Coming of Age on the Street: Ritual Invention
and the Sacred in American Gang Initiation Rituals
By Michael Karlin
Co-President — Mythic Imagination Institute
On June 15, 1975, Kody Scott was initiated into the Crips, a gang in South Central Los Angeles. That night Kody blasted eight shotgun shells into a group of rival gang members at point blank range. Kody Scott was 11 years old.
The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, published by the Union of International Associations declares:
The absence of rites of passage leads to a serious breakdown in the process of maturing as a person. Young people are unable to participate in society in a creative manner because societal structures no longer consider it their responsibility to intentionally establish the necessary marks of passing from one age-related social role to another, such as: child to youth, youth to adult, adult to elder. The result is that society has no clear expectation of how people should participate in these roles and therefore individuals do not know what is required by society.
This exploration is a small part of a larger project that explores the breakdown of rites of passage in contemporary America, and in particular, analyzes the emergence of one widespread alternative that has emerged out of the vacuum, namely peer-to-peer gang initiation rituals. In examining gang initiation rituals, the argument emerges that these invented rituals have arisen to effectively create a social and psychological state transition from boyhood to manhood for the initiate, to reinforce the social bond of the group, and to identify and affirm what the group deems most sacred. As an introduction to the larger project, this paper will present the details of Kody Scott's initiation into the Los Angeles gang the Crips and discuss how this ritual is used to identify, affirm and perpetuate the sacred.
American society is facing many significant issues due to the lack of effective initiation rituals for its youth. Yet, as Ronald Grimes points out in Deeply Into the Bone, a study of contemporary rites of passage in America, "initiatory activity arises whether or not we want it to and whether or not it is supervised by elders" (Grimes, 93). The result, according to Grimes, is that initiation in Western society often takes this postmodern, peer-driven form — adolescents initiating adolescents, sometimes compulsively, unconsciously, and violently. Such initiations, detached from family and community, are practices that may be substitutes for traditional initiation conducted by elders who represent a lineage. (94)
Gangs are pervasive in America (Jankowski, 40) and the rituals created to initiate someone into these gangs represent one grim example of the form of ritual invention imagined by Grimes (Decker and Van Winkle, 69; Vigil 1988, 438; Vigil 1996, 149-150).
The most prevalent form of initiation ritual into a gang is through a process of being "jumped in," or "beaten in." This is a process whereby a number of gang members, in a surprise attack, either surround an initiate and beat him up, or force him to run through a gauntlet of gang members who beat the initiate as they move through the line. Generally the beating lasts for no more than five minutes, and the wounds sustained are usually minor. Participants are often intoxicated, and the intoxication levels of the participants can vary the severity of the beating (Decker and Van Winkle, 69; Vigil 1988, 438; Vigil 1996, 149 - 150).
Another common form of initiation rite is being sent on a mission. It could include stealing something, vandalizing property, or perpetrating an act of violence (Decker and Van Winkle, 70). These initiation rituals often take on the air of pre-industrial rites of initiation, and many researchers have made this theoretical connection (Vigil 1996, 153; and Bloch and Niederhoffer, 101-102 and 139). Sociologist James Diego Vigil, for example, notes that "gender differentiation and clarification and social solidarity and cohesiveness are both served by the gang initiation, just as they frequently are in such groups [i.e., pre-industrial tribal societies]" (1996, Pir'kei Avot cha153).
Kody Scott a.k.a. Monster
Kody Scott was initiated into the Crips on the night of his elementary school graduation on June 15, 1975. He was 11 years old. The following description of his initiation is drawn from his autobiography, Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member. Kody knew that his initiation day had arrived and waited with eager anticipation throughout his graduation ceremony. After graduation, Kody met up with Tray Ball, 15, the leader of the set, on the streets near his home. Tray brought Kody back to the "shack," the gang's hang out, which was located in an old house behind Tray Ball's home. There, Kody met four other male gang members and was informed that they would be going on a "military mission" that night.
