HERE’S HOW TO TAKE A GANG TOUR: start at a bus parked outside a Silverlake building called The Dream Center, where grown adults cluster like kids on a field trip. Pay $65, and take your complimentary bottled water. Notice the church group from Missouri, 20-strong and blonde, and eye their grocery bag full of snacks. Notice the surprising number of Australians. They pace restlessly. One of them is named Tiny, but he isn’t. He appears to be here with his son, a teenager in baggy shorts and braces.
Alfred is the guide. He’s a marine turned gangbanger turned entrepreneur. He’s cracking Inner City Jokes. His phrase. We don’t need the windows open cuz we don’t do drive-bys. Also, we can’t have them open because the bus is air-conditioned. He’s hired three other guys to help lead the tour — ex-gang-members who had trouble finding other jobs with felonies on their records. They’ve turned their experiences into stories for travelers. They are curators and exhibits at once. When they’re not giving tours, they’re doing conflict mediation in the communities these tours put on display. The $65 will fund this work.
Your friend the screenwriter arrives. He compliments your tactful yellow dress — neither Crips blue nor Bloods red — and you remember elementary school field trips downtown. You and your fellow Westsiders were given careful instructions about gang hues. The Missouri group leader is a buzz-cut guy whom Alfred affectionately calls “Pastor.” Where’s Pastor? he says, when he’s talking about something Pastor might be interested in.
On board the bus, the jokes continue — In the event of an emergency, you’ll find bullet proof vests under your seats — but the scenery changes: Silverlake bungalows give way to the warehouses of downtown and the signage of a hybrid city — Papuserias and Pho shops, Spanglish enticements: Thrift Store Y Café. A hotline at 1-800-72-DADDY promises dads it can get them custody or at least visitation rights.
Each guide stands at the front of the bus to tell his story. One guy, let’s call him Capricorn, points out the projects where his first girlfriend still lives. “Still won’t take my calls,” he says. Another guy lays down statistics — every felony, every sentence, every prison, how much coke he got busted for each time. One guy describes a brutal turf war on the first day of junior high, when the kids from three different elementary schools — each one loyal to a different gang — were all jammed together for the first time. They started clapping at each other until the police came. You think clapping is a kind of hand signal. You learn it’s not. Guys get their first guns when they’re eleven, you’re told. Moms don’t ask where the money comes from.
You hear notes of something like nostalgia when these guys talk about their former lives — the weapons and arrests, the monstrous tallies of their former cash flows. Pride comes before the fall and also after it. But the nostalgia is tangled up with a deep and genuine lamenting of the terms of this territory–how harshly it circumscribes the path, how inevitably it punishes alternatives. For these guys, though, things are different now. They got out of prison and wanted another way. When Alfred says, I’m a spiritual man, you see him looking around to see if Pastor’s listening. His reform is operative on all fronts. He’ll tell you about his struggle for a bigger vocabulary: I learned “gentrification” in solitary; I practice “recidivism” in the shower. He calls Capricorn’s life story “an indigenous tale from the hood.”
Scholar Graham Huggan defines “exoticism” as an experience that “posits the lure of difference while protecting its practitioners from close involvement.” You’re in the hood but you aren’t — it rolls by your windows, a perfect panorama of itself. You’re deep inside the climate-controlled isolation of car culture.
You pass the old LA County jail, which is surprisingly beautiful. It’s got a handsome stone façade and stately columns. The new LA County jail — called The Twin Towers — isn’t beautiful at all; it’s a stucco panopticon the color of sick flesh. Alfred gets on the mic to talk about his time in there: 10 guys in a cell meant for six, extra men moved to closets and kitchens whenever inspection teams rolled through. He talks about the rats. He calls them Freeway Freddies. It was an ecosystem in there, evidently, and out here too: you see an entire neighborhood selling bail bonds. You see Abba Bail Bonds and Jimmie Dright Jr. Bail Bonds and Big Dog a.k.a. I’m still tough Bail Bonds, and Aladdin a.k.a. I need my fucking third wish Bail Bonds. Bail bond shops remind you that every guy serving time has a mother and every mother has a story of that time she went to the bail bond strip mall and had no idea which bail bond shop to choose.
