From Gangs of the Ghetto to Gangstas of the Inner City

From Gangs of the Ghetto to Gangstas of the Inner City


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Turf was no longer important. Who had the dough for a nickel bag? they brought in the dope . . .

 no more uniforms, passwords, codes or other special unifying symbols . . . they brought in the dope . . .

Sniffin’ went to skinpoppin’, but you were not a junkie



Books by Louis Reyes Rivera

Sanchocho: A Book of Nuyorican Poetry / Scattered Scripture / Bum Rush the Page

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From Gangs of the Ghetto to Gangstas of the Inner City

By Ted Wilson

The following excerpt from The Bandana Republic (Soft Skull Press 2008) appears here with permission from the editors.


My main men and I bopped to general agreement . . . Down cats we bopped to give cause to the causes that died before they got to us.—from “Bopping,” David Henderson

As I look back, growing up during the early and middle fifties, there were many gangs in the New York City area (including Brooklyn, which was another town in itself). These gangs had an array of interesting names. the Seven Crowns, the Englishmen, the Viceroys, the Dutchmen, the Egyptian Kings, the Enchanters, El Quintos, the Diablos, the Jolly Stompers, the Chaplains (arch enemies of El Quintos), the Bishops, the Young Sinners, and from my neighborhood, the Harlem Lords. There were a slew of other locals who never got broad recognition.

There were a few gangs with city-wide associations like the Sportsmen, who had chapters in various parts of the Bronx and Manhattan from end to end. The Sportsmen from Avenue D on the Lower East Side of Manhattan were extremely fierce. The Chaplains were an equal counterpart (in size and strength) in Brooklyn. They stretched into the not-so-middle class community of Queens. Members of these gangs were called “Bops.” This was short for Beboppers. This, to my knowledge, had no relationship to that form of music we call Bebop, which brought some confusion to us neophytes.

The names of some of the Bops were as exotic as their organizational names—Crazy Horse, John the Bop, Outlaw, John the Baptist, Blade, Graveyard, Tombstone and Priest. Some wore clothing to match their names—like all black, all white or all brown. There were certain types of hats with deep rolled brims called tip rolls. That was done by special hat blockers in the neighborhoods (back then, there were still neighbors in the ’hood). Then there were names like Snake, Pancho, The Umbrella Man, Pablo, Cisco, Deuce, Tino and Reno, Count and Lil Count, Magician, Ace, the Cape Man, Saint, and a host of others that sounded like avante garde Bebop tunes.

The creativity of stylish dress was a mixture of the attire worn by R&B entertainers and nineteenth century carpetbaggers. Various colored suspenders held up chino-type pants worn with long-sleeve dress shirts and vests, making for some very interesting teenage creations. They ranged, in age, from twelve to eighteen years with a preponderance of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. Style was important. In some cases style was all that existed. These were the guys, and girls too, who played behind the tougher ones who were an older brother, sister or cousin, but there was no substance, no heart. They got over, and in some cases developed a rep, because they had family backup from a mean and respected relative. It was widely known this relative would come to the aid of the fluff and puff.

The larger, more notable gangs had uniforms or colors that unified them. This also would identify them as being down on a turf that was controlled by another chapter of the same gang. Organizations like the Sportsmen were so large there had to be some way of identifying each other. Some groups even had passwords or other little codes that made its members authentic. Serious organizational thought was put in place by the members at the top.

These gangs were primarily African American, a number of whom were first generation out of the South. The period ethnic name was Colored or Negro. Weaved into this collective were first generation African-Caribbean aka West Indians (a name that continues to be used, in spite of the fact everyone knows there is no such place or person as the West Indies or a West Indian. This is just another example of how descriptions of people are used to confuse, resulting in further division of African peoples).

There were some gangs, especially in East Harlem, that were Latino. The same was true in the South Bronx and parts of Brooklyn (i.e., Jesters, Ellery Bops, Puerto Rican Outlaws, Phantom Lords). Many of the Colored gangs included Spanish boys. This also is a period name that still hasn’t gone away completely, given the oppression each group equally faces on a daily basis. Spanish-speaking does not make one ethnically Spanish.

