Top L.A. Legends # 12: Gang members drive with their headlights off, then target drivers who flash their high beams

headlights.jpgLong before the city made the incredibly idiotic decision to give them a ton of free publicity, we’ve had a pretty complex gang situation here in Los Angeles, and though gang violence is generally on the decline recently, there are still an awful lot of Angelenos who have to deal with it daily, one way or another. Depending on where you live, it’s something you either safely see on the news, or rather unsafely see in your neighborhood; either way, gangs are as much a part of our city as traffic and earthquakes, so it sure was scary back in the mid-90s to get a warning by fax or hear from a co-worker that there was a deadly new gang initiation in town, claiming all sorts of innocent lives. It’s so scary, in fact, that the same warning surfaced in 2002, 2004, and again in 2005.

Holy shit! Is anyone safe?

The legend goes something like this: “OMG! I heard that this weekend it’s Blood Initiation time! If you see a car driving toward you with its lights off, don’t flash your high beams at it! The car is being driven by a gang member, and if you flash your lights, they’ll follow you and kill you as part of their initiation! This is not a joke! I heard it from a guy who knows a guy who saw a note at the police department blah blah blah.”

Sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it?

Relax, it’s bullshit, and you don’t even need to dig around on any of the usual urban legend databases to figure it out. Unlike some of the other myths in this series, this one just takes a little bit of common sense to debunk:

Why in the world would gang members publicize a weekend for an initiation? Gangs aren’t like the Shriners (though it would be pretty sweet to see some guys go rollin’ up Crenshaw in a bunch of clown cars.)

Gang members just don’t do initiations like this. More commonly, hopeful members are “jumped in” by current members, in a particularly vicious brawl which frequently involves weapons, but not headlights.

This is such a classic myth, it figured prominently in the 1998 film Urban Legend. Like all good urban legends, this one is difficult to confirm, isn’t specific to one community or time period, seems plausible (before you start seriously thinking about it), and is easily spread by well-meaning people who would rather be safe than sorry. Usually, it’s spread by the same people who figure it’s “worth a try” to get some of that money from Bill Gates Junior just for forwarding this e-mail, but  this particular myth, has been spread by sources as authoritative as Canada’s Minister of Defense. Its origin is unclear: some sources point to a Hell’s Angels initiation in Montana, while others point to a gang initiation in Memphis, Tennessee.

However, anyone who lived in Los Angles during the height of drive-by shootings and seemingly endless local news coverage of gang-related mayhem will understand how it was so easy to take this particular legend, and apply it locally. In fact, in 2004, a local man was killed in a manner which seemed to echo the “lights out” myth: While stopped at a red light, 23 year-old Eduardo Cardenas allegedly told a driver nexxt to him that his lights were out. The man’s response to this friendly warning was to draw a gun and shoot Cardenas, who died later in the hospital. Scary stuff, but there is no evidence to support the contention that the shooting was gang-related. Or UFO-related, or anything other than asshole-with-a-gun-related.

So why does this myth spread so easily, even though it doesn’t stand up to the simplest scrutiny? The same reason teens have been telling the “hook for a hand” story for generations: fear and helplessness.

We’re afraid of gangs in Los Angeles (and with good reason; it’s only common sense to be afraid of people who have such little regard for innocent human life) and we feel helpless to do anything about it. Luckily for us, the level of fear is not equivalent to the level of risk most of us have of being a victim of gang violence . . . but when we hear about the gang initiation weekend, suddenly any one of us, safely in our station wagons, not anywhere near one of “those” neighborhoods, could become a victim. It’s even scarier because we believe that we could become a victim as a result of some sort of good deed. It reinforces our sense of injustice, our disdain for and fear of gangs, and gives us a way to feel like we’re doing something about gang violence. (Because it’s a lot easier to tell all your suburbanite friends to lay off the high beams than it is to get involved and address the root causes of gang membership, of course.)

So next time you’re in your car and you feel a need to flash those high beams (especially you ladies on Fridays), go ahead and do it with confidence. You’re safe.

Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member.
Urban Legend Reference Pages.
How Stuff Works: Street Gangs.
The Heggen Pages.

Photo Credit: Hollywood-diecast.

4 thoughts on “Top L.A. Legends # 12: Gang members drive with their headlights off, then target drivers who flash their high beams”

  1. I remember when the legend went around in 93. I made a point of driving with my lights off to see if people would still flash their brights at me.

  2. Growing up, driving without your headlights on signaled you out as a gang member about to committ a drive by.

  3. Can’t believe I forgot about this one. I remember my mom insisting it was true and freaking out when we saw a car driving without its’ lights on.

  4. This activity also spread down to San Antonio. We got a warning about it from a football coach while in college….around ’94 or ’95.

    I think a lot of the pervasiveness of the myth comes from that fact that few people are willing to test it. I think it’s time for an episde of “Mythbusters : Gansta Edition”.

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