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'Jumped In': Love, Life And Violence In L.A. Gangs

Apr 21, 2012

Jorja Leap has spent time in crisis zones from Bosnia to New Orleans. As an international expert in crisis intervention, she never expected to end up doing most of her work in her own backyard.

Ten years ago, Leap returned to her hometown of Los Angeles to work with some of the toughest gangs around. A UCLA alumna with a Ph.D. in psychological anthropology, Leap works with outreach and intervention programs spanning Los Angeles' most gang-saturated territories.

She chronicles her time working with former and current gang members in a new book called Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption.

"This is a time, in 2002, when the gang situation in Los Angeles was explosive," Leap tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "There were periods when there were four or five gang-related homicides over a long weekend."

"It was not at all the picture that exists in Los Angeles today," she says. "It was in crisis mode."

As a petite white woman venturing into Los Angeles' most dangerous neighborhoods, Leap needed to form relationships — for protection as much as outreach.

"I never showed up completely alone. I always had sort of a gang member with me, to introduce me and to vouch for my bona fides," Leap says. "You can't just show up and say, 'Hey, I'm here to study gangs.' "

"I would try, deliberately, to pair myself up with someone who was very big and very strong and very imposing and had neighborhood credibility," she says. She found Big Mike, who took her under his wing when she first hit the streets.

At 6 feet and 350 pounds, Big Mike had been a notorious gangster in the late '80s to early '90s, a time referred to as the "Decade of Death" for a homicide rate that hit 1,000 deaths per year in Los Angeles alone, according to Leap. Now reformed, Big Mike — whose real name is Mike Cummings — guided her through the neighborhoods.

"Mike Cummings is emblematic of a certain kind of gangster that came out of that era, who is now older and wiser and wants to go back and heal the places he once sought to harm and destroy," Leap says.

Big Mike's story is an exception, however. Leap says it is extremely hard to leave a gang, and many people never do.

"The key is you build a new identity," she says. "What I've learned in talking to gang members is having been part of a gang is in their hearts, it's part of their identity. It is kind of like having a bad previous relationship. You remember it, but you move on."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Anthropologist Jorja Leap has spent time in numerous war and disaster zones from Bosnia to Ground Zero to post-Katrina New Orleans. But over the past several years, Leap's been on the ground in Los Angeles hanging out with some of the toughest gangs in America. In her new book, "Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption," Leap talks about what drew her to the gangs of L.A.

JORJA LEAP AUTHOR: I said to myself, well, if I'm interested in violence, it really is here in my own backyard. I should also add that this was a time in 2002 when the gang situation in Los Angeles was explosive. There were periods where there were four or five gang-related homicides over a long weekend, and it was not at all the picture that exists in Los Angeles today. It was in crisis mode.

RAZ: Jorja, I grew up in Los Angeles, and I think a lot of people who aren't, you know, entirely familiar with, not with just L.A. gangs but with gangs in general, assume that, you know, in a place like L.A., there are two big groups, the Crips and the Bloods, for example. Now, but you actually say this is not the reality at all.

AUTHOR: The Crips and the Bloods tend to get a lot of media attention and also because of hip-hop and rap music...

RAZ: And the film "Colors" (unintelligible).

AUTHOR: And the film "Colors" and "Training Day," for example...

RAZ: "Training Day," yes.

AUTHOR: ...even more recently. It's all out there. And point of fact, the gangs with a legacy in the city of Los Angeles are the Latino gangs. The Latino gangs have decades-long history and represent, actually in total number, the largest number of gangs in the city of Los Angeles.

RAZ: You decide, you know, in around 2002, I'm just going to start hanging out again with these guys and find out what's going on. You are - and this is the radio, so forgive me because I'm going to have to describe you - you are petite...

AUTHOR: Yes.

RAZ: ...you are white. You describe yourself as a Greek woman of Greek descent. You show up in these neighborhoods. What's the reaction to you?

AUTHOR: I never showed up completely alone. I always had a gang member with me to introduce me and to vouch for my bona fides. So that you can't just show up and say, hey, I'm here to study gangs. And...

RAZ: I'm from UCLA, and I'm here to study gangs.

