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Operation Fly Trap: Gangs, Drugs, and the Law by Susan A. Phillips was published by the University of Chicago Press in July 2012.
Operation Fly Trap tells the story of a 2003 Los Angeles gang sweep. Behind the scenes accounts weave opposing perspectives into an impassioned narrative of struggle and justice. Balancing her roles as even-handed reporter and public scholar, Phillips represents multiple flaws within the U.S. criminal justice system, and in particular the wars on drugs and gangs.
Each of the five chapters develops different characters, examines particular social issues, and tells a story that runs, for the most part, chronologically. Chapter 1, “The Game,” is about the drug trade and the play of surveillance efforts in the two neighborhoods. It introduces FBI special agent Rob King, as well as the main cocaine supplier Juan Lococo and key informant Crystal. In it I look at the inception of the case and the use of surveillance strategies, including confidential informants and wiretaps. I discuss the manner in which these tactics erode trust and informal networks of control, even while performing police work aimed at protecting community members.
Chapter 2, “Charlotte’s Web,” explores gang members’ crime-family networks as sites of power and pathology. The family is an immensely malleable symbol and an even more complicated daily reality for people living at the nexus of poverty and criminality. Authorities can never quite settle on what kind of symbol the family should be. Despite their emphasis on the corruption, dysfunction, or weakness of the family, they also sever from familial situations the consequences of broader economic changes, suppression, and incarceration. This chapter attempts to realign contexts and outcomes through the stories, opinions, and reflections of Operation Fly Trap families shaped in part by multigenerational involvement in crime. In particular, I explore the relationships between Tina and Junior’s daughter, Tawana, and Tawana’s godson, Tink Tink. To this end, I examine the otherwise unpublicized moments of kinship, socialization, and storytelling that partially informed Operation Fly Trap. I contrast the viewpoints of family members and law enforcement to examine constructions of precision, disorder, necessity, and materialism that together attempt to exert a measure of control over ghetto environments.
Chapter 3, “Broken Families,” presents the stories of several family members behind the sweep targets. Their narratives frame a discussion of collateral damage to the families of incarcerated people. Unintended consequences include threatened or actual eviction, the involvement of child social services, destabilization of families, depression in children, and high mortality rates among already vulnerable people (women, in this case). This chapter argues that suppression activities are a form of structural violence, which leads to increased poverty rates, negative health outcomes, and instability among the families of those targeted. Together, these findings demonstrate that police work inadvertently damages the family networks that would, if strengthened, provide the best crime prevention available.
Chapter 4, “Cutting the Head off the Snake,” weighs policing strategies against the structure and culture of gang membership. I analyze data on gang violence before and after the Fly Trap task force and ask what difference the removal of twenty-eight individuals from two problem neighborhoods made in terms of combating gang violence and the drug trade. I discuss the origin of some of the violence in this area, issues of gang leadership, several key deaths, and the evolution of two important characters: Kevin Allen and Mark Brooks. By exploring the relationship between the drug trade and rampant neighborhood violence, I examine whether the drug trade is an effective mechanism through which to pursue violent individuals. The goal of this chapter is to create a more nuanced portrait of the relationship among gang violence, the drug trade, and state suppression.
The final chapter, “The Prosecutor’s Darling,” analyzes drug conspiracy charges against several of the twelve people who were tried together in United States v. Edwards. The manner in which Tina, Tawana, Kevin, Lococo, and Junior all come to terms with their sentences leads to discussion of the legal charge of conspiracy, the 100:1 crack versus powder cocaine disparity, mental health and substance abuse issues related to incarceration, religion behind bars, as well as the practice of giving information to lessen sentences. The examples demonstrate how breaches in people’s interpretation of the courts lead to accusations of unverifiable governmental wrongdoing and eminently verifiable governmental injustice. I was never able to interview the lawyers on either side of this case. Focused entirely on the courts, chapter 5 does not represent law enforcement perspectives as strongly as do previous chapters.
The book concludes with the legal argument “fruit of the poison tree,” and I use it as a metaphor to discuss the Fly Trap story. In the Fly Trap case as well as countless others, fruit of the poison tree argues that evidence obtained from tainted methods should also be considered tainted. Here, the poison tree is a metaphor for the overreliance on punitive methods to solve social problems. Repeated in conclusion is the larger argument that incarceration can lead to increased poverty rates, negative health outcomes, rises in violence, and instability among already vulnerable families. The conclusion also returns to the symbolic importance of manufacturing gangs as iconic, newly federalized villains and updates the reader on the lives of key Fly Trap characters.