Highs & Lows

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Highs & Lows 

Mark Cromer shoots back

[First published in the fall of 1995 by Low Magazine, this column seems apropos for the streets we navigate in 2023. And salud to the great thinker and writer Heather Mac Donald, a beautiful woman fearlessly wielding an amazing pen, but to whom with all due respect I must say that three decades ago I was writing about the vile lie being spread across the nation that a legion of rogue cops was roaming the streets of America and murdering black and brown people for the sport of it. That blood libel against the boys in blue brought us to where we are today. May God help us.] 

It was dusk as we stepped out of the bar.

There were four of us and we lingered in the parking lot, killing a few more moments with idle chatter and dying cigarettes. As I slipped into the front seat of my truck, one of my buddies suddenly shouted “Hey, don’t be scrawling on the windows. Get away from there.”

I looked over my shoulder to see two boys and two girls in their early teens standing next to an office building across the street. One of the boys stepped away from a window where he had started to etch a tagger’s mark into the glass. The two girls and the other guy broke into sheepish smiles, apparently embarrassed by their friend getting caught in an act of petty vandalism. But the tagger, radiating machismo, stepped into the street and positioned himself as if he were ready to have it out with my buddy – a guy probably 20 years older and three times bigger than him.

My buddy seemed amused, but tried to diffuse the situation by telling the kid: “Hey, it’s just not cool to be out destroying people’s property.”

Any casual amusement vanished as the teen suddenly reached under his loose-fitting shirt and into the waistband of his baggy trousers. Everyone seemed to freeze as a nanosecond of panic struck – the punk might have a gun. But his hand never emerged from those wannabe vato pants and he looked somewhat bewildered when we didn’t all dive for cover.

His bluff had been called.

Vato Loco. A photograph by Robert Yager for Low Magazine that captured the nihilism that’s endemic among street gangs.

“Yeah, and I’ve got a bullet for you too” my buddy said and trotted over to the cab of his flatbed truck.

The little homeboy, perhaps instinctively sensing that this older white guy probably really did have a piece, made the wise tactical decision to start running fast, his three friends in tow.

His parents, if the adults who spawned him can be called that, should be thankful. That night was not the night their little mi hijo ended his life face down in the gutter, a bullet hole or two or three dotting his shaved head. There would be no police report stating that a citizen used justifiable deadly force against another little cockroach caught defacing private property. No, that night he was able to avoid death by instant lead poisoning, scurrying off to try and terrorize someone else.

That night outside the bar happened right after Mark Fuhrman took the Fifth repeatedly while on the stand in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. As the media convulsed with ominous tales about 44 (or more) bad cops on the LAPD, I couldn’t shake the image of that kid so brazenly jerking his hand into his waistband in an effort to terrify an adult who had caught him vandalizing property.

While community activists, church leaders, pop analysts and social commentators all joined in a chorus of damning the LAPD for a laundry list of transgressions so ugly they would make Joseph Goebbels blush, I couldn’t help but focus on what that one kid’s actions meant for us as a community, a nation, a society.

I asked myself if 40 or even 400 bad cops cruising the streets of the Southland should be more of a concern to society than the 150,000 heavily armed gang members who prowl Los Angeles County. I wondered whether the dozen or so questionable shootings police are involved in each year could somehow compare with the nearly 250 people who have been slaughtered by gangs in Los Angeles just this year. And this is the body count during a much-touted gang truce.

I pondered whether Mark Fuhrman’s taped comments might have more significance than the dozens of Gangsta rappers who peddle bragging rights over rape, murder and other Olympic gang sports – tales which are hyped in most neighborhood record stores.

I knew if I didn’t stop thinking about it I’d have to start drinking more than I already do—and that would not be good.

It’s now several days after a jury let O.J. walk free and the newspapers and television continue to writhe with reports of rogue cops polluting not only the LAPD but police agencies around the nation. It seems there’s a little bit of Mark Fuhrman everywhere. Bad cops, mean cops, dirty cops, rotten cops, Evil Twisted SATANIC COPS!!!

Ahhhhhhh, if it wasn’t so perverse it might actually be kind of funny.

But there’s a new reality in Southern California right now. It’s a reality that finds society obsessed with scattered incidents of police brutality, even while entire cities are held hostage by gangs who kill for simply the reputation that comes with killing.

It’s a reality that finds parents, a term I use lightly here, allowing their prepubescent boys to dress down in full gang attire without a second thought. I’m not talking about hip-hop clothing or standard street gear. I mean 12-year-olds dressed down in hardcore vatoware, some even sporting tattoos. I’ve spent five years reporting on crime and punishment in Southern California and I’ve covered enough gangs and gang funerals to tell you that a large part of the Latino community is in a total state of denial over the prevalence and relevance of street gangs.

