by Nicholas Frank

Not long ago, while we were visiting him in prison, I asked Nathan directly why he thought his defiance led to crime and how he ended up joining a gang.   For the next hour or so, he told me how one thing led to another until he was, getting “jumped-in.” 

Our actual conversation included more discussion than I can present here.  What follows are the points of our conversation that left the deepest impressions on me.

Me:      Nathan, I have been trying to figure out why you joined a gang.  I can kind of understand the running away, getting high and even acting like some kind of delinquent.  But escalating it to join a gang.  I don’t get that. 

Nathan:           Yea… I really wasn’t even thinking about being in a gang or any of that at first.  When I ran away, I wasn’t thinking, “I   want to be a gangster, or I want do bad things.”  Mostly, I just wanted to get away from all the fighting and the pressure and the rules.  I just wanted to do what I wanted to do without getting into trouble all the time.  It’s more like one thing just led to another.         

Me:      I remember being scared for you when the judge restored your mother’s visitation.  Do you remember when I was talking to you the night before you were supposed to go back there?

Nathan:           Not really…maybe…

desMe:      Remember there was a period when you were just with Maddie and me.  Then the judge reinstated visitation.  On the night before you and Darrick and Leanne were supposed to go back there, you were saying you didn’t want to go because you were scared you were going to smoke weed again.

I remember being so worried because we worked so hard to stop you from getting high.  It seemed like you were done with the defiance and were on track again.   

Nathan:           Okay, yea.

Me:                  You were even worried about going back there.   And then when you were supposed to come back home, you refused.  I couldn’t understand how fast you changed your mind.

Were you already planning not to come back when you told me you were scared you would smoke weed? 

Nathan:           No.  I really was scared to go back.Then, when I went back I could do whatever I wanted.   She said school isn’t for everyone.  She told me I didn’t have to do homework, or go to school, or do anything.  I figured she really didn’t even care if I got high.  I figured, cool, my mom says I can do what I want.  So I didn’t want to come back home.

Me:      You know we had a court order that said you had to stay at my house.  Did you think about that?

Nathan:           Yea, but that didn’t really seem to matter. When you made me come back, I was really mad.  I didn’t understand why I couldn’t stay over there.

Me:                  Huh.Then you ran away.  Were you already in with the gang then?   

des2Nathan:           No.  When I was there, I was mostly hanging out with my friends.  We were hanging out and boxing, stuff like that. 

Me:                  And getting high.

 Nathan:           Yea.  Sometimes. Some gang members were hanging around, too.I was pretty good at fighting…. It seemed to come naturally to me. 

It was like I was living some kind of kid fantasy.  I came and went as I pleased.  I did whatever I felt like doing. 

And there were a bunch of other kids doing the same thing.  We weren’t doing anything really bad, then.  At least not compared to later.  Mostly, we were just hanging out.

I showed up at [mom’s] house when I wanted a break, or to get something to eat or get a change of clothes.  I thought it was totally cool, then. 

Me:                  You know we were looking for you.

Nathan:           Yea, I know.

Me:      We tried to find you at her place, but could never catch you there.  We were driving past all the places we knew your friends lived, we went to the parks, and anywhere we thought you might be.

Nathan:           I know.  I knew you would be looking at her house, so I moved around a lot.  Sometimes I was at her friends’ houses.  And I spent a lot of time crashing at different places where I knew people.

Me:      What about the other adults?  Didn’t they ever say, who the hell is this kid?

Nathan:           Dad, there’s a lot of adults out there who don’t care what kids do.  It was cool with them.  Eventually, I hardly went to [mom’s] place at all.  I was always with my friends.  For a while I even lived in an old abandoned car.  Sometimes she would bring me food and stuff.  Then I stayed in different apartments. 

Me:                  Were you with the gang then? 

Nathan:           Yea.  About that time, I was getting a reputation for being able to fight and some gang members used to hang out with us.  

There was this one guy in particular who seemed especially cool. 

Me:                  Phelps?

des4Nathan:           Uh huh.  I looked up to him back then.  Now I can hardly believe it.  I mean I know so much more now.  In here, he would be nothing.  But, back then every time I saw him he had money, girls, cars, etc.   

One day he told me that he had been watching me and was impressed.  That made me feel good, you know? 

Eventually, I started hanging out with Phelps and his friends more than I did with my friends.  It was cool and exciting to me.

