When outsiders think of Los Angeles, they usually picture palm trees, swimming pools, and plastic surgery.
They rarely think of Skid Row, a 54-block area on the downtown’s outskirts that has the highest concentration of homeless people in the country.
But today Skid Row is in the news—for all the wrong reasons. On Tuesday morning, more than 1,300 LAPD and FBI officers arrested 50 people associated with the Five Deuce Broadway Gangster Crips, a street gang that claims control of the neighborhood just west of Skid Row and has long preyed on the more than 5,000 homeless and often mentally ill Angelenos who live on the streets there.
“What makes the conduct of this gang particularly insidious is not only the violent crimes alleged,” said United States Attorney André Birotte Jr., “but also the exploitation of Skid Row drug users who are already living in difficult circumstances.”
The scope of the bust is astounding. All told, 72 defendants were named in the 213-page federal indictment—roughly a third of Broadway Crips’ total estimated membership. They are accused of 112 crimes stretching back more two decades: murders, robberies, extortion, witness intimidation, and narcotics trafficking, among other offenses. If convicted, all 72 gang members would face mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years in federal prison; many face potential life sentences without parole.
The scope—and severity—of their alleged crimes is astounding, as well. For the most part, the defendants, whose nicknames include “Baby Too Cool” and “Tiny C-Bone,” belonged to a particularly vicious subset of the Broadway Crips known as the Gremlin Riderz. They stand accused of four murders dating back to 1987, including a brutal 2012 incident in which a 10-year-old girl on a bicycle was shot and an unarmed man with no gang affiliations was killed. (After one participant discussed the shooting with police, his fellow gang members allegedly conspired to kill him, too.) The same year, several defendants fired on a group of California Highway Patrol Officers who attempted to pursue them, according to the indictment. And police say the Broadway Crips have made a habit of targeting customers of banks throughout the South Bay area of L.A. County, trailing them home and robbing them at gunpoint.
But perhaps the most unsettling thing about the Broadway Crips has been their day-to-day exploitation of L.A.’s vulnerable transient population, defenseless Angelenos who must not only grapple with poverty, addiction, and mental illness, but who also have the misfortune to live on streets controlled by gangsters determined to perpetuate those problems. If you live in New York or Chicago and you think you know what L.A.’s Skid Row is like, think again. Nothing anywhere else in America compares. Since the 1800s, homeless people have gathered in the area southeast of L.A.’s historic core. First they came because Los Angeles was the last stop on the train; then L.A. emerged as a major immigration hub. In 1975, the city decided to adopt what it called a “Policy of Containment,” deliberately concentrating social services in the area. Today Skid Row resembles a Third World tent city teeming with sleeping bags, shopping carts, and people with nowhere else to go.
Formed in the 1970s to confront other African-American street gangs, the Broadway Crips were more than happy to take advantage of their neighbors’ misfortune. According to the federal indictment, Skid Row is “desirable to the gang” because it contains “a large and vulnerable customer base of drug addicts and mentally ill persons”—individuals to whom the defendants allegedly sold crack cocaine, cocaine, methamphetamine, PCP, ecstasy, marijuana and codeine.
Surely L.A.’s boutique owners and loft developers will be happy to to hear of Tuesday’s LAPD-FBI bust. The area around Skid Row is rapidly gentrifying: A new artisanal cocktail bar or hipster hotel seems to open every day in downtown L.A., which GQ recently dubbed “the new capital of cool in America.”
The police should be pleased, as well. Tuesday’s arrests represent the latest example of a growing trend among law enforcement: combating street gangs by relying on what’s known as RICO law. (RICO is the acronym for the Racketeer-influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.) Originally designed to help fight organized crime, RICO law has been employed in recent years to go after criminals like the Crips because it allows the authorities to take out the entire gang hierarchy at once rather than pick off individual troublemakers here and there; the key is to prove that various offenses—drug deals, gun trafficking, credit-card fraud—are connected and represent a criminal enterprise at work. The strategy has led to dozens of recent arrests in Chicago and New York.
In short, it’s undeniably good news that 50 alleged criminals who were on L.A.’s streets Monday are now in police custody. But whether it makes any difference on Skid Row after 150 years of poverty and pain—that’s probably too much to ask.