One can’t grasp the depth of that denial until you’re standing at the graveside of some teenager whose coffin is getting lowered into the ground as his mother is weeping and wailing “My baby wasn’t a gang member! Mi hijo wasn’t a homeboy! He wasn’t a homeboy! He just hung out!” While her sobs of protest fill the air, dozens of young men with shaved heads who are sporting T-shirts that read “R.I.P Lil’ Joker” mill around the grave, as others stand point nearby – on the lookout for any possible follow-up attack at the cemetery. Of course, “Lil’ Joker” wasn’t a gang banger. No, he was just a 13-year-old gun enthusiast who was in a car club called the South Side Locos.

It’s a denial so deep that a mother can keep a straight face as she insists police “murdered” her unarmed son by shooting him in the back. The fact that the kid was brandishing a Tec-9 and lab tests confirmed gun powder residue was on his hands (hint: he had been firing the gun) – this didn’t mean anything to her. Her son was not a homeboy! He was carrying a flashlight!

For another perspective on the swath of destruction gangs have left in their path, take a ride over to the Resurrection Cemetery that’s nestled between Montebello and south San Gabriel and have a look at some of the grave markers that dot the deep green grass. You’ll probably find as many teenagers buried there was you will old people. One marker for three boys reads “Lil’ Shadow, Smokey and Javier… Padres, Hermanos and Homeboys.”

Another reads “Rascal, now you’ve got to a better place…. We love and miss you. Your homeboys.” The grave marker notes that young Rascal was a “Beloved son, brother, husband, father and homeboy.”

Beloved homeboy?

If two words could capture what has effectively buried half a generation and doomed another in Southern California, it is “Beloved homeboy.” The words have a ring to them, kind of like “Beloved Klansman.”

And I doubt that anything will change here until society, and especially parents, recognize what exactly a homeboy is and that there is nothing to be loved about them.

The death toll in the barrios and on the streets of Los Angeles County will continue to climb unabated as long as mothers and fathers allow their teenage sons to dress down in gang attire and hang out on street corners. Nothing will change as long as parents refuse to recognize that gang members must be despised like the plague they are. Like the Ku Klux Klan, gang members ought to inspire disgust on sight. Synonymous with death, gang members deserve only public humiliation and shame.

But the violence here will only grow until parents understand that when their teens don gang attire, they may as well be putting on a robe and hood and heading off to burn a cross on someone’s front lawn. Because the homeboys who roam the streets here are without a doubt soulmates in terror with the Ku Klux Klan.

Gangbangers throwing hard looks at everyone who crosses their path, a ritualistic act of intimidation known as “mad-dogging,” are playing the same game the Klan played down south by terrorizing African Americans to the point where blacks were afraid to even look at a suspected Klan member. Eye contact in and of itself was a challenge, one that would likely be met with a brutal act of violence and even death. So blacks and many other decent, law-abiding citizens would cross the street in those rural towns controlled by the Klan rather than have to risk walking by a Kluxster.

Today in Los Angeles County, it’s 14-year-old gangbangers carrying out such terror and intimidation of citizens, not 50-year-old, pot-bellied, white good’ol boys. In L.A. County today, it’s 12 and 13-year-olds who will pump a bullet into your head if you don’t hand over your car, not some back road Southern sheriff.

The Daily Bulletin recently reported that three teens in La Verne sprayed a 79-year-old woman’s car with gunfire after she tried to pull away during an attempted carjacking. The elderly woman’s grandchildren were in the car. One bullet missed her 8-year-old granddaughter by a few inches.

But there were no press conferences as a result of the shooting. Jesse Jackson didn’t roll into town to march through gang territory in protest of the violence. No federal or state task forces were assembled and rushed in to track down the shooters for swift and certain punishment. The Bulletin even downplayed the story, keeping it small and burying it inside the paper.

The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, continued its front page coverage of the “LAPD 44” – as it now calls the officers named in the Christopher Commission’s report. There will be more investigative reports on this deadly cadre of cops, no doubt. And more anguished cries of protest from community leaders who insist it is these bad cops who are the real problem. I figure it won’t be much longer before these activists are insisting that rogue cops are planting dead bodies across the streets of Southern California in order to smear the good names of such classic boys clubs as White Fence, Primera Flats, Big Hazard and, here in Pomona, the social group 12th Street.

Well, perhaps I was a little hasty to say nothing will change. Some things have been changing slowly but surely over the last year or two. As police agencies are becoming ever more marginalized by the efforts of the American Criminal Liberties Union (a group happy to argue for a gangbanger’s well-established constitutional right to throw gang signs in the classroom…..), more and more people are packing their own heat these days.

Three years ago I didn’t know anyone who carried, in violation of the law, a loaded handgun with them on a regular basis. Today I can count five – and those are just the ones willing to talk about it.

Are these people any safer? Maybe, maybe not.

But it should be food for thought to all those little homeboys running around out there who think they can terrorize with impunity. The next time one decides to play quick-draw McGraw in the street with some resident, he ought to consider that more and more people are prepared to deliver the .38 caliber message my buddy was ready to send out that night.

The next time one of those little cockroaches jerks his hand into his waistband, he better hope he can pull something out. If not, he should just hold on to his dick.

Because now we’ve got some bullets for them.