Photos courtesy of Duke Givens.
Growing up in the 2100 block of Lime St. in Eastside Long Beach, Duke Givens saw the same kids he played football with as a child switch to completely opposite paths when they grew older. Instead of being the children of the neighborhood brought together through competitive camaraderie, as soon as they became teenagers, they separated into different sects of the Crip gang, primarily the Insane Baby Crips (Insanes) and the Rollin’ 20s Crips, turning against one another.
While Givens never joined a gang—something he attributes to having a strong, ethical father presence in his life—he saw many of his friends turn their lives toward a path of destruction that Givens said can only lead to two things: jail time or death.
“Why are you allowing yourself to get killed or why are you killing when you should be having fun at that age?” Givens asked. “You should be playing football in the street. My friends were between 14 and 16 when they began identifying with their gangs and which direction they were going to go.”
Givens said he managed to leave this street war in 1989, when he enlisted in the US Air Force. There he entered a different kind of war—a formal type of war by way of Desert Storm—and when he returned home in 1993, the violence in Long Beach had not changed much at all.
Something had to be done, Givens thought. The violence must end. Awareness must be spread. A better way of living had to be achieved.
A seasoned photographer, Givens decided to use his craft for good by creating a 1994 calendar entitled “Stop Gang Violence,” [pictured above left] which showed pictures and interviews with current and ex-gang members, as well as influential figures like Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg.
“My dad said, ‘Son, wouldn’t it be awesome to see something positive on the wall that doesn’t degrade women and promote things of that nature?'” Givens said. “As I started taking pictures of the people I grew up with in the neighborhood, I started to find out that so many of the people I grew up with got killed while I was in the Air Force. My idea: history is always violent but the ideas and the people who have the ideas are the peacemakers. So I thought, what could I do, in a creative way, to generate an understanding to get this information out to the community? Then the calendar was birthed. This is kind of like a yearbook and obituary for gang members.”
Above photo by Brittany Woolsey. Duke Givens (left) with VIP Records owner Kelvin Anderson.
The calendar gained so much traction in the neighborhood that in 2008, Givens — along with Antonio Gilbreath, Anthony Cobbs, Stephen Metz and Jermaine Harris — decided to modernize it by turning it into a documentary, The Game Don’t Change, Just the Players, which was recognized by the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) earlier this week during an award ceremony.
“Duke didn’t just sit around and think that he made it because he was away from the neighborhood now,” said LBPD Police Chief Jim McDonnell. “Rather, he thought how he could give back and make a statement that would create a pathway for others to see that the gang lifestyle is not one where you’re going to end up in a good place. It’s a tough message, and I think it’s one he very artfully was able to put together that resonates with young people in the community. It’s not what we’re used to seeing, but there’s tremendous value in this.”
The film, which debuted last year, includes interviews with current and former gang members, with them saying why they decided to join a gang and their regrets.
Givens said it was easy to get these subjects to talk to him because he grew up with them.
Back in the 1980s, parts of Long Beach were riddled with gangs, Givens said, but there were safe havens, like the World Famous VIP Records.
“It was really a rough time seeing so many guys dying, and the fact that this was a community that all practically grew up together and knew each other made it even more difficult,” said VIP Records owner Kelvin Anderson. “I was fortunate enough that I could afford to create an avenue for kids to hang out instead of being outside with the violence.”
Anderson said he dreamed of creating community events, like dances, where teens could come together, but therein also lied a nightmare.
“I was so scared of someone getting killed at one of those events,” he said. “We were doing DJ services for other people, but at least we were doing something we were hired to do rather than did ourselves, because it would be very hard to face a parent who lost a kid at one of our own events.”
The Game Don’t Change, which Anderson referred to as “just in time but still overdue,” was screened to a packed auditorium for two nights at Long Beach Polytechnic High School last year. The turnout was humbling, Givens said, and was a sign of things changing.
“All types of people from the community, from gang members to law enforcement, came to the movies,” Givens said. “That’s a first. I just got a chance to take everybody to the movies. If we could just have one day like that, then we can have more like that, and the world will be more peaceful than violent.”
Although, he said, he would not consider things are getting better, because mothers are still losing their children to gang violence.
“The past generations still have those scars that has these kids doing the same things we were doing,” Givens said. “I think gang violence nowadays masks itself differently. Getting better means there’s no loss of life. The stats don’t matter. These are people losing their lives and their families suffering. Information is key.”
While The Game Don’t Change was based in Long Beach, its message could resonate just about anywhere, Givens said.
“You can put it in a Latin community. You can put it in Oakland. You can put it in an Asian community. Everywhere is going through the same thing,” he said. “This content will always have life because of the message and what it’s pertaining to. Violence is always going to be here. If you can address the violence to help a young man or young woman not go down that path, that is always a success.”
For more information about The Game Don’t Change, Just the Players, and to purchase the DVD, visit its Facebook page.
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