Michelle's typical Saturday night starts with calls to her cell phone between 7 and 9 p.m. Her friends will ask: "Hey, did you hear about the party tonight? Are you coming?"
Party news travels fast among Michelle and her Berkeley High School classmates. "Generally, someone posts on their Facebook that there's a party at this address," she said. "Then everyone who's friends with that person knows about it, and tells everyone about it."
Some hosts don't even provide their whole address, to deter the uninvited guests who can turn parties into problems. A location might be no more specific than "near the corner of Grant and Ward" or "Cedar and Juanita." But even without an address or publicity on Facebook, it can take as little as an hour or two for a couple hundred kids to congregate at the home of whoever's parents went skiing. And with students so networked, it's hard to avoid unwanted guests.
Take the recent party at the tony Claremont home of Michelle's friend, Sarah. It wasn't even supposed to be a party. In today's high school taxonomy, Sarah's affair was merely supposed to be a "kick-it" — a couple levels below a bona fide party. At most, it would be a "get-together" — a baby party. Sarah's parents were out of town, and she was hoping to re-create a successful soiree at which she'd carefully orchestrated all the details and even encouraged folks to eat kosher. "She personally called to invite me," Michelle said. "But I think people who don't like her and don't really respect her invited a ton of more people."
Michelle usually rolls up to parties with four friends. The Berkeley High sophomore describes herself as someone who goes to parties regularly but responsibly. They stay in a pack and look out for one another. They make sure nobody gets too drunk, and even have a system for warding off lecherous boys. "At a lot of parties, guys will come up and start grinding on you," she explained. "If you're dancing, you flick your finger up. They'll give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down, or a medium thumb which is like, 'If you're really bored, well, okay.' Then you make a fist and pull your five fingers out if the guy's, like, getting too handsy while you're dancing."
Sarah tried hard to maintain order at her party. She cleared the furniture out of the living room and piled it all over the staircase, making it clear that upstairs was off-limits. Michelle and a couple friends hid their jackets in the dryer, hoping no one would steal their stuff. Sarah asked two girlfriends to man the door, but they weren't nearly as effective as the hulking male bouncers people usually hire. "There was supposed to be a list but anyone just got in," recalled Max, a popular Berkeley High junior who gets invited to most every party worth mentioning. "She didn't have any friends that are, like, guys, so it was just, like, two girls, like: 'No, you guys can't come in.' Everyone just, like, went in anyways."
Max was on the guest list even though he had no idea who Sarah was. Max is permanently on the guest list for everything. He typically brings a crew three-to-six-kids deep, and puts them all on the list as well. He is a charming seventeen year old who hangs with both the rich kids from the hills and the dropouts who live near his South Berkeley home. His typical uniform includes an Abercrombie T-shirt, a black and white baseball cap, and baggy jeans. He loves pushing limits. His Facebook page includes photos of himself popping skateboard ollies and lying in bed with a nearly empty bottle of Jose Cuervo. At one point, he even posted a photo in which he and several friends posed with bandanas, knives, and guns. He also loves sharing salacious details from parties — for instance, about a friend who goes around hitting people with baseball bats.
Max and five friends got to Sarah's party at 7:30 p.m. "At every party, Max is the most punctual person," Michelle explained. "He talks to the host or hostess and helps them organize." By 8 p.m., other groups started showing up. Then the party started getting rowdy. Max brought a camcorder and stood on the couch videotaping everyone. Two people threw up. One made it to the bathroom but not the toilet, and another threw up right by the door. Someone else spilled stuff all over the couch. A sophomore girl was play-fighting everyone. By 8:45, Sarah wasn't having fun. Max said she unplugged the stereo, but Michelle said someone actually blew out the sound system. "We couldn't figure out how to plug it back in," Max recalled. "Like, it wouldn't turn on."
Shortly after that, Sarah ordered everyone out of her house. She said the police were coming, and herded everyone outside. But many people just continued partying on the street, and hella drama ensued.
"My friend tried to, like, fight someone and started some big drama," Max recalled. "Because there was some fool outside that was, like, talking shit, like, 'let me get in.' He's, like, 'No you can't get in, fuck you.'"
Michelle said her friend panicked. "Sarah called the police and said 'There's just a bunch of people standing outside my house.'"
Before leaving, Michelle went back to the dryer for her jacket, but when she reached into the pocket, her phone was gone. "All my friends who had been there that night had been texting me, and the people that stole it texted them back saying bad shit. They went through my phone book and started texting back. They said, 'You want to have sex?' or 'You're fat.' It's all very frustrating. ... Then they called Sarah and said 'Hey, this is Michelle.' But it was obviously boys."
