Featured Story, Street Gangs

The Cost

Kevin DeutschCrack was the atomic bomb of the ghetto. And the scariest part was, any fool could build that bomb. —Marcus Jackson

At forty-five years old and counting, the nationwide Bloods–Crips conflict has gone on longer than any war in the history of the United States. It’s claimed approximately 20,000 lives,2 most of them young black men involved in the drug trade or other criminal enterprises, but also many innocents: little boys and girls caught in gang crossfire; mothers, fathers, and grandparents cut down by stray bullets; and members of law enforcement murdered while serving their communities.

More than 6,500 US troops died in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2013. In that time, at least 6,700 Americans were killed in violence linked to Bloods and Crips sets in 37 states. More than 10,000 others were wounded. The Triangle war is but one of the (at least) 425 violent Bloods–Crips conflicts happening at any given time across the country. And it’s not just cities playing host to these deadly feuds. Rather, America’s suburbs are increasingly serving as battlefields for Crips and Bloods, attracting more warring sets as gang leaders seek unclaimed suburban drug corners and gentrification prices poor minority families out of cities.

Although the wars these gangsters fight over territory, debts, girls, and petty sleights are worlds apart from the ones fought overseas, the end results—death and destruction—are the same. And when one factors in the damage these gang battles inflict on hundreds of American communities, their domestic impact may in fact be worse.

“You know that scene in Forrest Gump where they flash back and you see all of Lieutenant Dan’s male relatives dying in war after war after war? Well, you could have made the same scene about my family when it comes to being in the Crips, except they’d be falling down on drug corners,” says Donta Chambliss, a former Hempstead Crip who served fifteen years in prison for dealing crack. “My dad was a Crip. My dad’s brother was a Crip. My brother was a Crip. My cousin was a Crip. And you know what? Every one of them is dead because of gangbanging. That ain’t no movie. That’s New York.”

Despite more than four decades of ceaseless carnage among Bloods and Crips, most Americans have ignored the nationwide gang war. One reason for that, victims of gang violence say, is that so little of the blood- letting visited upon black communities has spilled over into white ones. But with long-standing city drug markets becoming oversaturated and urban gentrification pushing more minorities into the suburbs, including Long Island, that dynamic is beginning to change.

“All you have to do is sit in the ER of a Nassau County or Westchester hospital to see the cost of this war in human terms in the suburbs,” Dr. Rose says. “People need to wake up to the fact that drug dealers . . . are looking for that same suburban money and success that brings everyone else here.”

“These are wide-open markets,” says Delahunt. “And so the suburbs are becoming their new battlefield.”

Despite an ever-growing list of casualties, there are no combat histories written about the people killed, raped, and grievously wounded in this conflict, no tomes chronicling this war’s battles or the psychic toll they’ve taken. As a result, it’s difficult to determine how a single gang dispute managed to poison so many communities, or understand how it has endured despite intensive efforts from law enforcement.

It is, however, fairly clear where and when the whole thing started: Watts, Los Angeles, 1969.

Four years after the 1965 Watts riots—six days of violent, racially driven unrest that killed 34 people, left more than 1,000 injured, and destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings—a group of Japanese senior citizens walking home from a community meeting were approached by a group of young black men in the battle-scarred neighborhood. Some of the teens grabbed the women’s purses and ran off—a crime that seemed minor at the time, but would become part of gangland lore.

The purse-snatchers were a nameless crew, a gang of toughs who com- mitted petty crimes and protected their turf from other cliques. Bad as they were, the boys were not yet an organized, self-identified street gang. They got their name thanks to one of the victimized Japanese women, whose poor English led her to identify her assailant as “a crip. A crip with a stick,” according to Do or Die, Leon Bing’s book about Bloods and Crips in LA. The old woman was trying to say one of her assailant’s had a bad leg and was “crippled,” using a stick to help him walk. A reporter at the police station overheard the “crip” description and mentioned it in a story, according to Bing’s account. The name stuck.

