For years, a white supremacist gang known as the San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods has caused chaos in several neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Members of the gang have allegedly sold drugs and guns, been involved in robbery and identity theft, and threatened black communities. In 2013, one Peckerwood member exploded a pipe bomb directly across the street from a middle school in an attempt to kill a rival, according to city officials.
Now, L.A. is fighting back. City officials filed a series of lawsuits last month seeking injunctions against members of the gang from operating out of several houses in the San Fernando Valley. Officials could force property owners to evict members of the Peckerwoods.
City Attorney Mike Feuer called the lawsuits a “new front” in the fight against white supremacist groups, and says the actions were motivated, in part, by growing reports of hate crimes. “They bring with them, of course, this toxic mix of violence and crime and hate,” Feuer told reporters.
The lawsuits against the white supremacists name specific members of the Peckerwoods and specific properties they operate out of. The alleged gang members will now go to court to defend themselves. If a judge agrees with the city that the gang is a “nuisance,” the defendants would be prevented from living in the houses.
But that’s very different from how officials have fought black and Latino gangs across L.A. For 25 years, the city’s anti-gang policies have provoked criticism from civil rights groups for sweeping up young minority men who are in some cases not associated with gangs at all. In many cases, the city’s gang injunctions allow police officers the ability to essentially decide who they think are gang members and arrest them for violations as small as loitering in public.
The policy has spurred multiple lawsuits over the years. In March of 2016, the city agreed to pay $30 million to settle a lawsuit over the injunctions, and now the American Civil Liberties Union is separately suing the city over the policy, arguing it violates the rights of thousands of young minority men.
“These injunctions are put in place with a total lack of due process,” says Melanie Ochoa, an ACLU lawyer. “Black and Latino young men bear the brunt of this policy.”
L.A.’s actions against the Peckerwoods highlight the wide difference in how the city treats white and minority gangs: When black and brown gang members cause violence in a neighborhood, officials crack down with blanket actions that affect thousands of young men who in many cases aren’t involved with a gang at all. When white gang members do the same, there’s a small-scale, targeted response.
“The San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods are straight thugs.”
At a time when white supremacist groups are gathering strength around the country, other cities could learn lessons from how L.A. is efficiently and fairly handling the Peckerwoods. At the same time, the city’s treatment of young minority men is a cautionary tale for how not to fight gangs.
Meet the Peckerwoods
You might think that white supremacist groups are predominantly in the Deep South, but California actually has the largest population of “racist skinheads” in the country, mostly concentrated in Southern California, says Joanna Mendelson, a California researcher who studies hate groups for the Anti-Defamation League.
The Peckerwoods are a loosely organized group with gangs in cities around the state. The name Peckerwoods was originally a derogatory term for white people developed in the prison system that has since been adopted by white supremacist groups themselves. Groups tend to organize themselves geographically, identifying with an area like the San Fernando Valley and, in some cases, tattooing their zip codes onto their skin, Mendelson says.
Among white nationalists, “there’s a kind of a continuum that ranges in ideological sophistication and criminal enterprise,” Mendelson says. While the Peckerwoods support white nationalist ideas and use symbols like the burning swastika in its logos and tattoos, it doesn’t focus on the ideological strain of white nationalism. Instead, that ideology is more of a backdrop to criminal activities: The group’s involved in drug sales, meth production, gun running, and theft, just like any other street gang.
“Essentially the San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods are straight thugs,” Mendelson says. “Their ideology is tangential to their criminal activities.” She estimated that the group’s membership was about 100 people or less, and estimated that less than a dozen people have been charged in connection with it over the years.’
That doesn’t mean that they aren’t a threat to minorities. According to a 2003 article in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s law enforcement bulletin, the group has “placed packages resembling bombs near an apartment complex where African-Americans lived. Members intended for the fake bombs to frighten current residents to relocate and to discourage other African-American families from moving into the complex.”
Not all the bombs they used were fake: the 2013 pipe bomb attack blew up a car and set a nearby house on fire. (No one was injured.)
Are L.A.’s Gang Policies Fair?
The problem is that L.A.’s gang-fighting tactics don’t usually look like Feuer’s lawsuits against the Peckerwoods, which were against specific individuals. Since the 1980’s, the city has been targeting mostly black and Latino gangs with broad, overreaching injunctions that sweep up young minority men.
Typically, city officials file injunctions alleging that a gang has been creating a “nuisance” in a specific area of the city. Injunctions restrict what gang members are allowed to do in the designated zone, which are often miles wide, banning them from doing normally legal things like gathering in public or carrying a spray can.
But who is a gang member? When injunctions are filed, they often list hundreds of “John Doe” defendants, allowing police officers to essentially fill in the names with anyone they determine fits the definition of gang membership. According to state law, you can be labeled as a gang member because of your clothing, tattoos, or who you associate with, even if you have no record of criminal activity. People who are suspected of being gang members — mostly young black at Latino men — are entered in a statewide gang database, which can lead to further surveillance and police harassment. It’s extremely difficult to remove your name from the database, and many young people don’t even know they’re in it.
L.A. filed its first gang injunction in 1987, as the city faced a wave of crime. There are currently 46 gang injunctions in place in the city, almost all in majority black and Latino neighborhoods. Injunctions are common in cities around California.
The American Civil Liberties Union is currently suing the city over its gang injunctions, arguing that they don’t give people served with injunctions the due process to defend themselves. The lawsuit, which was filed in October, could develop into a class action lawsuit with “thousands” of potential plaintiffs, Ochoa says.
Researchers have found that gang injunctions don’t actually do that much to reduce gang violence. In some cases it may do the opposite. “If anything, it increases the likelihood that individuals will identify as a gang member, because they’ve been labeled as gang members,” Ochoa says. “It’s just not effective.” (The city attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Locals in some communities see gang injunctions as going hand-in-hand with gentrification. A 2013 gang injunction pushed many young Latino men out of the newly trendy Echo Park neighborhood, where rents have skyrocketed over the last few years. Alex Sanchez, an activist with the group Homies Unidos who’s lived in the area his whole life, says he thinks that’s no coincidence, and that city officials are more likely to put gang injunctions in place in neighborhoods that are gentrifying.
“People of color are really targeted,” he says. “The people who have been in those communities through the violent times are not able to enjoy what’s left of those communities.”
In some ways, L.A.’s actions against the San Fernando Valley Peckerwoods are an example of a better, fairer way to fight dangerous gangs. The lawsuits are targeted at specific individuals and residences, instead of a broad area spanning miles. They’re in response to actual violence, not gentrification. And they will give the alleged gang members the opportunity to defend themselves in court.
It also raises questions about why the city hasn’t reacted quicker to the Peckerwoods gang. At the same time the alleged Peckerwood member exploded a pipe bomb in November of 2013, Los Angeles Police Department officers were enforcing a new gang injunction against several Latino gangs in Echo Park.