In Brazil’s favelas, murder is the leading cause of death for 10-year-olds. In these urban hyper-barrios, police patrol in helicopter gunships. Any delusion of crime prevention gave way to containment and suppression long ago. At night, black children hide from both rogue cops and gang members; the rich venture from their fortress homes nearby only in armored vehicles or private planes. In the midst of Rio de Janeiro’s splendor, favelas are at a tipping point—on the way to joining Mogadishu as wholly failed “feral” cities, engulfed by gangs, black markets, rapacious crime and dysfunction.
Could Los Angeles be headed down this road? No, not anytime soon, at least for the vast majority of the city. But the hot spots of underclass Los Angeles are well on the way. If ignored, they will metastasize, and eventually pose a real danger to the larger region.
L.A.’s hot zones are tiny, intensely dangerous areas where nothing works, where law has broken down and mainstream institutions simply fail. Places where mail carriers and meter readers balk when the bullets fly. Where paramedics and firefighters are hesitant to enter because of the crossfire. Where police officers go in only heavily reinforced or with helicopters; in the LAPD’s South Bureau there was an 80% increase in sniper fire on police in 2004, according to a report by LAPD Chief William Bratton.
In Jordan Downs, for instance, one of three gang-dominated housing projects in Watts, the predominantly African American Grape Street Crips routinely beat Latinos (among others), engage in regular home-invasion robberies and have been known to murder residents who dare report their activities. When the LAPD set up a police kiosk in Jordan to quell rising crime, the gangs blew it up; the LAPD left and did not return for more than a decade. In the Ramona Gardens housing project, the last three black families didn’t survive long enough to suffer the perpetual abuse that residents of Jordan have endured: Latino gangsters firebombed them out of their units.
Schools near these complexes boast 70% dropout rates, violence-related lockdowns and children with post-traumatic stress disorder levels as high as those seen in civil wars. The neighborhoods host hundreds of prison-brutalized men wed to cults of destruction and the hyper-masculinity of the powerless. Ex-cons who try to change must defy a dehumanizing dragnet that draws 70% of them back into prison. All face relentless search-and-destroy policing. With job prospects virtually nonexistent and few other exit ramps from the prison-parole hamster wheel, escape is rare.
Years ago I asked gang members what happened to kids who “just said no” to the Bloods or V-18s. They brought me a videotape other gang members had made for a 14-year-old boy who had refused to join them. The tape showed gang members raping his 13-year-old sister. The boy joined the gang so that its members wouldn’t return to kill her.