Within 24 hours, a thread went up on Facebook. Kids who'd been at the party posted bulletins about "people who steal shit." Mary wrote, "JUST so everyone knows last night you were all acting hella stupid: for everyone who fucking wouldnt listen to the girl nice enough to open her house to you, your such losers. sarah and her actual friends are so pissed at anyone who would stay at a party who wasnt wanted. come on now, also whoever stole my fucking shit, i swear i'll pay you to give it back, its really valueable to me but since you dont have the cord it aint worth shit to you. i think anyone who showed up last night acting a fool and basically fucking up some girls house who probably thinks your a bop anyways needs a reality check."
Soon thereafter, Sarah set her Facebook profile to private.
February 10, 2006, 772 Contra Costa Ave., Berkeley
High school partying is certainly nothing new. In many ways, today's teenagers are simply carrying on traditions pioneered by their parents and grandparents. But now that students are so wired — with cell phones, instant messaging, and online communities — there's a new element of menace at the party. In this day and age, it doesn't take much sleuthing to find out where the next party is. Nor does it matter whether you're invited.
Kids get on their cell phones as soon as they arrive, and call or text other friends to come join them. On a recent Saturday night, Michelle's parents picked her up from a party that shut down about 10:45 p.m. "As they're coming, another car pulls up, and eight guys get out — and two pop out of the trunk," Michelle recalled. "I could maybe recognize one of these guys."
People who aren't invited simply come as part of someone else's entourage. "Several groups of people come together in a place that they never would have come together," said El Cerrito police officer Brian Elder, who has seen plenty of parties working Friday and Saturday nights. "You have these blendings of social groups that probably have no business being together."
When young strangers congregate, gnarly shit can happen. "Even if you do a good job and have enough chaperones guarding the front and back doors, the people you don't let in have a party on the street," said one North Oakland parent, who asked not to be named so as not to embarrass his daughter. "You try to get people to move, but they don't. Then there's some kid who needs to impress somebody by driving his car forty miles per hour down the street. You have people drinking, doing drugs, and once it gets to that stage you have a problem — even if you have a moat around the house."
Michelle has been exposed to everything from iPod theft to drunken car accidents. She has had friends lose three cell phones a year due to theft. Sometimes people steal stuff and try to hawk it on Craigslist, but other times they just sell it back to the people from whom they stole it — albeit at an inflated rate. Michelle said that when one of her friends was recently planning a party, people were asking around to find out what kind of TV she had and whether or not she had an Xbox game controller, just so they could figure out if there was anything worth stealing.
"People come to these things just to steal sometimes," she explained. "There's actually one main group that does it. Everyone knows who they are, but people still invite them. There are six or seven of them — it kinda changes on a monthly basis. There will be a coat room, and they'll just go in the coat room and just take the coats. ... Some of them are attractive guys, so the girls don't get that they're just there to steal stuff. So they'll go and talk to them anyway."
Parties occasionally devolve into violence, as drunken arguments escalate into full-out beatings. Michelle said she has come home with bruises and not known where she got them. Some hosts hire big guys in their twenties for damage control, and then find that their bouncers are shadier than the kids they're supposed to keep in line. Michelle said some buy alcohol for underage girls, which they then try to trade for sexual favors. Max said some carry guns.
The changing nature of high school parties was fully evident by February 2006, when El Cerrito High School graduate Juan Ramos was stabbed to death in North Berkeley. Albany High School junior Annalise Oppelt had advertised her party on MySpace.com for at least a week beforehand. "Students who knew students from different high schools got the word around," recalled Albany High grad Joseph Chung, who sustained knife wounds in the fight that killed Ramos. "With the use of MySpace and cell phones, the word got around pretty fast." Albany High journalism teacher Ned Purdom concurred. "That Friday in my journalism class, that was the talk of what they were doing that weekend."
Roughly a hundred kids from Albany, Berkeley, and El Cerrito wound up at the party, resulting in what students describe as an unlikely assortment of "preps," "skaters," "hoochies," and "thugs." Many were drunk or high. Around 11:15 p.m., a fight broke out in the yard, allegedly over a skateboard. People inside heard a window shatter, followed by screams. Then Chung staggered in the kitchen with blood on his clothes. He said he'd been stabbed. Nobody called an ambulance.
In fact, authorities say four teens were stabbed that night. A group of Ramos' friends put him and two other victims in their car and drove them to the Albany police station, where students said officers met them with guns drawn. Ramos was pronounced dead at Highland Hospital roughly forty minutes later. Within two days of the incident, bulletins went up on MySpace instructing people "to not say anything" and to delete any MySpace e-mails that pertained to the party, one student said during a class discussion at Albany High a couple months later. To this day, no one will talk. Berkeley police have a suspect, but Lieutenant Wes Hester said his agency can't get any witnesses to cooperate.