First, Kody was told to go with "G.C.," another gang member, to steal a car for the mission. Kody did as he was ordered. Kody reflected years later in his autobiography, "This was my 'rite of passage' to manhood, and I took each order as seriously as any Afrikan would in any initiation ritual from childhood to manhood" (Shakur, 7). Once back at the "shack," the gang members proceeded to smoke pot and drink alcohol and get "geared up for the mission," which had still not been disclosed to Kody. Tray, the leader of the set, was not present at this point in the ritual. The other gang members began to challenge Kody, asking his age and whether he was tough enough to be in their set. They told him to stand up and asked how old he was. As he stood up, he was hit in the head from behind by one of the gang members. He fell to his knees. He was then kicked in the stomach and flipped onto his back. He was made to stand again and was struck hard in the chest. Blows began to fly from every direction. Not a word was spoken. Finally, in desperation, Kody started to strike back. He began to swing and kick in every direction. He knew he did not have a chance against all four of these older, larger boys, but he wanted to show them he had "the will to live" and could "represent the set in hand-to-hand combat." As quickly as the beating had started, it stopped, once he fought back.
Tray Ball re-entered the "shack," and without acknowledging what had taken place, he stated, "It's time to handle this shit, they out there." Immediately, guns were brought out of hiding and distributed to each of the members of the gang. Kody was handed a pump-action, 12-gauge shotgun and told by Tray, "Kody, you got eight shots, you don't come back to the car unless they are all gone" (Shakur, 10). He was told that they were going out to teach a lesson to a group of rival Blood gang members who had been "flaggin' and disrespectin' every Crip in the world" (Shakur, 10). They were all instructed that if anyone got caught, they must not snitch on any of the others. Kody was clear who his enemy was and how he would deal with them. "I looked at my enemy and thought, 'Tonight is the night and I'll never stop until I've killed them all" (Shakur 11).
They piled into the stolen car and drove to a spot near where the rival gang members were gathered, unsuspecting. Tray Ball dropped his gang members off with Kody and told them to meet him halfway back to the "shack" after the mission was completed. They ambushed the group of male and female rival gang members, and without warning, opened fire indiscriminately. Kody reported, "By my sixth shot I had advanced past the fallen bodies and into the street in pursuit of those who had sought refuge behind cars and trees. Forgetting everything, I completely threw myself into battle" (Shakur, 11). After randomly firing his last shot into the house where the Bloods had gathered, Kody and the rest of his gang members retreated to the meeting point. Tray Ball picked them up and they returned to the "shack." There they smoked more pot and drank more alcohol and discussed the evening's exploits. Kody was the center of attention for his dramatic display of aggressiveness. After being challenged that he may tell on the rest of gang members if caught, Kody declared, "If I get caught, I'll ride the beef, I ain't no snitch" (Shakur, 11). At that point, Tray Ball announced Kody's full membership into the gang, and the rest of the members congratulated him.
Tray asked Kody to stay behind, and the others left. At this point, Tray transmitted important information about the gang, gang culture, and the gang lifestyle to Kody. In his words, "'Bangin' ain't no part time thang, it's full time, it's a career. It's bein' down when nobody else is down with you. It's getting' caught and not tellin'. Killin' and not caring, and dyin' without fear. It's love for your set and hate for the enemy. You hear what I'm sayin'?'" (Shakur, 12). Kody replied, "Yeah, yeah, I hear you," and records in his autobiography, "And I had heard him and never forgot nothing he said from that point on" (Shakur 12).
Initiation and the Sacred
Through the ritual of initiation, the gang creates and reaffirms that which is sacred for the community. This sacralization process is evident in Kody Scott's initiation. Many theorists agree that what is sacred in any community is what is designated so by that community. According to theorists such as Arnold Van Gennep, Èmile Durkheim, Claude Lévi Strauss, and Jonathan Z. Smith, the sacred is not sui generis, but rather is determined by the community. Simply stated, the sacred is of primary concern and meaning for a society-ultimately, that for which its members are willing to die. These are objects, ideas, places, and people separated from profane, or everyday, use. "Basically, the sacred stimulates in the believer exactly the same feelings as the fire does in the child-the same fear of being burnt, the same desire to light it; the same anxiety in the face of the forbidden, the same faith that its conquest will afford him power and prestige, or injury and death in the event of failure" (Caillois, 37).
