Actually, it’s more on the order of ”do and die” in South Central Los Angeles, where rival gangs of ”Crips” and ”Bloods” stage their suicidal rites of honor. Once ”down for the ‘hood” — pledging loyalty to whichever gang prevails on their block — the young black kids portrayed by journalist Léon Bing in her evocative Do Or Die are pretty much doomed. The world they inhabit has no exits other than the penitentiary or the graveyard. At least none that they can see. With the help of crack cocaine and a cult of revenge as rigid as any on the streets of Beirut or Northern Ireland, these kids — many no more than children — are reinventing the Stone Age with automatic weapons.

One of the virtues of Do or Die, however, is that Bing herself would never put its themes so tendentiously. A onetime fashion model associated with fashion designer Rudi Gernreich — they appeared together on the cover of Time in 1968 — she has turned herself into a reporter of remarkable vividness and subtlety. Most of all, she has the good sense to stay out of the way and let her sources speak for themselves. Consider, for example, ”G-Roc,” age 15, on the subject of mother love: ”If I want to mess up my life, she gonna love me anyway…She know all I’m tryin’ to do is make a name for myself. I tryin’ to have a bad rep — I got a little reputation, but it ain’t nearly where I want it to be. I want to fulfill my name. (The G stands for gangster.) Be a straight criminal…be bad to the fullest. You know what I’m talkin’ about? ”

In reality, as a subsequent interview makes clear, G-Roc’s mother despairs of her son. His preacher stepfather delivers an eloquent tirade — remarkably similar to the father’s speeches in the current movie Boyz N the Hood — on the familiar theme of everybody else’s responsibility for G-Roc’s behavior. It’s the usual list of suspects: middle-class blacks, the media, and most of all ”the Man….’That’s your real enemy, son.”’ But G-Roc thinks he knows better. He sees his real enemy as the ”slob niggers” — Crip slang for the rival Bloods. ”Blood ain’t my kind,” he insists to Bing. ”Blood my enemy.”

Not that G-Roc has no sense of ethics. ”I do a drive-by (killing),” he reports. ”I do it. But you know, it ain’t my style….If I want somebody, I want them. I want to have the joy in my heart of just to, like get out the car and, like, ‘Remember me?’ and then just shoot him. I don’t want to be just shootin’ up his house and hopin’ I get him, and might get his mama. Or his father. I want him. I want that person. I don’t want to be like that nigger who blasted the wrong family. That’s a stupid nigger, and what he did is scandalous.” The reference is to an infamous case from 1984 in which a Crip got the wrong address and slaughtered the mother and three other relatives of former San Francisco 49ers star Kermit Alexander.

In the midst of all this madness and sorrow Bing remains passionately objective, evoking her subjects’ stunted lives and shaping their stories with an absolute minimum of cant. G-Roc is just one of a score or more of vivid characters whom she somehow persuaded to open up to her. Not all of the gang members are as far gone as G-Roc; many could seemingly be saved. If only somebody knew how that could be done. A remarkable, compellingly readable piece of reporting. A

Do or Die
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