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Excerpt: 'Operation Fly Trap: L. A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Law' by Susan A. Phillips

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From Introduction:

When Tina Fly was eight years old, she put a firecracker in a classmate’s ear. Tina was a nearly illiterate child. The incessant teasing by other students compounded her behavioral problems, like the fire cracker incident, and eventually she was put in special classes. Her mother, Genia Jackson, remembers a doctor prescribing Ritalin for Tina when she was nine, which was the beginning of years of trips to the physician and psychologist. Tina attempted suicide at fourteen. She afterward cycled through mental hospitals and treatment centers throughout South Los Angeles and Watts. She was diagnosed alternately with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and, much later, “borderline mental retardation.” She claimed she sometimes heard the voice of her father telling her to kill herself, or, contrarily, to “be strong.” She was a lesbian lover of Linda Bayer, a Fly Trap target dubbed Black, and Crystal, a half-black, half-Mexican crack addict who eventually became Confidential Source 1.

Tina met John Edwards, or “Junior,” at sixteen and shortly thereafter became pregnant with Tawana, the eldest of her two daughters. Junior was her first real romance and remains the man she describes as the love of her life. In adulthood, they became “crimies”—partners in crime—but as teens they were embroiled in attraction and dependence. Before Fly Trap, Junior’s only violent criminal charge was related to domestic violence against Tina. When he found out that Tina had lied by telling him he was the father of her next child, Joanna, however, he didn’t care. He continued to provide care for the girl, another challenged child, who, with her grandmother’s help, eventually graduated from high school.

Every time Tina was incarcerated, authorities medicated her. At twenty, she began the crack abuse that would last for the next two decades. No trauma or life-changing event drove her to addiction: when a friend gave her the first hit, she wanted more. In the mid-1990s, Tina became a prostitute to support her habit. She did demoralizing things on crack, she says, that she never would have done otherwise. She left her kids with her mother and ran wild on Central Avenue.

When the FBI arrested and charged Tina in 2003, she had no technical grounds on which to base an insanity plea, but the court psychologist recommended that the judge take her poor impulse control and susceptibility to manipulation into account during sentencing. She had, however, been caught on wiretap planning to exploit her mental health history by acting unstable. She boasted of paying a mental health worker to testify for her. In court, she argued that she had worked for Junior in fear, that Kevin Allen, or “K-Rok,” was her pimp, and that she had been dealing drugs to support her drug habit. But the wiretap showed that, despite her disabilities, Tina Fly ran things and ran people, so much so that the FBI had named the entire task force after her: Operation Fly Trap.

Operation Fly Trap began in 2001 at a picnic table behind LAPD’s Newton Division station on Central Avenue during a conversation between Officer Mark Brooks of the LAPD and Special Agent Robert King of the FBI. Special Agent King was in L.A. on another case, and the two had previously met during the takedown of 38th Street, the historic Latino gang neighborhood of Sleepy Lagoon fame. Brooks proposed that he and King work together against gangs in two nearby Bloods neighborhoods, the Pueblo Bishops and the Blood Stone Villains. Gunfire intended for a gang member had recently killed an innocent woman on her porch; Brooks’s lieutenant was pressuring area officers for results. The LAPD applied this pressure whenever violence ramped up in the neighborhoods around Newton Division.

Brooks had been around a long time and knew everyone in the neighborhoods he patrolled. He had watched the kids grow into gang members of the most lethal kind: violent and on drugs, uneducated, and lacking empathy. He had started his own childhood in a similar neighborhood, but his mother had moved from Watts and Compton to Texas. There, he had chosen a different path, and made it, something he liked to remind the young g’s of when he encountered them on the street. He knew, he says, that the neighborhood was full of good people, but it was his job to get the others, like these gang members, who spread poison in the community. Brooks and King began to lay the groundwork for a new task force to draw out that poison permanently, if possible.

