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The Blue Corn

J. K. Rowling, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, said,

Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.

Recently, The New York Times had an interesting article — “Monkeys Are Adept at Picking Up Social Cues, Research Shows” — about the transmission of culture in monkeys.

Since I’m going to be specifically talking about “gang members,” let me insert a caveat to avoid offending anyone. This is important, because the history of racism in this country has unfortunately frequently insulted minority groups by comparing them to monkeys. That’s not what I’m doing when I mention this article on research involving the transmission of culture in monkeys, and then talk about gang culture. Whenever I compare anyone to monkeys, I want to be sure you understand that I am comparing all of us, including myself, to monkeys. The article has implications for allhuman cultures. This blog post just makes a point about gang culture.

In fact, as I hope to make the point, “gang” culture is just a byproduct of normal human behavior. “Gang members” are no different, in that respect, than any other human being on the face of this planet.

Another implication of pointing this out is to show that the term “gang members” is something of a pejorative term — at least when used by those who are not members of identified “gangs” — that really just describes people doing what people (and possibly monkeys, whales, and other animals, even birds and guppies, but, again, see Laland and Hoppitt) always do: we socialize with those most like us who happen to be geographically close to us. “Gang members,” as I said, are no different than anyone else; referencing people specifically as “gang members,” really only serves a political purpose.

So, on to the monkeys.

The article starts off by pointing out that:

If you are eating lunch in Pittsburgh or Dallas, you might grab a sandwich and a Snapple to go. But should you get transferred to Paris, you will probably eat like the French: multicourse sit-down lunches plus a glass of wine.

The study of the monkeys piqued my interest because of what it said about how behaviors might develop, how they are connected (to some extent) to a social environment, and how they might be mitigated, or not. In other words, it’s about culture. As Laland and Hoppit (Edit 12/2015: Link broken.) explain:

Cultures are those group-typical behavior patterns shared by members of a community that rely on socially learned and transmitted information.

And cultures, even more quickly than biological organisms that swim in them, evolve.

So if you haven’t read the article yet, it involved a study where monkeys were offered corn to eat which had been colored either blue or pink. For some groups of monkeys, the blue corn was “flavored” in a way they didn’t like, so they would prefer the pink corn; for other groups, the pink was made to taste bad, so they’d prefer blue. After awhile, though, the experimenters quit flavoring the corn, so either color would have been good to eat. Some of the monkeys were then moved from one group to the other.

The experiment revealed the following:

  • Even after the experimenters quit coloring the corn, the monkeys that had learned to prefer blue corn continued to prefer blue corn, and did not eat pink corn. And, of course, the opposite was true for the monkeys that had been taught to prefer pink corn.
  • Baby monkeys, without getting the same “training” — in other words, they were born after the experimenters quit making one color of corn taste bad — preferred whatever color corn their mothers ate; hence, whatever color was preferred within their group.
  • If you moved monkeys from a group that preferred one color of corn to one that preferred the other, they switched their own preferences to match the group.

Most importantly,

“We long believed that cultural transmission was important,” said Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University who did not take part in the study. “But I never thought it would be at the scale where the results would be so strong.”

This has interesting implications when talking about gangs.

“Gang members,” as I mentioned above, are just people who belong to certain groups of humans. In that sense, there’s nothing “special” about being a gang member.

“Gang member” is merely a label we’ve placed on certain individuals with a particular culture that differs from the more dominant, more privileged cultures. It doesn’t have so much to do with the culture and behaviors, though, of “gang members,” as it has to do with a pejorative political value judgment that deliberately devalues its targets. This devaluation is usually based on ethnicity and poverty. In the case of primarily “white” gangs, such as white supremacist groups, it is sometimes actually based solely on criminality. But most white gangs are given a pass because — did I mention they’re white?

What, what?

The legal criteria that is utilized to determine whether or not a particular person is a “gang member,” or a particular group is a “gang” — which is technically not a correct term, since what we really mean by it these days is “criminal street gang” — is such that, if it were evenhandedly applied, would sweep in a large number of groups, and not just what we typically think of as criminal gangs. Despite what the courts have said, if California law were applied to the LAPD in exactly the same fashion as it is applied to, say, the Norteños or the Sureños, the LAPD would absolutely be deemed to be a criminal street gang.[1]

As, Darius, an 11-year-old gang member put it:

Everyone belongs to a gang — the LAPD and the Bloods and Crips and even the fuckin’ Boy Scouts, there’s no differences. We all the same.[2]

Just look at the Bird Rock Bandits (Update 9/26/2016: link broken):

The case grabbed the public’s attention locally and nationally, in part because the District Attorney’s Office attached gang allegations to the murder charges, which increased the potential punishments significantly.

That sparked a debate over whether the young men, most of whom came from the affluent beach community, were gang members.

A judge determined the group did not fit the gang definition under state law.

I followed that case when it happened, and as best I can tell, just as the judge in People v. Gamez decided the LAPD couldn’t be gang members because they were cops, the judge for the Bird Rock Bandits decided the definition did not fit because the Bird Rock Bandits were rich white kids.

One might have been able to argue the judge was right because of the “primary activities” requirement of California Penal Code section 186.22(f), but if they had been poor brown, or black, kids, instead of rich white kids, in practice — that is, as applied in our courts these days — this barrier would have been virtually non-existent. A “gang expert” would have fixed things up quite nicely by testifying that he was an expert on the Bird Rock Bandits, and knew their primary activities to include assaults, intimidation of witnesses, or whatever minimal thing he could argue with an almost-straight face, whether he really knew such things, or not.

