Aqeela Sherrills, gang member and street worker, in front of the Watts Towers
And here's why this story matters: Gang violence plummeted nationwide in the years that followed, along with an overall drop in violent crime, but while the overall number remains stable, youth homicide is rising again. Since the late 1990s, in fact, the only demographic to see an increase in murder victims is men between the ages of 25 and 34, and 67 percent of killings between young men are gang-related. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report for 2004, the latest with complete data, juvenile gang homicides have jumped 23 percent since 2000. And there's no new drug epidemic to explain the change, nor is it confined to the ghetto. Much of the new gang activity is occurring in the affluent D.C. suburbs, sleepy Provo, Utah, even the Northern California wine country, which has provoked a new round of that old hand-wringing about how our kids got to be so psychopathic, and why we return again and again to this same awful place. If we brought down the violence before, one can't help wondering, why can't we bring it down again? And that's why the story of the so-called Watts truce is so important: In the dysfunctional national conversation about how to move forward, it turns out that none of the leading players can agree on what worked last time, what exactly is happening this time, or, least of all, what to do next.
"People who really understand the street," according to professor David Kennedy of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, "all understand a fundamental truth: that the stories we tell about gang violence are wrong. There are a couple of basic ones, and they're all wrong."
TALK TO LOS ANGELES POLICE Chief William Bratton, the former New York City police commissioner who currently has jurisdiction over the largest gang-violence problem in the world, and you get a picture of enormous, well-organized gangs proliferating nationwide and even internationally. A veteran of New York's crackdown on the Sicilian Mafia, of Boston's early successful experiment with community policing, and of New York's now-famous "Broken Windows" approach to stopping urban decay, Bratton has successfully encouraged the FBI to develop a new "National Gang Strategy." Targeting the biggest and most advanced gangs with a combination of RICO prose-cution, intelligence gathering, and special investigative techniques, the FBI's new approach is modeled after those used on traditional organized crime—"something that I've been advocating since I came to Los Angeles and saw the scope of the problem," Bratton says. "It was quite clear that it had grown to national proportion, so that gangs that began here in L.A. or Chicago had now begun to spring up in other areas." Local police departments, in Bratton's view, are simply too limited in their jurisdiction. "The tools that the feds can bring into the equation," he says, "their investigative powers, their sentencing powers, it would be crazy not to take advantage of that. I had experienced that in New York, working with the FBI in their attack on the old-style mafias, and how they were able to break their backs, and the belief that you could use many of the same prescriptions against these gangs, whether they be Latino or African American, the two principal groups I have to deal with here." To that end, in fact, an FBI task force has just been established specifically to dismantle Mara Salvatrucha, a.k.a. MS-13, an international gang that started among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles.