At his young age, Lafeyette has already had to reckon with death and injustice on a deeply personal level. One of his friends, Bird Leg, known for loving and communicating with dogs, becomes involved in gang activity, finding love and protection in Jimmie Lee’s organization even though he does not actually deal drugs. Before joining a gang himself, Bird Leg was personally harmed by gangs, since, as someone who lives in Disciples territory but has a relative who belongs to the Vice Lords, he was often beaten simply because of his relative’s allegiance. Bird Leg’s involvement with gangs causes Lafeyette to distance himself from his friend but, at the same time, to miss his dog-loving companion.
Bird Leg seems to have joined gangs not out of a desire to take part in illegal actions, but as a form of protection and a desire for stability—which, unlike Lafeyette, he might otherwise lack. This suggests that, in such a vicious war between rival gangs, some people might implicitly become forced to take sides.
In the summer of 1987, Bird Leg is becoming increasingly reckless. He has since dropped out of school, and his loyalty to the Vice Lords leads him to shoot at Disciples randomly—a common behavior among young gang members. Even though his family has moved to another neighborhood to avoid gang violence, Bird Leg frequently returns to Horner to visit friends. In August, the gangs reach a temporary truce because of increased police presence in the neighborhood, which keeps them from trafficking drugs in impunity. Despite this, Bird Leg still feels strongly about attacking rival gang members.
Bird Leg’s interest in gang rivalry does not necessarily reflect a desire to inflict harm on others but an interest in the competition, belonging, and group identity that gang rivalry involves. He is not invested in gangs’ power per se, which depends on drug trafficking, but focuses on the social consequences of belonging to a gang. Such a sense of community is precisely what most Horner residents lack, now that so many ties among residents and with local authorities have been destroyed.
One day in August, Bird Leg is shot by a rival gang member with a buckshot and jokes to his family that he would want to be buried in his white jogging suit. The next evening, after he begins fighting with some young Disciples at Horner, one of the Disciples suddenly shoots him in the chest, taking Bird Leg by surprise. News of Bird Leg’s near-immediate death soon reaches Lafeyette, but unlike James and the rest of the growing crowd, Lafeyette refuses go see Bird Leg, having already witnessed too much violence.
While it is not necessarily surprising that Bird Leg would enter into a dispute with a rival gang member, the violent nature of this conflict is surprising for such a young boy. If, in other environments, such rivalry might lead to a mere fight, here it leads to unpredictable, life-or-death outcomes, which seem absurd and unfair for such young children.
Jimmie Lee soon arrives on the crime scene and immediately proceeds to lead a group of Vice Lords to seek revenge on the Disciples for Bird Leg’s death. However, policeman Charlie Toussas, who knows Lee well, interferes to keep him from doing so. Lee follows Toussas’s advice and returns with his group to the Vice Lords’ territory, thus avoiding yet another brutal shoot-out.
Lee’s decision to listen to Toussas’ advice is surprising, given the superior power that gangs have over the police. Perhaps Lee tries to reduce direct confrontation with the police so as not to attract more police presence in the neighborhood. However, Lee’s initial reaction highlights the logic of revenge and retaliation that animates gangs, which simply perpetuates violence instead of achieving peace.
A few days later, afraid that groups of Disciples would storm the young boy’s funeral, Bird Leg’s family organizes the ceremony at a storefront church outside the neighborhood. At the church, Lafeyette, Pharoah, and James all walk up to Bird Leg’s casket. The young boy’s swollen face makes him look much older, but he is wearing the jogging suit he had jokingly requested. The children are all overwhelmed by the emotional weight of this death. James begins to cry when he sees their dead friend’s body. Pharoah later remains troubled by the cries of Bird Leg’s sister, who is wailing that her brother is not dead, and Lafeyette remains impassive during the ceremony. The service takes place in an uncomfortably humid atmosphere. Even Jimmie Lee attends, serving as a pallbearer.
Bird Leg’s family’s fear of the Disciples’ interference reveals that, in such a gang-filled environment, even the most private expressions of grief (such as a family’s pain in the wake of their son’s death) might be considered public. The rival gang might use the funeral as an opportunity to continue a feud, or might interpret the family’s pain as expressing a desire for vengeance. Meanwhile, Lafeyette’s inability to cry foreshadows his emotional withdrawal and inability to express his pain.
Carla Palmore, one of Bird Leg’s friends, gives a speech about remembering that, more importantly than his membership to a gang, Bird Leg was a young boy whose future was brutally taken away—something that could happen to anyone else in the crowd. At the end of the speech, Jimmie Lee thanks the young girl for her thoughtful words. Pharoah and James begin to cry when people begin to sing an emotional pop song, but Lafeyette remains stoic. Later, he explains that he cried on the inside, as he did not feel that he had enough energy to let the tears out.
Carla’s words are a plea to forget about gang differences and to recognize the precious nature of human life. As such, Lee’s words of thanks to the young girl are deeply hypocritical, since he is personally responsible for fueling a gang rivalry that causes people like Bird Leg to die. Her speech, which fails to elicit any concrete action among the gang members present, highlights the difficulty for one individual to change an entire system or culture.
After the service, Pharoah asks Lafeyette about heaven, but his older brother tells him to shut up. They hear a mother tell her son that he could have been killed just like Bird Leg, and they see gang members make the Vice Lords’ sign at Bird Leg’s body. Once they are outside the church, James tells Lafeyette that he knows they are going to die somehow, but that he would rather die “plain out” instead of “by killing,” which Lafeyette agrees with.
Pharoah’s words suggest that he is seeking emotional comfort from his brother, but Lafeyette seems unable to give him the kind of reassurance or information that Pharaoh need—and that Lafeyette himself might need as well. The mother’s warning words to her son seem weak in contrast to the gang members’ signing over Bird Leg’s body. Instead of shielding her son from harm, she seems to highlight individuals’ vulnerability in the face of group dynamics.