Van Gennep calls this communally ascribed quality of the sacred the "pivoting of the sacred." He writes, "I should like to consider briefly the pivoting of the sacred. Characteristically, the presence of the sacred (and the performance of appropriate rites) is variable. Sacredness as an attribute is not absolute; it is brought into play by the nature of particular situations" (12). Durkheim writes, "now as in the past, we see that society never stops creating new sacred things....Just as society consecrates men, so it also consecrates things, including ideas" (215). In summarizing Durkheim's notion of the sacred, William Paden writes, "sacredness has no content of its own. It is purely relational. It is what is not to be profaned. As such, the term is metaphysically neutral....The sacred is simply whatever is deemed sacred by any group" (15-16). Lévi Strauss takes Durkheim further, comparing the sacred with the signifier zero. In and of itself it represents nothing, but when attached to an object, it has a dramatic effect (e.g., 5 becomes 50 with addition of a 0). "'It is a mark of major difference, like the zero, signifying nothing, devoid of meaning itself, but filled with differential significance when joined to another number'....It signals significance without contributing signification" (108). In this way, anything can be made sacred by a community even though they believe this sacrality to be sui generis.
According to the theories of anthropologist Victor Turner, psychologist Erik Erikson, Jonathan Z. Smith, Èmile Durkheim, and René Girard, Kody's initiation ritual provided an ideal opportunity to designate and affirm sacred objects, values, and actions. For example, the set itself was designated as sacred. One does not "snitch" on any member of the set. One must go to jail before turning in any other member of the gang. One must risk death in order to defend the safety, turf and honor of the set. The warrior is sacred. Kody is sent into battle with explicit orders to kill and upon his return is lauded for his heroic deeds and bravery. In this way, it follows that death itself is deemed sacred.
The Bloods are also designated as sacred — the sacred enemy — for there are two poles to the sacred. On the one end all that is pure, life giving, in tune with nature, and orderly. "At the other extreme are gathered the powers of death and destruction, the sources of illness, disorder, epidemics, and crimes, everything that enfeebles, diminishes, corrupts and decays" (Caillois, 42-43). The Bloods are so designated by the Crips, which is why they must be annihilated.
Girard would claim that the violence itself is what is sacred. "The sacred consists of all those forces whose dominance over man increases or seems to increase in proportion to man's effort to master them....Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred" (Girard, 31). It is certainly at the sacred center of Kody's initiation ritual.
What is made abundantly clear from the brutal nature of Kody Scott's initiation is that what one society designates as sacred may be very different than what another society deems as sacred. What may be morally acceptable and righteous behavior for one community may be abhorrent to another. The "sacred" is determined by what is of ultimate concern for a community, not what an outsider labels good or bad through a normative lens. Caillois sums up the amoral nature of the sacred, and the underlying need for a life of meaning, whichever direction it may lead, thus:
The profane is the world of ease and security. It is bounded by two abysses. Two stumbling blocks attract man when ease and security no longer satisfy him, when he is weighed down through safe and prudent submission to rules. He then understands that the latter is only there as a barrier, that this is not what is sacred, but rather what is unattainable, and will only be known and understood by one who has passed or broken it. The barrier once surmounted, no return is possible. One must walk continuously on the road to sanctity or the road to damnation, which abruptly join at unforeseen crossroads. He who dares to set the subterranean powers in motion is one who is not content with his lot, or sometimes one who has been unable to sway the heavens. He is determined to force entry. The pact with the devil is no less consecrating than divine grace. The one who has signed it and the one burdened by it are equally separated forever from the common lot and, by the prestige of their destiny, trouble the dreams of the timid and the jaded, who have not attempted to plumb the depths. (59)
While one may believe that Kody Scott has signed a pact with the Devil, he is nonetheless on a sacred path as defined by his community. He was effectively initiated into this sacred society.
The Efficacy of Gang Initiation
The initiation that Kody went through has many practical implications for the preservation of the gang. This type of initiation ritual demonstrates the initiate's mettle. If the initiate is expected to defend the group and protect the neighborhood, then the gang must test the initiate's ability to be a warrior (Decker and Van Winkle, 69; Vigil 1988: 438; Vigil, 1996: 149-150). Yet researchers have found that the initiation process has more far ranging effects that could be predicted by Turner's theory of communitas and Girard's theory of violence and the sacred. Most importantly, researchers have found that the initiation ritual increases the solidarity of the group by engaging them in a collective ritual and by reminding members of their earlier status as an initiate, which creates a collective bond with the new member and each other. Further, the ritual process serves to reinforce the structure and cohesion of the gang society. During the ritual their most sacred values, symbols and codes are reinforced through the collective participation in the ritual where these teachings are evoked anew in word and action (Decker and Van Winkle, 69; and Vigil, 1996: 152).