Me:      Didn’t you ever think about coming home?  I mean, living in a car and crashing at different places.  Didn’t it get old?

Nathan:           Sometimes it did.  And I sometimes I missed being home with everyone.  But it seemed like whenever I felt like that, something would happen that would make me forget about it, and I would be off again. Phelps and everyone else always had something going on.  I just thought I was on this incredible adventure, like Huckleberry Finn or something. 

Sitting here now, it sounds crazy.  But back then it was just the life I was living.

The only thing I worried about was if you were going to find me or not, and make me come home.

Eventually, Phelps started taking me down to LA with him, to his neighborhood and introduced me to all of his people down there.  He was always telling people that I was all right, and that I was a hell of a fighter.  I went there a lot.

des5I was at all the places you hear about in Rap songs, or see in movies and read about in stories about gangs.  It was unreal.

It was like I was this different person back then.  Or like I was living this life and observing it at the same time.  There was bad stuff going on all around me, but it wasn’t even real to me.  Eventually, I just didn’t think about it all.  It just became like normal.  No one else seemed to be shocked or surprised by anything that happened.  Even if someone got beaten up, or even shot.  It was just what it was.

It feels weird even talking about it like that.  I mean, I have been through some unbelievable stuff, but thinking about that time, I can’t believe that I didn’t see how screwed up things were. 

Me:                  Like the frog and boiling water.

Nathan:           What’s that? 

Me:      Well, if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, he will jump out immediately.  But, if you put a frog in a pot of water at room temperature and slowly heat it up, the frog doesn’t even notice the water getting hotter until it gets so hot it kills him. 

Nathan:           Yea.  I guess that sort of describes it.   

Really, like I said, in the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about joining a gang, and no one brought it up at first.  Not even Phelps.

des7After a while though, one day he called me and told me he wanted to talk to me.  He told that it was cool hanging out with me and all, but that I had to earn some money if I was going to stay around.  He said there were two ways that I could do it, and that I had to choose.  He pointed at the gun and said, “you can be a stick-up kid,” or “you can sell dope,” and he pointed at the bag.   

I should have just left.  But I didn’t want to look like a pussy, or like I wasn’t cool, or didn’t belong.  So I said “okay.” 

I had already had a bad experience with trying to sell drugs, so I picked the gun. 

“Cool,”  He said. 

Me:                  What was the bad experience trying to sell drugs? 

Nathan:           At that time, I was staying with a couple of guys in the apartments over by the College.  This other guy I knew had some cocaine and he wanted to know if I wanted to try to sell it.  I was thinking about it.

We put the coke in the apartment and then I went out with some friends.  When I got back, I knocked on the door but the two guys who were renting the apartment weren’t there.  I waited around a long time, but they never showed up.  Finally I got inside and the coke was gone.  So was everything else.   

Now I had a problem.  I had to tell this guy that someone stole his coke.  I didn’t know what was going to happen.

Me:      Maybe that would have been a good time to call me.  People get killed over that kind of thing.

Nathan:           I wish I had.  But I was in a different life then. I was a different person.  When I told the guy what happened, he said, “Look mother-fucker, I don’t give a shit what happened.  You better get my coke or get my money.” 

I was screwed. 

Over the next week or so, I saw the guy a couple of times at parties, and each time he asked me if I had his money.  I told him no.  “How am I supposed to get your money?  I don’t have the coke, someone stole it.”

One night, people were partying in a parking lot of this apartment complex near the college.  I knew some of them, so I walked over to where a group was smoking dope between some cars.  

That guy who wanted his money was there, too.  He was giving me the hairy eyeball.  He came with a couple of other guys that I had seen around. 

des9The other two guys were young kids, like me.  They were carrying those little baseball bats you can buy at Dodger Stadium. 

They were wandering around and I wasn’t really thinking about it.  Finally, they ended up behind me, but I didn’t know it.

Then, all of a sudden, “Wham!” something hit me in the back of the head.  The next thing I knew, I woke up on the ground and those two guys were wailing on me with those bats.  Then something hit me above my right ear and I was out again.  They must have kept beating me for while, because when I woke up I was alone in the courtyard and my whole body was beat to shit.  My head was like twice its normal size and I was hurting everywhere. 

I got to a phone and called Deanna, who lived down the street from [mom], and asked her to come get me.

Me:      Is that the same Deanna who was your lame alibi at the trial?  [Note: Deanna, the alibi and the trial make their appearance a few pages down.] 