AUTHOR: Yeah, I'm very interested in you. Why did you join a gang? This is not a way to win friends and influence people...

RAZ: Right.

AUTHOR: ...or to be safe. And I would try to pair myself up with someone who was very big and very strong and very imposing and had neighborhood credibility.

RAZ: One of the people you talk a lot about in the book is Mike Cummings, who's a former gang member, and he...

AUTHOR: Yeah.

RAZ: ...sort of serves as a guide for you in the streets. Tell us about him.

AUTHOR: Big Mike weighs about 350 pounds. He is big. He is imposing. He is charismatic, and he knows almost everyone in the south Los Angeles neighborhood. And he is someone who took me under his wing, literally, as well as psychologically, to, as he put it, school me in the neighborhoods.

RAZ: I mean, he was a pretty notorious gangster in his day in Watts, as you describe him. We're talking about the '80s and the '90s, what you call the Decade of Death.

AUTHOR: Yes. That period of time is referred to as the Decade of Death because this is when we had an epidemic 1,000 homicides a year in the city of Los Angeles - not the county, but the city. And just to put in perspective, nowadays, we have less than 300 homicides per year. And it was a decade when our young men, primarily, young men of color were decimated in disenfranchised areas.

And Mike Cummings is emblematic of a certain type of gangster that came out of that era, who is now older and wiser and wants to go back and heal the places he once sought to harm and destroy.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Jorja Leap. She's the author of the new book called "Jumped In." Jorja, the subtitle of your book is "What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption." And I want to ask you about those things. Can you tell me one of the stories about what you learned about love.

AUTHOR: There's a character in the book called Felipe. Felipe is a young man who was raised in a household with his sister, and there was a great deal of abuse in the household. And he and his sister were eventually placed in foster care, and they were in and out of the child welfare system. And he related to me an incredible series of circumstances that he endured as he was growing up as a young boy.

And I asked him, as I asked so many of these gang members, what enabled you to survive? How did you get through it? And he said that at night, when he was in a foster home, he and his sister would push their two beds closely together, and they would let their pinkies touch. They would reach across the gap between their beds and let their pinkies touch and this would allow him to go to sleep at night.

And I remember looking at Felipe, who had had a long and serious and complicated past in the gang he belonged to, and I thought of that enduring picture of love and attachment. It enabled me to really understand how individuals in these most dire of circumstances find love and attachment and not only survive but prevail.

RAZ: How did you - just hearing that story, and in the book, its - I'm picturing you interviewing him and wondering how you heard that story without breaking down. It is such a moving story.

AUTHOR: Oh, I broke down. There is no way I could not have broken down with Felipe. I did. And there are times that I relayed his story and I begin to break down even as I'm talking about it.

RAZ: Yeah. Jorja, one of the women we meet in the book, her name is Joanna, and she's working in east L.A. She is known locally as Dark Eyes. Can you tell us her story?

AUTHOR: Dark Eyes is somebody that I have an enduring bond to. And she knew nothing other than gang life literally from childhood onwards. Her father was a known gang member who ultimately met a very violent death when she was 11 years old. She had a series of children. One of her children died, which is a circumstance she's unable to talk about even until this day. And she's a girl who has always been gang involved who wanted desperately to leave the life.

RAZ: You meet her at a place called Home Boy Industries.

AUTHOR: Yes. Home Boy Industries is currently the largest gang intervention agency in the United States of America. I met Dark Eyes there. And Dark Eyes told me how she came to Home Boy because she was involved in the gang life and also involved in a horribly abusive relationship with another gang member. And she made an attachment there and began to change her life.

RAZ: At one point of the book, you say you can never leave the gang. And for somebody like Joanna, like Dark Eyes, it seems like that's the case, right? I mean...

AUTHOR: She has struggled with that. The key is you build a new identity. And what I've learned in talking to gang members is having been part of a gang is, in their hearts, it's part of their identity. It's kind of like having a bad previous relationship. You remember it, but you move on. And that's turned out, for example, to be the truth of Joanna's life. She remembers it, but she works hard every single day to move on from that identity.

RAZ: That's Jorja Leap. She's the author of the new book, it's called "Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption." Jorja Leap, thank you so much.

AUTHOR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.