For many, including Kody Scott, the gang represents family and community (Vigil, 433). Further, the notion of war created by and sustained by the gangs themselves fosters a sense of brotherhood and sacred community. As noted by Gary Laderman, "Violence in war...creates a special kind of sacred community for soldiers within the military itself, one built on the close, intimate reality of death, the complex relations and rituals among soldiers and officers, and a peculiar form of love that undergirds the phrase, 'brothers in arms.'" These new families "are as equally sacred as the bonds that tie biological families together" (19). This gang "society" provides much of the structure of a functioning society so desperately needed by these youth, namely protection, alleviation of fears, a livelihood, and a strong sense of belonging and emotional bonding (Vigil, 442).
Beyond all of the seemingly logical and practical benefits of gang membership, in many ways participation in the gang, with the initiation being the first step, provides for a life of meaning. Lamenting the loss of the festival of earlier cultures, which provided for the collective effervescence of Durkheim or the communitas of Turner, Caillois believes that it is necessary for modern society to "seek and find the replica of such a paroxysm, a reality of different mass and tension, that can truly serve as the climax of existence for modern society, to elevate and bring it to a kind of glowing transformation" (Caillois, 165). He concludes that in modern society "only one phenomenon manifests comparable importance, intensity, and explosiveness, of the same order of grandeur — war" (Caillois, 165).
Gang wars, such as that fought between the Crips and the Bloods, can be compared to these foreign wars, as a type of symbiotic relationship serving to maintain the identity of and ensuring the survival of each. This sense of war is fully embodied within the gang culture. For example, a founder of the Crips "dreamed of erecting a model of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with the names of all Crips and Bloods who had 'given their lives for their neighborhoods.' Like Vietnam War dead, 'They died for a cause. They died for their colors. They died for something they believed in and that was Crip'" (Marvin and Ingle, 182). Another ex-Crip compared his tattoos to those worn by United States Marines, claiming, "This is where I came from. The Marines have tattoos with USMC. What's the difference?" (Marvin and Ingle, 182).
As discussed earlier, for many, life in the gang is akin to a life of war. The meaning created in war reaches a religious level. "'War is a force that gives us meaning,' because war does what religion is supposed to do: raise life into Importance, that crucial category of existence defined by Whitehead as 'the immanence of infinitude in the finite'" (Hillman, 178), or the ability to perceive and experience the infinite in the everyday. War intensifies life. "Like the rituals provided by religious traditions, warfare is a participatory drama that exemplifies — and thus explains — the most profound aspects of life" (Juergensmeyer, 159). As Christopher Hedges wrote, after covering foreign wars across the globe for the New York Times, "the eruption of conflict instantly reduces the headache and trivia of daily life. The communal march against an enemy generates a warm, unfamiliar bond with our neighbors, our community, our nation, wiping out unsettling undercurrents of alienation and dislocation. War, in times of malaise and desperation, is a potent distraction" (Hedges, 9-10). Kody Scott's initiation brought him into this life of war and ultimate meaning.
Conclusion: Ritual Disenchantment and Reinvented Rituals
Gang initiation rituals, such as that experienced by Kody Scott, can be very effective in binding the individual to his community, effecting a state transition from boyhood to manhood, deeming what is sacred, and providing a context for meaning. The effectiveness of these rituals can be understood by Victor Turner's theories of liminality and communitas and René Girard's theory of violence and the sacred. Despite the fact that these rituals have had to be invented on the streets, out of necessity, despite the fact that these are peer driven rituals with no "elders" present, despite the fact that there are no broader community values that provide the structural container within which these state transitions are effected, these rituals are effective. In this post-modern, fragmented age in contemporary America, where the sacred has been scattered and diffused, there appears to be no center that holds the set of initiation rituals that tries to sustain it. After studying the brutal nature of gang initiation, which festers in the midst of American society, we must ask, what makes for an effective initiation rite? Does it really not matter what form it takes, as long as it binds the individual to his society and designates that which is sacred? While that may define an effective initiation ritual from the theoretical or etic perspective, I argue that, from the internal or emic perspective, there must be a better formula for inventing rites of passage that help sustain and nurture society, instead of bringing it towards greater dissolution and violence. Even René Girard believes that humanity can break the cycle of vengeance and transcend its violent sacrificial systems through systems of justice (Girard, 15).