September 14, 2007, Galvin Drive, El Cerrito
The September 14 party on Galvin Drive in El Cerrito is now infamous at Berkeley High. Andrew, the party's genial host, created a special Facebook group for the guest list. "It was an 'invite only' group," he explained in an e-mail interview. "But I'm sure that didn't stop anyone who wasn't initially supposed to from hearing about it."
Michelle heard about the party through word-of-mouth. And when her friend Stephen called to ask what she was doing that night, she invited him along. Stephen invited five more friends.
By 8:30 p.m., when Michelle arrived at Andrew's modest two-story home near Sunset View Cemetery, all the alcohol and food had been consumed. The lights in the den were shut off and the door was closed, although Michelle could hear people talking inside. Three bouncers were stationed at the door, although one later left his post to dance with some girl.
Michelle said the party started off pretty whack. "The people offered us what was left: an assortment of drugs; weed; I think they had Ritalin — stuff like that." Michelle said she and her friends weren't interested in that, so they went looking for a drink. Their best bet was the bouncers.
"We went outside," she said. "The bouncers said, 'Do you want some alcohol?' They claimed to be over 25. They were definitely over 21, and spending their time getting paid to sit outside a high school party. They said 'Okay, we'll give you some alcohol and see what you can 'trade' for it later.'"
Michelle and her friends bought brandy from the bouncers and managed to forestall the proposed trade. "They just gave us a straight bottle; we were sharing it — taking straight swigs," she said. "At the majority of senior parties they have kegs, but at the underclassman parties we don't have connections yet, so we end up with a ton of Gatorade bottles filled with stuff from your parent's liquor cabinet."
Even once people got into the mood, some weren't satisfied with the party. "It was, like, one room with, like, a broken CD player ... and it was, like, playing the radio with, like, zero volume," Max recalled. "And, like, the light was off and it was a busted-ass house." Kids were squabbling out front.
By 10 p.m., Andrew had moved the party from his living room into the street. "My neighbors came out on the deck and told me they were calling the police," Andrew recalled in his e-mail. "So I kicked everyone out, at which point there were one or two more fights."
Stephen and his five friends — Daniel, Luke, Paul, Maria, and Bobby — got a ride from Daniel's foster mom. Stephen is a willowy seventeen year old, the kind of kid who corrects his teachers when they get their facts wrong and declines to have his picture in the high school yearbook. He likes playing Canasta and Risk, and wants a job that involves keeping systems organized. His Facebook profile lists his favorite activities as: playing racquetball, Airsoft battles, and "calling the police when friends get hit with baseball bats."
When he and his friends arrived at the party, they joined the crowd of about a hundred teens doddering in front of Andrew's house. Disenchanted by the spectacle, which several attendees described, Stephen took off down Moeser Lane to find something better to do. His friends straggled along after him.
Stephen said they'd gone just a few paces from Andrew's house when they ran into a group of kids he recognized from his South Berkeley neighborhood. He privately calls them "the Droogs," in honor of the hostile teenage gang from Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. He said the group's leader grabbed his shirt and demanded money. Stephen, who said he has been "pocket-checked" in this manner plenty of times at school — i.e., robbed, in Berkeley High argot — obligingly handed over the fourteen bucks in his wallet. Then, he said, he looked across the street and saw someone going through Bobby's pockets to steal his cell phone.
When Michelle caught up with them and found out what happened, she offered to mediate with the muggers, if only to get the cell phone back. Given that she had been partying with the Droogs for a while, Stephen's group headed back toward them with their new envoy in tow. "She knows these people," Stephen sneered while recounting the story a few months later.
They were soon stopped by another Berkeley High student who'd been with the group robbing people. "He says, 'You got anything more to say to me?" Stephen recalled. "Say it to me. Say it to my face.' Something like that. And he punches Daniel in the face."
When the assailant's friends saw the altercation, they ran to back him up. Stephen said the group included Max. After thirty seconds, Daniel's head was swollen from eight kids beating him. Then, Stephen said, the boy who robbed him took a baseball bat out of his backpack and whacked Daniel in the leg, right above his kneecap.
The assailants dispersed, Stephen said, and he followed them down the street on "a recon mission." When he got back to Andrew's house, kids were crying because they'd been robbed. Daniel, his face completely swollen, was trying to call his foster mom for a ride. Stephen said he grabbed Daniel's cell phone and called the police. When they arrived, the roughly twenty kids who'd been robbed were standing in front of Andrew's house. Stephen said he was the only person who would cooperate with the police. Stephen then described the kid who'd whacked Daniel with the bat: baggy pants, a black sweatshirt, and a black hat with yellow stripes on it. "And he's at 7-Eleven right now," Stephen said. Sure enough, Stephen said, the cops found a matching suspect at 7-Eleven with his stolen loot.
