Gang violence has been portrayed in movies and television for so many years that stereotypes have come to exist for those real-life people who actually live their lives in gang communities. But just how accurate that portrayal is may be brought into question with tonight's premiere of A&E's new reality series, "The Peacemaker: L.A. Gang Wars." Executive Produced by rapper/actor Ice T (who also recorded the theme song), the series follows gang mediator Malik Spellman as he tries to keep tempers down and do everything in his power to make sure peace prevails over violence and death between various Los Angeles gangs. With his close, personal relationship to the Los Angeles gang culture, Spellman, who is a violence prevention counselor by day, was able to obtain access for "The Peacemaker" that even law enforcement does not have in order to show exactly what happens in gang life and also prove that those fictionalized accounts we see in entertainment is often far from the truth.
Spellman spoke with our Jim Halterman earlier this week to explain how the show came together, the important role geography plays in placing people in a gang and the unexpected differences between Los Angeles and other cities in terms of gang structure.
Jim Halterman: How did the show get started and how did you get involved?
Malik Spellman: Ice T pitched the show and was told 'It's a great idea but we can't put you on the street because you're a rich guy but what about that guy behind you?' They wanted me to be a correspondent on the street. I started taking meetings from that point on. We told them this is what we can bring and that we could take them to places that even the police can't go.
JH: You have a relationship with these people but how did you get them to be okay with having cameras documenting everything?
MS: The fact that we had cameras there shows the level of respect that the streets have for myself and for the intention of wanting to stop the killings. It allowed us to get unprecedented access to the lives of these people because most of them don't do cameras. The unique thing about this show is that these people allowed their lives to be documented in such a way that people can draw from it and be able to see that they're not all trouble and drama. It's all based on my reputation in the streets. You can't be the police, you can't be a snitch. You have to be someone they trust with their lives.
JH: So is it safe to say you're the necessary buffer between the people we see and the cameras?
MS: That's exactly how it happened.
JH: We have this image from movies and TV about how gang members are but there are very normal seeming guys that we get to see on the show. Can you talk about the differences?
MS: The biggest misconception ever is that gangs are destroying the moral fabric of America and that these people are unapproachable when in actuality it's totally the contrary. Most of the guys you see in the gang story live in the heart of Beverly Hills, which makes it a little more interesting when you find out the background of some of these people.
JH: And it seems that a lot of these guys don't necessarily want to be a part of gang life. Do they choose it or does it choose them?
MS: Whatever street you move on, your mother picks the gang for you. Most of these guys are subjected to the level of violence because of the geographic location that they live in and some of the people that they co-exist with. A lot of people think all gangs are out there committing crimes and that's not true. What happens is that you have one or two Dennis-The-Menace type people who are involved in gang activity and the rest just pay the price.
JH: I suspect it's too easy to say if they don't want to be there they should just move?
MS: It has a stereotypical attachment to it. For example, if your parents live on 74th and Hoover and you go to Hoover Elementary School and the gang on the other side of town knows you go to that school they assume you are part of that group. Everyone gets thrown into this cesspool of drama and violence based on geographical location and the economic boundaries that also exist.
JH: Was your reason for doing the show to get this message out there to the people?
MS: I really wanted to do the show to enlighten the taxpayers. As citizens of this land I really wanted them to see that within the United States there is another civil war where 15,000 people have been murdered and we're trying to convey a message of peace and reconciliation and allow America to help. Not all these people want to go out and catch three strikes. The information that tax payers are told is that someone commits a crime but they're not being told how these different things lead up to gang activity.
JH: In the first episode, Nikko, one of the gang members, talks about 'telling peace' as opposed to 'showing peace.' What's the difference?
MS: The acronym for peace means "Power and Education Always Corrects Your Errors." When you tell someone about peace that's lip service but if you show them how to get that power and education and then they can correct their errors we can get a level of communication going with each other and a level of reconciliation with each other. That's what I think he meant about showing peace as opposed to telling.
JH: How different are the gangs from city to city? Is there a difference between, for example, gangs in Los Angeles and New York City?
MS: The difference between New York gangs and L.A. gangs and other gangs is there's a structure in different parts of the world but here [in LA] it's like a headless horseman. In New York, they have a structure in regards to how and when they can retaliate on someone but here in Los Angeles it's like a loose cannon style situation. You don't have to ask permission, there's not structure and you can do your own thing.
JH: You've been doing this for such a long time, Malik, but it's evident in the show that you still get very emotional with what you see on the street.
MS: I don't have anyone to turn to in regards to how I feel. I suffer almost from a level of post-traumatic stress disorder but there's nobody to turn to. There are many like myself who suffer from PTSD who have not had the opportunity to get themselves help. We're at a level of war like Vietnam veterans or something. It's a coincidence that they caught that on camera. I like to keep that to myself and don't like to show the public that side of me at all.
JH: Is it safe to assume that there are people out there that don't want you to get this information out to the public on a television show?
MS: Most definitely. I'm always up against opposition from people that don't want this out there. You have dirty cops, you have politicians, and you have mortuaries that benefit from selling body parts. Of course there was opposition to the civil rights movement so for me to have a situation where the gangs are way out of control and perpetuate violence just isn't true. There's a narrow-minded perspective about what's going on and these people are being socially annihilated.
"The Peacemaker: L.A. Gang Wars" premieres tonight on A&E at 10:00/9:00c.