This is not the tale of those biblical three Kings—Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar—nor the story of a baby in a manger who wound up a King on a cross with a crown of thorns who ascended into heaven. It is the tale of a King whose crown of gold named him King Blood. There is no joy in this narrative.
The thorns he wears are of barbed wire and he lives in hell.
His name is Luis Felipe.
He is not a household name for most of you. Yet, as King Blood, leader of a New York street gang known as the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation ((ALKQN or Latin Kings), he is reviled by "good people." Dubbed a sociopath by criminologists. Punished. Criminal. Murderous. One of those nightmares we see on prison porn shows.
According to the conventional wisdom he is an animal who deserves neither our compassion nor our understanding nor justice. For many his punishment is not enough and they cry for death.
We save compassion for the innocent and the victims. We dole out our charity to those most deserving.
We, on the left, sign petitions and lobby for the rights of those we dub political prisoners. How dare they be tortured and kept in solitary? We demand justice for those we deem worthy of it.
It's so easy to defend those we have deemed "not guilty." If we dig a bit more into our charity we will perhaps question the course of justice in America and embrace worthy efforts like The Innocence Project for the wrongfully convicted. And once we have done those good works we can sleep at ease in our beds.
There is little interest shown in solving the economic disparities that create gangs and gang violence. The current solution is to pass harsher laws and build more prisons.
According to the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment released by the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC), approximately 1.4 million gang members belonging to more than 33,000 gangs were criminally active in the U.S. as of April, 2011. The assessment was developed through analysis of available federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement and corrections agency information; 2010 NDIC National Drug Threat Survey (NDTS) data; and verified open source information.Last Sunday, writing about the fear of and fears of young black men, I was asked, "What do those young men aspire to?"
“Gangs continue to expand, evolve, and become more violent. The FBI, along with its federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners, strives to disrupt and prevent their criminal activities and seek justice for innocent victims of their crimes,” said Assistant Director Kevin Perkins, FBI Criminal Investigative Division.
For thousands, it is to find a family, a place in a society that has locked them out, and locked them up. Many find a place in a gang.
Luis Felipe is currently the recipient of the harshest prison sentence ever levied in the United States in recent history.
Life imprisonment (plus 45 years) in solitary confinement. No visitors. No letters, no phone calls, except to his lawyer. He has no contact even with corrections officers in the Supermax facility.
Lawrence K. Freitell, Felipe’s lawyer, has argued that the conditions that Felipe has been subjected to have contributed to a deteriorating mental and physical condition. Felipe has experienced a loss of sleep and appetite so severe that has had to be medicated with antidepressants. He reportedly weeps constantly and uncontrollably. Most importantly, Freitell argues that existing in this state of forced isolation and surveillance has caused Felipe to literally lose his ability to communicate verbally with others. At his sentencing Felipe prophetically declared to Judge Martin “You accuse me of killing people, but you’ll be killing me every day”The NY Times reported in Testing the Limits of Punishment; Unusually Severe Life Sentence vs. Society's Need for Safety:
Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who studies the effects of solitary confinement, said the conditions went too far. ''I could imagine a sober society living with capital punishment,'' he said, ''but I can't imagine a civilized society living with the punishment of driving a prisoner insane.''I disagree with Grassian about the sobriety of capital punishment.
From my perspective Felipe's treatment is cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Brennan wrote, "There are, then, four principles by which we may determine whether a particular punishment is 'cruel and unusual'."Luis Felipe, imho, is being tortured.
The "essential predicate" is "that a punishment must not by its severity be degrading to human dignity," especially torture.
"A severe punishment that is obviously inflicted in wholly arbitrary fashion."
"A severe punishment that is clearly and totally rejected throughout society."
"A severe punishment that is patently unnecessary."
And the fact that the judge now will allow Felipe to take his one hour exercise a week and have monitored conversation with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber and Timothy McVeigh (executed in 2001), which Felipe rejected, does not mitigate the severity of his incarceration.
Those who have made him both a martyr and a hero to young people on the streets are doing a great job convincing young people of color that there is no justice in America for them. We violate our much touted Constitutional principles with impunity and only serve to underscore our deep hypocrisy.
