Image: Andy Potts

On November 22, 2008, a young man named Daiquan Jones went to the Westfield Southcenter Mall with his friends. Jones, aka “Lil Soup,” was just 16 years old, but he already had a long rap sheet. In the two years following his 14th birthday he’d been arrested a dozen times for theft, burglary, trespass, assault, harassment, and robbery, or some combination thereof. He’d also been a suspect in multiple shootings, says one police consultant, but was never charged with any.

Several times Lil Soup and two or three others fell upon a solitary youth, took his stuff, and beat him up. This streak culminated last February 4, when a young man named Abdi Abdi told police that Jones and four others whom he had earlier refused to join in a robbery cornered him in the Columbia City Library and proceeded to rob, kick, and strip him. Outside, they beat Abdi with a tree limb and a urine-filled condom. Jones pressed a semiautomatic pistol first to Abdi’s ribs, later his head, and threatened to shoot him and his family if he snitched.

Arrested soon afterward, Jones pled guilty to robbery and served seven months at the state’s Green Hill juvenile corrections facility in Chehalis. “I think it changed him,” says a young man called, for purposes of this story, Tyler, who grew up with Daiquan in Southeast Seattle. “When he came out, he didn’t gangbang. He was going to the mall to shop for school.”

But if Daiquan was trying to turn his life around, he had a hard time shedding old habits and acquaintances. Eight days after he was released, he went to Southcenter with three of his comrades in the 74 Hoovers, an offshoot of the notorious Crips and the predominant black street gang in Southeast Seattle.

That same November day, Barry Saunders went to Southcenter with his girlfriend, his younger brother, and his brother’s friend. Saunders is 21 but, short and slight, looks younger. He had tangled with Daiquan Jones before: About two years ago, says Tyler, Daiquan beat up Barry for talking to his girlfriend. At Southcenter, Saunders was elsewhere with his girlfriend when his brother and his friend ran into Daiquan outside the Escape Outdoors store.

It’s not clear whether Jones’s group or the two smaller boys threw the first gang sign; each seems to blame the other for flashing a challenge. Barry Saunders’s brother called his cellphone for help. Saunders came running and found Jones and another 16-year-old atop his brother and his friend. Police, citing the evidence of Escape Outdoor’s security camera, say Saunders raised a gun, wounded the other youth, and shot Daiquan Jones dead.

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Saunders fled and briefly became this region’s most notorious fugitive since D. B. Cooper. He was soon captured in Portland. Prosecutors prepared the paperwork to charge him with first-degree murder and attempted murder, but then qualified their case, charging second-degree murder and first-degree assault.

Reactions posted on the local dailies’ Web sites were less qualified. “He’s a thuggish waste of a human life,” one reader wrote. “Why arrest him?” asked another. “Why not let street justice save the tax payers time and money?” A third expressed a sentiment common among those for whom youth gangs seem as foreign as suicide bombers: “At least the social deviants in this country just target each other.”

Look closer, however, and the story—like everything having to do with gangs and youthful violence—gets messier and in some ways more troubling. Skinny little Barry Saunders doesn’t fit the tough “gangsta” mold. His family background shows evidence of mainstream middle-class striving rather than “social deviance”: His attorney, David Gehrke, says his mother and aunt are bank managers. Saunders himself was taking classes at two community colleges when he could and rapping and DJing at hip-hop events. He’d had a few brushes with the law: When he was 15 he stole a van for a joyride and got charged with shoplifting at Macy’s (charge dismissed). He was ticketed for speeding, failing to click his seatbelt, and driving without his license and, twice, without proof of insurance. But he’d made it to the ripe age of 21 with no serious criminal record.

Tyler, who also knew Saunders, says he was in the Deuce-8 gang, a Hoover rival based around the 2800 block of Jackson Street. Gabriel Morales, a gangs expert who advises local police departments, says his sources tell him Saunders was a Low Profile—another Central Area gang. Gehrke insists his client wasn’t in any gang, though his brother may have been. Having a relative in a gang, or throwing a sign to avoid getting beat up around the hood, can get you labeled a “gang associate.”

At trial, Gehrke will contend that Barry Saunders acted out of a reasonable fear of danger when he shot Lil Soup and McGowan. Indeed, fear plays a bigger part in the gang scene than all its swagger and strutting would suggest. It moves kids who are not natural thugs to join gangs and avoid getting beat up by them. Since the beginnings of the Sicilian mafia, gangs have promised to protect the dispossessed—from hostile officials and from other gangs. The first prominent black gang in Los Angeles, the Crips (from Community Revolution in Progress), proposed to defend Watts from harassment by Chief Daryl Gates’s LAPD. But they soon started throwing their weight around, and the rival Bloods (or, as they’re now more commonly called, Pirus, after Piru Street in South Central LA) formed in resistance to them. Both gangs took to selling drugs, especially crack cocaine, and fighting for turf. In the mid-1980s they brought their rivalry (and crack) to Seattle. Since then, says Morales, it’s been “gang war, the Central District versus the South End.”

