By Montgomery Brower
May 02, 1988 12:00 PM

It had begun as just another so-so script set in Chicago and focused on the urban guerrillas who stalk its meanest streets. But by the time it was released two weeks ago, Colors—whose revamped screenplay transferred the bloodletting to L.A.—had stirred up the sort of commotion seldom engendered by mere movies. By a stroke of grim luck, gang violence became a white-hot issue while the film was aborning, and it flared up dramatically in the two months before Colors’ April 15 opening—with a shootout in well-heeled Westwood followed by dramatic police sweeps.

The shoot-out and now the film highlight the severity of L.A. County’s gang problem. These 600 gangs, with a membership of 70,000, accounted for nearly 400 killings reported there last year alone. In the subsequent frenzy of media attention, the boundary between art and life blurred. Last month the Los Angeles Herald Examiner crime reporter John Crust saw Colors, from Orion Pictures, at a special screening set up for city-desk types. “My impression,” he says, “is that they wanted all these street reporters to say, ‘Hey, they did this great job—a real realistic look at the violence and death that’s going on.’ ” Instead, the real-life angle began to boomerang. Crust wrote a piece headlined “Police Fear New Film on L.A. Gangs Will Stir Violence,” quoting an expert on gang violence who predicted that toughs would “leave dead bodies from one end of this town to the other” after seeing the movie. Cops, community leaders and theater owners from around the country began to question the wisdom of showing the film. And as the prerelease furor mounted, the studio used him as a scapegoat, Crust claims: “[Orion V.P. Mike Medavoy] said I instigated the whole thing. I guess they felt they had to put the blame on someone.”

Fortunately, on Colors’ debut weekend, the hysteria proved to be just that. Although the film did a brisk business, it was credited by a vigilant press with only a few minor scuffles in L.A. and a single shooting on April 17 outside a suburban Detroit theater complex, which police say had more to do with personal grievances than the polarizing power of the film.

Still, the debate continues. Doesn’t the film, simply by virtue of its big names and sharp production values, “glamorize” gangs? Isn’t it irresponsible of Dennis Hopper et al. to give the homeboys (gang members, some of whom appear as extras) their moment on the big screen without offering a solution to this terrible scourge?

Hopper’s position is that neither he nor Hollywood are in the business of solving social problems. (Does Rambo offer sound foreign policy advice?) “The best I can do,” the director has said, “is point my finger at the problem and say, ‘Look!’ ” Whatever its artistic merits, Colors has done that. When PEOPLE went looking for those actually engaged on this urban battlefield—the homeboys, cops and neighborhood residents—their stories, plainly told, turned out to be more chilling than any technicolor gunplay, and they won’t be over when the credits roll.

De Bam, 18, sits in a South-Central Los Angeles restaurant with B. Mite, 16, Be Rat, 18, and Mad Man, 18, all members of the Eighty-Nine Family, a “set” of the Bloods. This is the core of L.A.’s killing zone. When a police cruiser glides into the parking lot and two patrolmen amble into the lunch counter, De Bam boasts within their earshot, “We can eliminate the police. The police know it. If we felt like it, we could just go up there and kill both of them. How could a 9-mm. [automatic pistol] go against at least 10 machine guns?” The patrolmen refuse to acknowledge the taunt.

“If you ask me, gangbangin’ [hanging out] ain’t gone never die,” says De Bam. “They’s just too many people that want to be a gang member. Once you start shootin’ one person, you gone want to shoot everybody. You get trigger happy. That’s what happened with me. I got where I’d just go to a Crip neighborhood and shoot by myself.

“Drugs make the [neighbor] hood stronger,” De Bam continues. “When drugs first came on the scene, I thought all gangbangin’ was gone stop and everybody was gone get rich or whatever. But look what they doin’. They buying machine guns to help the gang out more.” Colors “show how everybody live pitiful,” De Bam complains. “But you go in the bad part of town, you see guys my age drivin’ Cadillacs with $1,700 rims.”