The unconstitutional incarceration treatment of street brothers like King Blood does not serve as a deterrent to gang formation. It is a goad.
The warehousing of more and more of our youth of color in jails and prisons across this nation serves as factories to produce yet more and more gang members on the streets.
The War on Drugs has been successful in undermining progressive change in Latin America, displacing populations, creating war zones in poor neighborhoods and filling prisons.
The irony in all this is that while we have a national passion and adulation for larger than life gangland crime figures on the silver screen, like Brando in The Godfather, or TV series like The Sopranos, we cower in fear of the tattooed gang bangers who serve as a warning to all nice middle class folks that you don't want these thugs in your neighborhood so lock em up and throw away the key. And if life in prison is hell, a common reaction is "tough shit—they deserve it."
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Just as the entire nation mourned and still mourns for those slain in Connecticut, yet has overlooked those who die daily in poor communities of color, we need to have a national conversation about guns and gun violence that does more than scratch the surface causes of those daily deaths. The solutions posited to solve the gun problem are not going to solve the gang problem.
We all see headlines daily about gang violence in someone's 'hood, and most people that don't have to live with it daily count themselves lucky, and if driving through—roll up their windows, lock their car doors, and flee to the safety of gang free zones in the suburbs.
Guns have become part of a way of life in some neighborhoods and though the nation's mayors may wring their hands and call for more police, and federal grants to stop gang violence, more and more of those young people who are fighting for daily survival affiliate.
My own experience with street gangs has been multifaceted—as an individual, as a resident of neighborhoods where they are part of the daily landscape, as a political/community organizer and as an anthropologist/researcher.
As a young teenager in the 60s, we had gangs in my neighborhood in Queens, New York—branches of the Brooklyn Chaplins and Bishops. I remember one school assembly where the principal gathered us together for safety in the auditorium, to announce "the Fordham Baldies" were coming. This was an Italian-American gang from the Bronx, who would cut off our hair if they caught us (that was the rumor). They never showed.
I remember a guy I thought was cute giving me a zip gun to stash in my pocketbook. They used to make them in shop class.
In my cousin's neighborhood in East Harlem, 106th street was the dividing line between the Dragons and the Viceroys.
This kind of gang stuff was romanticized and immortalized in West Side Story. When I got older, and moved to D.C., I had a few run-ins with what were called "block boys." I later moved back to New York City as a VISTA volunteer to work with former members of the Lower East Side gang "the Assassins" who got anti-poverty money and became "The Real Great Society." That organization led to my involvement with The Young Lords Party, a radical political organization (part of Fred Hampton's Rainbow Coalition) which had originally been a street gang in Chicago.
The coalition included members of various local ethnic gangs, among whom Hampton, Rising Up Angry, the Young Patriots, and the Young Lords had brokered treaties to end violence between them. The leaders worked to reduce conflict by the treaties, as they believed that poor youths' fighting each other in gang wars achieved little benefit for them. Hampton and his colleagues believed that the Daley Machine in Chicago and the American ruling class used gang wars to consolidate their own political positions by gaining funding for law enforcement and dramatizing crime rather than underlying social issues.
There was also a clear cut decision to work against the influx of heroin in the community (see Capitalism plus dope equals genocide—Michael Cetewayo Tabor) and former drug users/street level dealers became members.
After the decline and fall of the Panthers, Young Lords and other coalition groups (effectuated primarily by COINTELPRO) individual former members continued to organize in the streets and barrios. The political climate had changed, and so had the drug scene, including the depredations of crack cocaine and harsher and unequal sentences for small scale sales and possession. The prison population tripled.
Former Young Lord Richie Pérez (1944-2004) was a key figure in continuing to work with groups like the ALKQN and the Ñetas. He is one of the people featured in the documentary Black and Gold, about the post-King Blood ALKQN attempts to shift to community political organizing.
complete film here:
Black And Gold
My own introduction to the ALKQN came later. I was already doing AIDS/Drugs ethnographic research with members of the Ñetas in New York and Puerto Rico, but my links to the ALKQN came through non-academic contact. A close friend had a daughter who was a Queen, and through the daughter I developed a mentoring relationship to other young women in the Nation.
