ONCE upon a time in the City of Angels, chaos was king, and carelessness ruled. Street gangs roamed the city. Politicians bettered their own lives, not those of the people they were elected to serve. Police corruption ran rampant through Rampart and other crime-ridden districts. Neighborhoods declined to slum-like conditions. The Los Angeles school system stumbled headlong down the road to total Armageddon. And the most victimized segment of the populace?
The children. The teens. The next generation.
Limited choices and often abusive or neglectful home lives forced hundreds, if not thousands of children, into the streets to join gangs, turn tricks, do drugs, sell drugs, drop out of school, get arrested and sent to prison for life, and in all ways subjugate their goodness in the name of survival.
All hope seemed lost. Until the mysterious “tag” appeared throughout the city, spray-painted on walls and over graffiti, obliterating gang markings without mercy, without favoritism, with impunity.
A “tag” that became the symbol of a revolution.
Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles had become a flashpoint for immigrant traffic and gang warfare as far back as anyone could recall. The gangs usually clashed over turf or drugs.
Tonight it was about disrespect.
LAPD officers fought to contain the brawling, screaming gang members, firing rubber bullets, banging heads with nightsticks, slapping cuffs on tattooed wrists. These rival Latino factions from different neighborhoods clashed often, especially on this street, a dividing line between the two ’hoods.
Scrawled on the wall behind the brawling youths and struggling cops were various gang monikers and names, indicating the back and forth struggle for control of the area. Above all these, written in beautifully articulated lettering and accompanied by the drawing of a dove flying over a rainbow and partially scribbled over by graffiti, was painted: “Pray for Peace in the Barrio.”
Anarchy reigned as cops in riot gear struggled to apprehend the fighting youths, while other gang members ran helter-skelter between numerous police and local news media vehicles attempting to escape the police cordon. The news cameras rolled, taking in every violent moment while the flashing red lights of police and paramedic vehicles cast a dramatic strobe-light effect over the scene.
As the situation slowly settled into containment, with most gang members either restrained or dashing off into the darkness, the last two boys were roughly pulled apart by four cops. These two boys fought so furiously that two officers were required for each boy to keep them from killing one another.
Esteban Gallegos and Jaime Villalobos, for the present, at least, called the shots for their respective neighborhoods. The real power brokers seldom got their hands dirty, much like the generals, or presidents, in any war. Now nearly seventeen, Esteban had grown up in the streets, having been jumped into his gang at age eleven by holding his own in a three-on-one fight, the other three being older, stronger kids. As a boy, the strength and power of the local gang members had drawn him in like a magnet. Now a strong, buffed-up teen with unkempt facial hair and a nearly bald head, Esteban wore a torn wifebeater that revealed several gang tattoos on his naked, muscular arms.
Jaime was sixteen, clothed in a muscle shirt that revealed his own assorted tattoos, which included his name on his neck and Our Lady of Guadalupe on his right forearm. Jaime had been born into the gang. His father was a gang member who never grew out of the lifestyle and had been in and out of prison during Jaime’s formative years, for often-violent crimes. Growing up, the boy seethed with pent-up rage over his inability to choose his own path in life.
As cops shoved these boys toward different police cruisers, their faces slashed by the flashing red lights, Jaime kicked and screamed, shrieking furiously at Esteban, his face red with rage, “You’re dead, Ese! Dead!”
Esteban, calm and composed now that the fighting had ceased, merely gazed solemnly over his shoulder at his raging rival. “You ain’t gonna touch me,” he announced quietly before being forced into the backseat of a police car. The doors slammed and locked behind him. The other officers shoved Jaime violently into the back of another cruiser before the youth could shout a response. Suddenly, the bedlam ended, and the cleanup began.
The two men in charge of the operation observed the various police cruisers moving off with their captured warriors. Sergeant James Ryan, a veteran of the LAPD since college, wore his fifty-five years more like a weary sixty-five or seventy, his hair having turned almost completely gray, his craggy face worn and weathered by stress. Of medium height and build, he had been on the gang detail for over a decade, and he could no longer separate misguided children from hard-core gang members. In his view, the only good gang member was a dead or imprisoned gang member. Rehabilitation? Forget it. Tonight’s episode was further proof—these kids were so far gone they’d kill each other over a stupid tag. Man, was he burned out on this shit!
As a black youth growing up in South Central, Sergeant Robert Gibson had no father in the home (nor did most of his friends), but he did have the blessing of his domineeringly strong mother who’d kept her son in check. She’d felt nothing but contempt for the gang leaders who recruited children and brainwashed them into thinking they had power, that they were doing something great for themselves and their neighborhood, and she wasn’t afraid to tell them so. Gibson had always been more afraid of her than the gangbangers.
Gibson became a cop right out of high school and had moved quickly up the ranks. He was now pushing forty, tall and imposing, with broad shoulders and a well-groomed mustache. As a young, intelligent, committed African-American officer, Gibson became a poster boy for the LAPD and willingly joined the Gang Task Force as a tribute to his mother, who’d sadly succumbed to a heart attack last year.
Unlike Ryan, Gibson believed that most teen gang members, if given another alternative, would gladly ditch the gang and move forward in life. He’d seen ample evidence of this through Homeboy Industries, a program started by a Jesuit priest, Gregory Boyle. Homeboy Industries sought to rehabilitate and obtain lawful employment for gang members who wanted out, and had proven wildly successful in its twenty-five years.
But statewide, more and more punitive laws were passed each year against children, and fewer and fewer programs to help wayward kids get back on track were created or amplified, while failing schools and deteriorating home life had taken their toll. In some ways, Gibson felt older and more burned out than Ryan because he still cared.
Ryan surveyed the mop-up operation before him and shook his head in absolute disgust. “Shit, Gib, tagger’s been here too!”
Gibson looked just as dismayed. “We’ve got to nail this guy, Ry, ’fore he ignites the whole city.”
They gazed at the brick wall before them. Painted in bright purple paint or ink, was a simple, but unusual symbol. This symbol, having been painted over the gang logos and gang names, and appearing on walls and buildings throughout the city in recent days, had precipitated this and other outbreaks of gang-on-gang violence. Both sides in these clashes believed the other had disrespected them by placing this “tag” over their own.
The symbol, a large A with a sword thrust down through it, now adorned the wall, clearly asserting its dominion over what had previously been claimed.
Helen Schaeffer, a blonde, leggy, very attractive, and ambitious thirtysomething newswoman for a local TV station hurried over to Ryan and Gibson with her cameraman in tow. The bright light of the camera fell on the furious faces of the two officers, momentarily blinding them.
“Sergeant Ryan, any comment on this latest incident?” Helen asked with authority, her mic shoved professionally up under Ryan’s chin.
Ryan shoved it away. “Yeah, it stinks!” He turned and strode back toward his car. Gibson shrugged as Helen swung her microphone toward him and quickly followed his partner.
Helen turned back to the camera, flashing her very expensive, perfect, television teeth. “As you just saw, the police still aren’t saying much about this latest outbreak of gang violence.”
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Genre – Edgy Young Adult
Rating – PG13
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