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Drop the bandana or you are under arrest!

Duncan Campbell in Los Angeles
Guardian

Thursday May 17, 2001

Young Los Angeles men who wear the standard issue gang uniform of baggy trousers, bandanas and tattoos may have more to fear from fashion police than real police in future.

Officers in the LAPD say that real gangsters, weary of being stopped and questioned because of their identifiable uniform, are now changing their traditional attire for a more anonymous and conventional look: long-sleeved shirts and ordinary trousers.

"It used to be we drive down the street and spot the gang members," said Lieutenant Gary Nanson of the LAPD's special enforcement unit. "Now they're less visible. You can't tell who the bad guys are."

Father Greg Boyle, who works with a project helping gangsters and ex-gang members in East Los Angeles to find jobs, has also noticed the change.

"Some of the most active guys out there look like Miami tourists with fishing hats and Hawaian shirts," said Father Boyle, adding that the old gang fashions are "starting to become a bit passe".

The traditional gangster look is said to have originated in California's prisons where inmates were not allowed to wear belts - lest they be used for strangling, tourniquets or suicide - and so got used to letting their trousers hang around their hips and showing the tops of their underpants.

To this was added the bandana, which is still banned in many LA schools because of its gang associations. Tattoos with gang symbols helped to complete the ensemble.

The fashion was then adopted by young men who committed no greater a crime than dodging their bus fare. Soon almost every young man in LA started to look like a stereotypical gang member.

Now the more commercially minded gangs have cottoned on to the fact that such a look merely attracts police attention and more jail time. It was also, sometimes quite literally, not so much a matter of clothes one wouldn't be seen dead in, as clothes one was quite likely to be seen dead in.

"People are always telling me they don't see as many gang members as they used to," said Vanson, who holds town hall meetings to tell people how to identify gangs in their areas. "I tell them not to get a false sense of security. You actually need to be more cautious than before. They're just changing their look."

Part of the reason for the different clothes is a change in the style of crime. The gangs have moved from traditional drug selling to white-collar crimes such as credit card fraud. Some scams involve large amounts of money.

"It's incredible," the FBI's James De Sarno told the Los Angeles Times. "They're not supposed to be doing that. They're supposed to be on the corner selling drugs."

Not that there seems to be any shortage of traditional gang members. The authorities estimate that there are 28,700 active gangs in the US with 780,000 members, although there are arguments about just what constitutes a gang member and how such figures are reached.

Father Boyle said that he was aware that youngsters without gang connections had been shot because their appearance had misled others.

Last week, 24-year-old Javier Hernandez, whose only conviction was a traffic violation, was shot dead in Culver City possibly because he was mistaken for a local gang member.

Father Boyle also said that many former members now arrange through his project to have their tattoos removed, an operation carried out free of charge to help people get away from the gang culture.

History's most famous gangsters have always dressed smartly, be they Al Capone or the Krays. Recognition, perhaps, that their future lay in white-collar crime.

     

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