Included in this amalgam of thugs were a few white gangs, a period name that continues because it means privilege. These gangs had names like the Golden Guineas, the Beacons and the Fordham Baldies. There was the famous cry, “the Baldies are coming, the Baldies are coming!” forcing schools to close early on many a day and let the children get home safe, but to this day I haven’t found a person yet who actually saw a Baldy. The whites had a natural anger (hard-on) for the Coloreds aka Nigs and the Spanish aka Spics. This came out of their natural nationwide Jim Crow racial attitudes that still exist in certain urban neighborhoods as well as Southern towns. This is part of the fabric of the U.S. Where there are no African Americans or Latinos around, they would go intra-European-American, (i.e., Italians against Irish or Irish versus Germans, etc.). To a degree, the same was true between the Coloreds and Spanish. Their rivalry was not as much ethnic as it was about turf and females, although its origins could be traced to that old toolbox of the Euro-American’s divide and conquer principle.

Speaking of females, many gangs had sister components. In a number of cases they were called Debs (could that be short for debutantes? Yes, though not from the viewpoint of social climbing status, but from their age). Sometimes, they were more vicious than the guys towards their female rivals or non-gang girls who were considered extremely pretty. It was said once that a girl gang or gang of girls had flushed a girl’s head in the toilet bowl and almost drowned her. This was on the Junior High School level in Harlem. Life was tough. These Debs could be equally vicious to weak non-gang males. With all due respect, the female gangs were somewhat of a clone of the males. After all, we are talking about a time that was extremely chauvinistic.

David Henderson speaks to us again from Bopping: “We bopped when/ about to fight/ and we bopped when/ happy/ all in our own slight/ variance/ known to the members/ of the road/ and known to the/ similar bops/ of the roaming hoard . . .”

When the gangs went to war, it was called “Boppin’,” and the participants would don their boppin’ clothes and their boppin’ walk which went along with their boppin’ attitudes. The whole idea that these young people believed that the block or neighborhood or city housing project was a turf they owned is interesting. They defended it like it was their own deeded real estate. What was even more bizarre was the same attitude and enthusiasm the guys accorded to the girls in their fantasized little empires. They acted like the girls were real estate.

The larger gangs were not satisfied with control of the areas where they lived. They attempted, sometimes successfully, to take control of adjacent blocks. A higher-up in the gang, one with a well-known name that matched his reputation, would come into a new territory with a few associates and ask, “What click (i.e., clique) are you in?” If the answer was in the negative, the guys in said blocks would be drafted into that gang. How well it was enforced had to do with how strategically important the block was to their home base or (here come those females again) how many pretty, fine girls lived in the newly acquired territory. Back then, there were no drugs or any of the other money-making enterprises in these fiefdoms. It was all about their machismo and rites of passage, even though I doubt if they understood it that way.

Many of these attitudes were born out of the movies. The popular genres were cowboys, war (recent and historical) and gangster stories. Attached to this was the racial prejudice that had a long history in this country with a particular slant in New York City and other large urban areas, with people who were a generation or two removed from the Deep South and West Indies (English and Spanish speaking). What was seen as Southern racial prejudice was later seen in its real form. We have since come to understand it is systemic and thus define what it was and still is—racism.

The gangs battled for a respect that was couched in the history of Africans and other indigenous people and the self-hate that had been heaped upon them. This baggage carried with it a trunk of contradictions because these same youngsters had witnessed the entrance of Jackie Robinson and others into major league sports—for a price. At the same time, events unfolding, such as at Little Rock, Arkansas, or the Montgomery bus boycotts à la Rosa Parks and the freedom rides, spoke to the dark side of racial progress. This confusion left these warriors, most of whom couldn’t find their way into an organization, be it sports or anything else, in a vulnerable state. A few made their way out by joining the armed forces, which made for a greater contradiction. The way out was to go deeper in and become an instrument of international racial enslavement by way of imperialism. It was either that road or the penitentiary. These young fellows were some of the toughest soldiers, with a few finishing their tours of duty and becoming police officers or some other law enforcement official. This was a win-win situation for the government.