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The Crips won the first round, prevailing in Southeast Seattle and points further south. But the Pirus held on in the Central District and downtown. Many teenagers in gang-stricken neighborhoods resented the Californians’ intrusion and realized it would be wise to avoid all the official heat coming down on them. They turned instead to the Chicago-based Black Gangster Disciple Folk Nation, aka Black Gangster Disciples or BGDs, who skated under the radar and soon outnumbered Crips or Pirus in Seattle.

Today, various BGD, Crip, Piru, and renegade sets defend particular turfs: Deuce-8 on Jackson Street, the Union Street Hustlers at 21st and Union, Dale Blocc on Cloverdale Street, the (Madison) Valley Hood Pirus, Delridge’s West Side Street Mobb. Alliances shift, sometimes across gang lines. But one underlying schism persists, and has nothing to do with LA or Chicago: the homegrown rivalry between the CD and South End.

This schism has its Mason Dixon Line—“the deadline,” as kids call it: the Burger King at Rainier and 23rd Avenues. Some cross with a “pass” from friends or relatives on the other side. “I’m welcome anywhere,” boasts Tyler. “My family has a good name in the CD, and I’ve made my own good name down here.” But a good name only gets you so far in a war; Tyler stayed home to steer clear of trouble: “If I need something from the mall, my girlfriend goes for me.”

South End and CD allegiances persist even among families pushed south by gentrification and housing costs to Skyway, Tukwila, Renton, Federal Way, and Kent, where Barry Saunders lived. Kids there still come back to gangbang—to hang with their sets and defend turf—in the old hoods. Their battles have roots in a hallowed tradition: high school sports, especially the longtime basketball rivalry between Garfield in the CD and Rainier Beach.

Postgame fistfights are a long if not glorious ritual, here as in the rest of the country. But the LA gangs introduced two new elements: guns and a license to kill. This marked a big change from the 1960s and ’70s, when Morales grew up in Seattle and “the worst thing you could do was for a black man to kill a black man. The [Black] Panthers wouldn’t allow it.” Such strictures now sound quaint.

The same weekend Lil Soup Jones was killed, two other alleged Hoovers were wounded outside some Rainier Beach apartments. Another youth—by some accounts a Hoover, by others a friend of Barry Saunders targeted to avenge Lil Soup’s death—was killed during rap night at Vito’s Madison Grill, across from the Sorrento Hotel. But it was Jones’s shooting that ignited wider outrage. The killing ground this time, after dozens of little-noted shootings and at least seven teenage fatalities this year, was no hip-hop club or Rainier Valley parking lot. It was a shopping mall, with Christmas around the corner.

In the ensuing weeks the authorities scrambled to respond. Seattle Schools withdrew a proposal to merge two South End high schools, which students and parents had warned would provoke violence. Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske seemed to be channeling General David Petraeus announcing the troop surge as he stood before the press and TV cameras with 20 counterparts from other police departments and state and federal agencies and promised to “drop the hammer” on gangs and youth violence.

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That promise echoes previous crackdowns. In the ’80s and early ’90s, police waged what one veteran officer recalls as “a war of attrition” against the Crips and Bloods. They swung the same big hammer—long federal prison sentences—they’re reaching for today. Most of the original gangsters wound up dead or in prison. And a younger, likewise violent generation rose up behind them.

The cycle will repeat, warns Morales: “If you go after the hardcore gangsters, put the worst 75 away, I say, Congratulations—75 baby gangsters just got a promotion. You need intervention and prevention, in middle school, not in jail. It’s a war for the hearts and minds of young people. You have to give them positive things to do.”

Daiquan Jones’s friend Tyler, looking out from his self-imposed house arrest in Southeast Seattle, seconds that sentiment. His peers wouldn’t harass, rob, and shoot each other, he says, “if everyone had more stuff to do with their spare time.” He offers one modest suggestion: Build a community center or other secure facility on the CD-Southeast deadline, so kids from both sides can hang out together on neutral territory.

Wishful thinking, perhaps—but community centers, midnight basketball, and jobs programs cost less in the long run than police and prisons. Alas, they’re also the first measures to get cut, especially in hard times. Last year the legislature passed a long-awaited bill “to prevent, intervene, and suppress street gangs and gang violence.” Morales complains that only suppression—“one leg in a three-legged stool”—has gotten funded.

For now, SPD is keeping the lid on. “They got lots of police down here,” says Tyler. “Everyone’s scared of even trying to do anything anywhere near the South End.” But when that lid loosens, old fears and resentments will boil over. “The worst of it is yet to come. From the talk, it’s going to be bad.”

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