The Pueblo Bishops and Blood Stone Villains, two adjacent African American Bloods neighborhoods, hold down the 50s blocks between Central Avenue and Alameda Street in Los Angeles. The relationship between Pueblos and Villains is often contentious, but historically they had been close allies who never engaged in a full-scale gang war. Rumors abounded that members of the other gang had AIDS, and there were squabbles over all kinds of neighborhood issues. Thirty years of love, friendship, partying, and rivalry came out in all kinds of crazy ways that didn’t necessarily lead to lethal violence. The two allied gangs used to write their names together: PBSV for Pueblo Bishops– Blood Stone Villains. By 2000, however, tensions between the two neighborhoods had increased. Pressure from nearby Crip gangs had kept the two Bloods neighborhoods united, but the gradual dissolution of the Blood– Crip ideological rivalry beginning in 1992, and the demographic shift from Black to Latino in the area, sparked chronic fighting within the two gangs as well as with 38th Street, a Latino gang just to the north of them. The Operation Fly Trap task force intended to stop this warfare by targeting the area’s lucrative underground drug economy and its key players.

Genia Jackson watched it all happen from a distance. “That ride,” she said later. “I’ll never forget that ride,” from the morning officers had burst into her house to the day in court when she heard the wiretap recordings of her daughter’s voice talking about drugs and fake paperwork. Over the year following the arrest, Ms. Jackson dropped ten pounds from her already slender frame and had to be hospitalized. Her other daughter began suffering from chronic headaches for which she also required hospitalization. To make things worse, Tina’s two-year-old grandson had internalized the motions of raised hands and spread-eagled legs and would respond automatically to cues for secure entrance into the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles where Tina was being held. That broke her heart most, Ms. Jackson said. At two years old, that little boy already knew how to go to jail.

Genia Jackson had lived on 56th Street for thirty years. She remembered when the first Mexican family had moved into the neighborhood; her own black family was now one of the last on the block. Ms. Jackson was known to her neighbors as a “firm person.” She frequently called the police on kids in the neighborhood, and she opened her garage to the kids when they had problems to discuss. She worked hard for her church and organized women’s day events and worship activities. She had been a block captain and was devastated by Officer Brooks’s targeting of her family: “Why mines?” she demanded. “Why not these?” she asked, pointing to the cadre of girls on the corner who continued to deal drugs after the task force. She had until then been so proud of Tina, knowing that Tina was finally living on her own, that she had cleaned herself up from her addictions, that she was no longer running the streets, that she was paying her own rent and managing her own household.

The drug game, however, was what had inspired Tina to get clean and had kept her afloat. It was her new addiction, she said: fast money. Neither the most powerful nor the least, Tina was at the center of everything. She was the one always calling, the one always coming or going. She connected everyone, from the highest to the lowest. She was everywhere, all the time.

Painstakingly, Brooks and King built their case. They recruited confidential sources. They stationed themselves in undercover vehicles and made strategic arrests. But their informants were too scared to give good information, and their undercover cars were always identified. After the task force won the right to wiretap cell phone communications, all this became moot. Brooks and King now knew everything about everybody: who was dating whom, who was fighting, and who was selling, and for how much. The drug verbiage of chickens, birds, bricks, cookies, ones, twos, and fives became the language of their everyday world. Within a two-year period, they had successfully uncovered the network. They assembled a list of twenty-eight names, obtained warrants, and gathered the resources of over thirty collaborating law enforcement agencies. Then, at dawn on June 26, 2003, they started breaking down doors.

* * *

November 1, 2007, was a day of celebration in federal penitentiaries throughout the United States. Congress had chosen not to challenge the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendation to reduce penalties for crack cocaine. This victory was the first of two in a twenty-year battle that activists, organizers, families, and the Sentencing Commission itself had been fighting to overturn what many regarded as the most racist piece of active legislation in the United States. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 had required that the amount of powder cocaine needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence was a hundred times the amount of crack necessary for such a trigger. Numbers were clear. Eighty percent of those convicted under crack laws were African American. The congressional inaction on November 1 didn’t directly address the 100:1 disparity, but it did allow judges more leeway in sentencing people on the basis of prior criminal history. Several Fly Trap targets were among 19,000 prisoners now eligible to shave an average of sixteen months off their sentences.

