Happy Friday, friends and frienemies.
Before you continue with this post, consider this question: What do you call a group of young men, who abuse alcohol, sometimes bully and menace their peers and strangers alike, and build and purposely cultivate a reputation as a single "unit" of tough guys?
And just for fun, before you answer that question, consider this: After years of allegedly - don't overlook the "allegedly" - bullying and sometimes assaulting people who get in their way, the members of this unit, in a drunken fit one evening, go to the home of another young man who had spilled a drink on one of them at a bar earlier that evening, and they proceed to beat him senseless.
With the beating apparently over, the victim rises shakily to his feet, asks the assailants why, and one member of the group responds by approaching the victim and punching him one more time - so hard, that the punch knocks the victim flat on his back. His skull cracks. His brain swells. In spite of surgery to relieve the pressure, several days later the victim dies.
Some people might call that group a gang. I think I might call that group a gang.
In the city of La Jolla, Calif., however, that group is a bunch of wascally wabbits.
I'm watching Dateline Friday right now - 10 p.m. Four young men, of a group of five from this upscale suburb of San Diego just pleaded guilty to varying degrees of assault for the scenario I described above.
The fifth refused to plead guilty to anything, and chose instead to stand trial for murder, reasoning that the whole thing was simply an accident - the sad result of a bunch of friends fist-fighting over a misunderstanding.
The fifth young man was ultimately convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 20-year-to-life in prison.
The rest of his crew would have faced significant jail time too, in spite of their plea deals had a prosecution push to label them a street gang worked. But the judge decided the group didn't meet California's legal definition of gang.
So the four who pleaded guilty received sentences of probation and a couple months in jail.
The defense attorney argued that these guys "aren't the Crips or the Bloods." Rather, they were merely aimless youngsters "from a neighborhood."
Now, I've never been in law enforcement. But I was a crime writer for years. And I spent a lot of time on the street with cops - in uniform and undercover.
And everything these guys did fits every practical definition of gang activity I've ever seen. They ALL beat a man who accidentally spilled a drink on ONE of their members.
What do you call that sort of group activity?
I'm not naive. I know the La Jolla group weren't part of an organized criminal enterprise.
I'm trying to suppress my cynicism, but I've seen lots of gang members. Through my work I've even gotten to know a few quite well. I'm both horrified and fascinated by what they do. But I can tell you that not every "gang" is defined by drug dealing, theft, robbery, protection rackets, or illegal gun sales. The key activity of some gangs is simply terrorizing people for no other reason than they can.
That defense attorney is an idiot. Her scoffing tones about these guys not being Crips or Bloods suggests that this group's activities were harmless, by comparison...even though this group's activities also resulted in a dealth. The only thing separating these guys and some other gang members I've seen and met is these guys come from money and and a low crime community.
BTW, don't forget to follow me at http://twitter.com/jamesburnett.