A FIST FULL OF BARBWIRE
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A FIST FULL OF BARBWIRE
By Mark Edgemon

The gang wars in Los Angeles are horrific and are becoming worse by the day, some say apocalyptic. With each new morning, there are bodies on the streets and in the alleys, mostly kids between 16 and 18 years old. The emergency rooms are constantly full of gun shot victims of all ages and races, people who were caught in the cross fire, people who’s only worries the day before were how they were going to pay the rent or stretch their paycheck just a few days more.

My name is Howard Banter; I’m a reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel, covering gangs and street violence for the last year in the lower seamier side of the city. I lost my son to the gangs a few years back. He was two and was shot through the head by a policeman’s gun, as he was returning fire with gang members on the opposite side of the street, while we were driving by late one afternoon, heading for the store to buy groceries.

Shortly after his death, I found that I couldn’t cope with the little details of my daily existence and neither could my wife. She left me three months later, flying back to her parents leaving me alone with my grief and my guilt.

I feel it is now my mission to let the people of the world know what is happening here. Reporting from the war zone is what I can do. It won’t bring my son back, but I might be able to help save someone else’s child. It often takes a tragedy in someone’s life to cause them to respond to a need in other people’s lives.

The Los Angeles police department wanted to raise the profile of the gang wars in the media and so they allowed me to sit in on their early morning briefings. It was a useful way of acquiring the daily statistics; like the body count, how many were wounded, the current estimated number of gang members within the city limits and where they were located, information like that. But as far as improving the problem, it was a complete waste of time. The only good that came from those early morning meetings was the win fall for the donut shop across the street. Opening a donut shop across the street from a police station was marketing genius, or at least I think so.

One particular morning, as I was walking into the main police station, I witnessed an argument between a woman and the department’s police chief, a fiery confrontation. I tried to tune out the encounter as I walked past them on the way to the briefing room, but I noticed something strange, but compelling. The woman was pointing to a folded newspaper in her hand to an article I had written the day before. The police chief was deliberately shaking his head telling her, “No, no, no…you’re going to get yourself killed! I can’t be responsible for your life if you going to go to that part of town!”

The woman just stared at him with eyes that could see right through you. The police chief was a tough streetwise cop, who was usually offensive to every person he met. His language was always rude and he had a way of cutting people off and being dismissive of them. Whatever they were talking about and whoever this woman was, he was unable to easily brush her off. Personally speaking, I had never seen that before.

I went into the briefing room and sat down in my usual place. A few minutes later, the police chief walked in with that woman dogging him at his heels. After walking a few steps into the room, he turned around in an angry state to face this persistent woman. I knew this was where it would hit the fan.

“I told you the answer is no! If you go there behind my back I’ll have you arrested! Is that clear,” the police chief bellowed at the woman?

The woman stared at him with a discerning glare, paused for a moment and then began to smile.

“I understand,” she said smugly in front of his staff and subordinates, as if she had him where she wanted him, “that on August 5th of last year you were accused of taking a bribe from a drug pusher in the form of 50 pounds of uncut cocaine, which you fenced for a considerable amount of money.”

As he started to deny the charge she put her finger on his lips and continues. “On October the 12th of last year, you beat a jailed suspect, because he didn’t follow your orders fast enough to suit you and later developed brain injuries, which you blamed on inmates. On February the 6th of this year, you left your house around 11pm and met with…” now whispering the rest in his left ear, “…Alice in Wonderland at a local motel, an incident that your wife knows nothing about,” she drew her face back smiling with a glint in her eyes and was now face to face with the police chief and ended the conversation by saying, “does she?

He drew back and looked at the floor contemplating his next response. But there was no response. When you’re got, you’re got!

He said softly and now humbled in a way I have never seen him before, “Alright Barbara, have it your own way.” Without breaking the connection with him, continuing to stare into his eyes even though he was now not meeting her glance, she put the folded newspaper under her arm and said, “I will! I never let anyone stand in my way, when there are lives at stake.” After that exchange, she walked past him and took a seat in the back of the room like she owned the place. I didn’t know who this woman was, but I wanted to. She seemed like a good person to know.

