Celeste Fremon's ethnography G-Dog and the Homeboys follows the work of Jesuit priest Greg Boyle who embedded himself in the lives of LA's Mexican gangs.
The book follows Boyle (known affectionately by the gang members as G) and his interactions with dozens of LA's kids trying to survive in a lawless and parent-less world.
The work seems hopeless and yet reflects what now in 2016 almost looks like a nostalgically simpler time. Though, of course, in the 1990s nothing was simple for Boyle or those he loved.
Fremon's book highlighted such a salient point about language, I could not let it go by. This blog is dedicated to understanding how words play a role in conflict. Boyle said demonstrated how language framed the landscape between police and gang members.
What do the police call you?
Boyle told Freeman,
Apparently, whenever [the South Central LAPD precinct] used to get a call that to gangs were fighting they would characterize the call by saying, 'We've got an NHI...' Which meant 'no human involved.'
This meant you had lighter touch on the gas pedal, you got there just in time to be too late, to mop up, to take names-- because, after all, no human involved. (Freeman 41)
The construction of the perpetrator as "Other" is not new. Talking about the despised as other than human is not new (Cockroaches, vermin, etc.). When the police force, whose task it is to Serve & Protect frames individuals as in-human, it is easy to become quite disheartened.
Seeing Those Who Scare Us as Human
Boyle's deep work with the individuals in these gangs taught him -- and reminds us -- that change only comes when we work to increase our humanization of others.
Boyle says, "If we don't believe they are human beings, then what we have to do is simple: We will continue to build more prisons, have tougher cops, stricter ordinances. We'll lock them up, and we'll be sure to lose the key."
We Want Them to Go Away
When we talk about bettering neighborhoods, I am concerned that we really just mean getting rid of the people who are problematic. Replacing them with better ones. That does make a neighborhood less likely to erupt into violence, but it doesn't do much for those individuals. Boyle's life and work touched me. His willingness to throw himself into the setting of these young folks. They are no longer faceless NHIs through Boyle's eyes. In this simple act of seeing them as human, he challenges all outsiders who wish to simply lock them up and lose the key.
Fremon, Celeste, and Tom Brokaw. G-Dog and the Homeboys: Father Greg Boyle and the Gangs of East Los Angeles. Revised & enlarged edition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.