By Christopher Zoukis

A Brief History

According to Julia Dunn, a gang “is an interstitial group, originally formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict.” Image courtesy The term ‘interstitial’ refers to a culturally isolated or marginalized group of individuals, who, because of external circumstances (racism, lack of education, unemployment), have been left behind.  These individuals adopt a ‘strength through numbers’ attitude, assume collective standards of behavior, develop ad hoc structures of hierarchy and esprit de corps.  They identify with others of similar circumstances and exhibit territorial tendencies. 

After World War I, African-American enclaves sprouted up in the urban areas of major cities with the United States.  In the 1920s, Los Angeles encompassed large black enclaves, where unemployment was prevalent and poverty was the norm.  Within these enclaves, family members and friends banded together into loose, unorganized associations that were, for the most part, non-violent.  For lack of a better term, these associations came to be known as gangs.  The gangs of this historical time were non-territorial.  The primary function of such gangs was to present a ‘tough guy’ image and facilitate the accumulation of easy money by means of prostitution, forgery and theft.

Well-known gangs of this period – the 1920s and 1930s – included the Goodlows, the Kelleys, the Magnificents, the Driver Brothers, the Boozies and the Bloodgetts.  During the following decade, the 1940s, black gangs increased their numbers, along with their activities, which now included extortion and gambling, in addition to the usual prostitution, forgery and theft.  They provided ‘protection’ for local merchants, which was nothing more than simple coercion.  Merchants paid for the privilege of not having their places of business torched by their so-called protectors.

With the advent of the 1950s, car clubs appeared.  Car clubs were gangs-on-wheels that reflected America’s burgeoning obsession with automobiles.  The names of the car clubs reflected their mobility:  Low Riders, Coasters, Highwaymen, Road Devils, Businessmen, Gladiators, Rebel Rousers, Huns, Watts Farmers, and Blood Alley.  Like their predecessors before World War II, these clubs were poorly organized; however, the car clubs demonstrated a territorial instinct that their predecessors did not.  Disputes over territory erupted when club members rolled into another club’s territory.  Each club would gather its gang members, meeting in a deserted parking lot or neighborhood park, where they would engage in battle with the opposing club.  Chains, knives and bats were used as weapons.  Over the course of time, gang warfare became more and more violent. 

Car clubs fell by the wayside in the early 1960s.  They were replaced by gangs that were not only more violent, but more organized.  A South Central Los Angeles high school student, Raymond Washington, formed a gang called the Baby Avenues.  The Baby Avenues eventually became the Crips, borrowing the name from Washington’s older brother, Reggie, who sprained his ankle.  Reggie limped around with the word ‘cripple’ emblazoned on his canvas shoes.  Raymond took the term, shortened it, and called his gang the Crips.

Raymond Washington, hugely muscled, was a bully, who supposedly wanted to model his gang after the Black Panthers.  He never attained his goal because he lacked discipline, conviction and organizational abilities.  All Raymond had going for him was brutality, which he employed far and wide.  Raymond’s default mode was violence of the most vicious type.  He utilized violence to expand his territory and increase his membership.  His method of expansion was simple:  he strolled into the enemy’s territory and beat the opposing gang leader into submission, telling the onlookers “either join me or become my enemy.”  Most joined the Crips, some did not.  Those that didn’t remained with their own gangs, engaging in bloody battles with the Crips.