"Squeak," as he was known to the other toughs in one of Los Angeles' roughest street gangs, started college last fall, which is something of a double miracle.
The first miracle is that a street kid from Compton, Calif., the suburb next to Watts in Los Angeles, has taken a big step on the road to the American dream.
The second miracle is that Squeak lived so long.
At 18, he talks like a survivor of a war, which in a sense he is.
"I been shot in gang bangs, hell, yeah. Respect! That's what it's all about, man. You live on this side and they live on that side. This side say 'Cuz,' and that side say 'Blood,' man. You be in school and go into the damn restroom and say, 'What's up, Cuz?' And that dude get up and shoot you 'cause you say 'Cuz.' Hey that's what young brothers dyin' over, man--a word."
Squeak's battles are with a dangerous world. Rosland Johnson's are mostly with herself.
Rosland, 17, lives at the other side of the country in a sprawling apartment complex in Yonkers, N.Y. She talks about becoming a psychologist or even a psychiatrist.
Her intelligence, ability and pleasant personality are vouched for by her mother, her former teachers and her supervisors at the Job Corps camp she attended for more than six months in 1981.
Before returning home from the Job Corps she received her general equivalency high school diploma after a series of tests placed her in the middle range of all young Americans her age.
But in the view of her supervisors there, Rosland had unfinished business when she went home.
Rosland has "unlimited ability," according to her counselor, Deborah Torain. But she couldn't accept rules and regulations and "could have problems holding a job if her attitude doesn't change."
Squeak and Rosland do not symbolize young blacks. No two kids ever could. But their stories provide some insight into the complexity of one of the nation's most enormous tasks: bringing more minority kids into the mainstream of American society.
Squeak and Rosland are at critical turning points in their lives. They are kids with the potential to make it. With luck--a supportive friend or teacher, a good break from an employer or a helping hand from some program--they will. But they are also vulnerable to the influences of "the street," of less motivated peers, of bad luck, of some unforeseen blow to their self-esteem or self-confidence.
Before the civil rights movement, racial discrimination condemned all but a small minority of young blacks to inferior education and inferior jobs. Today the factors affecting the success or failure of young blacks are not so simple.
Sweeping anti-discrimination laws have been passed, and billions of federal, state and local dollars have been spent to improve education, provide training and employment and combat delinquency. But the unemployment rate for black 18- and 19-year-olds, 36 percent, is higher than it was in 1964.
Black males under 24 are murdered at five times the rate of white males.
A white high school dropout under 24 is more likely to have a job than a black high school graduate.
Almost 9 percent of black female high school seniors live with one or more of their own children, according to tabulations of national data by economist Robert I. Lerman of Brandeis University's Heller School of Social Work. In eight cities surveyed by the federal Youth Entitlement Demonstration Project, half of the black 19-year-old girls who were not in school had children of their own.
These statistics are all the more discouraging in light of the progress that millions of young blacks have made in the past 15 years.
More than a quarter of all blacks between 16 and 21 are growing up in families whose income is in the upper two thirds of the national average. More than two out of three blacks finish high school. And three out of five black high school seniors hold down a paying job their last year of school. This majority of young blacks is subject to many of the same economic ups and downs as young whites are.
Why do some black kids from poor homes defy the statistics and become successful, while others get trapped in the culture of crime and unemployment?
Why do some succeed while others seem unable to seize the opportunities dangled in front of them by government programs?
If black progress is to continue in the '80s, kids with potential, such as Squeak and Rosland, must make it into the mainstream. But their stories seem to say that success is often an individual matter, subject to dozens of subtle, sometimes very personal influences that appear almost beyond the means of government, if not of local neighborhoods, to control.
An acquaintance put me in touch with Squeak's older friend "Treetop," who still uses his nickname from his days with the Bishops gang. Together we drove to Compton and picked up Squeak.
Treetop was working for the Los Angeles County Gang Services, a newly established, $1.2 million-a-year project financed by the state and county. The project hires people from neighborhoods plagued by gang activity to work as trouble-shooters.
They are supposed to circulate, to communicate with gangs, and to provide the community with an alternative force to the police in combating gang violence.
Squeak, it quickly became evident, was agitated and upset. The previous evening members of a rival gang had gunned down a close friend. The street code of honor called for revenge. But revenge meant getting involved with "gang banging" again instead of following through on plans to attend college.
"That was my buddy, man, and the Pyrus a rival gang, pronounced "pie-roos" did kill him. These dudes on bikes just came up to his car and shot him six times. If he was livin' and that was me got killed, he'd be goin' down, you know, shootin' at 'em straight out. Buddies gonna take care of that, you know. It ain't no bulls---- thing, man; it's like the big 'Nam war. That's what it is."
Squeak has been in the Crips gang for as long as he can remember. The gang warfare in which Squeak finds himself involved is one of the dangerous realities of growing up in Los Angeles County's black ghettos and Hispanic barrios.
In Washington, D.C., some black teen-agers move in packs, but not in organized gangs with established hierarchies, structures, traditions and codes, according to authorities. But the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates that there are 2,200 youth gangs with 96,000 members in 300 U.S. cities.