After the briefing, I stood up and assembled my notes placing them in a small satchel. When I turned around, this woman was standing behind me waiting for me to acknowledge her. I said, “Hello, my name is…” she cut me off in mid sentence and said, “Are you the newspaper man who wrote this article?” I looked at the paper she was holding and replied, “Yes I am.”

She started scanning through the article and then pointed to a paragraph where I had written about a gang war that was soon coming between two rival gangs and there would probably be dozens of killings over the next few days. She looked up at me as if she was seeing into my thoughts and gauging my reaction before I even said anything.

She inquired, “How do you know this?” I said, “I have developed informants amongst gang members throughout the city. They are reliable and have always…” and as I was speaking, she cut me off again. “I want you to take me to these informants. I want to ask them some questions for myself,” she demanded!

I thought to myself, who in the hell is this woman and what makes her think that I will reveal my informants to her when I would be willing to go to jail to protect my sources of information, even if a judge wanted to know. I told her, “Lady, I don’t know who you are, but my informants are private sources and I don’t give out that information to anyone.” After that exchange, she just looked at me for a moment and then turned around and left the room. I had the strange feeling I had not seen or heard the last from her.

After the meeting I headed back to my dingy apartment and sat depressed in front of the television set watching an old re-run of some seventies cop drama, rubbing a cold drink to my forehead. This was promising to be a hot day, which didn’t make any difference to me, because my job wouldn’t start until after nightfall. I stretched out in my old and tattered easy chair and slowly went to sleep.

When I awoke, I looked at the clock on the mantle, which showed it was 9pm. I took a shower, got ready and went to the refrigerator for a bite of something before I left for work. When I opened the refrigerator door, all I saw was some sour crème that had gone bad and a bottle of olives. I stared at the meager options for supper, feeling even more depressed and then suddenly, the refrigerator’s light went out, a poetic sign that represented my whole life up to that point.

I grabbed my gun as I was walking out the door and concealed it in my pants pocket as always, just in case something went wrong. I drove toward the lower east side of Los Angeles to a place called Rat’s Lair, a colorful name for the run down government projects buildings, which were now occupied by rats, cockroaches and many other types of vermin including the human kind. These buildings were no longer livable which made it a perfect place to conduct drug deals. The two major gangs of late have been moving into each other’s turf, making increasingly greater incursions into each other’s bottom line.

I was dressed like a street person, so as to fit in with the general environment and not be too conspicuous. I parked at a convenience store several blocks away and walked toward the abandoned projects. I felt a foreboding I had rarely experienced. I wasn’t sure if this was an indication of bad things to come or just the usual jitters.

I walked around the projects for about 15 minutes, until I heard loud talking that sounded like gang members in a drug related dispute. At first, I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, until I rounded a corner of a building and came face to face with a gun pointing directly at my forehead by an angry gang member ready to take my life to guarantee my permanent silence.

“Who is this guy,” a short Hispanic looking gang member declared.

The gang member with the gun to my head answered, “I don’t know man! I say we kill him!

The short Hispanic guy walked over and looked at me closely in the face and said, “I don’t know man. He doesn’t look like a street person to me. He might be a cop!”

With those words I felt that my life would soon come to an end. I didn’t see any hope of divine intervention. This was it! I should have listened to my gut walking over here from the convenience store.

The gun cocked and I closed my eyes. The next voice I heard was a familiar one, but entirely unexpected!

“What do you boys think that you’re doing? Your mother’s didn’t raise you to poison other mother’s children and take lives in criminal type activities,” the woman said!

She seemingly came out of nowhere, walked out from the shadows with the same level of confidence she had at the police station. I had other questions that needed answers, but I would wait until my life was not in so much jeopardy. She had obviously followed me here.

“Who is this bitch,” the gunman exclaimed as he looked over his shoulder at the woman now standing just a few feet from his back!

With that statement, she pulled out a Smith and Wesson and rammed it to the backside of his head and said with great emphasis, “I am the woman who now has your vitals in a Dixie cup. Release the trigger and drop your gun to the ground. I don’t mind taking a life to save lives,” the woman said with the confidence you would expect from John Wayne!

He released the trigger and lowered the gun to his side. She took it from him and backed off with her gun still pointing in his direction.

