Wheelchair Offers No Respite for Gang Member

LOS ANGELES, March 8, 1995 ; It was only when Lamar Lewis emerged from the hospital, paralyzed from a gang shooting in Watts, that he realized just how harsh life on the streets can be.

Even in his wheelchair he had to prove his toughness every day; he was still a target for rival gangs and for the police, still under pressure from his gang brothers to join in drive-by shootings to earn his place among them.

“Nobody feels sorry for a person in a wheelchair,” Mr. Lewis, a 21-year-old veteran of gangs and jails, said recently at his home in the city’s Watts section. “You’ve got to watch your back more than you do when you’re on your feet. It’s hard to trust people, too. You don’t know who is out to get you.”

In the stern social order of the streets, where men are constantly tested and no excuses are accepted, Mr. Lewis discovered that the man in the wheelchair is a target.

“People try to take you out,” he said. “They try to run over a little man. They run up at you and kick you and say harsh words. They shoot at you. They jump out of their cars with bats, sticks and chains.”


Photo by Jan Sonnenmair

As gang wars continue in Los Angeles and firepower increases, the sight of crippled young men in wheelchairs has become common in the poor parts of town, demarcating gang turf as surely as the markings of gang graffiti.

There are more than 700 gang-related homicides a year in Los Angeles County, and experts estimate that for every person killed in a drive-by shooting, 13 are wounded.

The costs mount for society as well as for the young men involved. Dr. H. Range Hutson, acting chairman of the emergency department at Martin Luther King Hospital in Watts, estimated that a crippled gang member like Mr. Lewis would require about $3 million in medical care and social welfare over the course of his life.

Mr. Lewis, a high school dropout who has many girlfriends and one infant daughter, is considered affluent among his friends because he receives $604 a month in disability benefits under the Federal Government’s Supplemental Security Income program.

A man in his situation, Mr. Lewis said, has little choice but to fight on. “The only jobs we can get is standing on the corner slinging dope, jacking, or doing some kind of robbery, what we call licks,” he said.

And so, not long ago, Mr. Lewis found himself back in court, this time on a charge of illegal possession of a firearm that could put him in jail again for six months.

“One thing that bothers me,” he said as he sat in the courtroom waiting for his case to be called. “I’m guilty. I had the gun. But I’m fighting this case. I’m going to beat it.”

But like many of the other young men who sat scattered throughout the courtroom, most of them alone, like Mr. Lewis, the survival skills he had learned on the streets were of little use to him here.

Hunched in his wheelchair, Mr. Lewis still had not talked in person with his court-appointed public defender. And in a hard lesson about the limits of gang solidarity, the four fellow gang members who had promised to testify in his behalf had failed to appear.

“They’re afraid to come to court,” he said. “They’ve got warrants or they did things. Nobody wants to go to jail.”

His mother, with whom he shares a small apartment but with whom he rarely speaks, was gone when he left the house that morning to go to court. His father, a founder of the Kitchen Crips gang, had disappeared into prison.

Since the age of 13, Mr. Lewis, a member of the Grape Street Watts gang, had spent nearly half his life in juvenile detention and in jail for assault, weapons possession and attempted murder.

It was four years ago, at the age of 17, that Mr. Lewis was shot and paralyzed. Tough, swaggering and overconfident, he had broken an elementary rule of gang life and “slipped” — strayed onto the turf of a rival gang.

There was a challenge, a fistfight, and someone drew a gun. Mr. Lewis fled onto a bus and lay down to hide between the rows of passengers, but the boy with the gun pursued him.

“I still don’t understand why he had to shoot me,” Mr. Lewis said.

Since then, there has been no respite. Just two nights before his appearance in court on the weapons charge, rival gang members had fired at him and a group of friends in a drive-by shooting near his home.

No one had been hit, but Mr. Lewis had bent a wheel of his chair as he fled across a schoolyard.

Now, waiting for his name to be called, Mr. Lewis indulged himself in a fantasy of freedom. “I’m tired of it, man, I’m tired of it,” he said. “I just want to hit me one nice big lick and let me set my life straight.”

But the longer he waited the moodier he grew. “We’ve got to slow them down,” he said of his gang rivals. “We’ve got to go over there and shoot everyone up, shoot up their children, shoot up their women, just jump in a car, roll down the window and let the guns fly.”

With so much bitterness in his life, this was an unexpected time for luck to smile on Mr. Lewis. In a hallway conference, his public defender, Connie Quinones, looked through his arrest report and found good grounds to defend him.

“I don’t think the police had probable cause to search you,” she said. “They were stupid enough to say they stopped you because you had gang attire on. They were on a fishing expedition. Where you live, everyone and his uncle carries a gun and they know that.”

The hearing itself was over almost before it began, and to his amazement, Mr. Lewis found himself a free man.

He rolled his chair out into the bright sunshine, raised both muscular arms high and let out a yell.

“No probation, no warrants, nothing,” he said. “I’m free as a whistling bird.”

Copyright The New York Times