Over the years, I've had the opportunity to view the nation's gang culture through different lenses. I've spoken with middle and high school students who were immersed in the gang life; listened to a father reflect on the day he lost his son to gang-related violence; and have witnessed city officials and law enforcement announce gang injunctions on neighborhoods known to boast a high volume of gang activity. Additionally, I've had conversations with gang members who said they didn't choose their lifestyle, but simply became products of their environment as well as former gang members who are now using their influence to motivate and enlighten impressionable youth.
My conversation with Alex Alonso was the first time I spoke with someone who has dedicated their life to documenting the evolution of gangs. In the '90s, Alex created StreetGangs.com, a site he uses to showcase gang research, interview gang members from a myriad of sets and spread awareness of societal issues impacting many, mainly minorities, nationwide.
I talked with Alex about his fascination with gang culture and how Street Gangs came about. Alex reflected on his most memorable interviews to date, shared some of the biggest misconceptions about gang members and gave me a history lesson on gang culture. Peep the interview below.
I read that you came up on the East Coast.
Yeah, I was born in the Bronx's McKinley Projects and partially upstate New York with some small stints in Puerto Rico. During the first 10 years of my life, I was in pretty much all those areas — the Bronx, upstate New York, Puerto Rico and New Jersey. A lot of my family moved to New Jersey. I spent a lot of time in New Jersey, which is just across the river [from New York]. And I spent a lot of time in the Bronx around the Grand Concourse. Although I was born in the South Bronx, my identity is more so the part of the Bronx on the Grand Concourse around 117th Street. I had a lot of upbringing in that area. Around the early '80s is when I came out to Los Angeles to spend time with my father. My parents had just parted around that time. I was around 12 years old. My dad decided to move to Los Angeles because he was involved in the entertainment business. So, I decided to leave New York and come to LA. I think it was 7th grade when I came. I went to middle school here in Los Angeles; that’s where I got introduced to gang culture. At the time, I was in New York, which was the '80s, gangs were not as prominent. In the early-to-mid '70s, gangs were kind of fading away in New York. There were gangs like the Savage Skulls, which were a popular gang in the Bronx. By the time I got to the age of nine, 10, they were kind of played out, so I didn't really get to see all of that gang culture in New York. When I came to LA, it was kind of new to me. I was like, ’This is interesting. What’s going on here?’ But if I was born a little earlier, I probably would have seen all of it, because New York went through its own gang-banging phase throughout the 1970s.
What part of LA did you come up in when you moved there?
When I first got to LA, I lived in an area called Midwilsure. It was kind of back and forth between Midwilsure and the West Adams part of South LA.
What types of gangs were prevalent in your area during that time?
When I got to middle school, which was John Burroughs Middle School, it was like every single gang. I had friends that were 18th Street, Mid-City Stoners, Harpers, Bloods from Black P. Stones, but probably the most predominant gang at the time was the Mansfield Crips. At that time they weren't even called Crips, they were called Mansfield Hustlers. But they already had that Crip persona, saying ‘Cuz’ and wearing blue. There were at least 20 gangs represented at John Burroughs when I was there those three years. Here’s the irony of it. I have three kids now and all three of them went to the same middle school that I went to; it looks like no gangs are being represented at that school now.
| || |
Yeah, I think a lot of us males go through that because during those years we’re searching for an identity. No matter how smart you think you are, at age 12, 13, 14, you haven't figured out who you are yet. So many of us are dabbling with it a little bit. Many of our friends have already made that commitment. And there have been times when I thought it was really cool and alluring and magnetic, but I had a very strong military father. I made it through those years unscathed. I’ve never been shot. I’ve never been stabbed. I got bruised up a couple of times along the years. I graduated from high school, then I ended up going to University of Southern California. Unfortunately, a lot of the youth who are going through the same things might not have that strong father at home or may not have had education instilled in them at a young age. I was a little bit more fortunate, but it could have went left for me, easily. But I had a few things going for me to where I was able to stay on the straight and narrow.