“Take me to your hideout or whatever you boys call it,” she said to the short Hispanic looking guy.

“I’m not taking you to our hideout man. You wouldn’t last 10 seconds. They’d waste you man,” the gang member said!

“First off, I’m not a man, I’m a mam. Second, I’m here to help stop the gang war and maybe save some of your lives in the process. And third, you can just consider me you den mother. Now, what do you say,” she said with smiling confidence?

The two gang members just looked at each other after which the short gang member said, “We’ll have to talk it over with our leader man, you got a number,” he said obviously just wanting to get out of the current situation.

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a business card and handed it to the short gang member and said, “that will be fine.”

I was still shaking from my near death experience when Barbara said to me, “Come along Howard.” I wasn’t going to argue. I followed her out of there as fast as my little feet would take me. We walked about a mile down the road and into the parking lot of a run down car wash. She had her car hidden there in one of the stalls. We got in and pulled out. When we got to the street I pointed to the right and told her my car was at the convenience store a few blocks to the right. Without paying me any attention, she spun out in the opposite direction back toward the projects.

I said kind of anxious, “Where are you going, my car’s that way,” pointing toward her back window.

She didn’t say anything, just continued with whatever it was she was doing. I settled into the car seat and hoped I would survive the night.

We pulled up to the projects once again and parked in the shadows underneath a burned out street light. We waited for about five minutes until the two gang members came out of the buildings and left in two separate cars. She followed the short Hispanic looking guy. I asked her why him and she said, “He’s the one with my business card.” Well I didn’t know what in the hell that meant, but I wasn’t going to argue with her, seeing that she just saved my life 10 minutes earlier.

“Well, what’s an attractive woman of forty doing messing around with gang members,” I said as we were now tailing this gang member in the middle of the night to who knows where.

“I am not forty,” she said with a smile. “I have 10 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. By the way, feel free to call me by my nickname, Barbwire. All my friends do!”

“Doesn’t your family worry about you being out here alone, mixing it up with gangs, risking your life,” I said trying to figure out who this person really was.

“They most certainly would…if they knew about it,” she said with a broad smile.

We drove for about 25 minutes until we came to what could only be called a traditional, run down crack house in the middle of a low-income neighborhood. Well, I don’t think that is quite right. Low-income residents would call this neighborhood a very low-income neighborhood. We parked down the street and watched gang members go in and out of this house brandishing handguns in plain sight like badges of honor. The better the handgun, the more swagger in the gang member’s walk.

After a few minutes she said, “It’s time!” She got out of her car and went around to the trunk, opened it and began gathering things from inside. I couldn’t imagine what it was she was getting, a bazooka perhaps or maybe a semi automatic…hand grenades…it was hard to speculate only having met her that day and watched her take down two dangerous brutes, one being the police chief.

I heard the trunk slammed shut which startled me, after which I heard her say in a motherly voice, “Come along Howard.” I got out of her car as she walked around in front of me and handed me a large pot and a huge picnic type basket. I looked down to see what she had handed me and when I looked up, she was holding a large tray of home baked cookies with one hand and a gallon of milk in the other. I started laughing and shaking my head and saying to myself, at least back at the projects, I was going to die somewhat of a hero. Now 45 minutes later, I’m going out like a huge clown like fool, with big floppy shoes, a red clown nose and a sign on my chest that reads shoot me here.

“We’re walking into a hornets nest armed with milk and cookies. What are you trying to do, appeal to the little boy gangster inside of them?

“No, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I’d be willing to bet these boys don’t get too many home cooked meals. Never underestimate the power of comfort foods, that’s what my mother always says,” she said without a seeming care in the world.

She started walking toward the crack house carrying her tray of cookies high in the air so as she said, to entice the gang members with the scent of her home baked, raisin oatmeal cookies. Yeah, that will do it. While their shooting bullets at us, we’re passing out cookies.

Well the moment had arrived. There were several gang members on the porch, who had noticed us a ways off and must have thought, they are surely not heading in our direction. But they were wrong…weren’t they.