That same group of roving troublemakers, now known as Crips, kept robbing and beating people, expanding their territory and gaining affiliate groups. Young men in LA who felt threatened by the bourgeoning Crips crews organized their own gang. They called themselves the Pirus, after Pine Street, where many of them lived.

In Watts, Crips took to wearing blue bandanas to identify themselves. The Pirus, rapidly becoming the Crips’ main competitors for members and turf, liked the idea, and adopted red kerchiefs as their hallmark. Around the same time, they started calling themselves Bloods,3 which is what African-American troops in Vietnam called each other. The gang members, now accustomed to committing acts of violence, identified more with their war-hardened counterparts in the military than with noncombatants in their own neighborhoods.

“The black vets who served in ’Nam were the baddest mothafuckas around. And we thought we were the baddest niggas in our neighbor- hood,” says Reginald Franks, sixty-two, an early Bloods member in LA who now lives on Long Island. “So we said, ‘That’s the perfect name for us. Bloods.’ We saw ourselves as an army. Crips and Bloods sets today still have that soldier mentality.”

The gangs were an immediate sensation in the housing projects of Watts and Compton, where antipolice sentiment had hardened in the post-riot years. Young men clamored to join, wanting the prestige and protection that came with being part of a cold-blooded crew in a dangerous part of town. Word of the gangs spread to projects throughout the city, inspiring other Angelenos to form their own sets.

In a few months’ time, there were dozens of Crips and Bloods sets throughout LA.

With more sets came more territorial disputes, leading to brawls, shootings, and other retaliatory violence between Crips and Bloods throughout the 1970s. Those crimes, in turn, led to prison sentences for an increasing number of gang members.

Behind bars, their gang allegiances hardened. They stuck together for protection from each other, as well as from Hispanic gangs, white power groups, and other crews linked by ethnicity, religion, or politics. In California’s vast and violent corrections system, the reputation of the Bloods and Crips grew. And the war fought between them on the streets of LA extended beyond prison walls. “If you couldn’t get at somebody outside, you sure as hell knew who was Blood or Crip on the inside, and could hit back there,” Franks says. “The war outside the jails and prisons became one and the same with the one [taking place] inside them. There weren’t any lines drawn. War was war just the same, and it was ugly.”

Many gang members, convicted under strident federal drug laws enacted in the mid-1980s, were also sent to federal prisons scattered throughout the country. They brought with them the same hatred of the enemy as their counterparts on the streets and in state prisons, beating the drums of war in far-flung detention facilities where, just a few years earlier, no one had even heard of the Bloods and Crips.

“The gangs spread like a disease,” says Marcus Jackson, sixty-four, a member of one of the early Crips sets in Watts. “I know, because I was a carrier of that disease. I carried it from prison to prison, just like a lot of us did. The battle went on wherever you went—no exceptions. The line between banging on the inside and the outside became invisible.”

Over time, both gangs’ prison networks grew more organized, with rigid command structures and various means of receiving information from the streets—including through prison guards, who were them- selves affiliated with one gang or the other. Membership grew exponentially. And when new inductees were released, they carried their beefs and chest-thumping rhetoric back to their hometowns, starting new sets, waging new battles.

Back in LA, the top-down hierarchy and disciplined approach of the original Crips and Bloods sets led to the drawing of firm territorial lines, making entire neighborhoods no-go zones for enemy crews. Gang violence in parts of the city was bad in the late 1970s, but it was about to get worse. For into this violent universe an explosive new element, rock cocaine, was introduced.

“Crack was the atomic bomb of the ghetto,” Jackson says. “And the scariest part was, any fool could build that bomb.”

With the crack economy thriving in the 1980s, Bloods and Crips morphed into something more than youth street gangs. They became ruthless, business-savvy, drug-trafficking confederations—violent entre- preneurs who married their gangs’ structural hierarchies to the cocaine trade. Some of their leaders became millionaires. Most gang members gave up working legitimate jobs, if they had them, to toil full-time for their crews. They filled the same positions—dealer, runner, lookout, and tout—that make up today’s drug gangs.