Was it during your time at the University of Southern California that you started researching gang culture?
I sure did, well, I would say seriously. Throughout my whole middle school and high school years, I would say I was actually doing research on gangs but not really realizing I was doing it. I always gravitated towards the gang members. I always made the gang members my friends. I never ostracized them. I never judged them, and I was fascinated with the culture. It’s probably because I have a family that’s from the streets. My dad is from the streets. He grew up in the streets in New York, and my dad’s brothers and my mom’s brothers, they’re all from the streets. Meeting cats from the streets that were in gangs was not a big deal to me. I kind of gravitated toward them, especially when I got in high school. And being that I had a very strong father and uncle that were from the streets, they taught me the game. I wasn't the type of guy that was going to get bullied. I was never a punk. I was never a coward, so they accepted me, too, as a friend.
Throughout my middle school and high school years, I was always taking notes in my mind: ‘This gang is doing this. They have gangs in this part of LA and that’s interesting. Oh, the Salvadorians are forming gangs over here; the Mexicans are fighting with them.’ I’m doing all of this, sort of, quasi-research while I’m in high school. When I get to USC, I’m still undeclared. I don't know what my major is going to be, and I read in the catalog that professor Malcolm Klein is teaching a gang class. I was like, ‘This can’t be real. He’s teaching a gang class at an university?’ So I went and introduced myself to the professor. Right then and there is when I realized this is what I want to do. He showed me a couple articles that he wrote. He showed me a couple books. Eventually, he hired me to be one of his assistants. When I met Malcolm Klein my junior year at USC, that’s when I realized this is what I want to do. Not too long after I met him, I met professor James Diego Vigil, who was also teaching a gang class at USC, but he was an anthropologist. I went to him, and he was Mexican; Malcolm Klein was white. Though I met Malcolm Klein first, I became much closer to James Diego Vigil. These guys were celebrities to me. ‘You guys are writing books on gangs, teaching classes on gangs. This is exactly what I want to do.’ And that’s what started it, my junior year at USC.
What was the next step?
The next step was just trying to operationalize my research into something legitimate, making it something that would be incredible to read and adds value to the research that already exists. I just started to learn how to write. That’s pretty much the main thing. I wasn't a good writer. It took me until 1998. I met Malcom Klein and James Diego Vigil in, like, ’93, ’94. it was another four years before I wrote my first published article. I wrote an article about the LA riots, and I think that came out in 1998. I also published an article on gang graffiti in 1998. What I did to start to prepare for that is start to attend academic conferences. I was part of the American Association of Geographers, the American Society of Criminology and the American Sociological Association. Just going to the conferences, listening to people present their research, and then figuring out how I can do that same thing...I started doing that, and then I was able to publish in the late ‘90s.
Back then, did the thought of how to monetize your work cross your mind?
No, not at that time. It was the ‘90s. I wasn't thinking about monetization. When I was a junior at USC the internet was one year old — the wave of using a browser. Of course, the military had the internet in the '60s. But in terms of the way we see it today; the first web browser came out in ’93, it was called Netscape. This whole idea of the internet and the way we look at things today, it didn't even exist in our world as college students in the ‘90s. I mean, my Youtube channel just started making money, like, three years ago, and I’ve been doing this for 15 years. So, naw, I wasn't thinking about that. My goal was to graduate form USC and get a job and then figure it out after that. That’s exactly what I did. I graduated from USC. I got a job working as a geographic information systems analyst. I used to analyze satellite imagery. I did it my senior year, and after I graduated I did it for another two years. After that, I went to Grad School. That’s when I decided I’m about to really study gangs, and I wrote a master’s thesis on the Bloods and the Crips. It came out in 1999. It is heavily cited. A lot of people have read it. That’s how I got my master’s degree.
| || |
To keep it simple, I decided to map out the Crips and Bloods. I went out in the field and mapped out every Crip and Blood gang in LA County. And then I was able to compare my map to another map that was made in 1982, and then I found another map that was made in 1978 and another map that was made in ’72. I had four different years of territories for gangs in LA — ’72, ’78, ’82 and mine which was ’99. I analyzed the growth of these gangs over these four periods and wrote about it. It was called “Territoriality Among African-American Street Gangs in Los Angeles.” It was a very geographic-oriented thesis where I looked at where they formed, what direction it moved in, territory size, expansion, and I just basically gave a history of growth from the ‘70s to the ‘90s.
