Homicide perspectives: Kenny Mitchell, founder, Gangsters Anonymous
"We reached a point in our lives where we felt like a lost cause.... We were sick and tired of pain and trouble; we were frightened and hid our fear.... When nothing relieved our paranoia and fear, we hit bottom and became ready to ask for help."
--from the unreleased "Gangsters Anonymous: Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions"
Kenny Mitchell, 44, is a longshoreman and the founder of Gangster's Anonymous. He believes the solution to homicide lies in changing the thinking of gang members through a 12-step program. (Photo by Glenn Koenig/LAT)
HR: What is Gangsters Anonymous?
Mitchell: It's a 12-step program, based on Alcoholics Anonymous. We are recovering gangsters who meet to help each other stay crime-free. We believe the gangster mentality is a disease--a mental disorder. We are sick. We suffer from a criminal mentality. But recovery is our responsibility.
HR: How did Gangsters Anonymous get started?
Mitchell: I grew up in Los Angeles. 54th and Main, then Carson, then Inglewood. My mother was single. She was a drunk. I started hanging out with a gang when I was 7 years old. It was the thing to do--like a legacy, like you had no choice. It was mainly guys hanging out. There was a dress code. I had a khaki suit--it was the early '70s! And I would get my hair pressed and curled.... Everything I did I got in trouble for.... I ended up at Morningside High (in Inglewood). I had been Crippin' but now I was in a Blood gang with my brother. We beat up people. We picked on the tough guys. You could get the girls that way.... I graduated on the honor roll with a 3.3 GPA and lettered in pole vaulting--
HR: That doesn't sound like a gang banger.
Mitchell: I'm a gangster, not an idiot! You see the low-bottom gang members a lot in the media. But others are well-spoken and doing well in their lives. It wouldn't work otherwise. Who would want to follow the low-bottom guys? A lot of these successful guys also commit robberies.
Anyway, I went to Grambling State. I got stabbed twice there. They said I was "dead on arrival" at the hospital, but somehow I lived.... After that I beat up a guy real bad. Real bad. I got kicked out of Grambling.... I joined the Navy, and three or four months later, I got 70 days in the brig. Then I went AWOL.... When I was 30, I was on my way to jail. I had a fight with an 18-year-old guy, and he beat my ass. I woke up in the hospital....That's when I got involved with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)....
I got sober, but my disease, my gangster mentality, began to get worse. I needed something more. Something that focused on my criminal behavior. I was having suicidal thoughts. I was having homicidal thoughts. I began to have nightmares. To wake up sweating. Insane thoughts of criminal behavior....
One day, I was doing my fourth step with my sponsor, who was also a gangster. We got to the part about being powerless, and I said to him, "We need this for us! If I'd had someone tell me this long ago, I wouldn't live wanting to control everything around me.' ... Years later, I sat down with the blue book (the handbook of Alcoholics Anonymous) and I almost rewrote every page. Our first meeting was in 2001 at a barbershop on Western. The police came and accosted the gangsters who came!... We saw a need to recover as gangsters, and to show the world we can recover. We have been meeting ever since.
HR: What does it mean to recover from the "gangster mentality" ?
Mitchell: It's about showing people how to live life one day at a time, crime-free--no matter what. It doesn't matter what you call yourself, whether you're a pimp, player, hustler. It's a disease, a mental disorder. For many gangsters, it has to do with post-traumatic stress. For me, it meant my instant solution to all problems was to be aggressive. It's about control. It's about not being a buster. I had to learn to be buster, to be square.
Before, I couldn't stand that! I couldn't stand to see a normal dude with his shirt tucked into his pants. I had to get past feeling weak. I had to stop lifting weights! I have finally started wearing a seatbelt. I never could before, because I always thought, I have to be able to get out of the car quick.
I still can't bring myself to tuck in my shirt. I still suffer from that gangster sh--. I know I cannot get angry. It's like in AA--how you can't have just one drink. If I get angry, I end up committing crimes.
HR: So much of 12-step philosophy has to to with accepting powerlessness. Isn't that especially difficult for people to whom being powerless might mean getting shot?
Mitchell: We talk about it all the time in meetings. That idea of weakness. Committing crimes looks like strength to gangsters. I tell them, "A whole lot of days you will feel weak. Put down. If you stop doing your crime of choice--guns, robbery--you will feel weak." It makes them feel they could become victimized. But I tell them, what's wrong with being weak? Should we kill all weaklings? Don't weak people have an opportunity to live in our society?'
And recovery isn't weak. You will feel weak. But you have to get past it. You see, no one has taught us how to do it. How not to be aggressive. I tell these guys, "When a brother is upset with you, say, 'How are you doing? And you shake his hand.' " They have to be taught how to become squares. How to become normal people--to detox. To become approachable, employable. The kind of person who can earn money, or start his own business. Our weakness turns into a brick that becomes the strength to build our future.
It's why it's good the hip-hop culture is waking up and teaching us it is OK to be square. We need to have them teach us how to be Run-DMC rather than a killer rapper. We already know gangster. We don't know square. No one has taught us how to do it. It's not easy.
HR: You talk about the gangster mentality making men feel powerful. But a lot of gangsters seem so unhappy.
Mitchell: Yes. There are a lot of slices to the pie. There are people with no emotion, no fear--into their car, their jewelry. But other guys feel the misery and fear. Those guys are the epitome of normal people! That is a normal person's reaction to this. Those are the guys who are trapped--they are normal people trapped among people who have no heart.
HR: What about all those women who used to like you better when you fought?
Mitchell: These woman suffer from the same disease. I was on a date the other night, and you know what she said to me? She said, "I love the gangsters. That's why I love you!" (Shakes head).
I would not date a woman that suffers the same disease that I have. But the ones who don't have it--the square ones--aren't attracted to a guy like me! So I go home alone (laughs). I am just a boring individual now. But I'm free.
For meetings and other information about Gangsters Anonymous, e-mail GA.firstname.lastname@example.org.