To this end, in his study of reinvented rites of passage in contemporary America, Ronald Grimes posits a formula for effective rites of passage,
To be effective, reinvented initiations must be able simultaneously to evoke wonder and to provoke disenchantment. Just as it is easy to confuse disenchantment with alienation, so it is easy to confuse wonder with mystification. Mystification has both destructive and banal forms....Whereas wonder is about the revelation and celebration of being or being connected, mystification is about transcending ordinariness and overcoming enemies. Mystification hides the powers that be — behind a cloud or a flag, for example — for the sake of manipulating people to do or feel what the mystifying powers would like. Disenchantment, with its unmasking tendencies, goes hand in hand with wonder; mystification does not. (Grimes, 137-138)
As an example of an effective use of disenchantment and wonder, Grimes points to the Hopi kachina initiation ritual. In this ritual, an illusion that has been sustained through childhood is shattered as part of the initiation ceremony. Mythic beings, the kachinas, that were thought to be real are revealed as none other than the parents and elders in masks and costumes. Sam Gill has studied this ritual extensively and states, "It is through the creation of an illusion that is subsequently shattered by a dramatic and powerful act of disenchantment that the revelation of the spiritual dimension of reality is effected" (Gill, 236). Gill agrees with Grimes that this ritual disenchantment is effective in enabling the child to establish a meaningful religious life. "The profound wisdom of the method of initiation by disenchantment lies in its capacity to bring the initiate through succeeding stages of perception to an encounter with a fuller reality" (Gill, 237).
Perhaps this is a way forward — from mystification to wonder, from wonder to disenchantment, from disenchantment to a new understanding of all that can be sacred and meaningful. Gangs and their initiation rituals have a tremendous amount to teach about the invention of effective rituals and the designation of the sacred in contemporary America. Perhaps the pact with the Devil can show us the way to sustain a more creative and generative culture.
- Union of International Associations (UIA), The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, https://www.diversitas.org/db/x.php?dbcode=pr&go=e&id=11616740
Founded in 1907 by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1913) Henri La Fontaine and information scientists Paul Otlet, the UIA is an international organization that collects data about international non-governmental organizations and inter-governmental organizations. "The UIA documents this development, recording information about organizations, their concerns, their philosophies, and their goals." They maintain consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO recently designated them formal Associate status, which is held by only 20 organizations (www.uia.be).
- I am aware of the deficiencies associated with an autobiographical account, especially one that is recorded approximately 18 years after its occurrence. However, this first hand account provides a powerful example of a gang initiation ritual and its general form is corroborated by independent studies by other researchers as presented in this paper.
- A set is a neighborhood-based group of gang members that fall under the larger umbrella of the larger gang. While all are members of the same gang, loyalty to one's set is deeper than to the gang. In fact, intra-gang violence is often more pervasive and devastating than inter-gang violence (Shakur, 379-382).
- In a lengthier version of this paper, I more fully explore and articulate the theories of these scholars and how they apply to Kody Scott's initiation.
- Alfred North Whitehead (1861—1947), British mathematician and philosopher.
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1993 Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
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- Vigil, James Diego.
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- Vigil, James Diego.
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Michael Karlin is founder and President of the Mythic Imagination Institute and the Atlanta Mythological RoundTable. He is on the Board of the National Black Arts Festival, the Board of the Alliance for a New Humanity, the Board of Visitors of Emory University, the Board of Trustees of the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, and on the Advisory Board of Comedy for Peace. Michael is currently participating in the Wexner Heritage Foundation's National Leadership Institute. He is a full time philanthropist and part-time investor working with early stage technology and financial services companies.
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