She headed toward the walk that lead up to the front porch and proceeded to make her way onto the porch with me in tow, pushing past the thugs with guns as she walked into the house cookies held high. On first thought, some of the gang members must have said to themselves, she must be one of the other gang members mothers, until they realized in an after thought, that would be unlikely, since all the gang members were either black or Hispanic.

As we walked through the front door, the living room was packed with gang members, many who stood up as she walked in heading toward the kitchen. I don’t think they got up out of respect, more like responding to an unexpected invasion of a woman with cookies and a scared little man who’s about to have an accident without a change of underwear.

She made her way into the crowded kitchen and began to set the table with plastic plates, silverware and cups. She pulled out of the large basket a large roasted chicken, surround with small potatoes and carrots. As she looked around in the basket for a minute, frustrated with herself she exclaims, “Damn!” I asked her what was wrong and for her to keep a lid on the cursing. She told me that she forgot the carving knife. Then she suddenly exclaimed, “Does anyone here have a knife? Anyone? I’ll give it back.” A big bruiser type of guy walked over to her and pulled out the longest switchblade I have ever seen. He held it up in front of his face and pressed the switch that released an incredibly large, sharp blade. She took it out of his hands, thanked him and proceeded to the kitchen sink to sterilize the blade under some hot water. She came back and began to cut the bird like a gang member slicing up his victim; I don’t know why that analogy comes to mind.

After she dished out the stew from the pot I had carried, she called out, “Soups on!”

All of the gang members walked into the kitchen, if they were not there already and sat down around the table as she directed the seating arrangement. She told me to sit between the murderer and the other murderer…I don’t know, they just looked menacing to a very white guy, who just wanted not to die in the next few minutes.

Now we were all ready to eat, the crazy woman, the murderers and me.

After our meal, Barbara took the gang leaders back to one of the bedrooms to have a “talk” with them, while I sat on the front porch waiting for the sound of gunshots. In a few minutes, she came out all smiles and I followed her back to her car. As we drove off I couldn’t help but feel a little admiration for what she had accomplished. I don’t know if it would do any good, but she certainly had guts.

As we drove off, we didn’t speak much on the way back to my car. I didn’t know if she was ashamed of my lack of faith in her or my cowardice. As far as I was concerned, I was still working of the adrenaline.

When we got back to my car, I thanked her for a wonderful evening and said we must do this again sometime. I shut the door and leaned back into the passenger side window and said, “In all seriousness, I really admire what you did tonight.” She smiled and then spun out of the parking lot like a drag racer.

When I got back to my apartment, I set the alarm to get up for the early morning meeting that would be in about 2 hours and went to sleep seconds after hitting the mattress.

The alarm went off what seemed only seconds later. It was hard to wake up. I only had time to put on a fresh shirt and head out the door. I stopped off at the doughnut shop and got me a cup of coffee and went straight into the meeting. I was running 15 minutes late, but they usually only talked about preliminary stuff, nothing important. When I walked into the room, the first thing I saw was that woman sitting in the back taking notes. Didn’t she ever sleep!

I sat in my usual seat and listened for anything important. The briefing was pretty routine and I was looking forward to getting back to my apartment and catching up on my rest. After the meeting, I sat there drinking my coffee, trying to wake up so I could drive home.

I looked up sleepy eyed to see another conversation between that woman and the police chief, this time he was more subdued and respectful. From what I could over hear, he knew about her visit to the crack house, because the police had that house under surveillance. It appeared as if the police chief was being briefed himself. The only thing I heard her say at the end of their conversation was the phrase, “He carried the pot.” The police chief suddenly looked at me sternly and my only thought was, “What did I do?” He either thought I was in collusion with this woman or misunderstood what type of pot I carried into the crack house.

I never got the chance to speak with this woman again, but I saw her daily at the police briefings and many times heard of the successes that she had in bringing rival gang members together. She would often speak at the briefings and toured the schools helping children to avoid the traps of indoctrination into gang life.

It was election time and many of the initiatives on the ballot were about the gang problem initiated by Barbara herself. I saw her on one of the television talk shows being asked how she thought she would be able to work with the next mayor, whoever he might be. She looked at the host of the program with a smile and a glint in her eye and responded, “She…whoever SHE might be!

Copyright © 2007 Mark Edgemon

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