High School Tagged

by Bruce McEwen, August 12, 2009

Last week the Anderson Valley High School was tagged in two brazen raids that left many locals spitting mad. One custodian I spoke with at the school swore with such fluency and vehemence I was afraid he might incite a vigilante lynching party before the week was out, and if the names of the suspects were given out, community outrage could easily develop into a lynch mob mentality. And, yes, the local Sheriff’s Deputies, Craig Walker and Keith Squires, do have suspects in mind.

Tagging is, of course, gang-related graffiti. It is meant to be ugly, violent, obtuse, arcane, aesthetically speaking. But more pragmatically its purpose is to mark the turf of the gangsters. Northern California is the turf of the Norteños (Northerners). This is pretty much common knowledge. The letter N, and the numbers 4 and 14 (N being the fourteenth letter of the alphabet), sometimes written in Roman numerals or as X4 are markings of the Norteños; their color is red. The traditional rivals of the Norteños are the Sureños (Southerners). In the late 1960s Mexican-American inmates in the state prison system began separating, according to their hometowns. The statewide dividing line between the two gangs has roughly been accepted as the rural community of Delano, in California’s central valley.

But Sureños have been migrating in recent years, establishing subsets in many cities north of Delano. Typically, they will choose sleepy little towns where there is little or no Norteño gang influence to challenge them. Some of the tagging on the Anderson Valley High School gym was indicative of the Soreños: Their number is 13.

Deputy Walker said the 13 on the gym could have been a B. He said, “I don’t think we’ve got a gang problem here. Not like in Santa Rosa, or even in Ukiah. What we’ve got here is a lot of wannabes. Frankly, we’ve got such a large Mexican-American community here it’s hard to believe some of them are not tied in, but, in my mind, it’s a stretch to say there’s a gang problem in Boonville.

Last week I watched a gangster in Ukiah go down for wearing gang-related colors — a less serious offense than tagging. He was sentenced to 60 days in the county jail, essentially, for wearing red boxer shorts and a belt buckle with an “I” on it. He also had a little red on his shoes and cap brim — not so much as a stylish fashion statement, as it was a representation of gang affiliation; in this case, a subset of the Norteños referred to in court as Indian Pride.

The drama was nothing more than a common violation of probation hearing, but, being gang-related, such things are taken very seriously by the Mendocino County Probation Department. Ukiah Police Officer Michelle Maldonado testified that she saw the defendant, whom she identified as Lydell Williams, who was present in the characteristic red pajamas and stainless steel chains of the county jail and seated with a public defender. She saw him flip up his shirt, a “hoody,” I think she said, and show his red boxers and belt buckle with the “I” on it. His trousers, she explained for the edification of Judge Brown’s court, were worn very low. The style, as it was explained to me by an anonymous source, is “jailin’,” so called “’cause they take yo belt in jail and yo pants won’t stay up.” The defendant also had red on his shoes and ball cap, which probation officer Jason Costa testified was consistent with gang affiliation, a subtle way of identifying oneself with a gang. Mr. Costa is “a gang expert,” he said, “with over 120 hours of training yearly, and over 50 weekly encounters with gang members.”

Defendant Williams also had a pipe in his possession and admitted to Officer Maldonado he had smoked marijuana that morning. The admission was later confirmed by urine analysis. But, preposterously, the public defender had this evidence rejected by the court as hearsay, arguing that the private contractor who did the test, Redwood Toxicology, were of no more consequence than, say, Sears & Roebuck for selling the jailhouse bunkbeds. Judge Brown made a few wry comments about the relaxed rules of hearsay evidence, but nonetheless ruled in favor of defense on the marijuana issue. The DA was asking for 90 days in the county jail, but the judge only gave him 60, all for wearing red.

Red is the color of the Norteños; a subset is the Indian Pride (I.P.) or A.T.C. — an acronym/abbreviation for Aztec, which has been validated as a prison gang in California state prisons and the Mendocino County jail.

Anthropologists have demonstrated in a number of instances that contemporary gang activity is an expression of the ancient totemic traditions that have been part of the Homo Sapiens experience for thousands of years. Modern culture attempts to sublimate the instinct to join totemic clans with sports, both scholastic and professional. That’s why sports teams have the names of animals. Graffiti itself enjoys equally venerable antiquity. The caves at Lescaux, France, or the pictographs on the sandstone walls of the Southwest in the U.S. — the original graffiti — were used in initiation ceremonies, in indigenous cultures the world over. It is what biologists call “species specific behavior.” Initiation, in terms of human ecology, is how one is transformed from a slogan-shouting, peer-pressured adolescent into an independent, autonomous adult — something utterly anathema to the culture of consumerism, conquest and control. Matriculation into genuine adulthood is neither encouraged nor tolerated in our society.

Demographically, the culturally frustrated desire for initiation has filled modern society with all kinds of psychotic specimens of truncated ontogeny, so much so that 40 and 50 year-old fellows with no more maturity than12 year-olds are considered eminent mentors. The era these unfortunates were trapped in, the 1960s, can be revisited at will or whim on any radio station in the country, day or night. They never tire of the relentless Bob Dylan, the immortal Beatles, and the dyslexic Strolling Bones. Each generation is trapped in the pop songs and puppy love of the year they graduated, an eternal adolescence, as it were. Some attempts have been made to provide something more viable than high school graduation as a matriculation into adulthood. But artifices like the weekly Boonville drum circle are too safe and fall flat.

Native American drum circles were dances, like skits, depicting intrepid actions of the hunt, feats of danger and glory. Groovy rhythms just don’t have the same feel on the spine as hunting a 1200-pound grizzly bear with a stick sharpened in a fire. And it is not quite the same thing as shooting one down from a safe distance with a high-powered sporting rifle, like a .338 Winchester Magnum. Your hat may fly off with the recoil, and your shoulder will be sore for a day or two, but it’s not really worth telling over and over, is it? Except after a few too many at the Boonville Lodge, maybe, depending on the audience.

The human male between the ages of 14 and 21 yearns to test his body and mind in the crucible of daring, and the culture of the gang offers this chance. (True, the US military offers this opportunity, as well. And I took that route myself. But the military is connected to consumerism in its own right and furthermore contributes its own share of psychopaths to society.) Our human ontogeny has been tampered with from the beginning of our vaunted Western Civilization. But the clever chaps who designed this highly profitable — for the few — culture of consumerism, conquest and control didn’t really know what they were doing. They didn’t care, it turns out. They only wanted to pile up enormous mountains of plunder. Sanity wasn’t an issue they cared to address. “Let the poor wretches at the bottom of the heap fend for themselves,” their reasoning went. “Lie to them!” But you don’t want to lie, the poet warns, not to the young. All of which is simply to say, gangs are a symptom of a sick society — and not, as the chaps in control would assert, society’s sick.

Deputy Walker says the gang tagging in Boonville was done by wannabes, and he no doubt knows what he’s talking about. But we, as human beings with our highly developed sense of imagination, tend to become what we imitate.

There are a few programs in the Canyonlands of southern Utah, such as Aspen and Sorenson Ranch, where “at-risk youth” can get a kind of imitation initiation, or ersatz vision quest, if you will. These programs, pioneered by a Dr. Standahl in Boulder, Colorado in the early 1970s, are effective, generally, but very pricy and mostly available to rich kids, only. Something needs to be done for young adults in general, or as the population continues to swarm out of all bounds of sanity, more than just a few wannabes will become established in Boonville — and elsewhere — then none of us will be safe from marauding gangs.

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