L.A. gangs using social media to terrorize communities
Forget graffiti, hashtags are the new 'tags' in a potentially deadly turf fight
The first thing you notice at this South Los Angeles cemetery isn't the mourners — most of them young, most of them black. It's the police.
Squad cars from three different agencies slowly circle the roads separating the plots. That's because the man being buried is a member of a gang, which, word has it, has vowed a uniquely millennial form of revenge.
Three weeks ago, 27-year-old Kenneth Peevy, a member of the Crip-affilated gang the Rollin' 100s, was shot to death.
His shooting is said to have sparked a grisly challenge online between a rival Crips gang: a race to kill 100 people in the next 100 days.
It even has its own hashtag: #100days100nights.
That's what brought Skipp Townsend to the funeral. He's on alert, ready to step in if things get out of hand.
"I'm looking for the individuals who leave here with all their emotions high," Townsend says. "If they look to target or victimize other people, I want to intervene in that before another homicide happens."
If you'd told Townsend's younger self that one day he'd be helping the cops, the conversation wouldn't have ended well. But the now 40-something former gang member leads a gang intervention group. And he has traced the #100days#100nights challenge to a couple of Peevy's friends.
"They put that out over Facebook, Instagram, they tweeted it, and before you know it, it went viral," Townsend says.
Spike in violence
But is this a credible threat? Would gang members really slaughter 100 members of their own community?
"It's really been taken out of context, out of character, and it's really not true," Townsend says.
He says the panic over #100days100nights isn't warranted, but he is worried that more often these days, beefs start on social media and end up in the graveyard.
Gangs, he says, are all over social media, advertising, recruiting and threatening. Graffiti is now old school. Tags have been replaced by hashtags.
"Social media is an instigator in a lot these situations where individuals try to be the toughest person from behind the computer screen," Townsend says. "There are individuals who are sometimes not in Los Angeles, who are in New York. They've been instigating things."
Police have stepped up their patrols, even though LAPD Deputy Chief Bill Scott agrees with Townsend that the #100days100nights threat may not be real.
"I wouldn't say we're in the middle of a gang war," Scott says. "We do have a spike of violence."
'Almost like al-Qaeda'
Since Peevy's shooting, close to a quarter of the #100 days#100 nights have passed and there have been a handful of shootings. Some of the victims had no gang affiliation, and many people who live in the community formerly known as South Central are convinced those shootings have their origins online.
"I wake up every morning praying that nothing's going to happen to me," Keith McCalebb says. "Me living in this area for my 23 years, that's like the most people that have ever died in a year over a gang. So this is real."
People here don't scare easily, he says. But he's among many residents who are now avoiding their own neighbourhoods. That's why 19-year-old Tylynn Burns decided to drive to the grocery store even though it's only two blocks away.
"And it's just scary because I could get hurt when I have nothing to do with anything," Burns says. "I'm not gang-related at all."
Robert Rubin, who runs a gang intervention group called Advocates for Peace and Urban Unity, says there's a word for what the gangs are doing online: terrorism.
"It's almost like al-Qaeda. This is guerrilla warfare. How do you fight that?"
Rubin has been trying to fight gang violence for decades, and he says intervenors can also use what he terms the "un-social media" to track threats. But the sheer volume of chatter online makes that almost impossible.
"It's a faceless enemy," Rubin says. "People can brag. People can threaten. And we have lost the social interaction with face-to-face, so you don't know what the enemy looks like now. The old adage 'sticks and stones may break my bones but words do not hurt me,' I believe is no longer true. I think words are causing people to die."
Recently, Rubin's friend was gunned down at a stop sign. He believes his friend was the victim of a beef that started online.
"He was killed July 25th around 5:30 p.m. on his way home to change clothes to come to work."
Rubin says the former gang member had turned his life around; for the last four years he'd been a crossing guard.
"And he did that faithfully, rain or shine," Rubin says.
Thursday Rubin buried his friend in the same cemetery that now holds Kenneth Peevy.