Gang members are involved in a significantly higher proportion of robberies, rapes, assaults and weapons violations than other young people are. Since 1967 at least 3,400 murders have been connected with gang violence nationwide.
Los Angeles may be the leading gang city in the country. There are the Crips, the Pyrus, the Swans, the Swamp Boys, the Largo, the Mulberry Mafia, the Santana. There are the dreaded Bounty Hunters, carbine-toting hoods who ride out on Mopeds in raids into enemy turf.
Squeak was only 2 when, in 1965, rioters torched the neighboring community of Watts in the first great urban conflagration of the 1960s. His mother and father, who is a Baptist preacher from Arkansas, live in a cottage-sized home on a quiet street that seems oddly peaceful in a neighborhood known for violence.
It was in junior high school that Squeak began hanging out with the Crips gang after getting "jammed up" after school by members of the Pyrus. It was mainly for protection that Squeak found himself a Crips, but as he grew older and proved his mettle, Crips membership also brought respect and esteem in the community.
When he was 14 he was shot in the shoulder during a gang skirmish at a football game. From then on he was involved in a number of incidents, he told me.
In February, 1979, he was expelled from Centennial High School after a shooting that involved another altercation with a Pyru. He spent eight months at a Job Corps camp in the state of Washington, where the rivalry between members of the two gangs continued nearly 1,000 miles from home turf.
In September, 1980, after getting back from the Job Corps, Squeak says he was booked and released after another incident at Centennial involving a fight with a building guard in which Squeak had a knife.
Now he was struggling to untangle himself from the street.
After the knife incident, he transferred to a parochial high school, started playing football, lifting weights and spending time with Treetop, who had been a public school counselor. He credits his change in attitude to Treetop. Treetop has respect in Compton. He earned it as a Bishop, and he can use that reservoir of respect to push kids such as Squeak in the right direction.
"The street is always stronger than the family," Treetop explains. "Once you become a figure out there you can't just break away."
A few weeks earlier, Treetop arranged a meeting between Squeak and "China Doll," a member of the Pyrus. They just sat and talked for most of a day, while Treetop hung around in the background to "keep things cool."
Squeak talked softly about the meeting. "I don't want to die," he said. "I want to get my ---- together . . . and China Doll, he talked the same way."
A few weeks later, Squeak was attending Compton College, he reported by telephone, playing football and studying business. But he still wasn't totally in the clear. Members of the Pyrus had been in his home neighborhood and had fired some shots at him a few weeks earlier, he said. Squeak's future seemed ambiguous.
John Flores, a community organizer, said he thinks it is useless for society to attack the gang problem through the police. Many of the gangs have a highly developed social structure, which has been evolving in some cases for 75 years. Gang membership provides security, prestige and some economic support.
"Employers are not equipped to work with these kids, and vice versa," said Flores. "The employers are afraid, and the kids are not smart enough to realize you don't show up for an interview in old sneakers and a handkerchief hanging out of your back pocket."
Robert L. Woodson, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said he feels that the only solution lies in supporting authentic grass-roots organizations that enjoy the respect of the neighborhoods and can provide young people with pride, hope and discipline. There are such organizations, he said, but they get little if any government help or reinforcement.
"It isn't just jobs or education or training that they need," Woodson said. "They also want to go where they can get respect, dignity and an opportunity to help somebody else."
Rosland Johnson was sitting in the cafeteria of the Job Corps camp at Morganfield, Ky., chatting with friends at dinner. "They treat us like animals," she informed me tartly. The Job Corps recruiter back home in Yonkers had "lied a lot to me," and she was making less money than she'd expected.
Her friend Jeannie, who had been at the camp 16 months to Rosland's five months, quietly corrected her.
"Here they don't lie to us," Jeannie said. "They tell you you're not fast enough if that's the truth. That's the way it is on the outside. You can make it here if you make it yourself."
Rosland began to relax, and modified her initial remarks.
"I've learned that I'm intelligent and I can make it on my own," she said. "I found out that I could get along with people, that I could get into a deep conversation and not have to use profanity. I love my mother to death, and I always wanted to believe that I needed her, but I don't."
Rosland was born in Alabama in 1964, moved to Norfolk with her parents when she was a year old, and settled in Yonkers after several other moves.
It is a working class family. Her father took a job as a social worker at a youth home, and her mother also had a job as a supervisor at a children's home while attending college. Even after Rosland's parents separated a few years ago, there was money for family trips home to Alabama.
But by the time she was 12 she was starting to have trouble in school.
Her mother enrolled her in a Roman Catholic private school, before transferring her to Yonkers High School. When her work slipped there, Rosland was admitted to Yonkers Prep, a small public alternative school that specializes in working with bright students with attitudes that keep them from realizing their academic potential.
Rosland dropped out of that school, too. Before that, she said, she was already involved with friends who were using drugs and dabbling in petty crime.
"I didn't have no peace with myself," she said. "I wasn't happy. I remember walking around a lot of times, and I was sad because I've always wanted to be proud of myself and make my mother proud of me, too. But the road that I was taking was giving nothing but shame. I started to say, 'Well, damn, you want children, you want them to be proud of you,' but the rate I was going I would have had a child, I would probably have had it on the park bench, stoned out, spaced out."