The power structure saw and understood the force of the gangs. They saw the potential of what these gangs could become in its near future. Brown vs. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus boycotts were now gaining national focus. The same mentality of The Institute for Policy Studies, The Kerner Commission and the NWO (New World Order) started turning its evil wheels. Along with the NAACP at one end, there was Elijah Muhammad’s growing Nation of Islam on the other. These young Jitterbugs were a potential force to go up against the KKK and White Citizens councils. While the country at large was focused on a Red Menace, the government’s brain trust and think tanks were looking closely at what could become a Black menace.

. . . They brought in the dope . . . it started with tobacco. It looked hip and tough to smoke . . . they brought in the dope . . . next came the beer; it went with the cigs. Then came the wine . . . they brought in the dope . . . What went better with cigs, beer or wine? Reefer, smoke, joints, weed . . . they brought in the dope . . .

The Bops were boppin’ to another tune. Instead of warring with each other, they were groovin’ to Dinah Washington, the Harptones, the Cadillacs, Ruthie McFadden, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Chantels and the Moonglows, etc., and . . . they brought in the dope . . . Smoke was for squares, chumps, or at best junior hipsters. Sniffin’ scag was what was happenin’. Turf was no longer important. Who had the dough for a nickel bag? they brought in the dope . . . no more uniforms, passwords, codes or other special unifying symbols . . . they brought in the dope . . . Sniffin’ went to skinpoppin’, but you were not a junkie, you just had a chippie . . . they brought in the dope . . . The boppin’ walk became the junkie nod. It was like a contest to see who could nod the lowest and longest and not fall over. They flowed in the dope and the rest is history . . . Down went the Mighty Chaplains. Down went the Mighty Sportsmen, the Corsair Lords and the Seven Crowns. The Black/Latino army gave way to the smoothies, hipsters, jazz aficionados, boogies, intellectuals and again, interestingly, some of the ex-military men who had gained some clarity about who was the true enemy.

This configuration evolved into another movement that fought for a real purpose, in another kind of way. The movement that took place ushered in young men and women who understood things could not stay the same. Instead of turf wars and battles over women (now Sisters), neither of which they owned, the energy was directed into equal accommodations, voting rights and various forms of affirmative action, at least on the surface.

Simultaneously, a sense of self was beginning to take form. The battle for self-worth and recognition of people throughout the African Diaspora and the African continent itself began to rise from the level of venting local neighborhood frustrations to a national Civil Rights Movement to a world-wide Human Rights Movement.

A coming together and a bonding of youngsters from the North and South by way of sports and higher education brought a burst of energy the think tankers could not anticipate. In Negro colleges throughout the South, debates and discussions moved into full force. In the North, cultural groups and organizations began to examine their African selves, re-examine and redefine beauty. Out of the Southern colleges came SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and in the north CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality), NSM (Northern Students Movement, closely aligned with SNCC) along with various nationalist groups. The gangs were now organizations of diverse thought and approaches but with a focused purpose. The liberation of all oppressed people in general and African People in particular was the aim and goal.

There was a recognition of the destruction of the fifties generation, its potential and illness. Brothers and sisters started reaching back to help those who had been damaged by the drug plague. It was first done on a broad level by the Nation of Islam.

Other organizations, such as US in Los Angeles, the Black Panther Party, the name of which came out of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, grew to national attention. Locally, in New York, the Young Lords became the Panthers of the Latino community in the South Bronx, East Harlem and Loisaida (aka Manhattan’s Lower East Side).

Culture played an extremely important role. There were the cultural nationalists who greatly influenced and gave an image to this new movement of thought and action. Just as the gangs of the 1950s had their rituals and dress, so it was with the so-called cultural nationalists, who very much gave shape to the overall movement. The music began to take on another character. It was the 1960s and a conscious clarity was growing. There was relevance in R&B, Jazz and Gospel. They all merged with their diasporic relatives and found a relationship to their mother, Africa. As drummer and activist Max Roach often said, “Everything is sociopolitical.”