President Obama’s election in 2008 brought an even greater victory. On August 3, 2010, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, reducing the crack/cocaine disparity to 18:1. Optimism and anxiety now weighted the lives of already convicted individuals, who awaited news of whether the legal change would eventually apply to them.

Although Operation Fly Trap predated these legislative changes, it was part of the same sociolegal moment. The public had de facto withdrawn support for the drug war. Political battle cries to be tough on crime now stopped short of proposing long sentences for nonviolent offenders. The Federal Bureau of Prisons—now the largest single prison system in the United States—was vulnerable to a critique that 90 percent of its inmates were nonviolent. Operation Fly Trap was part of an attempt to make this 90 percent more palatable by recasting nonviolent drug offenders as intimately related to the lethal violence of gangs.

Diane Feinstein, Democratic senator from California, had long supported rectifying the racialized sentencing disparities in the federal system. But Feinstein also hated the gangs that posed a significant problem in her home state. In 2007, and again in 2009, federal antigang legislation she had spent years crafting was finally to go before Congress. The Gang Prevention and Abatement Act expanded the list of gang crimes that could be penalized within the federal system. Opponents said the law was costly and unnecessary. Federal gang prosecutions were already possible through RICO, gun laws, and other conspiracy- based charges. Proponents of the act said that we needed more. They argued that gangs devastated communities and had been in part responsible for a nationwide rise in violent crime. Had the act passed, it would have become the most significant new contributor to racial disparities within the federal system, now masked by a veneer of gang violence.

Operation Fly Trap was just one point of connection between drugs and gangs in a time of criminal policy crisis and adjustment. Sentencing reforms, the Feinstein legislation, and task forces like Fly Trap all answered a need to re-present the drug war as healthy and justifiable.

Testimony by Debra Yang, Central Division’s U.S. attorney, made much the same point. Before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Yang lauded the Fly Trap case among others her office had prosecuted, indicating that “members of these gangs had terrorized their respective communities, such as the Pueblo Del Rio housing project in Los Angeles, for years with a vice-like grip on the drug trade in their communities. The gang members backed up that iron grip with the ever present shadow of violence, both real and threatened.”

Despite brief national attention, little about Fly Trap was remarkable. It was no Tulia, where one crooked cop left 20 percent of black men in that Texas town incarcerated erroneously. It didn’t exemplify the worst abuses in policing, as had, for example, the LAPD Rampart Division scandals beginning in the late 1990s. Nor did Fly Trap involve the purportedly worst kinds of criminals. By 2003, that spot had been reserved for members of Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational gang with ties to Latin America. Operation Fly Trap was one of roughly 250 similar task forces mounted nationwide in 2003, and the best it had to offer were some run-of-the-mill Bloods, a couple of significant drug dealers, one bona fide supplier, and a high conviction rate.

For me, Fly Trap’s daily aspect was more valuable than a splashy corruption story or a series of handpicked anecdotes. Commonplace police work reveals more detail about how law enforcement and legal proceedings define relations of power. The manner in which power is written through law is a daily thing, after all, and requires unpacking daily stories, daily relationships, daily language.

Between criminal and law enforcement worlds, the ethnography of the individual relationships in Fly Trap feeds into an analysis of culturally constructed aspects of crime. Teasing apart connections among gangs, drugs, and policing in the context of drug policy failure adds to our understanding of penality’s impact in segregated urban areas, the relationship of gang violence to a state restructuring itself around security issues, and the widespread use of criminal justice methods to address social problems.

Operation Fly Trap’s rhetoric tended to boil down gang violence to a single cause: the drug trade. But gangs are far more complicated. None of the major drug dealers in the case was an active gang member, though all lived in gang neighborhoods. The rivalry the task force intended to disrupt had its roots outside of drug concerns. The police indicated that, for them, drugs were a convenient way to target those they considered to be key players.

