Sociology Faculty Discuss Award-Winning Documentary on History of Los Angeles Gangs
John Quicker, professor of sociology, and La Tanya Skiffer, assistant professor of sociology, participated in a
panel discussion at a screening of the 2008 documentary “Crips and Bloods: Made in America” on April 28 at the
Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. Quicker moderated the panel, which included Skiffer, Stacy Peralta, the
documentary’s director; Skipp Townsend, former gang member and intervention activist; and Shaka, former gang member
Quicker, who established a landmark class on “Gangs and Adolescent Subcultures” at California State University,
Dominguez Hills in the early 1980s, said that the documentary is “a sincere attempt to portray the current problem
in Los Angeles in a documentary style with an upbeat ending.”
“[‘Made in America’] shows a historical connectedness as well as the changes that gangs have undergone with suggestions
for community involvement to ameliorate the problem,” he says. “I would recommend it to anyone interested in understanding
the problem as an important introduction.”
Brynna Price, senior, sociology, was one of numerous CSU Dominguez Hills students who attended the screening, along with
many other college students from the Los Angeles area. She says that she was eager to see the film after growing up in
a community that is affected by street rivalries and violence.
“A lot of my homeboys are affiliated with [gangs] and they don’t even know why,” she said. “I’d rather know the truth
about it than [just] stories.”
“I’m from Oakland, but we’ve got the same thing,” Price continued. “Up there, there are no gangs, just a bunch of kids
arguing over a block. It’s like, ‘You don’t even live on this street and you’re willing to die for it.’ It’s crazy.”
Skiffer, who grew up on South Los Angeles, focuses her research on gangs and adolescent subcultures. For the past two
years, she have served on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Gang Reduction and Youth Development grant proposal review team
and is a consultant for the Long Beach Boys & Girls Clubs Street S.M.A.R.T. Program, where she trains CSU Dominguez Hills
students to deliver gang resistance lessons to local youth. She says that the film’s historical context is instrumental
in debunking the myths of gang culture.
“So much of what we know about gangs is deeply rooted in mass media,” she says. “The role of factors such as a growing
urban, suburban, and rural underclass, ongoing deindustrialization, and economic restructuring are key to understanding
our gang problem today.”
Marilyn Villatoro, junior, sociology, grew up on South Central and was interested in learning the history behind the
Los Angeles gangs.
“After watching a clip in Dr. Skiffer’s class, I was interested to know how minorities were discriminated by law
enforcement in that area, so that’s the reason why I’m here,” she said.
Quicker says that the beginning of gangs in American society predates the Civil War, as documented in the 1928 book by
Herbert Asbury, “Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld,” which chronicles the tensions between recent
Irish immigrants and “native” born European Americans.
“As the population of America spread north, south and west, gangs were discovered in all the major cities,” Quicker said. “Los Angeles gangs have been around since the early part of the 20th century, although it was not until the Zoot Suit
Riots of World War II that any real attention was paid to them. As the film portrays, gangs or ‘clubs’ were entrenched
in L.A. before the emergence of current Crip and Blood gangs, which in turn arose a few years after the Watts Riots.
Rather than gangs being an anomaly in America, they are ubiquitous; they have been, as Kumasi (a former gang member in
the film) so accurately states, “made in America.”
Ron Wilkins, professor of Africana studies, is featured in “Made in America.” The South Los Angeles native was a member
of the Slausons, a street organization that was established in the early 1950s. He said that his story of participating
in gang culture and later, leaving the streets and using his skills as a community leader, is one of gradual transformation.
“It wasn’t one particular thing,” he said. “It’s kind of a time released awakening. When I was in elementary school I
picked up stamp collecting. I began to notice that stamps from Africa would have Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. They
would hardly ever show black people. When they did, they would show them in a cloth or with a spear or just show animals.
A small thing, but it struck with me as a contradiction globally. In the gang itself, we had a few guys who would sketch
African warriors and take on African names. I would ask, ‘Why was this happening?’”
According to Wilkins, the marginalization of Africans and African Americans in mainstream culture is central to understanding
why members of an ethnic group would turn on each other due to exploitation and racism.
“The film is called ‘Made in America’ because the environment molded us,” he said. “We are creatures of our environment.
[African Americans] internalize the hatred that is so deeply rooted and get to a point where they devalue themselves and
try to destroy themselves. In destroying another black man, I destroy myself and tear down the community.”
The Watts uprising of 1965 was a watershed for Wilkins, who decided to leave the struggle of the streets to join another
struggle - for human rights. He says the event helped him to develop compassion for all of the oppressed peoples of the
world. He began to attend East Los Angeles College, but became so involved in campaigns including black power, the
anti-war movement, and African liberation struggles that he dropped out and did not return for 20 years. When he did,
he had decided that becoming an educator would be the best way to utilize what he had learned on the streets to better
his community locally and globally.
“I felt that community organizing and education had a lot in common,” he said. “I had been in the leadership of a lot of
political organizations where we trained people, did a lot of reading, got to know ourselves and know the world. I thought, “Why not get a degree and be able to teach and help people become conscious and take responsibility for changing themselves
and changing the world?’”
Skiffer recently published her book, “How Black Female Offenders Explain Their Crime and Describe Their Hopes: A Case Study
of Inmates in a California Prison.” An accomplished photographer whose works have centered on the presence of Africans in Mexico,
Wilkins is currently writing two books, “Black and Mexican Historical Alliances as Basis for Present Day Unity: A Handbook for
Teachers and Organizers” and a children’s book with the working title of “An Illustrated History of Black and Brown Unity for Children.”
Quicker is currently on work on a book about gangs in Los Angeles before the Bloods and Crips, with the help of Bird, a former
gang member featured in the film.
The screening was part of the monthly Community Cinema program presented by the PBS series, “Independent Lens.” “Crips and Bloods: Made in America” will air on local PBS stations
on May 12.
- Joanie Harmon
Photo above: John Quicker, professor of sociology, and La Tanya Skiffer, assistant professor of sociology, participated in a
panel discussion at a screening of the 2008 documentary “Crips and Bloods: Made in America” on April 28. Pictured, L-R: Quicker; Stacy Peralta, director and filmmaker; Skipp Townsend, former gang member and intervention activist; Shaka, former gang member
and artist; and Skiffer
Photo by Joanie Harmon