The day she decided to make a change, she remembers, "My friend had a tab of mescaline, and she asked me to take it and said, 'It's a really up high. Go ahead, you'll feel nice.' And I was going to take that pill just because I felt so sad. But I said, 'No, I'm not going that way now.' "
That was when she went to the Air Force recruiting office and picked up the brochures. But when she got home and showed them to her mother, her mother said, "The Air Force is too disciplined for you." Her mother called the Job Corps.
"For the first 2 1/2 months I was here I was--oh, man, you can talk to all the people--I have such a bad record. I used to come right out and tell them how I felt. I was ready to go home. I used to call my mother just about every day crying, 'Mommy, please come and get me.' "
Rosland admitted that she and a friend came to Morganfield "pretty much for the vacation, just because we wanted to get away." But other influences were pushing the other way. Job Corps supervisors got on her case, and at times, Rosland said, she'd look at herself in the mirror and say straight out, "You're spoiled."
About a month after the long conversation with Rosland at the Job Corps camp I visited Rosland's mother at her apartment in Yonkers.
No. 95 Riverdale Ave. in Yonkers, where Rosland Johnson's mother lives, is part of a large, undistinguished apartment complex, inhabited mainly by blacks and Hispanics. There are graffiti on the hall walls, and some of the apartment doors have three, four and even five locks on them. Rents run $400 and up, and have been rising, but some tenants receive federal rent supplements.
When Linna Johnson talked about Rosland, she sometimes used phrases Rosland uses, such as "I love her to death." Rosland, she said, had always been the "community social worker, listening to everyone's problems."
And she made a parental confession about her children: "I've spoiled them rotten."
It was a natural mistake, she said. She was a working class mother who had tried to do a lot, maybe too much, going to classes and working and perhaps not being there as often as the children would like.
Rosland had called the night before and told her she had gotten in trouble because of an argument in the dormitory.
"People don't like Rosland's attitude," Johnson said. "She'll say, 'I don't have to take that, my mother will come and get me.' I was ready to have her come home. I didn't want her upset down there in Kentucky."
Linna Johnson seemed satisfied that Ros had completed six months at the Job Corps, but was she satisfied too easily? Johnson seemed the iron-willed black mother, holding the family together through grinding poverty, caring deeply about the kids. She wants to do the right thing, wants to be a strong parent. But she also vacillated between getting tough with Ros and letting her off the hook.
A few weeks later, when I called up Linna Johnson, Rosland was back home from the Job Corps and wasn't planning to return.
"I suggested she not go back," said Linna Johnson. "She went there for her high school certificate, and she got that. But after she came back her attitude was a little changed. I felt she was a little too arrogant. I felt she was acting older than she was. I taught her to be adventurous, but she has to show a certain amount of respect."
She and Rosland "had had one of our run-ins on Sunday."
"I told her if she was going to stay here she had to accept the rules of the house. She would love for me to take over. Now she's decided she wants to go to Alabama on the bus, and maybe go on to college in January. She still talks about being a psychologist."
Rosland came on the telephone, sounding a little downcast and defensive.
"They didn't like it that I could be so defiant and so intelligent at the same time," she said. "They was so busy trying to get me they didn't see ways they could have got me.
"But I miss the place because it was all right," she said. "There's people from all over the world who can teach you things. I wasn't ready to come home yet, not like I thought I was. I would have liked to have gone back."
John Parham, director of residential living at Morganfield, said considerable efforts had been made to persuade Rosland to come back to the Job Corps after her leave so she could work on her attitude and her technical skills. He had encouraged her to stay on and finish the course in business and clerical skills, and had offered to enroll her part time in a nearby community college.
Parham, who has been at the Job Corps for 15 years, has changed his perspective on the problems of minority youth:
"When I first came here I thought the biggest problem was that these kids were poverty-stricken. But the biggest problem is getting support out of the parents. These are some very intelligent kids here, but it seems that anything they tell their parents, the parents believe it. We have kids who come here reading at the third-grade level. But they get homesick the first week and the parents say, "Send my son home."
Rosland had gone out looking for a job, but was discouraged by the forms and the paperwork. "I don't want a Burger King job," she said.
She had looked forward to seeing her old friends, but now she seemed to have trouble connecting with them. They were "doin' the same old thing. The potheads, and so on. I'm tryin' to make people understand what I'm doing, but they don't get it. I know I'll never be like that again.
"Home's not the same," she went on. "It's a struggle inside myself. As long as I stay here my mother will take care of me. So I have to go somewhere. But I feel so lonely. My body's been through a lot of changes, emotionally and physically. I never was 14 when I was 14. I want to do something now, so I'm going to get on the bus. I want to at least try it in Alabama and see if that's the place for me. I have the chance."
Will Rosland find her future, herself, in Alabama? Will Squeak stay clear of the gangs and stick with college? None of the expert studies can provide reliable answers to those questions of human struggle. Perhaps, in a way, that is the one thing learned in the last decade, that the answers are not so simple.