The excerpts below are from a chapter compiled during a session with gang members in Camp Kilpatrick, a juvenile detention camp located in the Santa Monica Mountains, about their thoughts on killing.
Mr. Jones picks up a piece of chalk and writes, in large block letters, a single word on the blackboard:
The room goes very quiet; the only sound you can hear at this moment is the muted shuffling of feet under the desks. Mr. Jones faces his audience and waits for complete silence before he speaks.
"Okay, y'all know what the word means. Now I want each of you to give me a real good reason to kill somebody."
The words are barely out of his mouth when hands begin to jab the air. Jones nods at one of the kids.
"For the fuck of it."
Jones turns back to the blackboard, writes those words.
"Okay, 'for the fuck of it.' Let's have another reason."
"Put in work for the 'hood."
Jones writes again. "Okay, that's a good reason. Next?"
"'Cause he's my enemy."
"Yeah, that's righteous." Jones prints quickly. "An enemy."
"Yeah, let's get that one down, that's a good one. Revenge." The chalk screeches against the board.
"'Cause he said somethin' wrong."
"You mean like dis' you?"
"Naw. Just wrong - like, you know, wrong."
"Yeah, okay. Because he said somethin' wrong and now you gotta smoke him for it, right?"
"Ye-eeeeeeeeh." The kid slouches back in his chair, grinning. He is clearly well pleased with himself for having made his thoughts so perfectly understood. Jones writes the words on the board, then turns back to face the kids. "Come on - let's get some reasons up here. Y'all supposed to be such tough dudes. Let's go."
Now the answers begin to come quickly.
"'Cause he looks at me funny, give me that mad-dog look."
"'Cause I don't like him."
"'Cause he ask me where I was from."
"'Cause he wearin' the wrong color."
"'Cause he gonna hurt a member of my family."
Jones is nodding his head, scribbling furiously on the blackboard.
"So I can jack somebody for dope."
"'Cause he gave me no respect."
"'Cause he a disgrace, he a buster."
"For his car."
"'Cause he try to get with my lady."
"'Cause he a tansformer (spy) in my 'hood."
"'Cause he try to jack you - take yo' shit."
"For a nickel."
"For the way he walk."
"If he got somethin' I want and he don't wanna give it to me."
"'Cause I'm a loc."
"For his association."
"'Cause he called me a baboon - dis' me."
"'Cause he fucked with my food - you know, like took one of my French fries or somethin'."
"'Cause I don't like his attitude."
"'Cause he say the wrong thing - he wolf me."
"'Cause I'm buzzed - you know, all like, high and bent."
"Just playin' around."
"'Cause he fucked up my hair in the barber shop."
Jones chuckles as he writes this one. "Fucked up your hair, huh? Well, I can understand that."
And still the reasons to kill keep coming.
"'Cause he a snitch."
"'Cause he hit up my wall, crossin' out names and shit, writin' R.I.P."
"If a lady don't give me what I want. You know - the wild thing."
"'Cause they ugly."
"'Cause he try to run a drag (con) on me."
All of the reasons are up on the board now, in three neatly lettered rows. Mr. Jones steps back, surveying the list for a moment, nodding his head. Then he turns to look at the kids again.
"Okay. Now. Which of this shit would you die for?"
There is a beat of utter silence; the air seems to shimmer with the combined stares of shocked students. Jones stands quietly, staring back at them. "Oh, come on, now. If y'all can kill for something, y'all better be ready to die for it. So let's hear it: which of these reasons you gonna die for?"
One of the kids pipes up. "Hell, you can erase all that shit."
"No, let's go point by point, see what we got here. Okay, who's gonna die 'for the fuck of it'?"
Five hands go up. An Essay kid, he's one of the newest members of the class, wants to talk about it. "It would be like when you play Russian roulette, you know? Like if I got nothing else to do, because I'm bored."
Mr. Jones does not hesitate to put a finer point on it, "But that would be suicide, killing yourself, wouldn't it?"
The kid doesn't see it that way - the original premise was "reasons to kill" - "it didn't say nothing about who." Now, surprisingly, it's one of the other students, one of the five kids who also raised his hand to defend this reason to kill someone, who argues with the Essay kid, telling him how wrong he is.
"We ain't talkin' about killin' yo'self here, fool - we talkin' about smokin' somebody else just for the fuck of it. You got the heart to kill somebody else?" The Essay kid assures him that he does. Now Mr. Jones interrupts to explain that it isn't just killing another person for the hell of it that is the subject here. He reminds the students that in killing the stranger, they must also die. That's the deal in this instance. You kill - for whatever reason - you die. The five hands that were raised go back down. The words "for the fuck of it" are erased from the blackboard.