Which gang would you say has the dominant presence in LA?
I would say no gang really has a dominant presence. There are these myths of certain gangs seeming to have more control and more dominance over other gangs. I think it’s certain individuals that take upon a dominant position. Sometimes, there might be one guy that becomes really dominant, one guy that’s doing something that’s elevating his status, either by selling a whole lot of drugs and making a whole lot of money or just being ultra-violent. I look at it as more individualistic as opposed to the whole gang because every gang in LA has got many members. And I learned early on not to define the gang as a whole by the actions of just a few. I never pick and choose which gangs are stronger or dominant or more violent or less violent because it’s really about individuals.
I used the wrong words. I meant in terms of territory.
Oh, in terms of geographically? We can look at gangs in two ways in terms of that question. We can look at it geographically, how much space they occupy and the membership size of that gang as well. In terms of turf, I would say the Eight Tray Gangsters, which is a Crip gang right in the middle of South LA. They have a huge part of real estate in South LA. They have one of the longest north-south distances, going from, like, 66th Street to the North almost all the way to Century to the South. Century would be 100th Street, basically. That’s close to 40 blocks, which is huge for any gang in LA. It’s probably the hugest gang territory in all of the state. On the Latino side, there’s also a gang that is pretty much the same size, maybe a little bigger, not too far from [the Eight Tray Gangsters] called Florencia 13. They’re located in an unincorporated part of South LA called Florence. They’ve got a huge area in that area. I would say Florence 13 and the Eight Tray Gangsters in South LA are amongst the biggest gangs geographically. Now, when it comes to membership, that’s anybody’s guess. Nobody knows how many members are in a gang. They don't even know. Some of these members are really transitory. They come in, bang for a year, quit. Some guys stay, some go to jail, some guys leave and might come back.
How did Street Gangs come about?
I created Street Gangs when I was in undergrad. It was actually created my senior year at USC, which would have been ’95. The way I did it was, I created an university server. We had an assignment. USC was cutting edge at the time. We were one of the first schools to have email, internet. That [provided students with the opportunity to] learn through online. There was a class I was taking in ’95 that was about the internet. Everyone in the class didn't have a clue of what it was about. We were like, ‘What the hell is the internet?’ By the end of the semester, we had an understanding of what a website was, a grasp of the internet and how it functioned. Now, our job was to contribute to that and create a website. This professor was telling us, ‘The internet is going to be the future and you guys are going to be part of it, and it’s up to you to figure out what your contribution is going to be.’ We thought the man was going crazy. His name was Professor Girchen Connor. I told him I wanted to do a website on gangs. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I created my gang website in the spring of 1995 on a university server. The page blew up. It go so many hits. In ’95, it started to really gain popularity. Then I moved it to its own domain name in ’98. I purchased StreetGangs.com in ’98, and I took everything off the USC server and put it on my own server.
When did you start shooting interviews of gang members? Did that begin around the same time you purchased the domain name?
Before I purchased the domain name in ’98, I was videotaping gang members with a cheap camcorder, with not even a good understanding of how to frame people, the camera shaking and moving and audio terrible. I look at some of my very, very old clips and they’re terrible. I actually have an old clip on my YouTube channel. The best old clip that I have is of a guy from 99 Wats Mafia Crips. The video got over 1 million views. That video was shot in ’98. That one came out decent enough for me to post it. But I was doing that probably two or three years before ’98. I’ll say, maybe around ’95 or ’96, I was attempting to videotape people. I didn't know anything about shooting. I didn't know anything about camera equipment. I was just learning.
