His name is Gregory, and he is 18 and black, in baggy pants and a baseball cap. He has just spent about 20 minutes, in handcuffs and against a wall, being questioned by police.
He told them he had been a gang member, but he's named in no warrants. They have let him go. And now, describing the experience, he gives a shiver, wraps his arms around himself as if he's cold and glances sideways at the police.
We talk a little bit—about crimes he committed, how he likes poetry, how he wants to go to Trade-Tech, and about the time that someone shot at him. He was 13; he heard the bullet whiz by his ear, like a blast of hot wind, he says. He exhales sharply for me, to imitate the sound. He relaxes and smiles once, when he mentions his mother. He does not seem bad, he does not seem good. He seems "just a kid," as the officer I'm riding with says later, and now, a fretful, indignant kid.
We are on the west side of the Harbor Freeway at about 8:30 p.m. on a busy north-south boulevard, standing between pools of light in one of the long stretches of darkness. The police are doing warrant raids tonight, and they have invited me along. Gregory had been protesting throughout his arrest, twisting around to argue and plead with the officers.
With me now, he is earnest on some points, squirrelly on others, and seemingly anxious to connect. He is vague and looks down when I ask him about crimes he says he has committed. I narrow my query, asking, "Have you hurt anyone?" And he straightens and says no.
Young black men like Gregory are the people most often suspected of violence here. At the same time, they are extraordinarily vulnerable, the group who is most likely to be injured and killed in shootings.
Decent people, among them many police, reflexively want to take sides, to take the part of the victims and stand firm against the perpetrators. But when the victims and perpetrators are the same people, decent impulses blow back on themselves and tie their hosts into knots.
I am often assured by officers that there are very few "real" or "true" victims among the victims—by this, they mean that most assault and homicide victims are gang members—and then, in the next breath, they will assert with equal sincerity that death is death and rail against wider society for not caring. Those I've talked to in depth often express more frustration and bafflement than anything else. "Tell me what to do and I will do it," a black sergeant I know once burst out a couple hours into a discussion about black men and homicide. He was pounding on the steering wheel, appealing to thin air. "Just tell me what to do."
Police had just raided an apartment nearby where they had seized cocaine and two guns. They thought they saw Gregory leaving the building as they swept in, and they take pains to explain this to him as he wears a get-me-out-of-here look.
On the streets around us, several assault suspects have been arrested in this same warrant operation, probably black young men like Gregory wanted for shooting other black young men like Gregory. But since Gregory is not the man they want, the police turn away, busy with the contraband in the apartment. Gregory slips off into the night, pushing his bicycle, heading alone down dark streets on which—as a gang member in the area once told me—young black men at night are bull's-eyes.