“I loved school and had good grades. I played every sport—football, basketball, swimming—up to Jordan High,” Ronny Dawson reminisces. But Ronny had little chance of not becoming a gang member. Born in Nickerson Gardens, a housing project in South Los Angeles which encompasses Watts and Compton and is the birthplace of the notorious Bounty Hunter Bloods, Ronny grew up in an apartment with 29 other people. He never knew his father, who was in and out of prison, and rarely saw his mother, a crack addict. Ronny is a third-generation gang member whose family started their own offshoot of the Bounty Hunter Bloods, the Hillbilly Gangsters. “We aren’t just Bloods, this is my blood. They are my family,” he explains.
In JUMPED IN, UCLA professor and gang expert Jorja Leap gives voice to the people who understand the gang problem best—the gang members and the people who try to arrest them, control them, and help them. A noted anthropologist, Leap offers one of the first genealogies of Los Angeles’s oldest and most powerful black and brown gangs, including the Bloods, Crips,
Florencia, MS-13, and 18th Street, among others, and breaks down their territories street by street.
Tracing the family trees of gang members back three generations, she shows just how strong the clan mentality really is and how deep the kinship connections run. By hearing their oral histories and conducting personal interviews with active and former gang members, interventionists, police officers, priests, parents and victims, Leap reveals the stories and traumas of gang members born into a life of violence, drugs, guns and sex.
The wife of a veteran LAPD officer, Leap spent years on the ground building the trust of gang interventionists and gaining access to the inner gang world. Reporting from their living rooms and street corners, Leap paints a gritty, authentic portrait of life inside the gangs, and explains the forces that pull people into them and keep them there. Trayvon Jeffers was jumped into a gang by
age eleven—the gang was his only family. “My granny’s been doin’ heroin since I was born; my mother’s gone from PCP to cocaine to heroin. She’s got HIV now, but she’s still an addict. I never really knew my father,” he confesses.
Leap sheds light on the many problems plaguing gang members, ranging from domestic violence and mental illness to post traumatic stress disorder. As a woman, Leap is particularly drawn to the female gang members, the homegirls. Most come from toxic, abusive families, and are revictimized in the gangs, she reports. “There are stepfathers who demand blowjobs or cousins who
force them to have anal sex,” writes Leap. She hears stories of girls getting “sexed in” or gangraped as a form of initiation. “In one rumored initiation rite,” the author reveals, “aspiring homegirls were forced to have sex with a gang member who was HIV-positive.” Despite the sexual and physical abuse they will likely face in the gangs, Leaps believes that these girls who make the deliberate choice to join gangs do so as a form of empowerment and a way to re-gain control. For many homegirls, life in the gang is no different than life outside the gang. “I don’t
know what it would be like to have love without pain,” says homegirl Vanity “Dimples” Benton.
While the cyclical violence of gang life is a reality, Leap shows that redemption is not impossible. Throughout the book, she spends much of her time at Father Greg Boyle’s gang intervention and reentry program, Homeboy Industries. It is at Homeboy Industries where Leap encounters hopeful exiting gang members reaping the benefits of Boyle’s “Jobs, Not Jails” program. Readers meet Reverend Mike Cummings, a.k.a. Big Mike, a former “original gangster” and the founder of Project Fatherhood who now practices street peace ministry and plays the role of father figure to neighborhood kids. “I love these children. Every last one of them. The badder they are, the more I love them. I was one of them,” he shares with Leap. About six feet tall and close to 300 pounds, Big Mike was notorious in Watts in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Now, Big Mike spends his days in the hood trying to save children from the life he lived. “They need fathers,” he urges. The father rarely plays a role in the family narrative, Leap reports. “Fathers remain offstage and absent—dead, incarcerated, or with another woman.”
Ultimately, through her observations from the field, Leap shares a rare and honest look into a world many fear and few understand, and presents the possibility of hope.
“Her view is both “aerial” and “in the weeds” while always staying heartbreakingly
compassionate and true. Her work gives me hope.”
-- Gregory J. Boyle, S.J. Founder and Executive Director, Homeboy Industries
Jorja Leap has been on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles Department of Social Welfare since 1992. A recognized expert in gangs, violence, and crisis intervention, she has worked nationally and internationally in violent and postwar settings. Dr. Leap is currently the senior policy advisor on Gangs and Youth Violence for the Los Angeles County Sheriff.