It happens in many different kinds of ways. The very first way I used to do it, I used to interview guys that I personally knew in the early days. Then I realized that guys I knew, it got a little bit — it was too close to home. I really didn't want to interview my friends, because they didn't like the way it came out. I didn’t want a problem. I didn't want to offend a friend. Then I started to drive to different neighborhoods and meet complete strangers, telling them who I am and what I wanted to do. This was the late ‘90s. A lot of guys were thinking I was crazy. ‘Why do you want to interview me?’ I would just say, ‘Hey, I’m fascinated with your story and, unlike other researchers, I want to video-document it.’ That was my first way of doing it. Going out to neighborhoods, driving around and seeing people on the streets, getting out and talking to them, which is pretty crazy to do but I did it because I was desperate. I met a lot of people that way. Then, in the early 2000s, Myspace came out. A lot of my early interviews that are dated around that same period were guys I was looking up on MySpace. I was like, ‘Okay, this is much easier than driving out to neighborhoods. I can find guys on MySpace.’ Now, it’s all about Instagram. I just go on Instagram; I don't have to look for people. My inbox is full of guys saying, ‘Hey, come interview me.’ I check them and just start picking at random. I’m not looking for any particular person, the hardest or craziest guy. I’m just looking for anyone who’s comfortable with being in front of a camera and doesn't mind telling their story. If you have a story to tell, your struggle is just as important as the next man’s struggle.
What's some of the wildest things you've experienced interviewing gang members?
Man, I’ve seen it all. Without giving anything specific, one time I interviewed a dude, and right after the interview was over, about five or six of his friends pretty much stomped him out right in the middle of the street. I felt real bad because I heard them saying, ‘You shouldn't have brought cameras on this block.’ And I had a little crew with me, who I felt I had to protect. I told them to rush to the car and let me handle this. For them to witness that, they never seen anyone get beat up before. I didn't feel like I went through anything crazy, but to have two other people going through that, I felt a little uncomfortable with it. But, yeah, over the years, there have been all kind of incidents that happened. I’ve had people in the middle of an interview, and other people might come to the interview and see it and start saying, ‘Who let this guy over here?’ All that going back and forth. That’s going to happen. When you’re dealing with the streets, anything can happen. It’s a very spontaneous environment. I know that when I go to interview someone anything can happen, but 99.9 percent of the time everything runs smooth. It’s usually a great experience, but there will be those bumps in the road. We’re dealing with alpha males, and a lot of people are a little reluctant when they don't know you personally. There’s places that I’ve shot that cameras have never been. You can’t take cameras to the Pueblo del Rio housing project. I did. You can’t take cameras to the Nickerson Gardens projects. I’ve done that multiple times. The more I do this the easier it’s become, but you still have to understand there will be a level of spontaneity, and you’ve got to be prepared for it. It was probably more dangerous for me in the beginning when no one knew who I was. Just about everyone knows who I am now, and I can pretty much go wherever.
You've interviewed gang members who've been shot multiple times, are paralyzed, did extensive prison bids, may have had relatives or kids shot on their behalf, etc. Highlighting that, are there any interviews that, to you, stand out from the bunch?
Some of the most shocking things and disturbing things, I never post. I’ll give you one example. I shot an 8-year-old that was out on the block, part of a gang, hanging out with guys who were in their late teens and early 20s. You’ll hear about the young age that gang members started. You hear guys say, ‘Yeah, I started when I was 12. I started when I was 11.' You may get 10 every once in a while. But when I saw this kid, I said, ‘How old are you, young man?’ He told me he was eight years old. I said, ‘You’re by far the youngest kid I’ve ever seen in the streets like this.’ I couldn't post it. That right there; it’s hard to sleep at night because you’re thinking about this 8-year-old kid. That pretty much stands out, but all my interviews are pretty amazing to me. I think interviewing Kilroy, formerly of the Mexican Mafia, that one was a tough one to get going. I was able to get him to do an interview about it. That one is a very popular interview, and I enjoyed hearing his story. He’s 70-something years old. He spent 40 years in prison. He’s one of the co-founders of the Mexican Mafia, which is one of the most powerful prison gangs, and this guy sat down with me to do an interview. When I left, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I just interviewed a founder of the Mexican Mafia.’ There are so many videos that stand out. Some of them I haven’t posted, most of them I do. And I’m always thinking that the next one I do is going to be more incredible.
| || |
Before I state any differences, I will say that there are surprisingly very similar, in terms of their experience, family background, communities that they live, and some of the structural problems that exist in their communities such as poverty, low education, lack of good schools, so on and so forth. Whether you’re a Cambodian in Long Beach or you’re a black dude in South LA or Mexican in the Valley or Salvadorian guy in the Pico-Union area, your personal experiences are going to parallel each other more than they’re going to be different. Most gang members go through the same thing, even historically. When you look at the old gangs in the early part of our country, during the 1800s, the Irish immigrants, the Jewish immigrants, the Italians, they pretty much had an American experience that’s similar to what blacks, Mexicans, El Salvadorians, Puerto Ricans, Cambodians are experiencing today. I say that there are far more similarities than differences, but there are some differences, of course, culturally. Hanging out with Cambodians in Long Beach is very interesting. Their parents have this very religious, Buddhist, Asian connection. A lot of the guys have these tattoos related to their Southeast Asian roots. They speak their own language. In Long Beach, they have a community called Cambodia Town. And if you go to the Mexicans, they have their culture. Really, this is part of what Mexico was back in the day before it was California. You have generations of Mexican influence in Los Angeles. You have their language, food and traditions. And when it comes to black, it’s very interesting. Like, half the blacks that bang Crip or Blood in South LA have Belizean roots that no one talks about. Belize is a predominantly black country in Central America that speaks English. Most of all your gangs on the West Side of South LA are Belizean: the Harlem Crips, Rollin 20s Bloods, Rollin 40s Crips, the UNT Bloods, some of the Eight Tray Gangsters, all of the Neighborhood Crips in the 50s, the Hoovers, the 59 Hoovers, 52 Hoovers, 84 Hoovers and 74 Hoovers. Half of those gangs are all Belizean, but when you meet the guys out in the street, out in public, they give you their typical black American persona. When you go home and hang out with them and their family, you get to see, ‘Oh, your parents are not even from here. You’re Belizean.’ Belizeans are a bigger part of black gang culture than people even realize today.
What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions about gang members?
That they’re all violent. The police narrative and media narrative is that if you’re in a gang, you’re automatically a violent offender. And surprisingly, the majority of gang members are not violent. The majority of gang members aren't shooters. The majority of gang members don’t peddle drugs, and the majority of them aren't even good fighters. It’s the minority of them. The image of these few guys have painted a mainstream narrative of what a gang member is, so that’s one of the biggest misconceptions. I’m actually writing a video right now, “The 10 Biggest Gang Myths,” and that will be one of them, that they’re not all violent.
Aside from running Street Gangs, you’re a college professor at California State University, Long Beach.
Yes, I am now a college professor, and I actually wrote a gang class. I was so fascinated with back in the ‘90s and Malcom Klein, when he was teaching his gang class. More than 20 years later, I’m teaching the class.
What I really want to accomplish is writing my first book. I have published articles. I have published chapters in books, but one of my goals is to write a complete book on gangs. That’s a goal that’s a couple years away. In terms of what’s immediately next, I’m going to keep pushing out my content. I really want to make my channel an international platform. I have been venturing out to different cities now. I just want to stay current, relevant with all the new technologies and keep the channel popping.