By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
At the stroke of midnight and into the predawn this past May 20, the little unincorporated Galveston County town of Bacliff was roiling with squadrons of cops of every description, from small-town police to the Department of Public Safety's Narcotics Service to the FBI and DEA.
This was the culmination of this ad hoc task force's two-year investigation of Bacliff's 4th Street Players — a street gang claiming affiliation with the Bloods, the predominantly black, Los Angeles-based gang founded in 1972 — and a few of the ten alleged members hauled away that night on charges of dealing cocaine, crack cocaine and methamphetamine sported the gang's tattoos: "Kliff Side," "4SP," "4th Street Playa," "4th Street Blood," "Playa 4 Life," "MOB (Member of Bloods)" and "Paw Prints."
The address of the gang's headquarters and birthplace was furnished by the FBI — 4410 4th St. in Bacliff — and if you drive there today, you'll see three pairs of red sneakers dangling like strange fruit over a power line overhanging the street.
On their MySpace pages, the members and associates still more clearly showed their Blood colors — several claiming affiliation had customized the backgrounds of their pages with flame-red bandannas, while others had music playing by New Orleans rapper Lil' Wayne, who recently claimed affiliation with the Bloods. (Others featured gangsta rap tracks performed by some of the set's more musically inclined members.)
These kids call each other "my nigga," sport long baggy shorts and several have customized red bandanna-patterned Houston Astros hats. Other pics show them smoking weed and packing AK-47's and pump shotguns. One who was not arrested had this message of support for his recently incarcerated homies on his site: ""FREE RED, SEAN G, SHO, NUT, JASON, RICKY G, LIL G 50/50 4SP 1 LUV 500UUPP LIL JOE."
Others sent shout-outs to their 'hood — flashing tats repping "The Wicked Sticks," which along with "The Kliffside" is another of Bacliff's many nicknames.
When you travel there, you can see that the Wicked nickname fits — Grand Avenue, the town's main thoroughfare, is lined with little more than a nonstop succession of beer joints, liquor stores and gambling halls, while the town's back streets offer up vistas of ramshackle abodes and general deprivation not often seen outside of Appalachia. (It's Gulf Coast-style poverty, though; often as not, these houses have the hulks of rusted-out boats in their tiny yards instead of trucks.)
Poverty is nothing new, nor is it earth-shattering news when street gangs peddle drugs (and get busted for same). What is unusual about the 4th Street Players Blood set — from reputed leader Jason James Ruppert, a.k.a. "Lil' J," on down — is the fact that every single one of them, like 70 percent of Bacliff's roughly 7,000 inhabitants, is white.
"Bacliff right now is the problem child [in the area]," says "Gator" Miller, the editor of regional entertainment sheet Night Moves and the publisher of the Seabreeze, a monthly newspaper that is one of the best reads among small-town papers in America. "It's pretty close to Kemah. There's criminal activity there. The sheriff doesn't have enough resources to go after it, and these guys go up to Kemah and jack tourists, and there's a lot of violent crime over in Bacliff. The deputies tell me they spend 90 percent of their time in Bacliff."
And while there are plenty of nice houses and good people in Bacliff, especially along the waterfront, the overall impression of the town is that much of it is a white ghetto almost as hardcore as the roughest parts of Houston's South Park or Fifth Ward.
Stats bear this out — there are nearly as many unemployed as owners of college degrees, the median house price is $80,000 and 22 percent of the populace is below the poverty level, as against 15 percent for the state of Texas, with 8.9 percent of Bacliffians making half or less of the poverty level. Lou's, the town's one true grocery store, is well stocked with booze, cigarettes and canned food, but offers little else other than wilted vegetables and whole aisles of all-but-bare shelves.
For some kids from the area, it is all too easy to be lured in by the prospect of quick, easy money, just like the fantasies the dope boy rappers sell. Bacliff is awash in vice. With fewer than 7,000 inhabitants, Bacliff has to be one of the smallest towns in Texas with its very own strip club. There are "game rooms" all over town, many open around-the-clock and offering enticing targets for stickup kids. (A man was killed in one such robbery this past Fourth of July.)
For such a small town, Bacliff has an astounding number of bars. In fact, its ratio of taverns-to-citizens rivals those of many hard-drinking British seaside resorts. "This is the only town I know that has churches next to bars that are next to gambling halls, and then repeat that all over town," says local resident Jack Nelson.
Bacliff was never supposed to have been a year-round place of inhabitation. It was first built in 1910 as a vacation resort called Clifton-By-The-Sea, but several hurricanes, the rebirth of Galveston after the 1900 storm and the rise of rapid transportation rendered its charms less potent. Why go to Clifton-By-The-Sea (which is actually on the bay) when you can head down to the open water in Galveston, Florida or even the Caribbean?