Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Op-ed on HBO film "Bastards of the Party"

LA Times
Erin Aubry Kaplan:
Making gangs good
A longtime Blood from South L.A. wants to mend, not end, gangs.
February 7, 2007

INSPIRATION OFTEN comes from entirely unexpected places, and sometimes from the heart of trouble itself. Cle "Bone" Sloan is a veteran member of the Athens Park Bloods gang in South L.A, inducted at the age of 12. He's been shot at four times, done time in jail and figures he's buried about 100 of his friends.

His resume would probably end there were it not for a fortuitous moment as a gang "spokesperson" on "Larry King Live" in 1992, which led to a job as a production assistant on a movie. He worked his way up to camera assistant and became sold on the idea that the real power in Hollywood — and in life — rested with those who controlled their own story. Bone spent nine years working on a documentary about the origins of L.A. gangs; the resulting film, "Bastards of the Party" (as in Black Panther Party), premiered on HBO Tuesday night.

Rather than the usual accentuate-the-positive TV special about black people that we've come to expect during February, "Bastards" is nearly the opposite: an exploration of one of the most pernicious yet most persistent elements of the black experience that most of us — blacks included — prefer not to talk about. Nor is this story reassuring: It's often piecemeal and doesn't end on a triumphant note or offer a conclusion.

Bone, however, thinks a discussion about gangs is long overdue. And he says it's a good thing.

"Nobody in gangs knew the history of gangs," he told me in a phone interview. "But it's actually linked to the black liberation movement. We're not just dysfunctional niggers who can't get our act together. There was a movement deferred. Instead of wearing blue and red rags today, we could have been wearing berets."

Bone is bright and engaging, a fast but detail-oriented talker whose conversation has an urgency infused by his street experience and by a conviction that the time for change — to somehow recapture that black political momentum lost in the early '70s — is now.

He has a nonprofit group, called Aktive, that seeks to convert active gangbangers into nonactive gang members like himself — guys who belong to a gang but who have sworn off criminal and "negative" activity. This may seem like an oxymoron, but Bone says it works. Aktive steers them into filmmaking workshops and encourages them to atone for destructive behavior by taking part in community food giveaways, toy drives and other events. His own nonactive status was necessary, Bone says, for him to maintain credibility with gangs as he argued with them to move beyond gangsterism into something new and untested. "I'm still on campus, even though I've graduated," is how he explains it.

Bone doesn't believe in dispersing gangs — the family ties are a plus, he says. He believes in "reformatting" to make them and their members productive. This doesn't mean simply giving gang members jobs, as every study on gangs since the 1960s has advised. It means supporting the kind of activities that build a societal connection and a larger purpose.

Bone says the absence of such purpose is especially acute in L.A. "There are lots of jobs here, millions of dollars coming in, but blacks are historically cut out," he said. He says the increasing popularity of gang injunctions — which identify members and prevent them from participating in a variety of activities — reflects the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to gangs that often creates more chaos by removing older black males from neighborhoods and leaving younger ones unsupervised.

And yet Bone has hope. It is based less on reality than on faith that we will all agree that, like global warming, the gang problem will be seriously addressed in the next decade or we risk perishing together. "Unfortunately, we are a very reactionary people," Bone said, referring to blacks. "We're not proactive. But the West is a cornerstone for black liberation. We influence all of America, starting with the Panthers up north. Our situation is emblematic. This is our last stand."

I agree with Bone. And though I find his hope inspirational — the sheer fact that he has any — I don't share all of it. Crime is down in the city, but gang crime is on the rise, with blacks increasingly the target of Latino hostility. "The State of Black California" report issued last week by the Legislative Black Caucus confirms the dire condition of African Americans by just about every sociological measure — hardly news, and information that repeatedly falls on deaf ears. Official recognition that blacks are officially flailing in California, the land of last and best opportunity for just about everybody, makes me want to crawl under a rock.

Don't, Bone says. His answer for the madness is action, something he says is paramount for black men whose wasted lives come down to having too little to do. "Do something, nigger, if you only spit," Bone said, quoting "Bunchy" Carter, a former Black Panther.

At 37, Bone has done a lot more than spit. It's a challenge that I, at 45, have no choice but to take on.

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