Luis Rodriguez joined an East Los Angeles street gang when he was just 11 years old. After living a tumultuous life that involved numerous arrests, drug use and a stint being homeless, which he documents in his memoir “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” he turned away from the violent life, becoming a respected activist and community leader. He also began working as a journalist for various newspapers in California and became the editor of the People’s Tribune, a radical newspaper that covered labor issues, homelessness and the arts.
The highly praised author of both poetry and nonfiction is an outspoken critic of more conventional lock-’em-all-up approaches to combating gangs, which Rodriguez says are shortsighted and make the problem worse. Rodriguez says that we are in an age of gang globalization that is being driven by policies in the U.S.
In recent years, Portland has seen an uptick in gang violence, including a rash of shootings. All of which has community leaders and city officials stepping up actions to respond to the public outry. Rodriguez weighs in on some of the approaches being advocated in response, what drives kids to join gangs, and how far it’s gone beyond the kids in the hood.
Jake Thomas: How have gangs changed in the past 20 years. Who is joining them today?
Luis Rodriguez: It used to be more about protection, but now it’s more about drugs and money. The vast majority of kids who join gangs — that vast majority — are not violent. Most of them aren’t even criminally involved. They join gangs for reasons that have to do with fitting in. They think they’ll get respect. Some of them will get in trouble, but they’re not really gangsters.
But the hardcore part of the gang — it’s hard to say what that is, maybe 10 percent — that hardcore group drives most of the violence. They’re the ones that go in and out of the prison system. The prison system trains them to be better at it. Better gangsters, better shot-callers. The prison system is like the school for the advanced gang leaders, so what’s happening is because we have such a great proliferation of prisons in this country, you’re getting a greater proliferation of hardcore gang members entering communities, schools and neighborhoods where kids would join gangs but not necessarily be hardcore. But with hardcore gang members among them, a lot more tends to happen. Continue reading