Only B. Mite, a 10th grader, is still in school. It’s a condition of his probation on a drug and gun possession charge, but he also says he wants “to get my education. It help me out later on in life. Lotta people say just because I’m 16, ‘You need to quit gangbangin’ ’cause you still got a life in front of you.’ But I feel I better do it while I’m young. So when I get about 30 years old, all that will be behind me. But I’m gone always remember my homeboys. So if I get married, become a doctor or some-thin’, I’m gone always come back to my ‘hood.” Adds De Bam: “A lot of guys say, ‘I quit,’ but if something happens with they gang, you always gone go back. Just like the Army Reserve.”

I love when someone call me ‘Cuz’ [a code word for Crips]. It’s like you got a new family who never let you down,” says 15-year-old Little Curl, who proudly flaunts the colors of the Black Girls’ 124th Street Crips. Nicknamed for her size and kinky, short-cropped hair, she earned her way into the gang two years ago by robbing a drugstore and stabbing the teenage clerk. “Before, when I was 12, I mugs a couple old ladies and stole their purse,” she says, “but that wasn’t enough to be a Crips, so I had t’ hit the store. Doin’ that wasn’t much different really. I didn’t kill nobody or nothin’.

“We can do anything the boys do, most of the time better. I got my blade, and I got my .22 right here in my pocket. Cops pull us over and check the guys, while us girls just stands there with a .22 in our bra or even a .44 stuffed in our boot.”

Little Curl stabbed a guy last month because he ignored the sexual advances of her and another home girl. “He shouldn’t a walked by us like we were nothin’, he could have had us both,” she says. So far, though, she sports no scars of her own. “My home-girls call me ‘virgin’ ’cause I ain’t got no marks on me. Maybe some day soon I will bleed to be Crips,” she says. “I ain’t afraid no more. I seen a lot of Crips die and it looks easy. It don’t hurt to die. It kills you tryin’ to stay alive here. We all kinda expect to be killed, with all the shootin’ we do. It’s more of a surprise to wake up every morning.”

Meanwhile, in South L.A., two other Crips, who refuse to give their names, admit to experiencing frightening moments. “We’re not tough, we’re just down for whatever happens,” says an 18-year-old boy. “Our hearts start racing when it’s time to get ’em up. We’re just like everybody else—we can get scared too.” Adds his companion: “It’s not the dying, it’s the way you die that scares you.”

In every other kind of disease that affects a lot of people, we look at prevention first,” says Steve Valdivia, a caseworker at L.A. County’s Community Youth Gang Services who works the South-Central neighborhood. “With gangs, because it’s an inner-city problem and a minority problem, we look at the law enforcement perspective.” Recently, he says, a low-level drug dealer caught by police had an application in his pocket to become a mid-level dealer for one of the kingpins. The form asked questions like “How much money do you want to make?” and “What gang are you with?” “It was a regular job application,” says Valdivia. “It’s all part of an economy.”

CYGS tries to intervene before a kid is lured into that economy, but he’s frustrated by the lack of alternatives. “Kids aren’t buying that nonsense that you go to school, graduate and get into college. The opportunities have reversed,” he says. “We have to give these kids something real.”

B-Bone, 17, is sitting on a concrete park bench in Lynwood. His allegiance to the Lueders Park Piru Bloods is trumpeted by the tattoo on his right forearm—a switchblade piercing a bleeding heart with the scarlet drops dripping down to his palm. “I knowed you gotta be proud and bang fer yo’ neighborhood ‘fore I co’ walk,” says B-Bone. “I had no father. Ma mother wanted me t’ be Blood ’cause you die on these street with no colors and Blood be best.”

B-Bone first got his hands on a gun at 11, after stealing it from a parked car. Two days later he shot and wounded a local shopkeeper for shouting at him. “I was mad I didn’t kill him,” he says. “I wanted him t’ die. It get me high t’ feel my gun, all that power explode in my hand and take down someone who been messin’ with me.” Lately, B-Bone claims, he has acquired an Uzi submachine gun—which is sold without a permit to anyone with the cash.

