Friday, November 15, 2019

Do or Die: Léon Bing and the Allure of Violence

Another day, another shooting rampage. As I write this, folks are recoiling in horror from a school shooting in suburban Los Angeles. But the public anguish won’t last long: these shootings have become so commonplace that no one pays more than momentary attention, even though what was once an inner-city gang phenomenon has evolved into long-wolf attacks in the suburbs. How did this happen, and why? I’m sure Léon Bing has an opinion.

Léon Bing is full of surprises. First of all, she’s female. As a top fashion model—someone who posed on the cover of Time magazine in a Vidal Sassoon haircut and a micro-mini designed by Rudi Gernreich—she should have retired to a life in some opulent penthouse. Instead, Bing turned to journalism, and her first published book was a 1991 best-seller. Called Do or Die, it’s an inside look at life in L.A.’s most notorious street gangs. With courage and no lack of chutzpah, Bing went out and befriended members of the Crips and the Bloods, visiting them in their homes, on their streets, and in prison. Her no-bullshit first-person account of their conversations reveals what poverty, aimlessness, and a desperate need for belonging can do to young men (and women) of color. It’s a solid little book: frank, instructive, and more than a bit frightening.

The gang members about whom Bing writes, though certainly picturesque, do not leap and pirouette down city streets à la West Side Story.  They’re tough customers who skip school, deal dope, steal cars, and wreak bloody revenge on their numerous enemies. They also adhere to strict codes of behavior that govern all their interactions with others.  They know full well that a simple transgression like walking down the wrong street or wearing the wrong colors can mean death, and that their families are hardly immune from payback.

One thing I picked up from Do or Die is the impact of movies on gang behavior. A young Crip named G-Roc lectured Bing on the impact of a 1988 Hollywood film called Colors, directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall. Colors has been described this way: “An experienced cop and his rookie partner patrol the streets of East Los Angeles while trying to keep the gang violence under control.”  In G-Roc’s terms  (and I apologize for his language choices), Colors was an incitement to violence among the young gangsters it intended to portray: “Lemme tell you, girl, that was some dangerous shit in that movie. That shit just fired niggers up. Niggers saw that shit, they went out there just straight for the kill. You know, like no mercy whatsoever for anybody. That shit was just a green light to kill or be killed.” And why was Colors such a motivator? Because gang members found it fake, and were determined to show what real gang behavior was all about.

Late in her book, Bing recounts her visit to Monster Kody in Soledad Prison. Kody has been away from the streets long enough to become a kind of philosopher, sorting through the attractions of gangbanging: “It’s a dashing, exciting game of cat and mouse with your own life . . .  You do things you’ve seen other people do. You try to get out of your car like Warren Beatty did in Bonnie and Clyde.” When you shoot someone, “it all becomes scenes from movies—you’re doin’ James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson.”  So gangbangers in their own way become movie stars. And star-power, alas, now seems to be motivating other young people to seal their reputations through violence.

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