Everything that most people “know” about gangs from mass media and from “common sense” is tested by former skateboarder-turned-director Stacy Peralta’s excellent film “Crips and Bloods: Made in America”. Instead of taking the typical, easy routes for treating gangs—either presenting them as vicious, mindless thugs or glamorizing their violence—the film takes a much more challenging, but authentic route, showing the complex social conditions out of which Los Angeles gangs arose, in the midst of impoverishment, racial segregation, police brutality, and government suppression of movements for progressive social change. Crucially, LA streets gangs must be understood in relation to the dramatic events in which they were part, especially the 1965 Watts Uprising and the 1992 LA Uprising. Prior to Watts, black immigrants to LA faced racist housing covenants and residential segregation, and then increasing unemployment as they fell victim to the first waves of deindustrialization in the 1960s. Thus, “Crips and Bloods” employs a serious and critical sociological imagination as it analyzes the structural forces that created the conditions from which gangs emerged.
Modern street gangs are descendants derived from generations worth of politically-repressed black communities. Whenever successful gains seemed imminent, a White supremacist system reimposed itself upon them. For example, gang violence reaches an all-time low during the Black Power era of the late-1960s, as blacks join community-based organizations like the Black Panther Party that aim to achieve neighborhood autonomy and black empowerment through “survival programs”. In response, the LAPD—with decisive assistance and guidance from the FBI—destroyed these organizations and the broader movement. As former Slauson gang member Kumasi puts it, “They hunted them down, they murdered everyone who did good, and made everybody else go into exile or they locked them up in the penitentiary. And when all that was over with, a new element rose up called the Crips. Ya see? Then the shit started again.” Claiming what many criminologists have previously discovered in research, gangs fulfill certain neighborhood-stabilizing functions, providing order in the absence of other structures, narratives, and authority systems. In other words, the Panthers could have provided that social order, but thanks for government suppression, gangs now provide that order (regardless of how chaotic it may seem on the surface).
“Crips and Bloods” should be praised for not doing what many lazier documentaries on gangs do: interview criminologists and law enforcement specialists. Instead, director Peralta sees the best way to understand gangs and member’s motivations is to talk to participants directly. The vast majority of the film’s interviewees are either current gang members or former members, both Bloods and Crips. Interestingly, during the film’s credits it is revealed that that nearly all of these people are now current-day gang-interventionists, who works to reduce gang violence through peace-making and community development efforts. What makes these characters so compelling is that they have gone through various transitions in their lives and can reflect upon their true motivations for joining a gang and what that participation felt like, as well as their reasons for leaving the gang and their informed conclusions about what needs to be done instead. The film makes clear—especially during its final minutes—that the most promising way to successfully reduce gang violence is by local community members (including former gang members) who can articulate better modes of social organization, and not through strategies of further criminalization.
There are numerous moments of sociological note throughout the film, but one sure to attract attention is the subtle attribution of responsibility for gangs placed upon female-headed households and the lack of youth supervision. This comes off a bit as “blaming the victims” and seems to suggest that if only black males (presumably fathers) were in such households that youth would not stray into the orbit of gangs. Surely mothers—who shoulder the burden of raising children regardless of racial group or neighborhood residence—transmit certain values to their children. But, the film veers away from such a conservative and moralizing argument by hinting at a variety of reasons why these mothers were so busy and were not as able to “show love” for their children, such as their long work hours in lowly paid jobs. “Crips and Bloods” also adopts part of the “prison abolitionist” perspective on gangs, by asserting that criminalization and hyper-incarceration has itself destabilized neighborhoods and disrupted potentially-functional families that could include male parents.
Quite a few well-known individuals appear in “Crips and Bloods”, including football-star-turned-activist Jim Brown, New Leftist and state senator Tom Hayden, author of Do or Die Leon Bing, and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member Ron Wilkins (as well as a number of sociologists!). Combined with stellar design and great music throughout, the most important contribution of “Crips and Bloods” is to show individual gang members as sane actors in insane conditions. Instead of appearing as monsters, the film allows them to explain their own violent behaviors—and we learn about the array of social pressures, needs for protection, and masculinity that contributes to such behaviors. This may be the most critical and sociological film treatment of gangs available.
Topics: crime, deviance, race and crime, race/ethnicity, urban sociology.