T. Rodgers created the L.A. street gang and helped introduce crack to America. Now, chastened, Rodgers has set out to end the madness.
The first time they shot the unkillable T. Rodgers, it was over on Tenth Avenue, by the picket fence overlooking the freeway. They rolled up on him real smooth, four gangbangers in the car, their sunglasses glinting in the cognac moonlight. “T.!” one of them called out, as if to an old buddy, and then they opened up on him L.A. style, four barrels out the windows, blazing.
“About the only thing I had going for me that night,” Rodgers recalls now, “was that this was back in the early seventies, before Uzis came out. If they’d had an Uzi on ’em, or an AK , or one of these other street sweepers, my shit woulda had more holes in it than a doughnut shop.”
Rodgers hopped the fence and hit the hard dirt fast as they tore things up with their fusillade. He remembers stumbling down a steep embankment, somehow snaking through traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway and flying the five blocks home on a gust of pure adrenaline, before noticing that the stuff pouring down the side of his face wasn’t sweat.
His mother, not yet accustomed to seeing her younger boy bleed, started screaming as if she’d been the one who’d caught the bullet. All T. Rodgers, the sixteen-year-old godfather with five hundred homeboys up under him, could think to do, though, was laugh. He was still laughing when they brought him round to the hospital that night and found that the shell had merely creased his skull from back to front, carving a deep gouge in his scalp and nothing more.
Six months later, he was walking down the same street at the same hour, fresh from the bed of the same fragrant woman, when they caught him out alone a second time. Again, they called out his name in the dark, and again they filled up the ensuing silence with gunfire. As if in a recurrent nightmare, Rodgers hopped the fence again and ran until he found himself on his own front porch. Once there, he wondered why the back of his thigh was burning and then he reached around and found the gaping hole in his left buttock.
In all, he’d been shot four times by age eighteen—the worst of the wounds being inflicted upon him by his maniacal brother, Rob. Only eleven at the time, Rob was firing on some baby Disciples in a Chicago alley when he accidentally blew a chunk out of his ten-year-old brother’s thigh. As if to reassure T. that he wasn’t suffering overmuch from guilt, Rob subsequently stabbed him twice in the chest that year, once with a steak knife, once with a dart.
“Rob’s up in Vacaville now, doing life [for murder],” T. says, “and I’m out here on a mission to stop some of this violence, getting these ’bangers to put their tools down.”
He rolls down the window of the rented Thunderbird and stares out, gesturing at the squalor of all he surveys. We are parked at the dead end of August Street, in the heart of L.A.’s heart of darkness. It is a neighborhood that city planners call Baldwin Hills but everyone else calls the Jungle. Wherever your eye goes here, it sees bowed houses baked the color of mud, and brown grass rotting under sandpaper palm trees. One o’clock on a weekday afternoon, and a straggle of Black men under the spell of the sun sit inert and rusty as abandoned cars. A gray silence overlays things, like a coating of fine ash.
Something kicks over in T., and he cocks his head to glare at you, eyes suddenly bloody with rage. He had essentially two expressions, and after you’ve seen this one, you assiduously court the other, a haughty deadpan that unhinges into a grin. “All I know is, me and Rob started out from exactly the same place, both of us goin’ to hell at exactly the same pace,” he says at last, intending the rhyme. He pauses, then shoots you the deadpan. “I guess God had a big-ass change of heart about one of us, huh?”
He lets out a raucous, sinus-clearing laugh, giving you to understand that it is all right to join in. It is a game he plays frequently, jerking out the rug from under you. That is where he wants you: on your ass, looking up at him, wondering when the next swift kick is coming. One minute, he is describing sticking an ice pick in someone’s neck; the next, he goes mushy talking about his ten-year-old daughter. This is straight out of David Mamet, the rogue theater of power. Its meaning, roughly put, is that he is the master gangster gone straight and you are merely a writer and, as such, are unqualified to pass judgment on him.
