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A political history of street gangs

Review by Sarah Grey | February 16, 2007 | Page 13

Bastards of the Party, a documentary by Cle Sloan, HBO Documentaries, check local listings.

BASTARDS OF the Party--a documentary by Cle "Bone" Sloan, a former member of the Athens Park Bloods--traces the political history of African American street gangs in Los Angeles.

The film's title is from a passage in City of Quartz, radical urban historian Mike Davis' book that Sloan credits with inspiring the film. In the book, Davis refers to the Crips and Bloods gangs as the "bastard children of the Black Panther Party," though Sloan's history stretches back to the Reconstruction era.

Sloan traces the evolution of violence by whites against Blacks and the forms of Black self-defense that evolved by interviewing current and former gang members, Black Panthers and historians, including Davis.

Sloan shows why the LAPD's racist reputation has deep historical roots. In the late 1940s, LA's police commissioner campaigned to recruit police officers from the Deep South. Any white Southern man with a military background had a job waiting for him in Los Angeles, and the city deliberately developed a staunchly racist police force.

In the meantime, economic and political shifts forced a certain measure of desegregation in LA's neighborhoods. White neighborhoods reacted violently to the small numbers of African American families moving in, and there was a rash of beatings and killings of Black youths by white gangs--Black newspapers from the time show the police looking on in approval.

Young Black men began to form their own groups for self-defense. The police force looked on this as a threat and began a campaign of repression that went on for years and culminated in the Watts rebellion of 1965. While the Watts riots are often portrayed as instances of senseless violence and looting, Sloan paints a picture of organized uprising and the expression of Black anger against a racist police force.

He then traces the history of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense's rise in political prominence and as the heart of Black self-organization. "In those days, if your husband was gonna hit you, you didn't say 'I'm going to call the police,'" a woman says. "You said, 'I'm going to call the Black Panthers.'"

The Party organized breakfast programs, sickle cell testing, political education, food pantries and revolution--much to the alarm of the FBI. Sloan explains the history of COINTELPRO, the FBI's anti-Left sabotage program, and shows (through an interview with a retired agent who participated in COINTELPRO) how the Panthers and its rival, the Us Organization, were pitted against one another and eventually undone by the FBI's relentless attacks.

In the 1970s, as the Black Panthers declined, the problems of self-organization and self-defense remained. Black youth, inspired by the Panthers' example, began their own organizations, the most influential of which was the Crips--an acronym that initially stood for "Community Revolutionary Inter-Party Service," though in a series of political arguments the "Revolutionary" was replaced with "Reform."

The Crips had a political orientation and constitution based on the Panthers, however, the political collapse of the left meant the Crips were under attack and without direction. And as the manufacturing economy collapsed, jobs for semi-skilled laborers disappeared, and Black men were left with few alternatives. As rival gangs began to spring up, and popular culture portrayed them as an apolitical way to get rich, the situation declined.

Sloan does a brilliant job tracing the political origins of the drug crisis in the 1980s--from the CIA to Nicaragua to South Central--and is unrelenting in his indictment of the police. He interviews experts who explain how the police benefit from the existence of gang violence, which brings them equipment, federal funding, sympathy from the media and a free hand to be as repressive as they like.

He intersperses shots of police "gang sweeps" in South Central with shots of soldiers patrolling the peasants of Vietnam. As the movie draws to a close, Sloan focuses on the human cost of the continued violence and broken truces.

The last few minutes of the movie features clips of Sloan wrestling with his own conscience over the course of several interviews--the son of his closest friend has been killed, and despite his political commitment to stopping the violence, he wants to kill out of a sense of loyalty. He ends with a roll call of those he knows or has met during filming who have been cut down young.

No two-hour documentary can fully cover such a broad topic. The effects of welfare reform and the draconian "criminal justice" reforms of the Clinton era are not explored, and the voices of women are largely absent.

That said, Bastards of the Party is a remarkably thorough documentary that sheds light on a part of history that has been ignored. Sloan is a gifted interviewer who allows his subjects' voices to narrate most of the film, and he conveys complex political ideas in a concise, accessible way.

It's worth watching--and take Sloan's advice and read Davis' City of Quartz for even more depth on this topic.

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