The Myth of the Super-Predator

The Execution of Stanley Tookie Williams cannot be allowed to drown out his message: We need to find alternatives to the "embedded sense of self-hate" that propels so many inner-city youth to lash out in killing sprees.

Yet history shows that Los Angeles may not be prepared to listen. In the wake of the 1992 Crips-Bloods truce, which Williams promoted from death row, gang violence in L.A. declined by half. Five years later, The Times reported that "police and residents of Watts confirm that gang-on-gang slayings over emotional issues of turf boundaries or gang clothing have virtually disappeared."

But there was no peace dividend, and the truce eventually dwindled, though it never completely died. The plan to privatize urban reconstruction after the 1992 riots -- the Rebuild LA initiative that promised $6 billion in private investment to create 74,000 new jobs in five years in the riot zone -- was a sham that closed down a few years later. The riot zone lost 50,000 jobs in that decade. In the vacuum, youthful rage exploded again in gang warfare.

Around that time, conservatives such as William Bennett and James Q. Wilson began attaching the label of "super-predator" to all the Tookie wannabes. Their notion seemed to be that a fixed percentage of kids were natural-born killers who just couldn't be helped by better schools or jobs -- a neo-Darwinian philosophy that fit neatly with the de-industrialization and budget cuts that swept across inner cities like chain saws through old-growth forests.

The super-predator thesis justified the most massive prison expansion in American history, with its epicenter in California, where there were about 150,000 inmates in any given year, two-thirds of them reputed gang members. Prosecutors and politicians pursued the vertical model of the 1920s, going after the alleged godfathers, but in fact the new gangs were replenishing themselves from the outcast underclass. Last year in Los Angeles, there were 93,000 youths between 18 and 24 who were out of school and out of work. Statewide, the number was 638,000.

How is the city of L.A. addressing the gang problem? The city budget reveals that the priority is to suppress and incarcerate, not to turn troubled lives around. Fifty-five million dollars go to LAPD gang suppression efforts, a token $12 million to prevention programs for little kids, and a bare $2 million for intervention programs meant to channel teenagers away from violent paths.

To turn from the treadmill of violence to the path of peace, we must:

  • Understand that gang members are traumatized veterans of street wars, not Satan's agents or incorrigible psychopaths. There must be a massive expansion of rehabilitation and empowerment programs along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, with participation by ex-gang members who command respect. Those who insist on waiting for a sanitized messenger will wait in vain.
  • Reform of punitive police and prison policies that breed lawlessness on the street. Inner-city youth feel that they are targeted, that humiliation is intended against them and that the criminal justice system is based on a double standard. This week, it was reported that the L.A. district attorney who led the charge against Williams has not brought a single criminal charge in 442 cases of police shootings since 2001. This -- along with the use of untrustworthy police informants such as those who helped convict Williams -- can't help but make young people on the streets of South-Central L.A. cynical about criminal justice.
  • Recognize that we have a crisis of exclusion and structural unemployment that renders countless young people hopeless, powerless, helpless, rootless and meaningless, in the analysis of former gang-member-turned-author Luis Rodriguez. Government always has a role to play when the market fails. California taxpayers already contribute $6 billion to the state's prison system -- but virtually nothing to jobs in the inner city.

Spectacular executions can divert people's attention from their government's failings and crimes. And it's easier to scapegoat the super-predator than the superpower. But, unlike the white ethnic gang culture of yesterday, for which there is widespread nostalgia in film and on TV, the only doors that are opening for the new generations of street gangs are those of the prison system. A country that fails to provide living wages for so many of its young is more committed to its present privileges than its future potential. To avoid the message, it thinks it can kill the messenger. But I believe Tookie Williams has eluded his tormenters. His legend and message are understood around the world. Sooner or later, attention will be paid.

Tom Hayden interviewed Stanley Tookie Williams at San Quentin in 2002.

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