Nathan:           Yea, that was her. 

Me:                  What an idiot she was.  How did you know her? 

Nathan:           She was just some old outlaw that we knew.  She came and picked me up and took me to her house.  She and her husband filled their bathtub with ice water and put me in it.  Jesus, Dad, I was so tore up. 

But, I didn’t want to go to the emergency room because I thought someone might call you and you would come and get me.  It was stupid, I know, but I didn’t want to go back. 

Deanna called [mom].  She came over and talked to me while I was in the bathtub.   

Then she left.

I should have called you, then.  But I didn’t even think about calling you.  That was the last thing I wanted to do.

Me:      Jesus Christ, Nathan!  You could have died.  I can’t believe no one made you go to the hospital.

Nathan:           Yea, but it was just one of a million things that I was doing that a regular person wouldn’t do.

Well, I healed up from that beating and I started going out again to parties with the people who were there when I got beaten up.  When I look back on it now, it seems so stupid.  Why would I want to hang out with these people after they sat there and let me take a beating?  But that was just normal with them.  I can’t even explain it.  Like I said, I was a different person then. 

Then, at one of the parties the guy who had me beat up came up to me and said, “You got my money?”  I told him, “No.  I don’t have your money.  You got your money’s worth already.”  And that was the end of it.

Me:      We knew you were living in somewhere in those apartments by the college.  Do you remember all of the fliers we kept posting on the light posts in the neighborhood?

Nathan:           Yea.  Back then, I was really mad about that. 

Me:      We used your school picture, because we were hoping that the people you were hanging with would realize that you didn’t belong.  We were hoping you would just call.

 Obviously, it didn’t work.

Nathan:           Yea.  Back then I was just mad about it.  It thought you were messing with me.  Now I think that is what parents who are worried about their kid and trying to find him would do. 

You know, I am just so ashamed by so many things about that time.

Me:                  So how did you end up in a gang?

Nathan:           I was hanging with Phelps and his friends all the time then.  One day, he took me down to his neighborhood again and told me that I was going to get “jumped in.”  I took that as a sign of great respect.  It made me feel proud of myself.  Like I had passed some kind of test.

Me:                  I think they were playing you all along.  How old was Phelps?

Nathan:           I think he was about 30 years old.

Me:                  Jesus H. Christ.

Nathan:           I know.

Me:                  So what happened?

des10Nathan:           Well, we went down to his neighborhood in LA.  All these people were there.  They just owned the street.  There were like hundreds of people there and in the park.  It was wild.  Smoking weed, doing other drugs.  Guys with guns.  The music blasting.  Cars, hot women.  I could hardly believe it. 

After a while, one of the guys said to me, “you ready?”

“Hell, yea!”  I said.

Me:                  Were you scared?

Nathan:           Yea I was scared.  I didn’t know how I was going to do, you know?  The whole scene was just like full of energy.

So we went over to the park and we jumped this fence into this field or like an open area.  I was surrounded by a bunch of guys.  Then suddenly it was on!

We just started fighting.  Guys were coming at me from all angles and I was just throwing punches in every direction.

That went on for a while.  I don’t even know how long.  I was just hitting people and getting hit.  Finally, this guy says, “Okay, that’s enough.”

Then it was over. 

Me:                  Jesus, Nathan

Nathan:           I know Dad.  Now it all seems like a dream, or a story I read. 

 You know, that night I saw a guy get killed right in front of me.

 Me:                  You saw someone get killed?  How?

des11Nathan:           We were all there, then we noticed this car with its lights off coming down the street toward us.  All of a sudden we heard “Pop!  PopPopPop!!” They were shooting at us.

Everyone ran for cover.  The car came screaming into the street and hit this one guy and launched him into the air.  He came down on the street like 100 feet away.  When we checked on him, he was dead.

The car just hauled ass out of there.

Me:                  Didn’t that make you think, “Holy shit, what have I gotten myself into?”

Nathan:           You know, it was like I said.  That kind of stuff was normal.  I mean, I knew it was happening, but at the same time, it didn’t seem like it. Then I was in the gang.

Me:                  Were you already in the gang when the whole Grizzly thing blew up?

Nathan:           Yea.  I was already in.

Me:      I gotta ask you…Were you just playing me about Grizzly?  Did you ever actually think about going there?

Nathan:           Actually, I did.

Me:                  But you were already in the gang. 

