Sunday, May 23, 2004

If you fancy yourself a gang scholar or historian of street crime and criminal organizations, the Sleepy Lagoon murder case looms large as a defining moment in the creation of the gang culture as we know it. If you go up to the 17th Floor of the Criminal Courts Building, the floor where most of the DAs toil, along with the photo murals of the Black Dahlia case, Charles Manson, and the Keating Savings and Loan case, you'll also see images of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial.

A lot of disturbing realities arose from that murder prosecution. One was the less that wonderful police work done by the LAPD. It was a time in American history before Miranda rights, free public defenders and when cops used their fists to "encourage" suspects to confess.

The other disturbing thing LA citizens learned from the trial coverage was the budding gang culture.

The combination of cops behaving in an extra-judicial manner and street gangs behaving in their usual anti-social ways makes it almost impossible for a modern researcher to figure out exactly what happened the night of August 1, 1942 and who killed JOSE DIAZ. The investigation and court proceedings were anything but orderly by modern standards. Add to that mix the social activists and defense lawyers (in some cases they were one and the same) who blamed the murder on everyone from William Randolph Hearst, to Mexican Sinarquists and Adolf Hitler and what you’re left with is an impenetrable stew of facts, conjecture and hare-brained opinions. Remember, the case ran from August 1942 until early 1943. At the time, given the fear of Japanese gas attacks, real German saboteurs, racist Isolationists, openly Communist organizations with their own post-war agenda, war profiteers, hoarders and every color of the political spectrum screaming for attention, people were seeing conspiracies inside every linen closet.

While activists and social commentators were busy looking for the "big" reasons behind the murder of Jose Diaz and fans of Uncle Joe Stalin were looking for the underlying "American imperialist pathology" to explain the actions of what ultimately was acknowledged as a 38th Street gang rumble, nobody at the time seemed to notice that the gang culture had arrived. And it wasn’t going away.

Back then, Hispanic gangsters were called Pachucos. And in contrast to today’s shave-headed, tattooed street soldiers, the Pachuco gangsters opted for the flashy Zoo Suit as their outward symbol of affiliation.

Granted, not everybody who wore a Zoot was a criminal. Lots of jazz musicians, including Cab Calloway wore the Zoot as a hipster’s icon. So did a lot of jazz fans. Same things goes today, of course. Not everybody with a shaved head and wife-beater T-shirt is a gangster.

Only through the benefit of hindsight do we see that the people who first rang the alarm about organized street gangs were correct in their assessment. And the alarm ringers weren’t just cops. A lot of them were Hispanic social organizations that viewed Hispanic street gangs as a threat to the Hispanic community’s progress towards assimilation.

It’s hard to imagine, but at the time, activists, reformers and others refused to acknowledge these youth groups as gangs. They actively resisted the term. People like Guy Endore and Carey MacWilliams described the young people in the neighborhoods as "frolicsome youth," "high-spirited youngsters," "downy-cheeked youngsters," and they described the ongoing gang fights as "nights of revelry." Endore never budged from his opinion even after events like the 1942 murder of Frank Torres from Clanton Street. Three suspects from a rival neighborhood shot him outside the LA Coliseum after an all-city track meet. A riot broke out between neighborhoods and while Torres was the only fatality, a lot of heads were broken before cops restored order. Clanton, as we know, is still an active gang with a lot of sets. The term "frolicsome" and murder are rarely uttered in the same breath.

By the time of Diaz’ homicide, the reality of "neighborhoods" and neighborhood warfare was already well-established. The people who were accused of killing Jose Diaz called themselves 38th Street and sometimes as the P-38s, in honor of the twin-engined fighter aircraft that was wreaking havoc in the skies over Germany and the Pacific. At the time of Diaz’ killing, 38th Street was already feuding with Downey. 38th Street is still around today. Downey morphed into a number of different neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods that went to war against the servicemen during the downtown Zoot Suit riots of 1943 were Alpine Street, Temple Street, 8th Street and Boyle Heights. Temple, 8th Street and Boyle Heights are still around. I have no information if Alpine is still around or has morphed into some other neighborhood.

The big tantalizing question, of course, is what, if anything could have been done back then to blunt the growth of gangs. As we know, in the sixty odd years since the Jose Diaz homicide, thousands of young hispanics have joined him in early graves. And that handful of original neighborhoods has grown into hundreds of quarrelsome, Balkanized tribes of warring factions. While there’s plenty of blame to through around, no one has ever come up with a solution. Even the Eme’s Draconian policy initiatives of a creating a united Sureno nation failed miserably. As did the failed attempt at creating the Generation of United Nortenos in Norcal.

If history is anything to go by, it would appear that intra- and inter-gang warfare is only going to get worse. If you were to plot the growth and body count of gangs from 1942 to the present, the arrows on the chart would point straight up like a triple diamond ski slope. And I don’t see anything on the radar that’s going to change the upward progress