Presently in a California prison for the third time, former Los Angeles Crips Gang member, Sanyika Shakur, aka Monster Scott Cody, wrote Monster in 1993 at age 29 as the story of his years as a gang-banger from age eleven to his twenties in South Central LA during which he murdered several people in the ceaseless and escalating gang wars and committed many other felonies, was in and out of various hospital emergency wards and municipal and state correctional facilities, and finally, in San Quentin prison and often in maximum security, became a black nationalist and member of a political movement called New Afrikan Independence, a journey some have called “redemptive” but which I don’t think he would so name.
Here’s a theory of the why and wherefore of Monster.
Shakur writes well and Monster, though completed over a decade and a half ago, may well be the best literature about the under-reported and presently growing inner city tragedy of gangs, and therefore of immense value.
Granted gangs have grown and narcotics traffic among and by them has swelled since Monster, the fundamental story seems authentically told in this necessary book subtitled “Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member.” The near nightly superficial tableaux on “Eyewitness News”–a drive-by shooting of “young people” in the inner city; “possibly gang-related”; no witnesses coming forth; police “report no suspects at this time”; candles, balloons and flowers tearfully set out at the fatal intersection; terrified and frustrated citizens meeting with the mayor and police chief, the latter outlining a new plan in which law enforcement patrolling patterns will become more effective despite recent layoffs in the department; saddened neighbors calling for “an end to the senseless violence”; a psychologist interviewed in a book-lined office about social awareness and abandoned youth; and now on to that missing kitten found near the Main Bridge–will not and, in fairness, can rarely shine much light here. Inner city teachers, full-time and volunteer, can and do, but usually they receive little journalistic coverage and, on the few occasions when they have a soundbite platform, can give the averse public only summaries of the awful conditions in which gangs flourish and perhaps a fact or two about the insular gang life itself.
Shakur did all the terrible things you’ve heard about gangs and gang members doing over the years. He occasionally talks about the disadvantages in the inner city, blaming them for the gang culture but lingering here but briefly and with little intensity. I don’t think this means that the classic diagnosis of the ills that bring gang culture is untrue, just seemingly in the apparent invincibility of those ills a matter to take for granted in a truthful narrative that means to explain indirectly by dramatizing the experience itself of gang-banging culture.
The key ideas about this gang life are, I think, an inevitable progressive regression to the primal and a code of conduct governing it.
Codes are crucial historically in explanations. In one of the great such expositions, The Sun Also Rises, practically everyone but Robert Cohn lives by a code of disillusionment: the Great War with its new horrors, ending shortly before Hemingway’s narrative begins, has made grand, romantic ideas hollow, especially chivalric ones. Postwar, there’s a new hip: drink a lot, work honestly but merely adequately at your job, live to get away to fish and hunt (especially in remote, beautiful places in Spain and Italy and Switzerland), and above all try not to become too serious about anything: that way, you can avoid the lacerating pain of the Postwar Reality, at least during times other than lonely nights. After the fatal and absurd trenches, barbed wire, poison gas and charges into slaughter, you are a fool if you don’t live defensively by the code of the disillusioned. As it is, Jake, like all the others, has been emasculated or unnerved by the Great War. The relentless simple declarative sentences that largely describe sensation and objects in scenes get you caught up in the visceral experience of the code. There is nearly nothing said about the Great Shock itself aka the Great War. But of course all that is told us is entirely a reaction to that Awful Event. Cohn’s out-of-step personality is finally mainly a necessary device for the dramatization of the Great Disillusionment, just enough contrast for the reader to understand the deadened new experience.
The code, as always, is a means of coping.
Think of the awful blight and poverty of the inner cities as a kind of Great Shock, especially in early growing up, early dawning. So in questing youth a code comes into being. If you are trapped in your world, then schooling might well mean nothing; worse, it may only be a dead end for naifs. So what to do to answer the deep anthropological call to mean something, to be someone, to have prestige and accomplishment? Yes, what to do if you are in your early teens or even younger, have found no official, prevailing culture–let alone civilization–that seems to be for you, that calls you?
You are human, and there are certainly adventures you will and must undertake. So, in the South Centrals of our land, I think, you Start Over. You fashion a sophisticated code–yes, sophisticated and complex, a body of doctrine–that goes Forward by going Backward…to the Primal. It is easy, even natural, for you to do so, for you are young. As Shakur says almost halfway through his narrative:
“The Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest continued to rule our existence. No one got a free ride. Our (jail) dayroom time was mostly spent going chest: Charlie row (cell rows) against Able row, especially bombing everyone else with torso shots. We did this to enhance our physical skills, because so many had lost this ability, as the gun had replaced hand-to-hand combat. But here the strong survived and the weak were phased out. Within three months we were a quality contingency of sheer terror.”
You prevail by simplifying. You get rid of ways of life built up since primal times. The primal is, of course, still with you, well within reach, and easily recalled. After the Great Shock of the early disillusioning captivity in the inner city, you go in reverse. You go back to the earliest times and the earliest version of you. Of course it’s not really that simple, but that is, I believe, the general Way Out or the Way Up. Perhaps for many youth in South Central it seems the only escape, the New World. The trade-off is that, in the years of youthful vigor, your life when you go this Way turns on moment-to-moment proof of cunning and physical dominance–the most meaningful achievement in such a Basic vision.
In Monster, the gang code is seen to rival in its elaborateness such codes as the Courtly code at Versailles with its long historical precedent all the way back to the Greeks and after them the Troubadour poets. The gang colors, flags, names, arcane talk, territories, strategies and tactics are as complex as their historical kin, but the direction is Back To. The awful violence on “Eyewitness News” is nearly always “gang-related” because, you’ve noticed, “civilians” (those not in gangs) actually are seldom savaged; they are outside the code, bothersome, spoil the contest, and anyway are terrified into irrelevance. This comes across everywhere in Monster.
As with the other codes in history, the gang code becomes a series of rituals, of invented pretexts–dead ringers for what has been called earlier “court intrigues” and “political plots”–for allowing the almost daily attacking and counterattacking fatally and, above all, fatalistically, among and within gangs. The price paid for this code, which you are taught to expect, is that you may live a short life or end up in prison for decades and regardless will often be in severe physical pain.
Shakur tells us the three levels of prestige and achievement the gang member must attain:
“1. You must build the reputation of your name.
“2. You must build your name in association with your particular set (‘set,’ Shakur tells us, denotes a gang within a gang).
“3. You must establish yourself as a promoter of Crip or Blood.”
People call the “gang-related” violence “senseless,” but it seems far from it. History forces codes. This one, too, you have to think, will thrive until the disillusionment is replaced with a visceral sense of opportunity.