually, and culturally. The Crips came out of this era as the civil rights and black power movements declined and "the failure of radicalism bred nihilism." The cycle of imprisoning black youth for supposed crimes, the rise of the three strikes movement, the crushing of internally led peace movements, and the movement of funds from the Vietnam War to the "War on Drugs" and the war against the gangs kept the gangs ever at the forefront of domestic policy, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Just as Hayden believes black gangs can be traced to Africa and white intervention and crushing international destruction, he follows the Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran and Vietnamese gangs to US policies and colonialism in their respective countries. Worse, deportation policies carry the gangs back and forth to Mexico and Central America where they are strengthened and cause destabilization in other countries who lack resources to combat these exported problems. For example, members of the MS gang, formed mainly by Salvadorans in Los Angeles who fled the US backed violence in the 1970s found themselves in urban areas, haunted by wars that many of them had been forced to participate in and had lost family to. MS was a gang, a subculture that "mimics in an extreme form the sexual abuse and violence that is frequently exposed in our military and entertainment cultures despite all efforts to civilize and regulate them." The gang was a street clique, and a way to survive: many of the kids lived on the street and ate from shopping carts, which of course led them to end up in trouble with the law. There was some violence, too, which caused police over-reaction which caused more violence.

Hayden also posits that gangs are actually "disorganizations." Although politicians (and TV shows) tell us that gangs are hierarchies like the mob depicted in The Sopranos, Hayden, who has actually spent time with gang members, stresses the that the advanced hierarchical, serious drug cartel reputation of gangs is overrated. This means that the extreme policing of gangs is misguided. He gives lots of ideas and many examples of individuals who have more right-minded proposals. Many of these ideas are based in real community action (as opposed to community based policing) and liberation theology. "Street Wars" ends with a touching interpretation of Jesus as a leader of a loose-knit gang: Judas the snitch and Peter the power-tripper and other very real people. Hayden asks "Was the historical Jesus himself a homeboy?" forsaken by his dad, surrounded by "maladjusted souls," and demonized, criminalized, and crucified.

I have not written about the individuals in the book for a reason. They are individuals, and Hayden gives them the honor of making the reader understand them. No short blog review could do that, and to try to summarize them would be to relegate them to caricatures or tokens. "Street Wars" is a little hard to swallow. I agree with his main thesis: we are going about this all wrong, and we need to stop throwing all kinds of resources at a war that will never end, since it's fought at home, against a fake enemy. On the other hand, how long have I lived in Oakland and been taught that gang members are sociopaths with guns? Hayden acknowledges the oft present misogyny, and the sometimes-present violence, which is often black on black or Mexican on Mexican, etc. But his perspective is new to me. I like it, I just have to realign my thinking. Which is a good thing: stretching entrenched view points if important. Unfortunately, I feel like Hayden's proposals are quixotic, and not soon to be realized. He got buses of homeboys to Sacramento to propose modest changes, including some educational reforms and job programs, and was met with some success, only to have the projects vetoed twice by Governor Wilson (of course) and Governor Davis. Even the strong peaceful leaders in the gangs are stymied by the more powerful police in places like LA, Oakland, and, well, just about everywhere. More people need to read Hayden, and think it through. The Hayden Bill passed, right? Although animals are a little more warm and fuzzy than gangbangers.


Schwang said...

I hadn't heard of this one, but it sounds like an interesting read. It was eye-opening when I began teaching in the inner-city and a large majority of my students were gang-affiliated. I am just frustrated with our city and the way the problem is compounding by closing schools, which disrupts the community, and forcing students to go into hostile territory.