Members of so-called “criminal street gangs” actually may tend slightly more towards criminality these days. If they do, it’s because of a variant on self-fulfilling prophecy. Cops label some group — say, the Parkside Bulldogs — as a criminal street gang. That may presumably cause some individuals living in “Parkside” territory to not join Parkside; it may presumably cause others, already predisposed to criminality, to join Parkside.

But note the wiggle words I’ve used there. I used them because I know a little bit about Parkside. I happen to know that many Parksiders are just otherwise ordinary people, mostly law-abiding, who happen to live in Parkside territory. They are not criminals, but they associate, identify, or are outright members — complete with tattoos — of the Parkside Bulldogs. The ones I know well have no — or, in some cases, minimal — criminal records. They’re just people living in a particular neighborhood, struggling to figure out how to survive, bring home enough food for everyone, fill their car with gas so they can get their kids to school and themselves to work, and raise their kids to stay out of trouble and maybe do better than they did.

But I’ve also seen what happens when one of them — one of those with a minimal juvenile, but no adult, criminal history — becomes a victim of a crime. I’ve been there, trying to get the police interested. I stood by, while the police chewed out the victim.

In that particular case, the individual was the victim of violence and property damage that required the car to be towed for repairs. I was there, as a friend, to help. So rattled was the person that the individual (I’m deliberately avoiding identifying information here) grabbed a drink to calm nerves. Contrary to showing any concern, the first officer on the scene, having already questioned me for being there,[3] berated the victim. The victim’s story was doubted and the victim was taken to task for drinking.

“Who’s going to pick up your kid from school?” (The kid was due to get out about an hour later.) I interjected, “That’s why I’m here. The victim has no car now. You took so long to get here, that we had to have it towed. But we have pictures.”

The officer shot me a dirty look. Not only had I just accused her of being slow to respond, I had interrupted her humiliation of the victim.

Ultimately, nothing was ever done about the person who committed the act of violence. Despite my telling the officer where video likely could be obtained which would identify the attacker, the police department never even tried to obtain it.[4]

It is in this type of environment, exposed to this “blue corn,” if you will, that Parkside Bulldogs learn to avoid the blue, and stick with the red.

To the extent that criminality is evidenced — in the form of assaults, and even more violent drive-bys — the cops bear more responsibility than anyone. On the day of the incident I just recounted, I mostly tried to stay out of it because I felt it was not my place to protect the Parksider. The Parksider was not a child, and I felt it would be patronizing for me to step in. I stood by only as a friend, to provide a ride. But what I observed helped me see what the Parksider had learned from childhood: when it comes to minorities living in poor neighborhoods, the police are not friends.

This is what they have been taught: The blue corn is to be avoided. Justice must come some other way.

In other words, Parkside exists because its members must take care of themselves.

Maybe you, my readers, have a hard time getting my point here, and maybe, like the police officer above, you can’t empathize or sympathize because the victim here was, after all, a Parkside Bulldog, a member of a “criminal street gang.”

But I can tell you that I know that Parkside Bulldog member well. That Parkside Bulldog member has no adult criminal record. That Parkside member does have a juvenile record, but that just comes with constant exposure to oppressive policing and the sad beliefs that kids have about concepts of fairness and a desire to be treated as a human being, and I can assure you it is minimal. The concerns of that Parkside Bulldog are the same as yours, or mine: How do I feed my family? How do I protect my property? How do I have a nice home? How do I get my kids an education?

And maybe a few things you and I never think about: How do I survive? How do I avoid getting swept up in an arrest because of the color of my skin and where I live? How do I keep from getting shot — either by people more criminally-minded than me, or by the police? (Oops. Maybe I’m being redundant there.)

I know because we discuss these things often.

In my experience — and I’ve years of it now, defending “gang members” in court, hanging out with “gang members” who have become friends, or going to certain functions where there are “gang members” because I know they’re going to need attorneys someday, and I want them to think of me — a large number of gang members are like the Parkside Bulldog I described above.

But they’ve been taught the hard way to avoid the blue corn, and anyone in their position would. Yet the need for safety and “justice” — which the police try to turn into some twisted gang-polluted need for “protection” or “respect” — still exists.

And if you’ve been taught that you can’t trust the blue corn, you have to go with red.

Until the rest of us accept that this is the reality society — that us; that’s you; that’s me — has forced upon “gang members,” we will not do what needs to be done — we won’t beable to do what needs to be done — for recovery.

  1. People v. Gamez, 235 Cal. App. 3d 957, 970-971, 286 Cal. Rptr. 894 (1991), overruled on other grounds at People v. Gardeley, 14 Cal. 4th 605, 624, 59 Cal. Rptr. 2d 356 (1996). [↩]
  2. Jorja Leap, Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption (2012), loc 1395 (Kindle on iPad). [↩]
  3. “What are you doing here?” was asked in a tone that clearly indicated a belief that my mere presence signaled a problem for the victim. [↩]
  4. The victim and I went a day or so later to the place I’d suggested, and saw the video. We then re-informed the police department, but the video was never picked up. No prosecution ever followed. [↩]