As a global industry, the drug trade reinforces hierarchy at the same time as it provides a great economic equalizer. Most illegal drugs are manufactured outside of the United States but consumed within its borders, making U.S. drug consumption a prime mover in an industry the U.N. estimates is worth $320 billion dollars annually. Illicit drugs now comprise 0.9 percent of the global Gross Domestic Product, a trade that bolsters crumbling local economies from Bolivia to Baltimore.

As in other North American cities, “serving” or “slangin’” in Los Angeles forms a bridge over defunct union manufacturing jobs and service-sector employment made inaccessible by public school failure. With these barren economic circumstances, the drug game has become a powerful opportunity rooted in local neighborhoods, which in Los Angeles are ruled almost exclusively by gangs.

In L.A., long-term familial involvement in the drug trade follows patterns of economic deindustrialization. The hiring practices of the 1970s, when the key Fly Trap targets were children, exhibited the same overt racism toward black men as they had in the 1940s and 1950s. The oil crisis had begun; the dollar was depreciating in the international market. In 1973, union jobs had begun shrinking in L.A. During the rest of the decade, the bifurcation of the manufacturing sector would take its toll on L.A.’s working class, as it did in many American cities. The education system simply failed to keep up with these changes. Between 1970 and 2003, California public schools went from best to worst. Many who might otherwise have held factory jobs instead became part of a generation of drug dealers, drug users, and gang members. In the 1970s states still competed for the lowest number of prisoners. In those days, low numbers of incarcerated individuals meant a healthy society, not the other way around.

Geographer Ruth Gilmore writes of the multiple surpluses that turned this low-incarceration equation on its head. Californians had grown tired of using their money to build the state’s infrastructure. The taxpayer revolt of the mid-1970s disinvested many from the public school system and other public works projects, leaving the role of state government in question. Drought simultaneously left land fallow in rural parts of the state, and an entire generation of would-be working-class people had no employment. These surpluses created a perfect storm in which building a massive prison infrastructure, though not inevitable, became California’s salvation enterprise. From 1973 to 2003, the state’s prison system increased from twelve to forty institutions—the fastest rate of growth “anyone, anywhere has ever seen,” says prison researcher Elliot Currie. Incarceration became California’s number one industry. It would grow to employ the largest number of people in the state and would eventually boast the most powerful union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association—prison guards.

This California trend continues to echo at the federal level. The federal prison population has increased by more than 500 percent in the past twenty-five years and remains on an upward trajectory. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) went from housing 21,539 inmates in 1979 to 217,444 in 2011, and 75 percent of those sentenced in the federal system are people of color. Although the California prison system has now hit stasis, the FBOP continues to expand with the increasing federalization of crime—so much so that the feds have begun to use private prisons to take up the slack.

Most of this rampant prison growth is attributable to the war on drugs. In the wake of deindustrialization, it became possible to wage a war that targeted drug use and sales. Jailing such a significant portion of the working class never could have happened if those same individuals had been needed in the labor force, even if they had been using or dealing drugs. At the federal level, mandatory minimum sentencing and other policy changes began to flood the system with drug offenders and kept them there longer. Drug offenders are now 55 percent of the FBOP population.

Although intended to solve problems of crime and violence, crime suppression—and particularly incarceration—has resulted in many of the same disruptions for families as has massive job loss. Incarceration has become as significant a multigenerational process as the deindustrialized economy that preceded it and that continues in its wake. Consistently targeted communities with deep local ties are simply unable to transform incarceration or reentry into anything positive at collective or individual levels. Fly Trap, in its turn, incarcerated a group of individuals intimately related to one another through kinship and neighborhood affiliation. Although a precise attack, it impacted the lives of far more people than the targeted individuals.