“We hold the rock in this neighborhood,” he says, pulling some plastic bags of crack from his pocket. “With this, I buy the gold and guns. I buy pretty things for ma mother and ma woman. I important ’cause I give ’em nice things they need to feel good. It better than any job I could get pumpin’ gas, and it easy.”

B-Bone pulls a 12-gauge shotgun out of his coat and takes aim at the reporter. “Whadda ya think? They must piss their pants lookin’ down these big black holes, right? So, tough lady, when I say I’m through talkin’ wit’ you, you understand that I never wanna see ya here again, right?”

It is utterly amazing to me,” says Commander Loren Kramer of the LAPD, that “people argue a citizen ought to have the right to have a semiautomatic rifle because he’s a deer hunter.” Despite the fact that he just helped coordinate the massive police sweep, Kramer has little faith that police action can get at the root of gang culture. He puts some of the blame on government cutbacks that decimated job and youth programs. But parents are sometimes complicit, too, Kramer says, ignoring the problem because “the rent gets paid and there’s a new TV in the living room.” When they do get alarmed, Kramer adds, it may be too late. “The time to start disciplining a youngster is not when he’s 15 or 16 years old and carrying an Uzi.”

Most of these kids, you ask them how they feel, you get a blank,” says Roderick Sykes, 44, who runs a community center called St. Elmo’s Village, teaching painting and photography to the kids of Mid-City. ” ‘What do I feel about what?’ they say. Every day you see a kid, you knew him, you worked with him when he was 3, 4 years old. He was a little thing, now he’s looking down on you, he’s got one eye. And you know he got one eye ’cause he got shot there. He’s a warrior. And he’s what, 20, 22? And he doesn’t know anything else except this war that they’re in.”

Sykes lost his own son, Ricky, to this war four years ago, just as the boy had decided to get out of the gang. Ricky was 19, living with his mother in San Diego and running with the Bloods when he asked his dad if he could come up to L.A. for a while to get away. First, though, “Ricky went across town, I guess to a girlfriend to tell her he was leaving,” Sykes recalls. “He was wearing red. He had two friends with him. A car drove up on him; two guys jumped out of the car with baseball bats. The other two ran away. Ricky didn’t run. They beat him to death. Crushed his skull. The kids that killed him—they were Cuz. Ricky’s Blood.”

Sykes’s brightly colored bungalow, splashed with the artwork of neighborhood kids, is a monument to Ricky and to Sykes’s daily efforts to keep a new generation out of the gangs. “Art is the number one thing that teaches you ‘you can,’ ” he says. “Art helps your self-esteem. It allows you to be the person that you are.”

For most gang members, prison is just another rite of passage that leads right back to the streets, but for Johnny Contreras, 27, it was a turning point. A member of the Diamond Street gang in Civic Center since 12, he spent five years in San Quentin in 1980 for robbery. “In prison I got dedicated to school,” he says. “Eight days before I went into prison, my wife had a baby. And I thought, ‘What am I gonna do if she asks me to read her a story?’ I didn’t know how to read or write ’cause I was always out with the homeboys.”

Now, says Contreras, “I consider I’m out of Diamond. That’s it. I go to juvenile hall to talk to the kids. And their main question is, ‘How do I get out?’ Well, to get out, you don’t have to get jumped out [beaten]. You can retire. A lot of kids want out of the gangs. But they don’t want to get beat up.

“The main thing is, in the middle of the gang is all their friends. If they get out, they have nothing. You got a girlfriend? Spend time with her instead of with your homeboys. If you don’t have a job, get a [construction] site job. Ask for overtime. At the end of the week, you got your check. Go to your girlfriend’s. A lot of people think it’s the old way to go home to your girlfriend and kick back and have a hamburger. But that’s the best way to go.

“In the past, for me, gangbanging was all the way in. Now I understand it was all worth—. I’ve always wanted credit cards, I’ve always wanted a car—my own house, pay my own rent. In my times as a cholito [gang member], I knew I’d never get it. Now that I’m married and settled down, I’m getting the things I’ve always wanted. All the things I dreamed of were dreams that could come true. A lot of people think they won’t come true. They come true. All you have to do is help them.”

By Montgomery Brower, with bureau reports