From downtown, you head to South Central and finally to Watts. The towers are eerie and wondrous — like something a witch made — pointing ragged into a blue sky. Capricorn tells you he’s climbed them. Every Watts kid climbs them. A lot of guys get them tattooed on their backs or biceps — the distinctive profile of their bony cones. One of the Missouri girls asks, “What’re they made of?” and Capricorn says, “What does it look like they’re made of?” You like this kind of tour, where there is such a thing as a stupid question, though this — to you — doesn’t seem like one. What are they made of? Capricorn finally mutters, shells and shit. He’s right, you find out later — they’re made of shells, steel, mortar, glass, and pottery. An immigrant named Sam Rodia made Italian folk art the template for generations of gang tats.
Capricorn tells you he chose his name before he knew his zodiac sign. It happened to work out. He gets a call from a guy named Puppet but doesn’t take it. He says, “I can’t deal with that right now.” He tells you he still believes his phone is tapped — by whom, he doesn’t say — so he changes phones nearly every week, gives the old ones to his nieces and nephews. Your screenwriter friend says, “So now your nieces and nephews’ phones are tapped?” Capricorn doesn’t laugh. Your friend tells him you grew up here, in Santa Monica, and you feel ashamed because you know Santa Monica isn’t here at all.
The here of Watts is pastel houses with window gratings in curly patterns. Here is yard sales with bins full of stuffed animals and used water guns. Here is Crips turf. “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country,” writes Susan Sontag, “is a quintessential modern experience.” Part of what feels strange about this tour is that you’re assuming the posture of a tourist — How many people have died here? How do the boys come of age?—but you are only 18 miles from where you grew up.
Alfred says more people have died in LA gang conflicts than the Troubles in Ireland. You’d never thought of it like that, which is his point: no one thinks of it like that. These blocks look so ordinary — South Central Avenue itself is just a gritty bracelet of strip malls and auto body shops; Watts is parched lawns that once burned. The here of Watts was on fire in 1965. Black boys who hadn’t been let into the Boy Scouts were sick of it. They made their own clubs. 35,000 people rose up. People got sick of it again in 1992, when Rodney King was beaten and thousands of people, the children of the Watts riots, said enough. Reginald Denny with a brick to the head said enough.
You try to remember what you thought about Rodney King when you were young, but you can’t. Is that possible? You can’t. You were nine years old. You can remember, faintly, that some part of you got stubborn about the police — but they only would’ve hit him if he did something wrong. You still wanted to believe in uniforms and a system of order that had always served you well. You remember OJ Simpson better than King. OJ Simpson’s wife was killed in Brentwood, where you went to school.
Rodney King was swarmed and then he was beaten with batons. Two officers broke his face with their feet. Where were you back then? You were a kid. You were on the coast. Other kids were kids further east, where people got angry at Florence and Normandie and stayed angry at Florence and Normandie, stayed angry at Koon and Powell and the paleness of Ventura County, and for days the fires wouldn’t stop.
Your refrigerated bus crosses the concrete spine of the LA River, icon and encapsulation of the city’s wasteland shame. The gray banks are covered with patches of lighter gray where paint has been layered over graffiti. Alfred points out a long stretch of painted riverbank — three stories high, and three-quarters of a mile long — where the world’s biggest tag used to be. It read MTA: Metro Transit Assassins. It was visible from Google Space. Now the grayness is like a sprawling tombstone — another scar in a battle between two different structures of authority, two kinds of civic institutions trying to claim the same space.