As are the other reasons. There are some arguments, of course: "Putting in work for the 'hood" and "revenge" get some people yelling. But as Mr. Jones reads the reasons aloud, one by one, the show of hands gets smaller. Until he gets to "wearing the wrong color." Then every hand in the room thrusts into the air. Every kid here is willing to die for red or blue - the Essays are adamant about this one too.
We are at the heart of gangbanging.
Jones holds up both hands for silence. "Okay, I want y'all to listen hard and go along with this: I'm a madman with a fully loaded 'gauge. You all naked, sittin' there in yo' chairs with nothin' on. But they's some clothes under the chairs - three pairs of pants to choose from: pair of blue pants, pair of red pants, pair of white pants. Now - anyone puts on any color but white" - he hoists the imaginary shotgun, squints down the barrel - "Booyah! You dead." He turns, aiming dead center on a kid's chest. "What color pants you gonna put on?"
The kid's eyes move quickly around the room - everybody is waiting. He licks his lips, "Red pa. . ."
"Booyah!" Jones swings toward another kid.
"Bl . . ."
"Booyah!" Jones shakes his head. "Maybe y'all didn't hear me. I'm a madman, I don't care about no loyalty. I just don't like any color but white, makes me mad if somebody don't like it, too. Mad enough to kill you." He nods at a kid who has his hand up. It's G-Roc.
"But if I choose the white pants instead of my set's color, that makes me a buster."
The other boys nod their heads vigorously. Jones smiles sweetly.
"And if you put on the blue or the red, what does that make you?"
"Make you dead for no other reason but a madman's whim. You R.I.P. because he like white pants. Now, how many of you gonna die for that?"
The kid persists. "Yeah, but if I do put on yo' color, I'm just a punk."
"No. I just like white. I don't care about no blue, no red, no pink, no green. I just like white."
G-Roc shrugs. "Okay. I'll put on the white." But he's not happy about it; you can see it all over his face.
"Anybody else gonna die for the red or the blue?"
Jones erases the words "wearing the wrong color." Then he turns back to look at the kids again. "Lemme tell you somethin' - you can be down for your 'hood, you can go to jail for your 'hood, you can die for your 'hood. And if you do, if you die, you know what happens? Nothing. Nothing changes. The beat goes on. All your dead homeboys? Even they don't mean diddly. Because nothing changes."
Jones reads off the rest of the reasons that are still on the board. There is no show of hands, until he gets to the words "for his association." This was G-Roc's reason, and he is implacable now: he will kill and he will die because he does not approve of another person's allegiance. When Jones attempts to reason with him, he simply shakes his head, over and over. He remains unmoved even in the face of argument from a couple of the O.G.'s. The only thing that he will say is, "Y'all don't know me."
Finally only three reasons to kill - and to die - are left up there on the blackboard. There is "for his association," with one vote next to it, and there are "for my family" and "self-defence," both of which got a unanimous show of hands.
Now Jones clears the board entirely. Then he puts another word up there:
"Who's heard this word? Irrational."
No hands. Jones writes again, two words this time.
"How about these?"
Some hands go up. Jones gives the nod to one of the O.G.'s.
"Normal means like regular."
"That's right. And 'sprung'?" He points to another kid.
"It mean nutty."
"Right. And that's what that first word means - irrational. Irrational means sprung." Jones leans back against the desk, crossing both arms against his chest. "Most normal people have a kill-die equation. What that means is if your mother prays at church every Sunday at the Ebenezer Tabernacle and somebody threatens her children, she will kill or die for them. Fathers too. That's what protecting the family is about. Self-defense and protecting your family is a normal kill-die equation."
The kids are listening hard now; Jones goes on. "At the beginning of the class we were some abnormal, sprung motherfuckers." A mild laugh ripples through the room. "That's what people think about gang members - they will kill people for any damn thing. That's what people look at. If you decide to be normal, you have to be willing to kill only for that thing you are willing to die for. If you get to that point, you gonna make it - you won't be the kind of person whose numbers are so fucked up that I want him in the penitentiary forever. Forever. Because his numbers are too fucked up."
One of the younger kids - the one who was ready to kill the barber for a less than satisfactory haircut - pipes up.
"How many numbers was up on that blackboard?"
"Y'all gave thirty-seven reasons to kill."
The kid shakes his head. "Thirty-seven's a bigass number."
"Yeah, it is. And if you got more than two for two, then you're the kind of person other people are afraid of. People are afraid of you if you're abnormal."
Jones nudges his head forward a fraction. "Want to get respect? You don't gotta kiss nobody's ass, you don't have to smack (kick ass), you don't have to talk white. Just be a normal motherfucker. Because everybody - even you - are afraid of abnormal people. Abnormal just don't make it."
The kid who thought that thirty-seven was a bigass number nods his head solemnly. "It don't make no sense."
"That's right. It don't make no sense."