"Straight Outta Compton" is an unforgettable movie about some young kids from "CPT" -- Compton, California in rapper lingo -- who founded the hip-hop group NWA in the late 1980s.
Eric "Eazy-E" Lynn Wright, Andre "Dr. Dre" Wright, Antoine "DJ Yella" Carraby, Lorenzo "MC Ren" Jerald Patterson, and O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson made up the founding group.
There are a couple of things that should be noticed when watching the movie. Most importantly, there were more paths out of Compton than the one NWA took. Some took the path of faith, education and upward mobility, although this often was accompanied by a move to a neighborhood with better schools.
Originally, Compton was known as a place for middle class African Americans to get out of South Central Los Angeles. Even in its bad days, many Compton African Americans like Dr. Dre's family worked hard, tried to avoid the gangs, and hoped for the better. In one neighborhood the Williams family successfully raised their daughters Venus and Serena for high, disciplined accomplishment on the tennis court.
But many of the problems followed them. In the popular mind the community developed a reputation as the "the home of the jackers and the crack." Families like those of the Williams sisters moved out, leaving neighborhoods with fewer upright leaders. One of its mayors was proud to be known as "the gangster mayor" (until he was sent to prison). A local funeral home set up a drive-by viewing room with bullet proof glass so gang members could pay respects without shooting and being shot. The Williams family moved out to Florida for a better tennis school as did the family of the city's new mayor Aja Brown after her grandmother was raped and murdered in a brutal home invasion.
Compton had the Mob Piru, which police said was associated with Marion "Suge" Hugh Knight, Jr., the head of Death Row Records, the notorious Compton Varrio Tortilla Flats gang, and over fifty other gangs. Even smart local youngsters from loving families felt a need to prove their toughness and manliness. The best result was fabulous and honest rap music. The over-top result was violence, drug & alcohol abuse and a degradation of women and Asian Americans by the performers who made up NWA.
Recently, Dr. Dre was forced to address a growing controversy about his treatment of women. He issued a statement, saying in part, "Twenty-five years ago I was a young man drinking too much and in over my head with no real structure to my life. However, none of this is an excuse for what I did. I've been married for 19 years and every day I'm working to be a better man for my family, seeking guidance along the way. I'm doing everything I can so I never resemble that man again...I apologize to the women that I've hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives."
The South Los Angeles riots involved police tensions with both the African American and Hispanic American communities. In the 1980s police enforcement against gangs in Compton resembled military invasions which destroyed relations between average African Americans and the police.
The movie pivots around the 1992 South LA riots. The conflagration in the aftermath of the beat-down of Rodney King started in South Central Los Angeles around the intersection of Normandie and Florence but spread south toward Compton, Santa Ana and other communities further south from South Central Los Angeles.
Compton and South Central Los Angeles were already changing dramatically while NWA was being formed. By 1990 the Compton community was 42% Hispanic, by 2000 57% and by 2010 65% Hispanic. There were actually more Latinos than African Americans arrested during the LA Riot of 1992. The initial rioters (and arrests) were mainly by African Americans angered by the police disrespect exemplified by the Rodney King beat-down. On the second day of the riot after the police had mostly withdrawn from confrontations, more poor Latinos joined to grab a share of the goods spilling out of looted stores.
In 2000 - 2003 I went to South Los Angeles several times to interview gang members and religious groups that were working with the gangsters. In particular I wanted to find out what was happening among the newly majority Hispanics in South Los Angeles, Compton, Santa Ana and further out. I discovered that Sonny Arguinzoni, a Brooklyn Hispanic gangster, had converted to Christianity and moved out to the south Los Angeles area to eventually found Victory Outreach Center. VO, as it is called, now has about 700 churches that double as drug and gang rehab units around the world, including one in Compton. A New York side to the Compton story!
Along the way, I also saw the work of Homeboy Industries, which was founded by a Jesuit priest. Although he was born in California, we claim Father Boyle as a true New Yorker at heart!
Victory Outreach and Homeboy Industries reach out across ethnic lines, but the gangs of South Los Angeles are now predominately Hispanic. Gangs are multi-generational with father, sons and grandfathers all in the gang. I interviewed members of the 18th Street gang which police say has 18,000 or more members! Several attenders at Victory Outreach were fresh out of this gang and were still on the edge of violence.
One of Compton's problems is that there were few churches, and the corrupt city leadership wasn't eager to permit churches to build in the city. Pastor W. Jerome Fisher started Little Zion Church in the 1950s but found that the city government made it very difficult to get approvals to expand the church. By 2001, the church was the largest in Compton, and the city even put up its first city monument to honor the mentoring role that the pastor played among Compton's youth.
Pastor Rafer Owens of Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church in Compton has lead several "take the city" efforts in Compton. Now, the current effort is having members of his church volunteer to help the three high schools in Compton for "whatever you want, whatever you need, we are here to give it." (Owens is also a Deputy Sheriff for Compton.) The program is similar to one here in New York City, Jeremy Del Rio's 20/20 Vision for Schools.
Earlier this year, Owens also appeared with South Central LA rapper Propaganda, and NYC's Rev. Tim Keller at a program "Together LA" put on at West Angeles Church of God in Christ in South Central Los Angeles.
Brown, the current mayor of Compton, promises that her city will one day be like Brooklyn. She says, “Compton is this amazing place with a rich history. I see it as a new Brooklyn.” To face off the old guard, she has successfully bonded with the Hispanic community (a Latino youth pastor from Victory Outreach is on the city council) and is an active member of Faith Inspirational Missionary Baptist Church.
California dreaming has become filled with images of the Big Apple and its spiritual revival.
And you thought "Straight, Outta Compton" was just a California story!
An artist and a ex-gangster in today's Compton: