Gang initiations and NPR

I heard this amazing story on “The Moth Radio Hour.” You may have heard it too, if you listen to a lot of public radio. Ed Gavagan walked into a Latin Kings initiation and was so severely injured that when he woke up in the hospital, two homicide detectives were sitting on the end of his bed. The story is at once inspirational and grounded, funny and extremely graphic (I felt sick while listening). I have absolutely no bone to pick with Mr. Gavagan, who underwent great suffering and is a gifted storyteller. But one thing about the story seemed off: the kill-a-random-stranger gang initiation.

I don’t know much about gangs, but I’m pretty good at recognizing urban myths. I remember being warned by a close friend in Austin, around 1996, that I must never flash my headlights at a car without its own lights on, because “gangs” were using that technique to identify strangers to kill (I instantly responded, “That’s an urban myth”). Snopes references the flashing-headlights canard here, and records other versions of the legend here, here, and here. The Latin Kings entry in Wikipedia doesn’t mention initiations—but does mention that “Kingism” teaches that “the existing system . . . exploits all people of color, dehumanizes them, and maintains them under the conditions and social yoke of slavery.” Sounds like a reasonable philosophy for an oppressed and embittered group of people to develop (and if that statement strikes you as outrageous, you haven’t read anything else on my blog). Gang membership can be a crucial social support for youth living in violent and chaotic surroundings under the constant pressure of American racism. The problem of urban violence—which primarily affects people of color, not randomly selected white people—is challenging enough for all of us without additional layers of obfuscating falsehood. Could it be, I wonder, that these myths are so popular exactly because they’re a release valve for white and/or middle-class anxiety, even guilt, about a pervasive social ill that doesn’t actually touch us?

For all I know, Gavagan’s attackers truly were targeting a random person. I haven’t yet heard the sequel, “Victims Impact,” which apparently covers his testimony at the trial and may provide more details. But I think that the way in which Gavagan’s story, which has wowed audiences at TED as well as the Moth and was praised by Nathan Englander in the New Yorker, has received such warm support points up the absence of diverse voices in our media landscape. It’s an example of how white society can signal-boost stories that leave out the experience of people of color, even when those people are crucial to the story.

For another perspective on gang life, check out this excerpt from an extraordinary book about graffiti by Susan A. Phillips, Wallbangin’. Here she talks about the mistakes she made at the beginning of her fieldwork as she struggled to see her subjects through the veil of her own fears. Her honesty, sensitivity and self-reflection make Phillips one of my white antiracist heroes.

One comment

  1. Joseph Shephard says:

    Who determines the reality of gang initiations? Will it be the victim in this case or the couch potatoes at Snopes who google for the answers they want? A real investigation would pull up the trial transcripts which at the moment I can’t find but then again that might be a special skill or might require getting past a paywall. I had a family member who was killed by a gang member who was going through an initiation process like this. I am not sure if the victim was truly random or known but the killer was caught and sentenced and admitted the gang motives.

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