Stephen went back to the party and called his mother, who drove everyone to the El Cerrito police station. There, Stephen said he saw Max with the boy who started the fight. The police called the paramedics, who took Daniel to the hospital while Stephen made his statement.
In an interview three months later, Max conceded that he'd witnessed the fight, but denied having participated.
"Who have you talked to?" he then demanded of this reporter.
"Uh, the kid who got hit with the bat."
"That kid needs to stop talking," Max said nervously. "Or he's gonna get jumped."
December 8, 2007, Derby and MLK, Berkeley
On a recent Saturday, Michelle's cell phone started ringing shortly after 8 p.m. By 8:15 p.m., three people had called to ask if she was planning to crash the party at Derby Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Michelle was babysitting and assumed she wouldn't get off until 11:30 p.m., at which point she figured the party would have been shut down already. Besides, she was wearing a big sweater and Uggs — definitely not party attire.
But she called me to see if I'd like to go check it out. I said okay, with some trepidation.
At first it was difficult to find the party since Michelle didn't have a definitive address. I rolled west down Derby Street and saw nothing, so I hung a right on Milvia, crossed MLK, and checked the other side. Then a car parked on Derby, and guys wearing baseball caps and sagging pants hopped out. They started heading west down Derby. I drove back down the street and parked about two blocks away on MLK. I thrust my purse under the backseat of the car and carried my cell phone.
Another group of kids was walking north toward the house where everyone was gathering: a brown-shingled duplex next to Lee's Market. It was a mixed-race crowd and everyone was dressed in the standard uniform. Girls wore skinny jeans and sparkly flats, while the guys had saggy pants, airbrushed T-shirts, and Ecko Steelo hoodies. Teens crowded the front steps. A couple stood in front talking on their cell phones. It wasn't clear if you had to know somebody to get in. The kids on the stoop glared at me.
I dialed Michelle again, trying to look like inconspicuous. As we discussed how to get me into the party, a wiry girl with two-toned hair walked up.
"Who are you calling?" the girl asked menacingly.
"Um, I'm calling a, uh, friend?" I stammered.
"It looks like you're calling the police," a chubby girl behind her interjected.
"Which friend?" the first girl asked. "Do I know her?"
"Um, Michelle," I replied. "I don't know."
The girl rolled her eyes coolly, as though cycling back through her mental Rolodex. "Michelle, Michelle, Michelle. I don't know a Michelle."
"Who are you talking to?" Michelle asked me over the phone.
"Um, what's your name?" I asked the first girl.
"My name?" she asked, then hesitated. "Tiffany."
"I'm talking to Tiffany," I said to Michelle.
"I don't know a Tiffany," Michelle replied.
"Yeah, she doesn't know you, either."
"Well don't tell her who you're talking to," Michelle said. "Say a different name. Say you're talking to, uh, Allison."
"Um, Tiffany, I was supposed to meet Michelle at this party."
"It looks like she's calling the police," the chubby girl repeated.
Tiffany narrows her eyes. "Give me your cell phone," she insisted. "I want to talk to Michelle."
Unnerved by this request, I turned around and walked across MLK. "Tiffany" and the chubby girl followed me. There seemed to be a third person with them, but it was hard to tell in the darkness. I still had Michelle on the other line.
Tiffany bellowed, "Hey, hey, let me talk to Michelle!"
"Uh, Michelle, why are these girls following me?" I asked. "I think maybe they want my cell phone."
"What did she say?" the chubby girl asked her friend. "Did she say 'Why are these girls following me?'"
Within two minutes, Tiffany had caught up to me and blocked me from crossing the street. "Hey, let me talk to Michelle," she snarled.
Then my fight-or-flight instincts kicked in. The cell phone had to go.
"Fine," I said. "You wanna speak to Michelle? Here, speak to Michelle."
Just as I thrust the phone toward her, a police car raced by with sirens blaring, soon followed by two more. They were headed south on MLK.
"Police!" the girls screamed. Without taking my phone, they swiftly fled, which allowed me to run to my car. I grabbed my keys, jumped in, and pulled out into a busy street without signaling. I was terrified.
Three days later, I learned that Berkeley police responded to a call for service at MLK and Derby, right next to Lee's Market, at 12:16 a.m. that morning. As Lieutenant Hester reported in an e-mail the following week, "A resident heard a loud argument, then a single gunshot. It seemed to come from the upper level duplex next to Lee's Market. Another caller reported hearing three shots. Officers associated the loud shots with the party, and began dispersing it at 12:24."
Michelle didn't believe the gunshot report when I mentioned it a few days later.
"Oh, I don't think so," she said. "It would have been all over school."
Editor's Note: The names of all the students in this story have been changed, except for those associated with the 2006 stabbing incident.
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