Let other people pass judgment on a life this complicated: founder of the Bloods, one of the most vicious gangs in L.A., and fomenter of its bloody war with the Crips; pimp; and mass purveyor of cocaine and, on the other hand, an indefatigable gang reformer whose work has earned him the praise of politicians and the executive vice presidency of a renowned rehab program that was recently awarded a $319,000 contract by the state of Oregon.
A word of caution, then. Weigh carefully before adjudging Rodgers good or evil: it may be that you find him properly neither, and a surpassing genius at both.
In Hollywood, five miles and five light-years up the hill, the word for what T. Rodgers has is “duende.” Down in the Jungle, though, the yo-boys call it “juice”: cold-blooded star power, the charisma of a killer. You cannot walk or drive down the street with him here and not have tens of people run up to dance attendance. At the wild-style mall over by Martin Luther King Avenue, Bloods climb out of their chrome-to-the-curb chariots to crowd around T.’s customized Blazer and pay court. One after the other, homeboys with names like Slim Dog and Double-Up stick their head in the window to see what he is wearing or to favor him with news of who shot whom.
“May as well go get yourself a burger,” Rodgers says to me after a while. “I gotta sit here and say ‘What’s up’ to all of ’em. This is, after all, Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood.”
I get out of the car and start chatting with a couple of the homeys, one of whom, a cobra-faced kid called Kojak, seems particularly amendable to talking about T. “I love him to death, man. He gets straight respect as an O.G. [original gangster] and as the founder of the thing I love most in this world—the Bloods. He’s the godfather in the motherland.”
Kojak is immediately forthcoming about his own criminal past (“Aw, man, the whole smorgasbord of ghetto shit: a couple stabbings, a buncha shootings and servin’ that product [crack]”), but when I ask him to corroborate crimes that T. has admitted to, Kojak looks at me in stupefaction.
“What, you want me to tell you shit that I seen him do?”
“Exactly. Just confirm what he’s already told me. You know, basically snitch on him,” I say with a grin.
He casts me the begoggled look again, and then his gun is at my head, a huge silver-handled .357. “I think you need two in the temple, G. You’re way too stupid to live.”
The homeys surge forward to see what’s happening. T., in his short dreads and pinstriped suit, comes up behind them, parting the crowd. “Yo, Kojak, man, chill,” he barks, and everything stops dead, except for my heart, which tentatively begins to flutter again.
“Man, you better school this motherfucker,” Kojak growls, putting the gun down. “He told me to snitch on you.”
An ugly buzz runs through the crowd, forty homeys glowering at me from under their hats. “You outta your mind?” T. hisses, jerking me away. “You don’t never say that word to a gangbanger. These brothers’ll take a bullet before snitching on me. I’m the highest of the high O.G.s.”
Just exactly what that means in practical terms is revealed the following day. We are standing on the corner of Mont Clair and 28th Street, the boiling equator between Crips’ and Bloods’ turf. T. and several of his homeys are catching up on the obituaries when a green Riviera makes the turn onto 28th. Out of the corner of my eye, I mark the car’s approach, but it is on top of us before the guns come out the windows. In a heartbeat, everyone hits the concrete—everyone, that is, except T., who stands there shaking his head balefully at the car. It passes in what seems like excruciatingly slow motion, and then the kid at the wheel puts his foot to the floor and charges off the line up Mont Clair.
“That was Tommy and them motherfuckers that opened up on us last week,” says D. Love, angrily dusting the street off his khakis. “They busted Albert up all down his legs, over by Rodeo.”
Several moments later, when my mouth is in some manner of working order again, I ask the obvious: “Why didn’t they shoot us?”
D. Love’s eyes confer with the others’ before answering. “On account of T., and who he is. Straight up and down, they know too many people love him out here. If they smoke him, ain’t no place on earth for ’em to hide. Especially not in jail, if you know what I’m sayin’.”