I also had an academic interest, since I was familiar with the research and community activism of Rev. Luis Barrios. Barrios and his co-authors had written two important books, The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation: Street Politics and the Transformation of a New York City Gang and Gangs and Society.
It was in Barrio's book on the ALKQN that I learned more about Luis Felipe's history.
The Early Years: Cuba, Miami, and the Road to ChicagoBut it wasn't until I had developed a close relationship to some of the Queens, who were engaged in community activities like supporting women's shelters, that Luis Felipe's situation was raised. In a political education meeting one of the young women brought up the fact that he was in 24 hour lockdown/solitary, allowed no visitors, no mail and at the time was being denied even visits from his attorney. She asked me, "How can this be legal? Don't inmates have rights?"
According to King Blood, his real name is Luis Felipe Fernández Mendez, born on May 11, 1961, in Havana, Cuba. Further details about Blood's early life are very few except that he had a mother, Esterina, who was a sex worker; a father, Gilbert, who he never knew; a brother; a son named Duane; and an ex-wife named María. Currently, according to King Blood, other than his son, who lives with his grandmother in Spain, and his ex-wife, who lives in New York City, he has no living relatives.
In a detailed interview, King Blood reveals other aspects of his early years, in particular his extraordinary journey to the United States:
One morning in 1979, he [King Blood] was making his way home when he
felt the cold barrel of a gun behind his ear. He escaped, ran behind a car,
pulled out a .38 revolver, and fired several shots. [I shot the guy in the arm,]
he says. [But before I had a chance to run away from la policia, they arrest-
ed me and charged me with attempted homicide. I got 10 years.]
By the next year, Cuba seemed overtaken with lawlessness and despera-
tion. That's when Castro opened his prison cells and freed the [undesirables.]
King Blood became one of the lucky ones, setting off across the Straits of
Florida in a rickety boat made of inner tubes and old furniture. More than
100 refugees traveled together in a ragtag flotilla, their fate in nature's indif-
ferent hands. He remembers seeing a fin cutting through the water just be-
fore the raft next to him was rammed, throwing an old man overboard. The
sharks ripped him apart, filling the water with magenta clouds. [I felt like a
prisoner of the sea,] says King Blood. Six years later, he wrote in the Latin
Kings' manifesto, [You don't even know if you will survive the present night].
Having worked as a prison rights activist, and as a paralegal with progressive lawyers like William Kunstler (though I am not a lawyer), my immediate answer was, "That's impossible under the law."
I found out I was wrong. The judge was making his own law. And because Luis Felipe was a denizen of the underclass, no one gave a damn, other than his followers.
The young women I got to know well, and a few of the Peewees (youth members) were going to school, had hopes and dreams, were attempting to raise their children to have pride in their ethnicity, to know their history and most importantly, to stay alive in the world of gang rivalry and turf wars. They were no different from many members of my family. They are indistinguishable from other young women of color in low income areas who have no gang affiliation. None of them are sociopaths. None were engaged in drug dealing. They did have a fierce loyalty to what they saw as key principles of their "nation." Yet, they live in fear of being swept up in the RICO dragnets which were increasing in scope.
I could and probably should write an entire piece on the use of RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) against members of street gangs. Lawyers and criminologists have called its abuse into question.
People who are guilty of no more than knowing a gang member are being charged with racketeering - being part of a criminal organization - in order to get them to testify against friends or loved ones who might genuinely be guilty of criminal activities. These friends and family members face decades in prison if convicted under RICO laws. Rather than take their chances on justice, many come to plea agreements in which they take a few painful years in prison in exchange for their testimony.Jordan Blair Woods has an interesting analysis in Systemic Racial Bias and RICO's Application to Criminal Street and Prison Gangs where he points out:
In other cases, people who might be guilty of minor infractions or petty crimes are being charged with racketeering, again facing decades in prison if convicted. Additionally, many of the people being charged are not associated with any known gang members. Simply living in a neighborhood that contains gang activity should not implicate citizens in involvement with a gang or participation in gang crime.