I began to follow the fallout of Operation Fly Trap among several families soon after the June takedown. Violence was difficult to gauge in the two neighborhoods, and the families of those arrested were dealing with court dates, financial instability, health problems, child social services, job loss, and eviction proceedings. The wife of one Fly Trap target lost her job and was denied unemployment benefits. She and her two children remained without income or health insurance for eight months. The mother of another target described having her apartment raided three times: once for the target (who was apprehended), once for another son who was and had been in prison for the past five years, and once for a son who was deceased. Neighborhood residents freely bandied about the identities of the confidential informants who had ratted them out. One Fly Trap court case proved that sheriff’s deputies had falsified paperwork regarding hard evidence in order to match the date of his recorded conversation with a source.

By the time of Fly Trap and its attendant stories, I had spent a great deal of time in the Pueblos and Villains neighborhoods. Beginning in 1995, I had volunteered for a year at the Black Women’s Health Project in the heart of the Villains’ neighborhood, educating myself about women’s health, about Bloods, Crips, and Latino gangs, and about the significance of the 1992 rioting. For the next ten years, vague thoughts of ethnography shaped my time in the neighborhoods, and I developed a close relationship with one particular family in the Pueblos. Ben Kapone, a subsequent Fly Trap target from the Pueblo Bishops, had early on taken me under his wing after we met in the projects. His five-year-old brother and eighteen-year-old sister became the strongest connections between us.

In the years that followed, Ben’s name offered me protection despite the fact that he was incarcerated most of the time I knew him. When he was inside, I grew close to his family, his mother, wife, sisters, younger brother, and his children, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. I experienced many of the family’s joys and difficulties, facing along with them the death of Ben’s five-year-old nephew who was hit by a car, the loss of his three-month-old grandbaby accidentally smothered by a grandmother’s epileptic seizure, and the loss of a twenty-five-year-old nephew dead from swallowing drugs as he fled police. Joys were often not far off these tragedies. The kids would make peashooters in the summertime, capture sand bees in plastic water bottles, and jump on me whenever I walked in the door. At times, the Pueblos gang had been at its strongest, with members visible and in the streets. Most of them were so suspicious of me that my time in the neighborhood was frankly painful. Ben’s protection never equaled acceptance. Other times, the gang was weaker, with people of importance inside or dead.

When Ben became a Fly Trap target, Ben’s family crumbled. The notion of family dissolution shaped the beginnings of a formal research project and part of this book’s outcome.

Fly Trap jailed Ben at a time when he was attempting to go straight, not for the first time. He had held a legitimate job from January to June 2003, was being considered for early release from parole, and he and his wife were considering a move to Atlanta to cement his positive direction. But a Fly Trap surveillance unit had recorded a drug transaction between Ben and a confidential informant six months earlier, and the subsequent state case landed Ben in prison for three years. A cocaine addiction tarnished the period after his release, and Ben alienated many people in the neighborhood as a result of it. He was murdered in the projects one early morning in March 2008. Ben left behind his wife and their young daughter, three sons (one of whom was his wife’s child), as well as his brother, three sisters, and many nieces and nephews. His mother hung on through multiple strokes and chronic illness. She died a year after Ben did.

Ben was killed the same week that Fly Trap cocaine supplier Juan Lococo won his appeal. In Lococo’s case, as in Tina’s and Junior’s, the amount of powder cocaine had been mathematically converted into crack quantities for the purposes of maximizing his sentence. The U.S. attorneys argued that the defendants’ foreknowledge that the powder they sold would be eventually converted to crack justified the multiplication, which allowed a lengthier sentence. (I go into detail regarding this practice in chap. 5.) Lococo’s appeal, which was published in the Ninth Circuit in 2008, was partially dismissed, affirmed, vacated, and remanded. The affirmation of the ruling involving wiretap got national attention. The less-publicized courtroom crack conversion was remanded. As a result of Lococo’s repeated assertions that he had no knowledge that his powder would be turned to crack, the judge reduced Lococo’s sentence from twenty-two to fourteen years. Lococo says now, “one thing the government counted on in this case was the ignorance of the people they arrested. They thought we were nothing but one dumb Mexican and a bunch of dumb black gang members.”


Excerpted from pages 1-10 of Operation Fly Trap: L. A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Law by Susan A. Phillips, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)