The young man speaking was an 18-year-old member of the Bloods in Altadena. We were in the park at the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center, and he was the initial interview for my first book, not yet titled, about L.A. gangs. It was 1988 and he would be killed in a drive-by shooting two months later. 

Later that year, I met Keshon Cooper, who had just turned 16, on a quiet residential street in what was then known as South-Central L.A. We were introduced by a 17-year-old girl wearing a tiny gold automatic pistol on a chain around her neck. Keshon was not in the mood to socialize: one of his homeboys, another Crip, had just been stabbed by a Blood. To break through the fog of tension, I suggested that we have lunch at a Mexican restaurant. Keshon was unsure about what he referred to as “that foreign food,” but he grudgingly went with the plan, and as we drove along Western Avenue, he pointed to the entrance of a hospital. “I got shot last year for drivin’ through the wrong ’hood and I drove myself to that hospital right there. Bled all over the damn steps. They couldn’t take me, but they had an ambulance drive me to another hospital across town.” He pulled up his T-shirt and pointed to a dime-size scar with a number of other, smaller scars orbiting it. “See? That big scar’s where the bullet went in and them little ones is from the drainage tubes. I only got one lung now.” His voice is so young, his tone so casual, he might have been describing a high-school football injury. Then, remembering the pain and the “enemy” gangbanger who shot him, “Dag, it was crazy. Dag!” There is a brief silence in the car and Bianca, a Crip homegirl, reaches out and pats his arm. It’s quiet in the car for a moment. Then Keshon’s lips curve into a narrow smile. “They caught the nigga, though, and tried him as an adult — give him 19 years.” He shook his head in wonder; that amount of time is inconceivable to him; it is longer than he has been alive.

I found myself liking this kid. I met his family and saw his love and respect for his mother. Saw him drive through his neighborhood to collect toys for kids who otherwise might not have gotten Christmas presents. Watched him with a puppy, his hands feather-light and soothing on the tender new fur and I couldn’t find anything of the hard-core gang member about him. I decided to devote a chapter to Keshon; he represented another side of gang life, where kids with single working parents — latchkey youngsters — gravitate toward a new kind of order with a strict set of rules and a sense of belonging to the world of gangbanging. Many of them do not realize that shooting — and often killing — other gang members is an integral part of that world.

Two years after my book Do or Die was published in 1991, Keshon Cooper was arrested as the perpetrator in a gang murder. It was a strange case from the outset: the single eyewitness described the killer as “a light-skinned black male with a goatee.” Keshon’s complexion is the color of bittersweet chocolate and he had not yet begun to shave. It was a short trial. Keshon admitted to having been one of a crowd of gang members at the scene but denied being the shooter. The eyewitness was confused about what he had seen and the public defender saw no reason for further investigation. Keshon was convicted and sentenced to a term of 26 years to life in a state penitentiary. He had just turned 19 and he had no criminal record. This is how justice is meted out to the poor.

The instant he hit the yard Keshon was surrounded by his homeboys, many of them imprisoned since the ’70s. These older inmates advised him not to make trouble with rival black gang members; it took a while for that advice to penetrate, but in a few weeks Keshon dropped the gang mentality and became, in his words, “a soldier for the black race and taking on another set of hate.” This toxic attitude was directed toward Hispanic and Caucasian inmates, and it earned him 15 months in the security housing unit (SHU): a form of solitary confinement. The time spent alone offered Keshon a chance to reflect on the past. He worked at forgiving rival gang members, including the boy who shot him. He tried to forgive himself for the pain he caused his mother, Bonnie. He studied and earned his G.E.D. certificate. When he was released from SHU, he took classes in masonry, carpentry and electrical service and became proficient in all three.

At some point during the first year or so of Keshon’s imprisonment, I was invited to a 10th–birthday party in his former ’hood. Just before the cutting of the cake, a young gangbanger swaggered into the house with a present for the birthday girl, the daughter of a woman I’d interviewed for the book. After we were introduced he said, “I know who the real shooter was that Li’l Spike [Keshon’s gang name]’s doin’ the time for.” I asked him why he hadn’t told the authorities and he looked at me with something near contempt. “Y’all crazy? Think I wanna get myself killed?” He turned away and my only thought was “so much for homeboy love.” 

Keshon kept in touch, always referring to me as “Momma.” He asked for nothing beyond a reciprocation of love, a rarity among inmates. He never forgot to send cards, often beautifully drawn, for my birthday and Mother’s Day. He met a young woman, Star, during a telephone call to a mutual friend. They spoke often after that and Star signed up for regular visits (nearly a four-hour drive from L.A.). They were married at Calipatria State Prison in 2013, five years after that first conversation. 

Keshon was granted parole on April 25. A few days later, at the beginning of May, Star brought him to see me. There was a long, silent embrace and the three of us wept. Keshon is living in a halfway house and adapting to freedom. He tries not to think about the hard time he has served; he’s happy to be with his wife, see his family, look for work and breathe free air again.