RICO’s legislative history suggests that Congress was specifically concerned about the ability of Mafia members to infiltrate legitimate business practices and obtain economic and political power. But the KKK had similar extraordinary influence within the economic and political spheres. Many politicians and business leaders, both national and local, were affiliated with the Klan. Like the Mafia, KKK members oftenHis abstract states:
conducted clandestine operations and hid their affiliations with the organization
from the public. Despite these parallels between the KKK and the Mafia, Congress never felt compelled to pass federal legislation to address mob violence against African Americans. Organized violence against African Americans was not considered “organized crime” in the way that we think of the term today.
Conflating racial minorities with criminal activity enables the government to rely upon denigrating racial stereotypes in order to engage in invidious practices of racial profiling and to conduct sweeping arrests of racial minorities under RICO. This conflation also shields groups of nonimmigrant White criminal offenders from being conceptualized as gangs and shields nonimmigrant White neighborhoods from the stigma of having gang problems. In practice, this may harm communities that have White gang problems by preventing the government from executing gang-specific interventions within those communities.
A simple google search of "RICO gangs" will document what many community people view as abuses. One notable case is taking place in North Carolina.
On December 6, 2011 a home commonly used by ALKQN members was attacked by over 30 law enforcement officers. This raid was part of a joint effort between the FBI, ATF, The U.S. Marshalls, the Greensboro Police Department, and other law enforcement agencies. Officers entered the home with assault rifles arresting ALKQN members and terrorizing their families. A fifteen year old girl was forced to the ground and detained, while another woman was forced outside from the shower wearing only a towel.On this Christian Holy day, I think of the oft-quoted biblical text in Matthew 25:31-46, which cites these words from the King of Kings:
Officers entered the home with a warrant looking to seize shotguns, revolvers, pistols, an AK-47, and three machetes. They could not find any weapons or drugs, so they confiscated a large amount of personal belongings including clothing, photos, a computer, a wallet and anything in the ALKQN’s black and gold colors.
13 members total are being held with racketeering charges. The indictment against the ALKQN is reminiscent of similar attempts against the Black Panther Party and the Chican@ movement in which a vital community organization was declared criminal and attacked.
“[F]or I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
As a nation, whether we are religious or secular, we can no longer afford to turn away from prisons and prisoners. We can no longer avoid the effects of economic inequality.
There will be no solution to guns on the streets unless we address the underlying causes of street gang formation, which include racism, ethnocentrism and classism.
We reap what we have sown.
I do not want to give the impression that there are no community and government efforts to intervene and reduce gangs. There are hundreds of them across the U.S.
The DOJ website has links to many of them. But based on the data they present, current programs have done little to reduce the problem.
Based on law enforcement responses to the NYGS, it is estimated that in 2010 there were 29,400 gangs and 756,000 gang members throughout 3,500 jurisdictions in the United States. The overwhelming majority of gang homicides are reported in very large cities (populations over 100,000) and suburban counties. Of the more than 700 total homicides in Chicago, Illinois, and Los Angeles, California, over half were reported to be gang-related in 2010. These findings underscore the highly concentrated nature of gang homicides in the United States.President Obama announced the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention in 2010, which was expanded in 2012 .
In sum, gang activity and its associated violence remains an important and significant component of the U.S. crime problem. While it has been reasonably assumed that gang-related violence would follow the overall dramatic declines in violent crime across the U.S., new national data reveal overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that is, gang violence rates have continued at exceptional levels over the past decade despite the remarkable overall crime drop in the U.S.
I hate to sound pessimistic, but from my perspective, most of the programmatic efforts are like trying to apply band-aids to a gaping wound. Unless more people are engaged other than those who are immediately affected, not much will be accomplished.
I hope that in the years ahead, more Democrats, progressives, liberals (however you categorize yourselves) will pay closer attention to issues that may not be on your immediate political agenda. At the top of my list is a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, which includes an end to the war on drugs and not simply overturning marijuana laws.
I want to thank kestrel9000, for help with the poll below.