Synthesis of memoir and polemical narrative from an expert on gangs, based on her research in the bloody trenches of Los Angeles.
Leap (UCLA Department of Social Welfare) has spent years evaluating the various gang-prevention and -intervention programs that have evolved in California since the 1980s. She notes that her credibility among gang members, academics and law enforcement developed because “I am willing to go anywhere and talk to anyone to learn about gangs…I am doing something beyond conventional research.” Yet her personal life became even more fraught when she married Mark Leap, a LAPD commander who initially epitomized the straight-arrow, anti-gangster police archetype. While Leap questions the tumultuous nature of their relationship and her own motivations, she is compelled by a passion derived from sheer grief at the waste and violence inherent in gang life. These complexities frame the discussion of the myths and labyrinthine realities of black and Latino gangs in California. She notes that while popular culture has simplified the topic to “Crips and Bloods,” the pervasive violence associated with gang culture remains prominent, as do persistent social pathologies such as drug abuse and domestic violence. Yet Leap views the young “homies” she encounters as lost souls fleeing impoverished childhoods, noting that “there is no typical gang member.” Meanwhile, “the LAPD has combined suppression with street intervention,” and both approaches remain controversial, with ambiguous results. Leap relies on her intellectual open-heartedness and her personal connections to see her through the many dangerous situations she encounters. Like the documentary The Interrupters, she focuses on the “interventionists”—reformed gangsters who attempt to curtail street violence. Leap’s writing is vibrant and approachable; although her personalized approach at times causes a loss of focus regarding her broader sociological narrative of urban gangs, the narrative is suffused with the authenticity of hard-won expertise.
An impassioned, disturbing and not-terribly-optimistic account of a continuing American crisis.