Edged Weapons and Gang Culture

Edged-weapon gang culture flourished most prominently in American jails and prisons. Every inmate is expected to be able to defend himself. Gang members take this to mean they must be armed with an edged weapon.

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There's a reason I designed the LASD OSS gang unit logo with a switchblade knife in the center. In modern America, the switchblade is the most readily identifiable symbol associated with gangs. From the time of the Civil War, gangs have armed themselves with edged weapons. "The Gangs of New York" used meat cleavers, axes, kitchen knives and stilettos more commonly than firearms.

Daggers, hunting knives and Bowies rode the same leather belts where six guns were holstered, and were carried by western frontiersmen and cowboys. Native American warriors revered their knives. This reliance on the knife as a utilitarian tool and personal defense weapon naturally carried over to the western outlaws and their bandit gangs.

Killing another human being with a knife is not like shooting someone with a firearm, whcih can be used at a distance and provides the shooter with a certain amount of disassociation. Unless the victim is shooting back, the attacker remains relatively clean. Killing with an edged weapon is very different.

The single knife thrust that cleanly and quietly dispatches the enemy sentry in a Hollywood movie is pure fiction. Closing and attacking another person with a knife in mortal hand to hand combat is a brutal and bloody task.

The human body is surprisingly durable and resilient, capable of absorbing and surviving for some time through multiple stabs, slashes, trauma and blood loss. The survival instinct and adrenalin willpower even the weakest victim to fight back. Blood will spurt and spray on the attacker and surrounding environment making the weapon and the flooring wet and slippery. In such a life and death struggle, it's common for the attacker also to be injured by his own weapon. When the victim's chest and torso are punctured, air escapes with a disturbing sound. Not everyone is capable of killing others with an edged weapon, but some men learn to love it. These men are dangerous.

Although no law enforcement officers were killed by edged weapons in 2010, many were injured. Nine officers were killed between 2000 and 2009 by edged weapons. Unless your ballistic vest is especially made to resist knife thrusts, it won't prevent a knife from penetrating your torso. Even if you wear a protective vest, your neck and major arteries are still vulnerable.

Gangs formed by members recruited from ethnic cultures in which edged weapons are traditional, present a special problem for gang cops. Santa Nas, Pinoy Real (pronounced Re-AL), and Bahala Na, draw their members from the Filipino culture. Many members have Filipino stick and knife fighting training. Central American, Caribbean and South American cultures have long histories and traditions with edged weapons, especially the machete. Jamaican, Dominican, Puerto Rican and El Salvadorian gangs especially have adopted machetes as their signature weapon.

Japan and China also have a tradition and almost religious reverence of the art of combat with edge weapons. Way back in the 1890s, California experienced a series of Chinese rival Tong Gang wars. The first man executed at Folsom Prison was Chinese Tong member Chin Hang. He was hanged on Dec. 13, 1895 for murdering opposing member, Lee Gong, in Sacramento. On June 10, 1904 Japanese immigrant Kokichi Hidaka, was hanged because he murdered three people in the Japanese section of Sacramento.

This edged-weapon gang culture flourished most prominently in American jails and prisons. Every inmate is expected to be able to defend himself. Gang members take this to mean they must be armed with an edged weapon.

At a Compton High School football game, I once witnessed two young black men fight in the stands. One was armed with a curved-bladed carpet knife, the other with a barber's straight razor.

The razor wielder held the straight razor in his right hand with the blade running along the bottom of his palm and wrist. He swung his fists as if he was punching his opponent, but each blow inflicted razor wounds as well. The fight lasted only a minute or so.

At first, it appeared that the man armed with the carpet knife was winning, but he stepped back and the razor wounds opened up like ribbons and he fell back into the stands dead. This left a lasting impression on me and a great respect for edged weapons.

In October of 1996, during the federal trial for the remaining 13 Mexican Mafia RICO suspects, a three-man hit team attacked fellow Mexican Mafia defendant "Tupie" Hernandez. This occurred despite the heavy security precautions taken by U.S. Marshals. During the trial's lunch recess, Jessie "Pelon" Moreno, "Black Dan" Barela, and Raymond "Champ" Mendez stabbed Tupie repeatedly in the holding cell.

They had managed to smuggle the weapons into the cell, and were able to flush them down the toilet before the Marshals could recover them. The whole incident was videotaped by surveillance cameras. I was ordered to show the graphic video to every U.S. Marshal working in the federal court house, so that they might take these dangerous defendants more seriously.

I attended an excellent class at last year's TREXPO given by Michael Janich of Spyderco and the Outdoor Channel's Best Defense program. The class featured video of several actual edged-weapon attacks. I highly recommend that every law enforcement officer attend such a class.


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Sergeant (Ret.)
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