Alfred delivers a lesson on graffiti taxonomy: the difference between tag and flare and roller, between a masterpiece and a throw-up. A masterpiece has more than three colors. A throw-up usually means bubble letters but makes it sound like some boy vomited the colors from his mouth. On a downtown wall, you see a painted face vomiting rainbows. Across the street, you see what looks like a polar bear illuminated by sunset. “Look at that throw-up,” you tell your friend. “Masterpiece,” he corrects, pointing out five colors. You realize that three-story MTA would’ve been a Masterpiece too. You learn that every graffiti act in the state of California is a felony. You learn that painted hot-chick skulls are called Sugar Skulls. You learn that three dots tattooed under the eye means, la vida loca, as in: I plan to keep living the. The dots look like tears suspended against gravity. You don’t know whether they signal commitment or renunciation or something in between — resignation, perhaps lament. Tiny’s teenage son asks Alfred, eager: “Were you much of a tagger?” He asks Capricorn if his family still lives in Watts, and — if so — if we’ll get to see them on the tour.
The outing ends under a sultry sugar skull. You all pose for “gang shots” in front of a huge mural that says Big Los Angeles in bright blue bubble letters. Or maybe you don’t pose, because you feel uncomfortable. But the Aussie guys are psyched for it, flashing their hand-signs and sporting tough-guy pouts. One girl from Missouri gets some back-seat posing advice from her friends — “Look tough!” — but fucks it up because she can’t stop grinning. Pastor poses with the bus driver, who’s taken off his shirt to show an inked-up chest that has one rose for every year spent in prison. There’s not much bare skin left.
This photo shoot feels like an odd capstone. You’ve come to understand gang violence as symptomatic of an abiding civil conflict whose proportions we can only begin to fathom; now you watch church kids fumble their fingers toward Eastside, toward Killaz. Maybe Pastor will change his facebook profile to a shot of himself and Capricorn gripping palm-to-palm. “Photographs objectify,” Sontag writes, “they turn an event or person into something that can be possessed.” Now Pastor owns a small corner of the hood — or perhaps, more to the point, he owns a moment of his own experience. He can pack up his own heightened awareness like a souvenir. His opened eyes are take-home talismans. You want the tour to give you back another version of yourself — you and everyone: a more enlightened human.
You imagine the sermon in Branson the next Sunday, Capricorn and Alfred like ghosts of glorious reform behind the pulpit: These men turned a 180 you wouldn’t believe. You’d clap for that sermon, actually. These men were raised into violence — raised by it, like a parent — and now they live another way. Is it possible to say — in the most full-hearted and deeply earnest sense, uncluttered by disclaimers—that this tour is impossible to look away from and important to remember?
You feel uncomfortable. This discomfort is the point. Friction rises from an asymmetry this tour makes plain: the material of your diverting morning is the material of other people’s lives, and their deaths. The unease of the tour is not the discomfort of being problematically present — South Central mediated by air-conditioning vents — so much as the discomfort of an abiding absence — a pattern of always being elsewhere, far away, our of ear- and eye- and gun-shot, humming beach to bistro along the Pacific Coast highway or hurtling past cornfields half a continent away.
You might not get a comprehensive history of Angeleno civic unrest on your three-hour Gang Tour — an all-inclusive upload of police brutality and corruption and gang violence and rehabilitation — but you get uncomfortable with how little you know. You leave the tour and you learn a little more. You watch the home video of King getting beaten. You gasp when they kick him in the head. You’d known the batons were coming; but not their feet — not quite like that. You read about King’s aftermath — all those quiet, tawdry years of serious addiction — and how some guerilla vigilante tried to shoot Stanley Koon and ended up shooting one of his halfway-house roommates instead. You find an online chart of LA gangs and their hand signals.
What good are any of these tours except that they offer an afterward? You’re just a tourist inside someone else’s suffering until you can’t get it out of your head; until you take it home with you — across a freeway, or a country, or an ocean. This shit won’t leave you alone. No bail to post: everything lingers. Puppet lingers. Those clapping seventh-graders linger. Your own embarrassment lingers. Maybe moral outrage is just the culmination of an insoluble lingering. So prepare yourself to live in it for a while. Hydrate for the ride. The great shame of your privilege is a hot blush the whole time. The truth of this place is infinite and irreducible, and self-reflexive anguish might feel like the only thing you can offer in return. It might be hard to hear anything above the clattering machinery of your guilt. Try to listen anyway.