William Diaz and Brandon Jackson, Former Gang Member-Turned-Writer and Victim of Gang Violence
By Nuala Lincke-Ivic

"Today teachers must combat the enemy that destroys…students. And the enemy is not simply racism: a race war. The enemy is often the students themselves."

membersIn his famous October 16, 1963, speech “A Talk to Teachers,” James Baldwin issued a battle plan for teachers: how to attempt to heal the wounds of racial injustice that destroyed so many black students. He also warned teachers what they would encounter in this process: "[Y]ou must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance.  There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen."

Today Baldwin’s 1963 “Talk” is still relevant, and not just as a historical document. Today teachers must combat the enemy that destroys not only black students, but also other ethnic minorities, as well as the ethnic majority: white students. And the enemy is not simply racism: a race war. The enemy is often the students themselves. Frequently, students become their own obstacle to success: Many of them join gangs. Why? In an attempt to answer this question, I interviewed 23-year-old William Diaz and 19-year-old Brandon Jackson, two LACCD students. At 15, William joined a gang, and at 16, he narrowly avoided being incarcerated for 10 years to life when police caught him with a gun that was used to commit a murder. Eight months ago Brandon, on his way home from a party, was shot eight times by a figure in a hooded gray jacket—most likely, according to police, a gang member high on drugs who may have mistaken Brandon for somebody else. How did the police conclude that Brandon’s assailant was high on drugs? Brandon survived the assault; the eight bullets that ripped haphazardly into his body did not destroy any vital organs, although they did break both of his arms and rip open one of his knees. Today, Brandon is still undergoing physical therapy for the assault; he had to learn to walk again, and his left hand is still partially curled into a claw. He worries that it may never fully heal, that he will never be completely “whole” again.

In my interview with William and Brandon, I tried to understand two very different perspectives: that of a former gang member, and that of a victim of probable gang violence. Why, I questioned William, did he join a gang? As William’s instructor in a spring 2012 creative writing class, I know William as an immensely talented and intelligent student—a wonderful, sensitive, self-reflective writer with tremendous potential.  I am convinced that he is not—and has never been—the kind of person who would shoot somebody like Brandon. William is not a monster.  But...yes, he was a gang member—that's a fact.

I confess that I expected to hear very simple, clear-cut, stereotypical reasons for William’s involvement with gangs when he was a teenager. William, I conjectured, was probably from a single-parent family—his mother was the head of the household, and his father was not actively involved in his life. Brandon—a good kid who was never tempted to join a gang—was from a two-parent, religiously conservative household. Ironically, I learned that the reverse is true. Brandon is from a single-parent household, headed by his mother, and he has not seen his father for six years, and William is from a religiously conservative, two-parent household. There went my preconceptions, out the window. How is it, I wondered, that Brandon said “no” to gangs and William said “yes”?

In my interview with William, he struggled to explain why he joined a gang. Yes, his parents were good parents and they loved him. However, he saw them only on weekends (when they weren’t working) and in the early morning and late evening. Immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, they were working long hours to keep a roof over their children’s heads and food on the table. William’s mother worked as a housekeeper for a demanding employer, and his father worked in construction. And…William is petite, a younger brother, and he felt that his parents did not seem to take him seriously, to respect him as much as they did one of his sisters—who earned a graduate degree from USC. From gang members, William received respect, so much so that he was gifted with a gun—a gun that he did not know was used to commit a murder.

Unlike William’s parents, Brandon’s mother works in real estate and was able to be very actively involved in his life; even more importantly, she took him on trips to the Bahamas and elsewhere, showed him that there was more to the world than the four corners of the neighborhood in which they lived. William never left his neighborhood; in my videotaped interview with him, he rather eloquently recounts what a mentor told him about the gang mentality, how it develops: being trapped in one place, one neighborhood—which is rather like being trapped in an intersection, standing on one corner and looking at the other three corners, and all there is to do is to walk from one corner to the next corner, and then to the other two corners, and that is a gang member’s whole world: the streets where he lives. His neighborhood. A locked box. Additionally, with the dearth of art programs (why is it that art classes are always eradicated in every budget cut?), William thinks that a lot of the young people in his neighborhood have no outlet to express themselves in after-school hours, what they feel inside, so they are vulnerable to gangs, which give them an outlet, a voice—even if that voice is only their name, or the name of their gang, which they scrawl on the walls of their neighborhood and carve into their school desks. Hm. Their neighborhood. Their school. Their whole world. The only world they know. A locked box.

In his 1963 “Talk” speech, Baldwin said of black children: “They don’t have the vocabulary to express what they see, and we, their elders, know how to intimidate them very easily and very soon.” I think what Baldwin asserts in his speech applies to William and students like him: They need a positive artistic outlet that allows their voices to be heard—so they feel validated as individuals—so they will stop scrawling and carving their names and gang names on walls and school desks. So they will stop selling and using drugs. So they will stop killing others—and each other.

I believe that William is not a monster, and he was never a monster. Trapped in the four corners of his neighborhood, he—strange as it may seem—tried to find a means of self-expression, his voice. So he joined a gang. What would happen, I wonder, if in his after-school hours—when he didn’t interact with his parents, and when he was most vulnerable to gangs—he had been preoccupied with reading the works of poets like Wanda Coleman and Gary Soto in a community arts class? What if he had been given the blank pages of a book to write in during this class—would he have produced works like the short story and screenplay he did in the spring 2012 creative writing class he took with me? I think he would have. Other people to whom I have talked about William disagree with me. They point out that William’s sister earned a graduate degree from USC; she said “no” to gangs; William could have and should have said “no” to gangs, too. Maybe. This point seems logical. However, the point I am making in this introduction to my interview with William and Brandon is that William and students like William are vulnerable to gangs; they know only the four corners of their neighborhood. It’s their whole world. They need to know that the world is much bigger than their neighborhood, and after-school art programs can teach them this truth. Politicians must not cut community arts programs, particularly in neighborhoods where gangs fester. But watch the interview and read William’s works in the Story and Screenplay sections of West, and ponder these ideas for yourself. Also, ponder this thought after you read William’s works: This young writer may have been incarcerated for 10 years to life. He wasn’t incarcerated because he was able to prove that he was in school when someone used his gun to commit a murder. What would have happened if he had been involved in an arts program in his after-school hours? Would he ever have accepted a gun from gang members?


Other Works by William Diaz:

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