Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Late last week I was chewing the rag with a retired gangster. In truth, he was forced into retirement by a felony conviction. The years in state prison have been, according to him, a blessing in disguise. Prison forced him to examine his life and eventually took him away from the gang life and do what he terms "a 90% rehab." He gets crazy ideas 10% of the time but, so far, has resisted acting on any of his darker impulses. He says he doesn't want to go back to jail but, get this, would gladly go back if it meant keeping him out of the life or off a morgue slab.

I was trying to get a sense from him of day to day life in the gang and the influence of the EME on street gangsters. He said the pressure is always there. The EME is ever present and relentlessly attempts to widen and strengthen its influence on the street. Some gangsters, and entire gangs, keep their distance. Others can't wait to pick up and wave the flag of the black hand.

Local EME associates on the street who are sanctioned to use a BROTHER'S name are in a constant state of war and conquest. And they need a lot of willing soldiers to do their bidding. Generally street soldiers are asked to back the ASSOCIATE'S play -- collect taxes, intimidate a rival faction or check somebody (with bullets or fists) who has broken a regla (rule).

My gangster claims that the favor can either be asked politely or in the form of a demand. The difference is one of being ASKED to do something or TOLD to do something. According to the protocol, if you can find a graceful way out when you're asked, the matter is generally dropped and the refusal isn't held against you. Of course, that also depends on whether or not the person being asked OWES the individual or the group something. If in the past the local soldier has accepted drugs, money or a big favor, then it's almost impossible to say no. Refusal in this case is looked upon as disrespectful and a breach of protocol. Also cowardly and a black mark on the reputation of the neighborhood as a whole. And you don't want your neighborhood to get a reputation of being bad soldiers. If you refuse what your whole gang would consider a LEGITIMATE demand from a BROTHER or SHOTCALLER, often the gang itself will retaliate against you just to uphold their honor. Depending on the severity of the affront, you could be thrown out, beaten or killed.

If, on the other hand, you're clean in terms of not owing the EME or an ASSOCIATE anything, you're on safe ground making a reasonable sounding excuse. Something on the order of, "I got to go do something for the neighborhood," or "I'm cool like this, me and my homie are going on another mission." That's generally enough to get you dispensation.

If a street soldier does decide to do the favor, say like watching somebody's back while the SHOTCALLER jacks a car or collect taxes or checks a miscreant, it's important for the soldier not to take any reward. Often, he'll be reward with money, drugs, a stolen car or stolen property. Unless you want to get deeper with the EME and SHOTCALLERS, it's best to refuse the reward. Having your favor go unrewarded leaves no further obligation hanging. You've done the favor, you've upheld the reputation of your neighborhood, shown some courage and refused payment. That earns you respect and a pass on future demands but not necessarily a stripe. Chances are, you won't be asked again. In the code of the street, for whatever the code is worth, you've demonstrated to the shot callers that you're a good soldier, but you don't aspire to be some kind of star. You're happy with your station in life and don't want to get sucked into the EME sphere of influence, which, according to my retired gangster, is riddled with political landmines. You don't want to go there because it makes IRAQI politics seem rational. You could unwittingly be crossing somebody somewhere for something that's happening way above your pay grade. And you don't want to get sucked into somebody else's war.

To sum it up, you can't take any account of a shooting, carjacking or other gang crime on its face value. No matter where you read about it. Even here.

Behind every carjacking, drug ripoff, gang assault or what have you, half understood dynamics, byzantine undercurrents, old beefs, new stripes, cowards and warriors are always in play. In the gang life, nothing is ever as simple as you read about. Bear that in mind the next time the LAT, LA WEEKLY or any other LA outlet runs a gang story that seems like something you saw on TV and hangs together a little too simply.

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