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East Bronx Story—Return of the Street Gangs

March 12: Anthony Rennie, a fourteen-year-old Black Assassin, is shot to death trying to negotiate a truce between his gang and the Shades of Black.

March 13: the Young Saigons, a clique from 162nd Street, beat up on members of the Seven Immortals in the street near Morris High School. Julio, president of the Immortals, heads to the Saigons' clubhouse to negotiate a peace, but nobody listens.

The ability of the Bronx police to deal effectively with today's well-armed street gangs may have been grievously compromised in a recent and bizarre event. On February 29, according to some gang members who say they were present, seven uniformed policemen shouldered their way into an apartment on Westchester Avenue, headquarters of the Seven Immortals clique, searched it, and in the process destroyed a television set and a record player. On their way out, the Immortals say, the police paused long enough to scrawl an obscene message on the wall. Their testimony is supported by Leonard Levitt, a reporter for the Time-Life News Service, who lodged a personal protest with police authorities after the incident. Two days later, on March 2, two members of the Seven Immortals and eight members of another clique, the Slicks, were arrested as a result of an altercation inside the Simpson Street police station. Two cops were reportedly injured. Members of the Immortals and the Slicks charge that the attack in the Simpson Street police station never took place. They claim the whole incident was a frame-up, part of a continuing policy of police harassment.

Gang attitudes toward the police are a predictable compound of cynicism, mistrust and fear. The litany of grievances ranges from major brutality to minor harassment at cops' hands. Cruising police cars, more than one gang member says, habitually dart down a side street to intimidate a lone youth, only a lone youth, if he happens to be wearing his "colors"—his gang jacket. Various members of the Royal Dutchmen, Young Sinners, and Sixth Division Black Spades claim to have been frisked by cops without cause, then had their jackets "confiscated" and told not to be caught wearing colors again. Over the years, gangs have learned to cope. They learned, among other things, that police were jotting down names they heard on the street and compiling dossiers at the station house. To make the task harder, virtually all gang members take a nickname when they join a clique. Even a gang member's closest friends may not know, or care, what his given name is.

". . . Their chief form of punishment, administered in high seriousness, is a physical beating—of unpredictable severity . . ."

But many gang members take a surprisingly pragmatic view of the police. Cops, it seems, occasionally have their uses. Last November, police of the Simpson Street station began to question members of the Mongols, a gang centered around Bryant Avenue and Westchester Avenue, about a murder that had occurred a few days before. Some Mongols, suspecting that their own president, Lucky, had fingered some of his own people, began to plan an insurrection against his leadership. To clear himself of their suspicions, Lucky went to the police and offered to tell them what he knew of the crime. The police went along with him, made an arrest on the basis of his testimony, and cleared the Mongols they had questioned. In so doing, the police got Lucky off the hook.

Like the police, the schools, too, have their uses, but the schools may not be so reliable. According to Spectra, president of the Imperial Dutchmen, a member of his clique went to the principal of his high school asking for protection from a rival gang in the school. The principal, Spectra says, advised the Dutchman to drop out permanently—"in the best interests of all concerned."

The gangs have built a rigid, almost stifling social structure for themselves that stands in odd contrast to their near-total rejection of the outside world's institutions. School doesn't interest them—at least half the teen-age gang members in the Bronx seem to be either total or partial dropouts—and government betrays. On the surface, at least, they seem genuinely oblivious to the skin color of any man they regard as having an impact on their lives. Ted Gross, a black man who directs the Youth Services Agency, is contemptuously dismissed by many as an "Oreo cookie"—black outside and white puff inside. Lou Benza, a white assistant to Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams, is praised to the skies for his efforts to get gangs into storefront job-training centers. (It's schools that the gangs put down, not education.)

The great majority of gang members live at home. Many easily manage to keep their gang affiliations from their parents; in many cases a "home life" can scarcely be said to exist. Some gang members often spend days, weeks, and months on end living in basement and apartment headquarters throughout the Bronx. This helps explain why gangs place such great importance on having a headquarters of their own—off the street and out of the way of the police.


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  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Mar 27, 1972 issue of New York
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