“Gang members need a family, they need a community, and they need to understand the story of their lives.”As a young social worker in the emergency room at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, Jorja Leap saw plenty of dead bodies. Most of these people had met grisly ends in car accidents or through violence. But they never really got to her emotionally. 

Later, as a UN volunteer in post-war Kosovo, she stared at bodies in various states of decomposition, including twice at mass burial sites. But she was somehow able to remain detached here, too, viewing the horrendous scenes as simply “man’s inhumanity to man.”

But then came a summer night in August 2002 at a nondescript so-called “gang-related” shooting in South Los Angeles, when she couldn’t take her eyes off a coffee- colored adolescent boy as his blood slowly flowed onto the cracked pavement marked off by yellow police tape. 

She could hear her own heart beating as she wondered: “Whose baby is this? Whose brother? Whose grandson?”

After the body was taken away to the coroner’s office and all the LAPD officers had left the crime scene, she lingered, thinking of her friend Father Greg Boyle’s motto: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

Then the traffic noise from a nearby freeway brought her back to the cold reality that “life in Los Angeles goes on, oblivious, despite this dead boy; despite the violence, and despite the ‘gang problem.’ I don’t realize it yet but it is one of those very few moments in my life when, as the saying goes, a door opens and the future begins. Because of this night, I feel alive and determined to understand.” 

Participant observer And so for the next four-plus years, this UCLA anthropologist uses all of her academic knowledge and research skills, as well as her gut intuition and bedrock Greek compassion, to try to understand local gangs and gang members. 

She hangs out with homies on street corners at night and goes shopping with home girls. Day after day, she sits in Father Boyle’s glass-front office at Homeboy Industries near Chinatown — the largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program in the nation — with a laptop computer, collecting extensive field notes. 

But most of all she simply listens to the stories of current and former gang members along with the folks  —  like the Jesuit priest who started his gang ministry on a fat-tire bike riding through the housing projects surrounding Dolores Mission, where he was pastor — who love and work with troubled youths and young adults. In short, she gains almost everyone’s trust by becoming a participant observer.

“And that’s what I believe in,” Leaps maintained. “I don’t think when you’re studying human beings you can be just an observer. By your very presence you are participating, even if you don’t utter a word. And if somebody wants to spend time with me in the streets, I am there. I’m the godmother of every gangbanger who crosses my path.” 

The end result is her recently-published book, “Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love and Redemption.” And with its witty observations, gritty details, sharp descriptions of characters, extended dialogues (did she use a tape recorder?) and, especially, scene-by-scene construction, it reads more like a New Journalism work of the ‘70s by Tom Wolfe or Jimmy Breslin than a scholarly study meant for a dusty library shelf.   

Sharing life stories“I think there’s a lot of people who are interested in crime or in safety, and they’re ‘problem-driven,’” Leap told The Tidings in a wide-ranging interview. “I think the critical question is, ‘Am I interested in the problem or am I interested in this human being?’ For me the interest is the human being. I’m interested in their story. And when gang members find out you’re genuinely interested in them, they open up.

“Also, I would share parts of my life with them, including the struggles I was having with a new marriage. So for me it’s not an interviewing process. It’s a conversation. And it’s an ongoing conversation over time. I would say, ‘I don’t know about these things. Teach me about them.’ And everybody likes to be a teacher, a guide. So I think that was the secret — that it wasn’t interviews about ‘the gang problem.’”

What she soon discovered was the complexity of local gangs and gangbangers. With neighborhood “sets” within gangs, the ground-level actual situation was way more than the media’s view of the Crips versus the Bloods. 

While Black gangs were highly unstable, breaking apart and coming back together repeatedly, Mexican gangs were much more stable, often spanning multiple generations. In prison, Black gangs would fight each other to death, but Mexican gangs would band together in a cease-fire with everybody brown on the same side. 

Because Central American gangs, like MS-13,18th Street and Florencia-13, were more interested in numbers than territory, these new gangsters on the block accepted almost anyone, although they were dominated with recruits from Central American countries like El Salvador and Guatemala.  

“And the level and degree of their violence is very, very lethal,” the 56-year-old teacher and researcher pointed out. “They have become international and they mirror the really bloody warfare that’s going on in Central America. So they’re at this degree of lethality that I’ve never ever witnessed.”

Locally, these most violent gangs occupy the Rampart and MacArthur Park areas west of downtown, plus parts of South Los Angeles.

“So it’s a complicated picture,” she summed up. “And it becomes even more complicated for two reasons. One is the transnational character of some of these gangs, and, then, the constantly shifting dynamic and fragmentation.”

Not ‘the enemy’ Even as a young social worker in South Los Angeles, Leap never really pictured gang members as “the enemy” or as “super predators.” Early on she recognized that they had the same basic life concerns that she did. They wanted to fall in love and have children. They wanted to own a car and buy a house. 

In short, they had dreams. Her study and work since 2002 just deepened her knowledge and understanding of this reality.

But, on a more personal level, her work has affected her profoundly. “The richness of their human relationships occurring in the context of all this violence and all this disorder and all this dysfunction was truly amazing,” she said. “You know, in the book I go into how they talked about relationship problems that mirrored my own. So we would find common ground, which I think was quite extraordinary. 

“And there was real redemption. First of all, the fact that so many of them have hopes that they’re going to leave [their gang] eventually. And then there really is a true redemption of people who leave, who disavow the gang life and leave it. Plus, there was social redemption in some of the OGs [Original Gangsters)] who wanted to go back and heal the communities they’ve once destroyed. And that’s very powerful to me because they feel a sense of responsibility for what they did.”

After a moment, she confided, “It has given me a sense of gratitude. And I am always in awe of each and every one of these individuals and what they confront and what they deal with and how they deal with it. People say, ‘Isn’t the work depressing?’ And I always say, ‘No! No!’” 

One of the major underlying rivers in the book — which also describes in some detail her challenging relationship and marriage to Mark Leap, who rose to deputy chief in the LAPD command structure before retiring — is the comparison of crisis management street intervention work versus long-term prevention and intervention. 

In the final chapter of “Jumped In,” titled “Answers,” the author lays her cards on the table about her extensive evaluations over the years of the two different kinds of gang programs, which have been — and still are — hotly debated in Los Angeles as well as other cities across the United States. 

The petite gang anthropologist opts for long-term intervention with job training and placement along with comprehensive services such as therapy, anger management and education. She observes that while on-the-scene street intervention is “sexy” and delivers immediate results, comprehensive programs offer the best hope for permanent change. 

“From my experience with prevention and street intervention and research on violence and family dynamics,” she writes, “I knew the community-based approach that Homeboy and places like it offer represent the best of all the ‘answers.’ 

“Gang members need to experience something other than the neighborhood. They need a family, they need a community, and they need to understand the story of their lives. Homeboy, of course, provides that family, that community.” 

For Jorja Leap, the longitudinal study of gang life continues as she gleans new insights from homies, home girls, OGs, gang interventionists, street cops and people like Father Greg Boyle. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop,” she said. 

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