LOS ANGELES—Entering middle age, Chico Brown lives in the world of children. He greets them at school, settles their fights, listens to their problems, watches them finish their homework, coaches their basketball teams, offers them rides home, reads their letters.
He has four of his own children too, most of them nearly grown. But "they didn't know me," he said — or most of their lives, he was in prison.
Now a gang-intervention specialist, dedicated to keeping kids from following his path, Brown was once a notorious drug dealer, an integral part of an operation that supplied much of Los Angeles with crack.
He was a member of the Crips, the band of neighborhood toughs, co-founded by Stanley Tookie Williams, that became a national phenomenon.
Williams is scheduled to be executed Dec. 13; only clemency from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or a stay of execution from the courts will save his life.
His supporters say he has reformed in the 25 years since he was sentenced to death for the murders of four people — writing children's books, renouncing his gang ties, preaching an end to violence and gangs. To kill him, his supporters say, is a crime; he is capable of great things.
Lost in the extremes of Williams' story are the stories of other men, who grew up in the same place, in the same times, with many of the same deficits and opportunities. Original gangsters like Williams are difficult to find. If they survived, they disappeared into the woodwork of unremarkable lives.
There are old Crips who have reformed, men like Chico Brown. But there are others who never had the opportunity: Raymond Washington, who co-founded the Crips with Williams, was shot and killed in 1979, a murder that remains unsolved.
The old Crips who survived often look back at their youth, and what they did in those days, with chagrin and great regret.
"I never saw families torn apart, parents hooked on crack, crack babies in intensive care, kids growing up without their parents ... ." said Brown, 40. "There is an entire generation of people that don't own houses because they were on crack, or in prison."
The old Crips see gangs that have only grown more menacing since their days, even as rap music has glorified the culture that surrounds them.
In Los Angeles, there were about 750 gang-related murders last year, almost twice the number of murders the year Williams was arrested. The number of gang members nationwide has grown to more than 650,000, the bulk of them in Los Angeles, though Crips and their self-professed offshoots have been implicated in murders from Washington state to Missouri to North Carolina.
But the people who were there at the start also remember the circumstances that led them to join the gang in the first place and what it was like before crack and guns changed everything.
The Crips began in the early 1970s as a loose association of boys from Compton, neighborhood toughs with a reputation for being good with their hands. The fighting, the posing, the clothes, all seemed like good, clean fun in the day.
"It was the end of the Vietnam War, and there were a lot of young, delinquent youth without any kind of political or religious philosophy," said Wes McBride, a retired Los Angeles gang investigator who policed the early gangs. "The gangs grew out of poverty and despair."
Membership did not require much, just the willingness to fight and the desire to belong.
"Everyone I knew was in a gang, for one minute," said Malcolm Dinwiddie, 50, a real estate consultant who grew up in Compton. "Those guys (the Crips) were just the guys in the neighborhood, guys you talked to standing on the corner. We swam together at the pool. We got our hair braided by the same gal. You had straight-A students who ran with those guys."
"It's a culture, it's ghetto life," said Ronnie M. Gibson, an early Crip. "You assimilate to your environment. It was survival of the fittest. You weren't thinking about going to college. You were thinking about being a pimp or a hustler. It was the day of Shaft and Superfly, and those things had an effect on us."
Like many boys in Compton, Gibson's family was poor and he had a head full of conflicting ideas. His mother, a devout Christian, preached Jesus' love. The Black Panthers around the corner talked about the "blue-eyed devil," and his father left the family and married a White woman. It left Gibson, second oldest of seven children, a ball of anger, betrayal and distrust.
Meanwhile all his boyhood friends at Centennial High School were in a gang, the Crips. They kept pit bulls, smoked dope, pimped, sold drugs. The ones with charisma and the gift of gab became the best drug dealers.
"We were not trying to kill people, but we weren't afraid to do it," said Gibson, 50.
He was in and out of jails, but because he had was good at talking to cops, because he always hid his drugs and guns when they came around, he avoided prison. The police would always ask, "What are you doing hanging with these guys?" He got to wondering what set him apart.
A call to religion, in 1981, finally took him away from the thug life. He went to college, got married to a professor of biblical studies and started a ministry in Riverside.
"It's not fate," Gibson said. "I call it amazing grace."
For others, religion was not key to their reformation.
For Zane Smith, it may have been just a matter of maturity.
About 30 years ago, Smith joined a group of boys that became the Crips and learned how to concoct and sell a drug called angel dust. It was around then, he said, that he helped recruit Tookie into the group.
Smith was imbued with a sense of racial injustice but had no cause to harness. He was the oldest of six children, born to a Filipino mother and Black father, whom he resented for having abandoned the family when he was young.
He had a lot of anger, above-average athletic skills, a high tolerance for pain, a misguided sense of righteousness and a fascination with gangsters. He loved watching "The Untouchables" on television, rooting for the gangsters. He would not say what kinds of crimes he committed, only that he "was doing big stuff. I wasn't doing petty stuff."
His mother died in 1992, an event that he said moved him to try a more honest way of making a living. He tried producing records, running a trucking business. He moved into his uncle's house in South Central that year, where he still lives.
Now 51, he and his old high school friend and fellow Crip Walter Wheeler — aka Big Squeak — offer to speak with and counsel kids. They call their effort "Children With Wings."
"We're trying to redeem ourselves. We're trying to apologize for our youthful ignorance," Smith said. The gang, said Wheeler, was "something we did when we were children. Men today are following in the footsteps of little boys. That's what we were then."
More than anything, they wish they could erase the effects of what they did.
"Our children's children are suffering from what we started," Smith said. "It really backfired on our culture. I'm ashamed of what it turned into."
Chico Brown also blames himself for so much that has gone bad in the Black community. By selling crack, he lived a prince's life. He wore Bijan suits, drank Cristal champagne, drove a Mercedes and sat courtside at Lakers games. It was a life he helped glorify.
These days he wears T-shirts and jeans, drives a white Impala. He often eats whatever happens to be served for lunch at the school cafeteria when he makes his rounds, talking to students and principals, looking for the first sign of any trouble.
The faces that look up to him have hard expressions. He knows some of them want to be what he was, a drug dealer, because that means money and a certain kind of respect. Showing his age, he blames rap videos. But he also he blames himself.
"I didn't see the damage I was causing," he said.
— The Associated Press