The music was being written, arranged and performed with the movement in mind. This carried on into the early 1970s with an emphasis on electing people who were supposed to carry the movement to another level.

For some, it provided the sliver of light to move forward and upward in ways that, in the previous generation, one could only dream about. For the offspring of the Harlem Lords, El Quintos and others, along with their Debs, the new era gave birth to a generation that was now growing up without the ethics, morals and respect that even those Jitterbugs once possessed. The desire to rise and respect those who had pushed forward, or attempted to, eroded. This erosion continued to spiral down to the following generation, now two generations removed from the Jitterbugs of the fifties. Many of the children and grandchildren of the junkie generation had actually raised themselves. They became the purveyors of inner city degeneration.

As the nouveau revolutionaries became leftists, Pan-Africanists and general Third World activists, that old New World Order raised its head again . . .They flew in the coke . . . as children raised themselves into crack/cocaine dealers and users, bodyguards and killers . . . They brought in the Uzis and Glocks . . . murder became the order of the day. Human life lost all value. The word respect became a reason to try out these new toys of destruction . . . they flew in the mules . . . turf wars resurrected, this time for control over the sale of death . . . They flew down the fools . . . young girls and not so young, with babies to take care of, from young men who call themselves and each other “Dogs.” Chaplains became Bloods and Sportsmen became Crips (on the West Coast) and El Quintos became Latin Kings (on the East Coast). Life deteriorated to a jumbo cap of rock, and females of any age became a slab of meat and were treated as such.

From the Boogie-down Bronx came a new art form that created a new culture. Just as Bebop Jazz had created a new culture, by the late ’70s, so did Rap Music (the music part is debatable) descend upon the culture and “blew up” in the 1980s as a key component of Hip Hop culture. In the beginning there was relevance and consciousness from people like African Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, KRS 1, Public Enemy, Melle Mel and a few others. As time progressed, what was positive, conscious rap, which had started on the East Coast, became the negative but conscious gangsters like NWA from the West Coast, which was initially tolerated. From there it all went downhill. Foul, vile lyrics became and still remain the odor of the day.

This offspring known as Gangsta Rap became the lyrical expression of the Crip/Blood crack world permeating an African/Latino view in every low to low/middle class community of its inhabitants. Just as the crack/cocaine industry started on the West Coast (as per Gary Webb, reporter on the staff of the San Jose Mercury News, who investigated and reported on the U.S. government’s involvement with the Colombian drug cartels to purposely target these same communities on the West Coast and move East), so too did Gangsta Rap.

. . . They rose up rap and promoted it highly . . . So went the new warriors and their consciousness raising lyrics in the 1980s . . . in come the Bloods and Crips from West Coast to East . . . Never before have neighborhood gangs become national in scope . . . they took the neighbor out of hood, made prison dress the style and convicts the trend setters in style and language . . . The queens are now called “Shorties,” the warriors have become Dogs (mad ones at that) and race pride has been reduced to Nigs . . . they brought in five-o and these children have become the fuel for the prison industrial system . . .

The question is: will there ever be Peace in the East as long as there is Unrest in the West? They claim “they know what time it is.” Do they really know it is time to look in the mirror, look inward, see the damage and move to repair it—which is what Reparations Time is about.

The above  excerpt from The Bandana Republic (Soft Skull Press 2008) appears here with permission from the editors.

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Let Loose on the WorldCelebrating Amiri Baraka at 75

Edited by Karen D. Taylor and Louis Reyes Rivera

intro by Mumia Abu Jamal

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books

For July 1st through August 31st 2011  


#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered

the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It

By H. W. Brands

In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar’s astonishing rise to become the world’s principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar’s changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America’s economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan’s bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar’s dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power–and the enormous risks–of the dollar’s worldwide reign.  The Economy

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 5 January 2009




Home   Amin Sharif Table    Louis Reyes Rivera Table

Related files: The Bandana Republic (reviews; table of contents)    A Review of The Bandana Republic (Sharif)  

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