FOOTNOTES February 2001
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2001 Annual Meeting

Our Boys: Gang Life in Orange County, California

by Rick Grannis, Cornell University

Southern California has long been associated with gangs and Orange County is certainly no exception. I spent two years doing ethnographic research among Orange County gangs, primarily with one of the largest gangs, FxTroop (pronounced F-Troop), which has between several hundred and a few thousand members depending upon whom you ask. FxTroop, as you might have guessed, takes its name from the old western comedy, although many of the older members of the community claim that the organization has its origins before World War I and that it merely changed its name in the sixties.

The youths (primarily young men) who the police identify as FxTroop see themselves as an integral part of their neighborhood. Similarly, numerous local residents of all ages (most of whom do not appear to be gang members) identify their neighborhood as FxTroop. While FxTroop is primarily composed of Mexican-Americans, it is not exclusively so and its racial homogeneity reflects the neighborhood from which it originates. Most of Orange County’s gang members are Mexican-Americans, especially if you use the records of the essentially Anglo law enforcement establishment. The Mexican-American community in Orange County predates the Anglo-American community and most Anglos are only first- or second-generation Orange County residents. According to the police, to grow up in some Orange County neighborhoods and to be male is essentially the same thing as to be a gang member and, at some local high schools, they have identified nearly all of the males as gang members.

FxTroopers generate enormous amounts of income through theft: car theft, burglary, mugging, and so forth. They are usually quite careful, however, to victimize only those from outside their neighborhood. FxTroop has a rich oral tradition and quite a few stories circulate to this effect. One classic example involved a high-school aged Anglo who had just cashed his paycheck at a local liquor store and was walking home with several hundred dollars in cash in his pocket. Some FxTroopers, who did not recognize him, stopped him and demanded his money. He refused, claiming he lived in the neighborhood. After several threats were exchanged, he challenged them to follow him home. They did so and, upon finding out that he did in fact live in the neighborhood, apologized and went their way.

A large portion of what FxTroop steals is redistributed throughout the neighborhood via local churches and other community organizations. While this Robin Hood mentality may seem quite charitable, it is also quite pragmatic. They steal much more than they could ever keep (too much apparent wealth would draw police repercussions) and, while they cannot keep their wealth, they can use it to buy prestige in the neighborhood. Many local churches have large rooms full of stolen merchandise that they distribute to local residents. A few years ago, one church was completely full of stolen Nintendos that were being redistributed to local children. While the gangs have been using the churches and community organizations to buy prestige, exploitation is a two-way street. Many of the churches are quite consciously using the gangs to help their members under the rubric of “reaching out to the gangs” and “maintaining influence over them.” Many local priests and pastors quoted tenets of Liberation Theology to justify the activities of both the gangs and their churches’ involvement with them. One of FxTroop’s veterano (senior gang member—this particular one was in his forties) has been a regular large donor to one of the major local religious festivals.

FxTroop and other Orange County gangs have at times been the most powerful opponents of drug use in the county. While the attitude towards drugs is not consistent, local gangs have at times threatened to “green light” (or put out a death warrant on) anyone who sold drugs in their neighborhood. This policy, however, has usually not precluded selling drugs in other neighborhoods, especially outside welfare offices (a lot of the local gangs see accepting welfare or charity of any sort as dishonorable, while stealing is not).

Violence often goes hand-in-hand with neighborhood gangs like FxTroop. Incidents that occur at school or parties can erupt into open warfare; however, because of the active involvement of older members of the community, those whom the police would call “former gang members,” an uneasy peace is often maintained. About a decade ago, the accidental killing of a toddler in a drive-by shooting (his father who was holding him was the intended victim) was one of the catalysts that led to the founding of the United Gangs Council, a loose coalition of several dozen local gangs (most of which are substantially smaller than FxTroop) primarily intending to control inter-gang violence. This informal truce, while certainly imperfect, has proved quite successful in cutting the number of gang deaths in half. During the Rodney King riots, for example, while LA burned, many Orange County gangs staged a peaceful unity march. In fact, some Orange County gang members cite examples such as this to demonstrate that they are culturally superior to their LA counterparts (in feeling superior to the people of Los Angeles, they prove themselves to be typical Orange County residents).

As sociologists descend on Orange County, they would do well to remember that not all of Orange County is “the happiest place on Earth.” Orange County gangs are one of the most visible aspects of the cultural war raging between the wealthy Anglo community and the poor Hispanic community. Indeed, numerous locals complain that Disneyland hires scores of foreign artists to do their animation but has a policy against considering local street artists (Disneyland claims that it’s policy is not anti-local but rather anti-gang). The work of one local street artist is shown on page 1. Furthermore, Florida is not the only state to experience election irregularities. For as long as many residents can remember, off-duty policemen have been hired to stand outside polling sites in Latino neighborhoods holding signs saying, “Mexicans can’t vote.” When questioned, they maintain that the signs refer to those holding Mexican citizenship, but the implied message is quite clear. Finally, the smothering application of immigration and anti-gang laws has led many of the gangs to view themselves in revolutionary terms, recalling heroic images like Emiliano Zapata.

Orange County gang members are not saints. While the truce has reduced bloodshed, gangs still do war with each other (although it has become quite rare for noncombatants to be hurt). While many gangs discourage drug sales (at least within their own neighborhoods), many do sell drugs (especially to outsiders), and, car theft in Orange County is a multi-billion dollar business. Nonetheless, if you ask the residents of one of the many communities which Orange County law enforcement agencies claim to be “plagued” or “terrorized” by gangs what they actually think, they have an interesting take on gangs. A typical response for them is to sigh and tell you with a worried look, “Our boys need to think more about their futures” or “Our boys have to be more careful” or “Our boys get into too much trouble these days.” To many of the hundreds of thousands of Orange County residents, in whose communities these gangs reside, they are neither heroes nor revolutionaries, but neither are they a criminal element. They are simply “Our Boys.”