Here comes Lil' Cloudy walking down the hallway of his high school, baggy jeans sagging, T-shirt hanging off his slight frame like drapes from a curtain rod. The boy's hair is shaved close on the sides and sticks straight up on top, a slick field of bristles. His friends teasingly call him Bart. "Eat my shorts," he'll say, playing along.
A person passing this kid on the street probably wouldn't think much of him, a skinny teenager standing about five feet tall, maybe five-one with the Bart hair -- just another Asian youngster into the hip-hop look, talking the hip-hop talk. They'd probably mistake him for two or three years younger than his eighteen years. And they'd certainly never peg him as a troublemaker. They'd be wrong. Before his dad called the cops on him, Lil' Cloudy never left his house without a .22 shoved in his pants pocket. Now he never leaves home without an ankle bracelet monitoring his whereabouts.
After being plucked out of class for an interview, the young man slouches in a chair wedged between a desk and a door, and answers questions thoughtfully, fiddling all the while with a sheet of paper in both hands. He is serious and polite. He doesn't talk loudly, wave his hands around, or cuss. His physical presence, in fact, hardly occupies the corner he's sitting in, at least until you start to consider the dangerous game he is playing. "I really didn't look at it like 'I've got a gun. I'm going to kill someone,' " he says. "It's just in case they roll up on me and try to kill me."
The "they" in this equation are members of a street gang called Color of Blood. Naturally, they wear red. Lil' Cloudy belongs to Sons of Death. Their color is blue. If the rivals spot each other, whether in their hometown of Richmond or elsewhere, they'll go at it like a pack of dogs bred to fight -- and sometimes kill.
"We got a history that goes way back," he boasts. "Like the Israelis and Palestinians."
Lil' Cloudy's own history with Sons of Death is considerably shorter, starting just a few years ago when some of his cousins and close friends joined. Last August, the boy himself got "jumped in" -- the expression for a gang initiation rite in which members welcome a newcomer with a severe beating. By the first week of March, he'd been arrested, and the former straight-A student spent his eighteenth birthday behind bars.
Sons of Death started in the 1980s as a gang for the Mien, an ethnic group from Laos. Color of Blood was strictly Khmu, the Laotian equivalent of Native Americans.
Bang Karnsouvong is old enough to have been around when these gangs were forming, and is now dealing with their legacy. "Let's go! Let's go!" his voice booms from inside a boys' restroom. Kids trickle out the door in ones and twos, but continue to loiter, trying to squeeze out another minute away from class.
In his eleven years with West Contra Costa County Unified School District, Karnsouvong has spent four as site supervisor at Gompers High School. Located near downtown Richmond, it is one of the district's two "alternative" schools -- the modern euphemism for facilities that will take kids who've been expelled everywhere else. Some of the older teens, part of a program called Stop Drop, are only required to attend class three hours a day, and get a half-hour break in the middle of their morning.
Though he's twice the age of his students, Karnsouvong dresses like them. He wears baggy pants (but not so excessively baggy that he can't run in them). A diamond stud glistens in his left ear, and his first name dangles from a thick gold chain around his neck.
Given his clientele, the supervisor is naturally well versed in gang culture. Today's gangs, Karnsouvong says, are more ethnically mixed, with lines drawn more on geographical boundaries than ethnic ones. Gompers and Richmond High fall in blue territory. De Anza and El Cerrito High are red. Still, the fights usually occur between groups from the same race. "Once in a while we'll get a red one here and the kids will beat the shit out of him," he says nonchalantly.
Over the years Karnsouvong has seen an increasing number of Asian-American kids at the alternative schools, both boys and girls. A product of the same school district, he remembers that when he was a student at Kennedy High, these kids more or less lived up to their stereotype as well-behaved overachievers. "In the '80s, Asian kids were at the top of their classes," he says. Today, he sees scores of Lil' Cloudys sauntering through the doors. Kids today are different, he offers, shaking his head as he surveys the crop of delinquents walking his hallways.
Different indeed. The old stereotypes may still apply in the burbs, but in poorer urban areas of the East Bay and all around the country, a darker side of Asian assimilation into US culture is becoming increasingly apparent. And while Lil' Cloudy's problems could easily be attributed to family troubles, it's difficult to argue with national crime statistics. From 1977 to 1997, while the number of arrests of African-American youth fell thirty percent, arrest numbers for young Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States increased by 726 percent, according to FBI figures. That's a staggering number, even when you factor in a nearly threefold increase in the Asian population over the past two decades -- from 3.7 million to 10.2 million.
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