Nathan:           Yea, I know.  It’s weird, huh.  But I thought I would go.  I just thought maybe I would like it.  Something about what I was doing must have not felt right.

Me:                  Then why didn’t you go?

Nathan:           To tell you the truth, I just got a new girlfriend and she didn’t want me to go.  So I told [mom], “I changed my mind.  I’m not going.”  And I left.

Me:                  Damn.  You know, I waited up there for you.  I felt like a total fool.

Nathan:           I’m really sorry, Dad.  I wish I could go back and do that whole time over.

 

6 Responses to “Destructive Justice”: Nathan Is “Jumped” Into the CRIPS

  1. Rick says:

    Great job, Nick! The dialog between you and your son was very compelling. It’s too bad that your son only developed wisdom years after making his huge mistake. I know that many of us muse, “if only I could be 20 again,” but I would add the caveat: “but only if I had the wisdom of a 50 year old.”

  2. Nick Frank says:

    I hear you Rick. It has occurred to me, however, as I have examined and re-examined my son’s history, as well as other’s, that often the “choice” to join a gang is the result of not choosing an alternative rather than “choosing” to join.
    In Nathan’s case, it was sort of the logical conclusion of multiple small decisions to walk away earlier when things felt strange or wrong to him. It’s as if a troubled, lost kid makes small commitments along the way that do not seem to part of a process of indoctrination, but turn out to be milestones that those who seek to trick a kid have placed or have identified along a road to ruin. Each small individual choice moves a kid down that road. Perhaps he does not know where he is going or being led. Then, one day, isolated from his past and more importantly from the people who inhabited that past, the “choice” to join a gang does not feel like a choice at all. It feels like the only thing open to him.
    Nathan did not come from a community or family that had a gang tradition. Yet, he was vulnerable to that process due to his disillusion, confusion and depression. Now, think of the millions of kids who grow up in environments where gangs have deep roots. In addition to the individual psychological influences, illusion and delusion that make all kids vulnerable to those who seek to exploit them, young people who grow up in a world where there is a gang tradition have the added pressure of tradition that leads them to “join.”

    And yet, even in those environments, gang membership for most is a temporary thing, something kids grow out of when they mature. Is it right to condemn someone to life in prison because they were vulnerable to a time-tested process of exploitation and indoctrination? Of course it is not right. And there’s the rub. That is what happens. That is what happened – to Nathan and countless others.
    Thanks for your continued insights.

    Nick

    • Rick says:

      Nick – You’ve made interesting observations as to how your son was incrementally led down the metaphoric road to perdition. From how you’ve described how Nathan ended up joining a gang, there appear to be many similarities in the indoctrination tactics used by gangs and religious cults. It’s too bad that your son was sucked into the whirlpool and could not escape in time to avoid the gang vortex. I know that the older members of gangs often enlist minors to do their dirty-work in order to avoid such things as a third-strike. The authorities have responded to that tactic by increasingly charging and trying as adults increasing numbers of juveniles who commit violent crimes.

  3. Nick Frank says:

    You are right about older gang members using the young, easily manipulated members to do the dirty work. The phrase I have heard to describe the practice is “the cat’s paw.” There’s an old fable called “The Monkey and the Cat” that sums it up.

    It’s terrible, but not new. Think of Fagin from Oliver Twist.

    The problem with the response of the authorities is that they go after the wrong person. They allege that harsher penalties will dissuade others from repeating the criminal behavior. The intrinsic shortcoming of that theory is that each generation of adolescents believes they are reinventing the world. Therefore, they do not look to history as a guide for their behavior, even if it is possible to tell them about history. Only adults meaningfully and practically place their actions and decisions in the context of what went before. Kids virtually never do. That is why a parent’s lament often centers on the frustration of not being able to prevent their kids from making the same mistakes that they made, or others made. Ratcheting up punishment for young people destroys the youths who are so punished without teaching any lessons to those who come behind.

    • Rick says:

      It’s too bad that wisdom is not inherited and that every new generation has to reinvent the wheel and make the same mistakes over again. Perhaps that explains why history seems to repeat itself and humanity doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes.

  4. Nick Frank says:

    Rick,

    You are right. It is too bad wisdom is not inherited. What is worse is that we know that wisdom is learned and not inherited, but we treat so many juveniles who cut against the grain as if they are supposed to have the wisdom of years anyway. Kids can not be truly wise. But those who operate the justice system can be. It is time that they start.

    Nick

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