With hundreds of millions of dollars up for grabs in the crack trade, violence already engrained in the Bloods–Crips conflict spiraled further out of control. The gangs became criminal insurgents, taking over entire neighborhoods, daring police and law-abiding citizens to stop them.

Bloods and Crips branched out to other states, setting up new markets with supply lines running back to California. It marked the beginning of a massive cross-country migration by the Crips and, later, the Bloods, which would see the gangs open scores of drug corners coast to coast in nearly every state by the mid-1980s.

In this way, a single gang dispute over neighborhood turf lines escalated into a series of shooting wars fought over drug territory, leading to hundreds of murders each year across the country.

“At first, we were just fighting for territory, because it was kind of an ‘our neighborhood is harder than yours’ type of thing,” Franks says. “Once crack showed up, it was like . . . the stakes went up in a way you can’t even measure. It was a gold rush. Everyone wanted crack, and once they tried it, they couldn’t stop smoking it. Us and the Crips were making piles of money. We were like gold prospectors, only we dealt in death. Crack was death. Everybody knew it, but that didn’t matter, because there was finally a way to make money in places where you couldn’t make any before.”

Crack democratized cocaine not just for users, but for dealers as well. It didn’t take a large investment anymore for a lowly corner boy to become a real player. He could buy $150 worth of powder coke, cook it into crack, and come away with enough rocks to sell $1,500 worth. Those rocks would be more powerful than their powder precursor because of the higher concentration of cocaine, and could multiply a dealer’s original investment by ten times. It was every hustler’s dream: a more addictive product that could be turned into more money.

The government intensified its War on Drugs in response to the explosion in crack dealing, forming elite federal drug task forces and exponentially boosting local law enforcement funding to fight traffickers, but their actions did little to slow the expansion of the Bloods and Crips into new markets. As police and federal agents cracked down on drug sales, mostly in black neighborhoods, tens of thousands of black men involved in the crack trade were imprisoned, their families left without breadwinners or a viable source of income. And with the advent of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, crack dealers were treated much more harshly than those who sold powder cocaine and other drugs. Eighteen-year-old touts caught selling a pocket full of crack routinely got fifteen to twenty years in prison, while runners caught carrying larger amounts sometimes received life sentences.

Because crack dealing was concentrated in black neighborhoods, the sentencing guidelines often had the effect of treating African-American crack dealers differently from any other class of criminal. A heroin dealer convicted on federal charges of selling that highly addictive opiate in New York City would be sentenced to a fraction of the prison time of a hustler selling rocks on the same block—disparate treatment that embittered a generation of blacks.

To make matters worse, harsh penalties for crack dealing did little to dissuade dealers and users. Police would arrest an entire corner crew, only to return a few days later and find new dealers in their place. When they busted that crew, another one replaced them. The most popular law enforcement strategies of the 1980s and ’90s—arresting street-level dealers while seizing as much coke, weed, and heroin as possible—curbed neither the demand for narcotics nor the willingness of Crips and Bloods to sell them. America’s prison population swelled into the world’s largest, due in part to the mass incarceration of drug offenders.

“The crack sold by the Bloods and Crips was destroying families and communities, but so were the mandatory minimum laws,” says Delahunt. “Most of the people getting long prison terms weren’t the gang leaders. Instead, they were the lowliest guys in the crew: messengers, touts, people like that. Because the real hustlers, the real merchants of death, stayed off the streets.”

The unfairness of mandatory minimum drug laws and their dam- age to African-American communities was clear, but it took the US Justice Department until 2010 to start rolling them back. That year, Congress reduced the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack versus powder coke offenses. In 2014, Democrats and Republicans began work on a bipartisan sentencing overhaul bill, with the goal of ending mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses, following the lead of a number of states where crack-related sentencing reforms have been enacted.

Today, drug laws are being revised to read much the way they did before crack’s arrival in America. What hasn’t changed is the demand for the drug in poor, gang-plagued neighborhoods like the Triangle.

“They’re changing the laws, because the laws are unfair, but the problem is that crack is still everywhere, from the Triangle to Compton to Connecticut,” says Jackson, who now works as an addiction counselor. “And in some places, it’s as big as ever. The government essentially gave up on all these neighborhoods, because they couldn’t find a better way to beat the dealers than to lock up all the young players, which didn’t fix a thing. But look where we are now: right back where we started, the only difference being there are a lot more drugs than just crack tearing down communities these days. At the end of the drug war, the result is most definitely not muddled. The dealers won.”

In Hempstead, that opinion is one of the few things Bloods and Crips agree on.

“We already won,” Tyrek says, declaring victory in the War on Drugs. “Ain’t nobody about to stop the slinging. When people talk about the war, I say, ‘If you all fighting a war against what we doing out here, than you ain’t too good at your job,’ because hustlers still grinding in every single hood. Shit, they grinding in every suburb.”

Some gang members in the Triangle—as well as members of Bloods and Crips sets in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens—say their crews are emboldened by recent sentencing reforms. Having once feared life sentences for crack-related convictions, they now sling with the knowledge that any arrest will lead to considerably less prison time, if any, than what they’d have once faced. Accordingly, the gangsters wholeheartedly endorse the changes.

“It’s a good idea to change the laws, because crack ain’t any worse than powder,” says Tyrek. “Why do I go to jail ten or fifteen years longer than the white boy who gets caught snorting powder? Way I see it, with these changes, I can do what I do now without having to always be worried about going away for life behind some bullshit laws. Now, fair is fair. So it’s a positive for me and my people. We a little more relaxed. And real [money] coming in on the regular,” he adds.

Just as it has since its arrival in America some thirty-five years ago, crack continues to destroy the social fabric of communities where it’s sold. Government data shows cocaine use falling year by year, superseded by heroin, opioid painkillers, and weed. But in neighborhoods like the Tri- angle, where crack never went away, those statistics mean little.

In such places, addicts are still very much in thrall to the rocks, still locked into cycles of addiction, violence, and poverty. And crack’s consequences are as crippling as ever. In neighborhoods where crack-dealing street gangs flourish, experts have found increased rates of mental health disorders, sexual assault, suicide, and unemployment, as well as poorer- than-average academic performance.

“The drugs are here, the poverty is here, and everything that goes with those things—domestic violence, substance abuse, crime—are here too,” says Toni LaFleur, a single mother and beautician who lives on MLK just outside the Triangle. Her son Devon, she says, recently started selling weed part-time for the Bloods. “If you need proof of how bad things are here, just look at the schools.”

Indeed, the graduation rate at Hempstead High School, located two blocks from the heart of the Triangle, is 38 percent—the lowest among Long Island’s 124 public school districts. Gang fights on the street regularly carry over onto school property. And the institution serves as a fertile recruitment zone for future Crips and Bloods, as well as other area crews.

“Biggest mistake I ever made was moving to this neighborhood,” LaFleur says. “Before, when we lived in Brooklyn, there weren’t any Crips or Bloods on our street. But we got priced out. Now, on top of everything else, I’ve got to worry about my son selling drugs out there, where he could get shot anytime. It’s no way to live. It’s hell, is what it is.”

Excerpted from “The Triangle: A Year on the Ground with New York’s Bloods and Crips,” Copyright 2015 by Kevin Deutsch. Used by permission of Kevin Deutsch.

Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning criminal justice writer for Newsday. He previously worked on staff at the New York Daily News, The Miami Herald, The Palm Beach Post, and The Riverdale Press. He specializes in journalism about street gangs, terrorism, and drug trafficking and has received multiple prizes for his writing about crime and national news events. He lives in New York City.

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